by Arthur W. Pink
“If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jer. 18:8). Then is no “if” in connection with what God has foreordained, and the history of nations has been as truly and definitely predestinated as the destiny of each individual. “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18), and they are known to Him because they were decreed by Him. Now if God decreed an event He either foresaw what would be the issue of it or He did not. If He did not, where is His infinite wisdom and understanding? On the other hand, if He foresaw an event would not be, why did He purpose it should be? If God purposed a thing, then either He is able to bring it to pass by His wisdom and power, or He is not. If not, where is His omniscience and omnipotence? From the horns of that dilemma there is no escape. If God be God then there can be no failure with Him “The counsel of the LORD standeth forever, the thoughts of His heart to all generations” (Psa. 33:11).
“If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto it.” There is always an “if” in connection with human responsibility, for man is as “unstable as water” being influenced by many things both from within and without; nevertheless he is held strictly accountable unto God. Nations, equally with Christians, are responsible: the Lord is their Maker, their Ruler, their God. His Moral Law is as binding upon kingdoms as it is upon the Church. If the rulers of the nations acknowledge God in the discharge of their office, if their laws be equitable and beneficent, maintaining a balance between justice and mercy, if the Sabbath be duly enforced, if the Lord be owned in prosperity and sought unto in adversity, then the smile of Heaven will be upon that people. But if He be slighted and defied His frown will be experienced. As effects are dependent upon the operation of causes, and the character of the one determines the nature of the other, so a course of obedience is followed by very different consequence from one of disobedience, be it the case of a nation or individual.
“Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34) expresses a foundational principle and an unchanging fact. Right doing or walking according to the Divine Rule is the basic condition of national prosperity. A righteous administration of government and the public worship of God gives an ascendancy to a people over those where such things prevail not. Nothing so tends to uphold the throne, elevate the mind of the masses, promote industry, sobriety and equity between man and man, as does the genuine practice of piety, the preservation of the virtues and suppression of vice, as nothing more qualifies a nation for the favour of God. Righteousness is productive of health, of population, of peace and prosperity. But every kind of sin has the contrary tendency. “The prevalence of vice and impiety is a nation’s reproach, conduces to disunion, weakness and disgrace, and exposes any people to the wrath and vengeance of God” (Thomas Scott). When sin has become a public “reproach” then ruin is imminent.
We repeat, then, that Jeremiah 18 portrays not Jehovah as the Determiner of eternal destiny but rather as the Dispenser of temporal benefits, not as decreeing the hereafter of individuals but as distributing the portions of the kingdoms. “Thou art the God, even Thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15), and as such He governs them on the basis of His moral Law and in accordance with the discharge of their responsibilities thereto. Jeremiah 18 reveals to us the fundamental principles which regulate the dealings of the Most High with the nations and the relations which He sustains to them. First, He is shown as an absolute Sovereign over Israel in particular and over all peoples in general: “as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in Mine hand, O house of Israel” (v. 6). Jehovah has the most incontestable and immediate power over them. This shows the infinite ease with which He can deal with the most fractious. “He increaseth the nations and destroyeth them: He enlargeth the nations and straiteneth them” (Job 12:23).
Second, the Lord is here depicted as the righteous Governor of the nations, dealing with them according to their deserts. In the exercise of His high and unchallengeable authority the Most High is pleased to act according to the principles of goodness and equity. There is no arbitrary caprice in the infliction of punishment: “the curse causeless shall not come” (Prov. 26:2). The Lord “doth not afflict willingly (“from the heart,” margin) nor grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:33), but only because they give Him occasion to and because the honour of His name requires it. “O that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments, then had thy peace been as a river and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea” (Isa. 48:18) is His own avowal. Yea, had they respected His authority “I should soon have subdued their enemies and turned My hand against their adversaries” (Psa. 81:14) He declares. Let it be definitely recognized that God’s dealings with the nation of Israel illustrate His administration of the nations today.
