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JONAH III. 10.
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil
way, and God repented him of the evil that he said he would do unto them, and he did it not.
BEFORE we proceed with the text, there is one word in it to be observed particularly, which is the word “repent.” This word, when applied to God, does not, as when applied to us, denote sorrow or contrition for a deed or intention which was wrong at the time, but it imports that what was fit and right, and so judged to be by divine wisdom, under one state of circumstances and in one situation of the parties concerned, becomes not fit or right under different circumstances and in a new situation : that God accordingly changes his council or design, because the occasions which induced it have also changed, which change of council is in scripture language called “repentance.”
In the present instance it is said that God “repented of the evil.” That evil was the destruction of Nineveh for its wickedness. Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness is come úp before me.” When this terrible sentence was denounced by the prophet Jonah, the effect which it
appears to have produced very suddenly upon the people was a solid, national penitence. We are not authorized to say that it was a political change (for of that we hear nothing), but a personal reformation, pervading every rank and description of men in that community. “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them even to the least.” The king of Nineveh published, we read, a decree for the strict observation of this religious solemnity, concluding with these pious and remarkable words: “ Let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands : who can tell if God will repent and turn from his fierce anger, that we perish not ?" The effect was what might be hoped for from the sincerity and universality of their penitence and devotion. “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said he would do unto them, and he did it not.” Here, therefore, we have a nation saved by penitence and devotion together ; and we are assured, by the authority of this history, that if, from negligence, from contempt, from the pride of reasoning, from philosophical objections, from the hardihood and contumacy of sin, or from the ease and levity, and unconcern and indifference, which licentious prosperity begets, the people had despised the warning of the prophet and the admonition of their king, the event would have been, that Nineveh had sunk and perished
It is unnecessary to distinguish between devotion and penitence, because one, if sincere, includes or produces the other. From either of them, when insincere, no good can be expected ; and if sincere, one includes the other. If devotion be sincere, it must lead to an amendment of life; and if penitence be sincere, it will universally be accompanied with devotion. Natural religion has its difficulties upon
the subject of prayer; and it is one of the benefits which we derive from revelation, that its instructions, its declarations, its examples under this head are plain, full, and positive. The revelations, which we receive as authentic, supply, in this article, the defect of natural religion. They require prayer to God as a duty, and they contain positive assurances of its efficacy and acceptance. The scripture, also, not only affirms the propriety of prayer in general, but furnishes precepts and examples which justify certain subjects and modes of prayer, which the adherents to natural, in opposition to revealed, religion have sometimes represented as dubious or exceptionable. “ Be careful for nothing ; but in every thing," that is, let the subject of your fears be what it will ; " by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.” The true disposition under difficulties is described to be – to serve the Lord ; serving the Lord to rejoice in hope ; thus acting, not to let our souls sink under misfortune, or relinquish the prospect of better things ; hoping for better things, yet patient under the present-patient, as it is expressed, under tribulation ; and, to close all, continuing instant in prayer : more particularly, under a sense of danger, what is to be done? why, “ Pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass.” Again ; although it be granted that
is allowable, as far as it expresses a general sense of submission to God, and as far as it casts ourselves
mercy or his bounty, yet sonie have thought that we advanced too far in petitions when we took upon ourselves to
pray for particular favours by name. And this ought at least to be admitted, that our prayers, even when the most particular and most urgent, and drawn from us by the most pressing necessity, are to be conceived and uttered under the reflection and sentiment that we are addressing a being who knows infinitely better than we do what is best, not only for the whole world, but even for us; and further also, we may find some advantage in bearing in mind that, if prayer was suffered to disturb the order appointed by God in the universe too much or too apparently, it would introduce a change into human affairs, which, in some important respects, would be pernicious. Who, for example, would labour, if his necessities could be supplied with equal certainty by prayer? How few would contain within any bounds of moderation those passions or pleasures which at present are checked only by fear of disease, if
prayer would infallibly restore health ? In short, if the efficacy of prayer, as applicable to this life, were so constant and observable as to be relied on beforehand, and to the exclusion or diminution of our own caution, vigilance, and activity, the conduct of mankind would, in proportion to that reliance, become careless, indolent, and disorderly. However, our prayers may, in many instances, be efficacious, and yet the experience of their efficacy be doubtful and obscure ; therefore if the light of nature instruct us, by any arguments, to hope for effect from prayer, still more, if the Scriptures authorize these hopes by precept, by example, or by promises of acceptance, it is not a sufficient reason for calling in question the reality of such effect that we cannot observe this reality, since it appears something more than probable that this doubt about it is necessary to the safety, and order, and happiness of human life.