The Holy Bible did not record for us the deep admonishing speech which led one hundred and twenty thousand persons to repentance with that wonderful contrition of heart. O that it supplied us with this excellent part in which concentrates all Jonah's greatness!
All that, the Holy Bible records for us in this respect does not exceed one phrase in which was mentioned that Jonah entered the city and cried out, saying: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (Jon. 3:4).
Could it be that Jonah said only this single sentence? Was it sufficient to save the city and cause that tremendous effect?
Previously, Lot had said of Sodom: "The Lord will destroy this city!" (Gen. 19:14), yet no one was affected and no one repented. The people heard of the Flood that was going to destroy the whole earth, and saw the Arc being built before their very eyes, yet no one repented and they were all destroyed. Many a time did the warning of death fail! Adam himself heard the warning: "you shall surely die", yet that warning did not prevent him from sinning.
What was the secret behind the repentance of Nineveh and its salvation?
Was it the thirst of Jonah's preaching and its deep effect on the souls of the Ninevites? Or was it due to the strong inner readiness of the heart so that every Divine word brought about an effect because the heart was ready to hear, the will ready to put into action and the soil good for sowing? At heart I lean towards this second opinion.
I would say that the repentance of the people of Nineveh was mainly due to the readiness of their hearts.
It was this readiness that made God send His prophet to them, and as the Apostle says: "For whom He foreknew... He also predestined" (Rom. 8:29). Indeed readiness of heart plays a major role in the act of repentance.
In the case of the rich young man, the Lord Himself talked to him, and with all the power and efficacy of the Lord's words, he went away sorrowful because the heart within was not ready. This is similar to the stony places which do not yield fruit no matter how good the seeds are and no matter how experienced the sewer is, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. The heart of the young St. Anthony, however, was ready to hear the word of God. When he heard in the church the same verse said to the rich young man, he was deeply affected and carried it out wholeheartedly. Likewise were the hearts of the Ninevites.
This opinion is confirmed to me by the fact that when Jonah said that the city would be overthrown, he said it whilst being sure in his heart that it was not going to be overthrown and that his word would not be carried out.
He cried out those words reluctantly, merely obeying an order given to him, unconvinced of what he was saying. If he were convinced, his words would have had a stronger effect.
However, Nineveh repented at Jonah's preaching because their hearts were prepared for any word proceeding from the mouth of God. Thus their repentance was so powerful, for it sprang from within and not from without.
Accordingly, the Lord praised the people of Nineveh and their repentance, and said that they shall arise on the Day of Judgment and condemn that generation.
The power and beauty of this repentance is that it was a general repentance. Everyone repented, everyone returned to God, everyone believed in Him.
More than one hundred and twenty thousand persons entered the Lord's fold, one and all. If there is joy in heaven over one person's repentance what shall we say about the joy brought about by more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who previously could not discern between their right hand and their left?
Thus succeeded the second aim in God's design. The Ninevites were saved as the mariners had previously been saved.Now it is Jonah's turn.
Nineveh's Greatness in Repentance
H. H. Pope Shenouda III
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