Sunday, August 7, 2022


As Adad-etir walked through Nineveh's streets, he still couldn't help but be astonished at its size – and its inner darkness. He hadn't always lived here, on in this metropolis on the swift river's eastern bank. His parents had settled in the countryside near Guzana, out west between the rivers, after those parts had formally become a province of the empire. His mother was pregnant when things had started to go awry there. The drought in Guzana must've surely been the fault of some sacrilegious crime, so King Adad-nirari had sent a decree to Guzana's governor at the time, Mannu-ki-Ashur, telling them to spend three days praying to their god Adad with tears of lamentation, to sacrifice burnt offerings, to ritually cleanse mountain and meadow, with an exorcist with torch and incense.1 An odd thing for a king to order? Odd times call for odd measures.

Born then, and now in his thirties, Adad-etir had always lived in odd times. Even before Adad-nirari came to the throne, Assyria's kings had been losing grip on their empire. When Adad-nirari died and left the throne to a succession of his sons, his top general Shamshi-ilu amassed more power than the kings themselves. Yet campaigns abroad were growing scarce. Life felt... unnatural now.2 The other June, they'd seen the heavens go dark in midday. Plague stalked the land. People had a sinking feeling the gods had abandoned them. They began to grow restless and rebel – in Inner City, in Arrapha, even in Guzana.3 That's why Adad-etir had moved to Nineveh. But relocation proved neither refuge nor reformation. Everywhere were people resentful of this sham of a government, sick and tired of being so sick and tired. Life was rough, and Adad-etir – like so many around him – was getting rough with it. Adad-etir sighed to himself: “Who is there who is guilty of no sin against his god? Which is he who kept a commandment forever? All human beings there are harbor sin.”4

As Adad-etir walked, he bumped into someone unexpected. Since when do prophets quit temple and palace to walk these lowly streets? Adad-etir paused next to the stranger when he opened his mouth and, a grimace on his lips, shouted: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). And, as if his job were done, the odd man slipped away into a darkened alley, to be seen no more. Any other time, Adad-etir might've readily dismissed the crackpot. But omens had been unsettling, plague was in the land, and Adad-etir felt a light falling on his heart, as if breaking through a thick fog. Looking around, tears in many an eye betrayed they felt it, too – the weight of guilt, the moral clarity of conviction, the urgency of imminent danger, the mysterious sense the words bore a weight heftier than all heaven. The words rang in his ears, echoed in his soul, etched his liver, pierced his heart like the sun risen at midnight. Confusion and complacency gave way; obviously a god had spoken through the foreigner. Which god, Adad-etir couldn't say – a mighty god, a heavenly god, a god who cared about more than cultic missteps, a god who hated all the corruption and perversion, the broken promises and betrayed trusts, the unseemly deeds and bloody violence. Adad-etir felt he was gazing at his face in a mirror after a disfigurement, he knew his own hands had done it, he could neither bear to look nor manage to tear his gaze away. But he trusted, if not the shady messenger, then surely this thunderbolt lodged in his gut, surely this unknown god whose wrath was iron and fury and flame. He believed. All who heard the words did.

Adad-etir ran to his neighborhood, repeating the words as he went, telling the news of Nineveh's peril. He looked into their eyes as the same thunderbolt burst their souls asunder, too. In the square, a man threw his food to the ground in disgust, wailing, “No more, no more! Can we not fast for our city?” The idea caught on. For his part, Adad-etir had lost his appetite. It felt like his children were all pushing up daisies. Slinking home, he found the roughest fabric he could – woven of coarse black goat hair – and put it on his skin. It itched, it burned, it chafed. Good! – why should Adad-etir's soul get all the discomfort, why not give his body a share? Why ought a man of bloody hands and unjust dealings like him walk the streets in comfort and at leisure?5