Third, the justice of God is tempered with mercy in His government of the nations. “The Lord is of great mercy” (Num. 14:18) and “plenteous in mercy” (Psa. 86:5), and therefore, “His tender mercies are over all His work” (Psa. 145:9). Consequently, when the dark clouds of Divine wrath gather over a kingdom, yea even when His thunderbolts have begun to be launched, genuine repentance will check the storm. When a people humble themselves beneath God’s almighty hand, evidencing the genuineness of their repentance by turning away from their wickedness and doing that which is pleasing in His sight, His judgments are turned away from them. “And the children of Israel (1) did evil in the sight of the LORD and forgat the LORD their God, and served Baalim and the groves. Therefore (2) the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel and He sold them into the hand of Chushanrishathaim and the children of Israel served Chushanrishathaim eight years. And (3) when the children cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them” (Judges 3:7-9). The same order-sin, punishment, penitence and merciful deliverance-is repeated again and again in the book of Judges.
That these principles of the Divine administration apply to the Gentiles, equally with the Jews, is unmistakably clear from the case of Nineveh a heathen city, concerning which the Lord said “their wickedness is come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). Unto the vast metropolis the Prophet was sent, crying, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). But note well the sequel: “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them... And he (the king) caused it to be proclaimed . . . Let neither man nor beast, herd or flock, taste anything: let them not feed nor drink water . . . let them cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them, and He did it not” (Jonah 3:5-10).
“Repent ye, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15): “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Unless there be both repentance and faith there is no forgiveness of sins for any soul, yet there are comparatively few passages in which both of them are expressly mentioned. In Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38 and 17:30 “repentance” alone is inculcated. In John 3:15; Romans 1:16 and 10:4 only “believing” is specified. Why is this? Because the Scriptures are not written as lawyers draw up documents, wherein terms are needlessly repeated and multiplied. Each passage of the Word must be interpreted in the light of and consistently with “the Analogy of Faith” (Rom. 12:6, Greek)-the general tenor of Scripture-and none made exceptional to the general rule. Thus concerning the above references: where only “repentance” is mentioned, “believing” is implied, and when “believing” is found alone, “repentance” is presupposed. The same principle applies to all other subjects: for example, prayer, “Ask, and ye shall receive” (Matt. 7:7) is not to be taken without qualification: if we are to “receive, we must “ask” aright-believingly (Heb. 11:6), according to God’s will (1 John 5:14), in the name of Christ (John 14:13), and so on.
Our object in beginning with the above was to pave the way for an explanatory word on what was before us last month. Not a few have been puzzled over Jonah’s positive and unqualified declaration, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4), for such an announcement of disaster appeared to hold out no hope of escape. This affords a striking example of the necessity for interpreting each passage in the light of and in harmony with the Analogy of Faith. Now it is one of the established maxims of Scripture that where there is genuine repentance and reformation God will show mercy and stay His judgments. This is plainly stated in such places as Leviticus 26:40-42; 1 Kings 8:33-36, yet it is not formally expressed in every chapter or even every book. When God’s Prophets were sent forth to announce judgments it was (except in extreme cases) with the proviso that the people threatened would be spared if they forsook their wickedness and returned to the paths of virtue. It was unnecessary to always state this because it was plainly revealed in the general rule.
Thus, when Jonah proclaimed the overthrow of Nineveh, though he specified not the means by which judgment could be arrested, yet they were understood-a reprieve would be granted if there were true repentance. Consequently his proclamation was no heralding of God’s inexorable fiat but rather the sounding of an alarm which operated as a means of moral suasion. Had Nineveh obstinately persisted in her sins, she would certainly have been promptly overthrown; but because she ceased from being a city where every form of wickedness ran riot and became a place where the name of God was feared and His authority respected, her doom was averted. Jonah was not disclosing the Divine decree, but rather spoke ethically, addressing himself to human responsibility. And when it is said that, “God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them,” He deigned to use a familiar form of speech. There was no change in His eternal purpose but an alteration in His bearing toward them because their conduct had changed for the better.
That our explanation of Jonah 3:4-10 is no mere plausible attempt or subtle device of getting out of a “tight place” should be quite evident from Jeremiah 18. “At what instant I should speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom to pluck up, and to pull down, and destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced (not “decreed”!), turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (vv. 7, 8). Though the threat be genuine and the danger real, yet the announcement of judgment is not an absolute one, but qualified, and when the qualification is not expressed it is implied. The implied reserve that God will deal in mercy with those who genuinely put right that which displeases Him and will not destroy such was perceived and appealed to by Abram when he said, “That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).
