When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
‘By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’
Throughout time, society has always loved to poke fun at the high and
mighty. That certainly seems to be the case here. Indeed, the title king of Nineveh itself is a bit of a non-sequitur; cities generally do not have kings.
Our royal convert is so earnest that he even insists on the animals taking part.
It is easy to be cynical, but under the heavy layers of irony, it is possible to find a kernel of true faith. It is expressed in two simple words: Who knows?
If there is one overacting message that emerges from the Book of Jonah, it is that no one every really knows what God might do. Indeed, anyone foolish enough to suggest that they have a better understanding of God, will invariably be in for a nasty shock. After all, it should never be a question of how much you know about God, but how well you know God.
The farcical scene that is playing out before our eyes mocks the idea of a predictable, transactional deity. If you really believe that God will relent simply because you go into a fit of self-flagellation, then animals wearing sackcloth is the natural outcome of that absurd logic.
Starting our religious claims with the question ‘Who knows?’ suggests a certain humility. After all, the ship’s captain during chapter one suggested that maybe God will take notice and save the crew.
During the Second Book of Samuel, David the king of Israel loses his son. He says, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting?”
In the face of unimaginable suffering, is the question ‘Who knows?’ the most profoundly religious one we can ask?