Over these next days, Adad-etir lived his life penitentially: hungry, “his nose downcast, his face gloomy, dressed in a mourning garment, his hair unkempt..., his tears flowing...”6 He met fewer and fewer people perplexed by his look; they, too, had heard the word. “The men of Nineveh believed God: they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5). Such a message would ordinarily have gone straight to the palace, but here it worked its way up from the grassroots. Only then, “the word reached the king of Nineveh,” as we're told (Jonah 3:6) – though that's like saying word got to the president of Philadelphia. Maybe the Assyrian king – be it Ashur-dan or his successor Ashur-nirari – was in town that day. Maybe this is Nineveh's governor Nabu-mukin-ahi. Maybe it's General Shamshi-ilu. Maybe it's somebody else.7 But when he heard the word, what happened to other hearts happened to his. He stood up from his throne and took off his robe; he traded it, not just for common dress, but for that scratchy goat-hair sackcloth that signaled woe. And he traded his throne to sit in the dust, like a corpse in a grave, helpless without a resurrection.8

The men of the city had beaten the king to proclaiming a fast. What more could he say? Only that it wasn't just a fast from food, but a restriction on both food and water (Jonah 3:7). The men of the city had beaten him to putting on sackcloth. What more could he say? Only that sackcloth was for not just the men, not just women and children, but for livestock, to dress up in sackcloth and mourn and pray – a picture so extravagant, it'd be comedic, were it not so desperate. And the king could urge them to go beyond fasting and sackcloth. He could tell them to turn all their strength to crying out, not to Adad or Ishtar or Nabu, but to the foreign God who now seemed closer than them all. And he could tell them to change their ways, give up their calamity and chaos, to unclench their fists and drop their daggers (Jonah 3:8). “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, that we not perish” (Jonah 3:9). The king couldn't presume it – nobody could. Their part was to repent and try to convince God to show mercy. It was God's business to relent from what he'd decreed.9

Adad-etir heard the herald read out the king's decree, much as a herald had read Adad-nirari's decree in Guzana. But Adad-nirari had asked no moral change, just rituals and exorcisms, sacrifices and gifts, tears and prayers. This time, save the tears and prayers, all was different. All around him, Adad-etir heard his neighbors sob to the mystery god: “O my god! Clear, forego, dispel your ire; disregard my iniquities, accept my entreaties, transmute my sins into good deeds.”10 “Though my crimes be numerous, clear my debt; though my iniquities be seven, let your heart be calmed; though my sins be numerous, show great mercy and cleanse me!”11 “My god, absolve my sin! My god, look steadfastly upon me from your abode! Take pity on me. May your angry heart be calmed. May your heart, like a real mother's, like a real father's, be restored.”12

Now, take a step back. The Ninevites were the last people on earth Israel could've expected to turn over a new leaf. But, faced with Jonah's message, there are plenty of things they do. They fast so they're hungry – even so that they're thirsty. They wear dark sackcloth, which is gloomy and unfashionable, scratchy and uncomfortable. The king sits in ashes instead of a throne, reconnecting with the dusty dirt of death. They cry out loudly, likely with tears and laments. What do all these things have in common? They're how people in the ancient world looked and acted at funerals. The Bible says so. What did Jacob do when he thought his son Joseph was dead? “Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34). What did Israel do when Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle? “They mourned and wept and fasted until evening” (2 Samuel 1:12). What did David tell people at Abner's funeral? “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner” (2 Samuel 3:31-32). David didn't eat anything that day (2 Samuel 3:35).

These were behaviors that ritually communicated sadness. They were the opposite of celebrating. If rejoicing meant lots of tasty food, dark days called for plain food, minimal food, even no food. If rejoicing meant getting dressed up, dark days called for dressing down, down to your dreariest. If rejoicing meant anointing your head with oil, dark days called for dust and ashes in its place. If rejoicing meant laughter, dark days called for crying tears and letting loose your lamentations. If rejoicing meant enjoying yourself in comfort and ease, dark days called for abstaining from pleasures, being deliberately uncomfortable, not turning from the horror of death.13

If that's how Assyrians and Israelites and everybody acted at funerals, then they could extend it to other times of crisis. So one psalmist says that when his friends were even just really sick, “I wore sackcloth, I afflicted myself with fasting, I prayed with head bowed on my chest” (Psalm 35:13). The idea was that, by treating his friends' illness like it was already a funeral, his behavior would tell God how serious the situation was, and that intense care would infuse his prayers with power. But if that can go for death and sickness, why not danger? And if of the body, why not of the soul? When Jerusalem's on the brink, Jeremiah tells people to “put on sackcloth and roll in ashes,” to “make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jeremiah 6:26). They were to act like they were at their only child's funeral – that's how seriously they should take the situation, like the Ninevites did. Decades later, when Daniel does the math and something's gone wrong, they aren't leaving exile on schedule, he sees Judah hasn't given up her sin, so what does he do? “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas of mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Later, the people “assembled with fasting and in sackcloth and with earth on their heads..., and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:1-2).