Even though no particular notice be taken of other passages and attention be entirely confined unto what is recorded in Jonah 3, will not the thoughtful reader be struck by the very terms of the Prophet’s announcement: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown”? Had the guilt of Nineveh been so great and her course in evil so long confirmed, why was any intimation of her destruction at all necessary? If her doom was fixed, if God had purposed her overthrow, then why send one of His Prophets to declare the same? Further, why pronounce Nineveh’s judgment almost six weeks before it should be executed? Ah, did not that very interval suggest that a door of hope stood open if her people would humble themselves and avail themselves of it? Was not that very interval an intimation of mercy in reserve? Was it not as much as though God said, “I gave her space to repent” (Rev. 2:21)? But if we compare Scripture with Scripture (and we are ever the losers by failing to do so) then the “forty days” confirms the conclusion we have drawn, for forty is the number which expresses probation and testing: see Deuteronomy 8:2-4; Acts 7:30; Matthew 4:2, etc.
How what above has been before us exemplifies the wondrous patience and forbearance of God! How it demonstrates that His anger is not like ours-a violent passion which ebbs and flows-but rather the calm and deliberate expression of His insulted holiness upon those who despise His authority and refuse to seek unto His mercy. God warns before He smites, expostulates ere He punishes, gives ample time and opportunity for an escape from His judgments. Enoch and Noah preached for many years before the flood destroyed the world. Prophet after Prophet was sent unto Israel before God banished them into captivity. Almost forty years passed after the Jews crucified their Messiah ere Jerusalem was razed to the ground. Well nigh six thousand years have gone since the Fall of our first parents, and yet human history has not closed! The Lord is “slow to anger,” yet that slowness is neither indifference to evil nor slackness in dealing with the same-rather is it a proof that He “bears with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.”
Still another purpose is served by the slowness of God unto anger and the interval between a nation’s degeneracy and the execution of Divine judgment upon it, and that is, it serves to test more completely human responsibility and make manifest how richly deserved is the retribution which overtakes evildoers. If God’s slowness to anger evidences His forbearance, how the general response of men thereto displays the inveteracy of their wickedness. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11). Because God keeps silent they imagine He is altogether such an one as themselves (Psa. 50:21). “Let favour be shown to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:10). Despising the riches of God’s goodness and longsuffering, after the hardness of his impenitent heart, man treasures up unto himself wrath against the day of wrath (Rom. 2:4, 5). And thus is it made apparent that he is “without excuse” and that his “damnation is just.”
“Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good” (Jer. 18:11). As the “therefore” denotes, practical application is here made of what has been before us in the context. The Prophet had been called upon to witness an object-lesson set before him in the potter’s house. Then the Lord had made known to him the relations which He sustains unto nations, viz., Sovereign, Ruler and Judge over them, and the principles which regulate His dealings with them: authority and power, righteousness and mercy. A specific yet illustrative example of such is here shown us . . . Israel had long provoked God to His face, and though He had been slow to anger, the time had now arrived when He would take them to task and deal with them for their wickedness. The dark clouds of His wrath were suspended over them, yet even at this late hour if they genuinely departed from their evil ways and walked the paths of virtue, mercy should “rejoice against judgment.”
God speaks to us not only through His word (both personal and written) but also through His works and ways. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psa. 19:1-4). Creation testifies to the excellencies of the Creator. The Divine providences, too, are vocal: “I spake unto thee in thy prosperity” (Jer. 22:21)-My bounties declared My goodness and should have melted your hearts. God’s judgments also carry with them a definite message: that is why we are exhorted to “hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it” (Micah 6:9)-observe how the verse opens with “the LORD’S voice crieth unto the city.” His “rod” bids us consider the Hand that wields it and calls upon us to forsake our sins.
When God speaks in judgment it is the final warning that He is not to be trifled with. When the Almighty is roused to fury who can stand before Him? Nations are no more able to successfully resist Him than can the clay hinder the fingers of the potter who shapes it; yea they are counted as “the small dust of the balance” (Isa. 40:15), which signifies utter insignificance. May we exclaim, “who would not fear Thee, O King of nations!” (Jer. 10:7). No spiritual warrant whatever has any people to put their trust in human greatness, the sire of their armies, the excellency of their equipment, the strength of their defenses. God has but to blow upon them and they are immediately overthrown, entirely demolished. Mark how this is emphasized in Jeremiah 18, “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down and to destroy it” (v. 7): it is done in a moment-suddenly, swiftly, invincibly.
