Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities: A Century's Difference

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

These oft quoted words open Charles Dickens' 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

Yet, when I consider them, I don't think of London and Paris. Instead, I think of one city found in the pages of Scripture that is truly a tale of two cities.

One city full of contradictions. One city of opposites going in two different directions.

Twice, Old Testament Scripture addresses at length the pagan city of Nineveh. Yet, the city's two prophesies and two responses to those prophesies are vastly different.

First, there was Nineveh's encounter with Jonah, a reluctant prophet if ever there was one.

Although four chapters in length, the entire book of Jonah isn't actually Jonah's prophecy to Nineveh. The bulk of the four chapters is Jonah's avoiding God. In fact, save for one verse where God tells Jonah to go tell Nineveh it will be destroyed for its wickedness, the first two chapters are all about Jonah--a quick trip out to sea in the opposite direction, a storm, three days in the belly of a great fish, and (finally), a grudging acceptance of his commission.

In chapter three when Jonah finally reaches the city, Scripture says, "Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, 'Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown'" (Jon. 3:4).

This must be the shortest sermon in history. One sentence. Eight words.

To complete a three-day's walk in one day is no small feat. I can imagine Jonah running breathless through the city like one of those crazy-sounding street-corner preachers who repeatedly proclaim, "The end is near!!!"

But what's even stranger is that Nineveh responded to this hasty message--not a little, but in a big way: "Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, 'In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish'" (Jon. 3:5-9).

Measly little sermon. HUGE response of repentance.

Compare this city of Nineveh with the Nineveh just a century later during the time of the prophet Nahum.

This time, there is no evidence that God's prophet reluctantly wrote down his prophecy concerning Nineveh. This time, the bulk of the prophecy isn't about the prophet's own problems with obeying God's commands. And this time, the message isn't a one-sentence generic doomsday message.

Instead, Nahum's prophecy is hard-hitting and exceedingly detailed concerning the exact nature of Nineveh's destruction. Nahum says, "She is emptied! Yes, she is desolate and waste! Hearts are melting and knees knocking! Also anguish is in the whole body And all their faces are grown pale!" (Nah. 2:10). Additionally, he warns, "Your name will no longer be perpetuated. I will cut off idol and image From the house of your gods. I will prepare your grave, For you are contemptible" (Nah. 1:14).

In the NASB, the prophecy is 1,185 words long. A thousand words compared to Jonah's eight.
Yet, strangely, there is no evidence of Nineveh's repentance. There is no evidence that even one repented.

When Joshua destroyed the city of Jericho, Scripture describes the one woman who supported God's chosen people instead of the wicked in her own city. As a result, "Rahab the harlot and her father’s household and all she had, Joshua spared; and she has lived in the midst of Israel to this day, for she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho" (Jos. 6:25).

Logically, if God found it important to remember in Scripture one person who chose God's people over wickedness....surely He would have described the one or many who repented upon hearing Nahum's message.

But nothing. Not one story.

One thousand words fell on deaf ears and hardened hearts full of pride and arrogance.

History bears out Nahum's prophecy of Nineveh's utter and complete destruction. In fact, it was the Victorian time period before Nineveh's location was even rediscovered from under its tomb of sand.

In only one century, this city went from an entire population kneeling in repentance to none repenting.

What happened? What made the difference?

It wasn't the length or compelling descriptiveness of a message. It wasn't the preacher. No, the difference was the people's hearts. The difference was one century. One generation.

The people who repented during Jonah's day, who had heard God's judgment and seen God's relenting--those people were long gone. Sadly, they had apparently failed to pass along to the next generation their own personal fear of Jehovah God. Instead, they passed on merely their growing military power, their cruelty, their wickedness, and their pride.

And for that lack of re-telling about Jehovah to their children and their children's children, the next generation was annihilated.

It is not far-fetched to say that America is one generation away from being a Nineveh.

It's about you and me, about our passing on to the next generation a love, fear, and reverence for a holy God.

If we don't, who will tell them?

(With thoughts of our nation's election right around the corner, this post from the archives seemed a poignant reminder of how important it is for us to be that one generation who holds up a nation.)

(Image: Nineveh. Nebi Yunus. Iraqi archaeologists excavate the monumental entrance to a late Assyrian building. The large head of a bull-man sculpture lies in a passageway. Photo taken in May 1990 by Fredarch.)

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