Daniel and Ezra and Nehemiah clearly believed that these dramatic displays of mourning were acts of penance. They were intended to reinforce a mental and spiritual link between sin and pain, sin and disgrace, sin and death – acting like it was a funeral for their souls helped them feel the seriousness of their spiritual condition, and acts like these gave outward expression to that feeling. The acts were no good unless they were really contrite and aimed to separate themselves from sin (cf. Isaiah 58:3-10); but when they were contrite, the acts were plenty good. The severity of penance could drive the lesson home. They offered these sufferings and humiliations to God as a token reparation, showing God how sorry they were, in hopes he'd accept their chosen penance as a substitute for what they really deserved. They humbled themselves, lest they be humbled by force. They gave a right reaction to the horror of sin. It's like Job said: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

In the coming centuries, as Jews retold Bible stories, they imagined dramatic penances for the patriarchs. Judah had sinned, but it was “forgiven him because he made great supplication and because he mourned and did not do it again.”14 Reuben sinned, so “for seven years I repented before the Lord” by giving up alcohol, meat, and any pleasurable food, but “rather, I was mourning over my sin.”15 The brothers sinned in selling Joseph into slavery, so they must've then put on sackcloth, prayed, spent years fasting in penance.16 They said a righteous person would “atone for sins of ignorance by fasting and humbling his soul.”17

Now, Jesus has provided, by his death and resurrection, an atonement for all our sins! But still he held up cities that “repented... in sackcloth and ashes” as a model (Matthew 11:21). Paul urged people to “repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance” (Acts 26:20). Paul's co-worker Clement told believers who seriously sinned to “accept chastisement for repentance.”18 A generation later, Hermas says that a sinful Christian who repents well is one who “humbles his own soul and torments it because he sinned.”19 We get stories of a woman who, repenting from sins as serious as heresy and adultery, spends her time “doing penance amid weeping and lamentation.”20 Church discipline asked a repenting Christian to “lie in sackcloth and ashes..., nourish prayer by fasting..., sigh and weep and groan day and night to the Lord your God.”21 And in the middle of the third century, we hear a preacher telling fallen Christians to “beg and pray assiduously with weeping and lamentation..., lie on the ground amidst clinging ashes, toss about chafing in sackcloth..., choose to fast, apply yourselves to good deeds which can wash away your sins.”22 Because that's what they saw in Nineveh. As they read Jonah's story, they saw that “Nineveh freed herself from death by fasting,”23 that their “total response won the favor of the Lord of all,”24 that “the Ninevites... used their brief penitence to blunt the sword that was hanging over the neck of their sinning city. … They successfully interposed appropriate penance as a shield.”25

And by now we'd better get to the point of all this. Hopefully, once we've been born again in Jesus, once we've started walking with the Lord, we never commit any truly death-dealing sins. But... some of us probably have. And surely all of us commit sins that sicken and weaken the spiritual life with which God has graced us. When you and I realize that we've sinned, do we think it's a problem? Do we take it seriously? Or do we think it's no big deal? Do we just press a thorn into Jesus' brow and then whistle on our way? Do we make the leap from assurance to presumption, and suppose that God is an automated forgiveness machine – just push the button, and all's good? The early church was pretty clear that at least death-dealing sins called for very drastic reactions – not light restoration. But today, I dare say that, in our celebration of free grace, we've tended to comfort our conscience with cheap grace. And maybe that's a sign that we think a lot less of God than they did then – that we figure God's content with empty apologies, scraps none of us would accept from each other; that God helps us when we refuse to help ourselves; that God prefers our comfort over our contrition; that crosses must never be heavier than the air pressure of the cultural atmosphere.