“Behold I frame evil against you.” It is the evil of punishment about to be inflicted on the evil of sin. It is no momentary outburst of uncontrollable anger, but dispassionate and deliberated retribution, and when the almighty “frames” or devises that evil against a kingdom, no power can deliver it. Though Lucifer himself says, “I will ascend above the heights of the cloud: I will be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14), yet is his proud boast seen to be an empty one, for the Lord says, “yet thou shalt be brought down to Hell, to the sides of the Pit” (v. 15). “Damascus is waxed feeble and turneth herself to flee, and fear hath seized on her: anguish and sorrows have taken her as a woman in travail” (Jer. 49:24)-suddenly, sorely, irresistibly, from which there is no escape. How this should make the wicked to tremble and depart from their evil ways! God turneth “a fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein” (Psa. 107:34). “Behold I frame evil against you.” Calamities and judgments come not by chance, nor are they originated by inferior agents or secondary causes. Though He may be pleased to make use of human instruments, yet the Lord is the Author of and principal Agent in them. Before the Assyrians fell upon apostate Israel Jehovah declared, “I will send him against a hypocritical nation, and against the people of My wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets” (Isa. 10:6). The Lord moved him, though he was in no wise conscious of any Divine impulse or commission. And when God had finished making use of the Babylonians and raised up the Medes and Persians to humiliate them into the dust, He declared of Cyrus “thou art My battle-axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms” (Jer. 51:20). Cyrus was as truly God’s “servant” as Moses or any of the Prophets: see Isaiah 45:1; Ezra 1:1. Curses as much as blessings, calamities as much as boons, judgments as truly as favours proceed from the Almighty, and it is but a species of atheism to deny the fact.
“Behold I frame evil against you.” How this word needs to be pressed upon this evil and adulterous generation, which is occupied with anyone and anything rather than the living God. In a land where Bibles are so plentiful we are without excuse when we look no higher than the agencies now threatening us. Yea, it is a grievous sin for us to throw the blame of our present trials and troubles upon human instruments instead of upon our national iniquities, and refuse to see God employing those instruments against us. Hitler is but a scourge in the hand of the Almighty. Nor are they helping any to fix their gaze on the supreme Framer of Evil who constantly direct attention to the machinations of the pope and his longing to see the British empire destroyed. Doubtless the papacy was behind the entrance of Italy into active conflict and the perfidy of France, as she is responsible for Eire’s refusal to grant us naval bases, of Vichy’s steady opposition, of the French Canadian’s disloyalty, and of many other hostile factors and forces; but who is permitting the “Mother of Harlots” to employ her powerful influence thus? None other than the Lord of Hosts. He is righteously using Rome as a rod on the back of an apostate Protestantism.
We cannot expect the unbelieving nations to look beyond Hitler and his fellows, but it is the privilege of Christians to “look unto the LORD” (Micah 7:7). It is the very nature of faith to be occupied with its Author. It is the duty of faith to “set the LORD always before” it (Psa. 16:8). When the Ammonites and Moabites came up against Judah, Jehoshaphat turned unto God and said, “we have no might against this great company that come against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon Thee” (2 Chron. 20:12). This is the first message to His own people which the voice of the Lord has in His judgments: look above the human scourges and behold My hand in righteous retribution. And it is the business of God’s servants at such a time to urge upon the saints to “consider in thine heart that the LORD He is God in Heaven above and upon the earth beneath: there is none else” (Deut. 4:39). O that it may be the experience of both writer and reader-“Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes, O Thou that dwellest in the heavens” (Psa. 123:1) and then shall we prove for ourselves “they looked unto Him, and were lightened” (Psa. 34:5).
Originally edited by Emmett O'Donnell for Mt. Zion Publications, a ministry of Mt. Zion Bible Church, 2603 West Wright St., Pensacola, FL 32505. www.mountzion.org
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