But then what of the words of Jonah? What of the preaching of Jesus? What of the common practice of God's people under covenants old and new? What of the moral seriousness with which they treated sin as a crisis that, at its extreme, could call for radical redress and reparation? When we sin, shouldn't we hate that sin because of how it hurts us, how it weakens us, how it deprives us of the fullness of life we were created and redeemed to have? Shouldn't we hate that sin all the more for how it offends God, displeasing the One we aim to love more and more perfectly through all eternity? And if we hate our sin, shouldn't we show it somehow, even in private?

Our penitential gestures might not look like Nineveh's – we don't celebrate the same as them, so why would we mourn the same as them? And such severe measures were for the greatest emergency. But the Ninevites might have something to teach us about repentance after all, for Jesus pointed to their example, that rather than sinning boldly, we should be repenting boldly. Realizing our sins, we can better cut them out of our lives by re-training ourselves in the way we should go. By practical actions, we can stir up godly grief that leads us to saving repentance. So maybe the modern church would be healthier if 'penance' were a less foreign word to our vocabulary. God wouldn't speak of it if it weren't, in the end, good for us to feel how sickly sin can make us.

If anyone would be my disciple,” says the Lord, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). For “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). If the Ninevites repented, did penance, at Jonah's preaching, how much more should we when Someone greater than Jonah is here (Luke 11:32)! For if God showed mercy when he saw a changed heart shining through the Ninevites' deeds (Jonah 3:10), can we not cast off presumption yet hope humbly for mercy if we, too, seek mercy with all our strength as they did? May our hearts break for all that breaks the heart of God; may we mourn the weakness of love that falls short of his glory. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6), so “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy” (Hebrews 4:16). Amen.

1  AfO Beih 06, TTH 5. See text and translation of the decree at <>.

2  On the politics of the age, see Eckart Frahm, “The Neo-Assyrian Period (1000-609 BCE),” in Eckart Frahm, A Companion to Assyria (Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 173-176.

3  Events of these years are noted in the Eponym Chronicle (esp. years 765-759 BC), in Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles, Writings from the Ancient World 19 (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 171-173.

4  A quote from the Assyrian prayer “Who Has Not Sinned?”, lines 12-14, in Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (CDL Press, 2005), 724.

5  Janet Howe Gaines, Forgiveness in a Wounded World: Jonah's Dilemma (Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 95.

6  The phrases are borrowed from “Descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld,” lines 81-84, in Pirjo Lapinkivi, The Neo-Assyrian Myth of Ishtar's Descent and Resurrection (Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2010), 31.

7  Daniel C. Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation, and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah (IVP Academic, 2011), 92-94; Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic, 2019), 143.

8  Philip Peter Jenson, Obadiah, Micah, Jonah: A Theological Commentary (T&T Clark, 2008), 76.

9  Daniel C. Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God: Mission, Salvation, and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah (IVP Academic, 2011), 101, 107.

10  Assyrian prayer “Furious God,” lines 8-10, in Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (CDL Press, 2005), 722.

11  Assyrian prayer “Who Has Not Sinned?”, lines 33-35, in Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (CDL Press, 2005), 725.

12  Assyrian prayer “The Piteous Sufferer,” lines 19'-23', in Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (CDL Press, 2005), 723-724.

13  Gary A. Anderson, A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance: The Expression of Grief and Joy in Israelite Religion (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 49.

14  Jubilees 41:24 (second century BC), in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:131.

15  Testament of Reuben 1:9-10 (second century BC), in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 1:782.

16  Testament of Naphtali 6:8; Testament of Simeon 3:4 (second century BC), in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 1:786, 813.

17  Psalm of Solomon 3:8 (first century BC), in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:654-655.

18  1 Clement 57.1 (late first century AD)

19  Hermas of Rome, Shepherd, Mandate 4.22 (early to mid-second century AD)

20  Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 1.13.5 (late second century AD), in Ancient Christian Writers 55:58.

21  Tertullian of Carthage, On Penitence 9 (late second / early third century AD), in Ancient Christian Writers 28:31-32.

22  Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed 35 (mid-third century AD), in Cyprian of Carthage: De Lapsis and De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Clarendon Press, 1971), 51-53.

23  Ambrose of Milan, Letter 44 (late fourth century AD), in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 26:229.

24  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1.7 (late fourth century AD), in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:25.

25  Avitus of Vienne, Letter 4 (late fifth / early sixth century AD), in Translated Texts for Historians 38:196.

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