Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Jonah 3:4-6 ESV
The Bible has 56 references to ash. Why is ash and sackcloth such a common theme in the Bible? Ashes were used for various reasons: humility (Ezekiel 27:30), sacriﬁce (Leviticus 6:11), puriﬁcation (Numbers 19:9-10), mourning (Esther 4:1) and repentance (Jonah 3:6). There are plenty of reasons and more scriptural examples besides these where ash is used, but it is the act of repentance that interests me the most.
There are deﬁnitely cringe worthy moments in my life where I would love to have a redo. I have always done my best to learn from my mistakes and all of them have made me the person I am today. Yet some of them seem so absurd, so out of character, that when I think back on them I am a little puzzled as to what I was thinking. Or more appropriately, what I was not thinking of. Mistakes in life will happen, God makes that plain: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Due to my addiction to sin, I am called upon continually to repent. I am glad to know that I am saved by grace, “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 ESV). But I would hope that over time I could reduce my faltering by keeping my heart, mind, and body focused on where God is calling me.
When I read the Book of Jonah, I am intrigued by the swiftness of the succession of events. Jonah is a short book, and while it containins only one story, it is still short enough to give me pause. The book reads like a CliffNotes version of what could be a much longer tale. This time, I put myself in the shoes of the people of Nineveh, where in the past I had always looked at the perspective of Jonah. The Ninevites are warned by Jonah that in 40 days the city will be overthrown. In the very next sentence, the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s word from God (3:4b-5).
Wow! Is that all it takes?
Jonah must have intimidated the Ninevites with his shouting, like a line out Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus or something. Good grief, if all we needed was a good yelling at in order to repent, sign me up. Somehow, I think this is not the case. For brevity, I am assuming we did not need long speeches from Jonah to receive the moral and spiritual implications of the story of Jonah. The narrative of the entire story really does follow Jonah and everyone else, aside from God, feels very secondary. Which brings me to wonder: What was the emotional side of the decision of the Ninevites so that they immediately repented and covered themselves in sackcloth? In the king’s case, he sits in ash (3:7)!
What state was Nineveh in that God even made the decision to destroy them?
In our world, the God we speak about is about love, mercy and forgiveness. Yet here we see an imminent destruction being called out. Biblically speaking we can imagine what the Ninevites were up to by what we read in Nahum 3. It is certainly not pretty, that’s for sure. As for the God of mercy and love, you see this played out in the story of Jonah when the people repent and the Lord forgives them. They seem like such an extreme group of people that their actions begin to make sense to me. I once heard the quote “Much forgiven, much praise,” pulling from Luke 7:47. So does it apply to much sin, much repentance? I don’t know about that but I can say how it has played in my life for sure.
To think that there is a time in your life that you are so deeply moved to repent of your actions, that you move it into physical form, is refreshing to me in a way. In my own life, I have spent time fasting in order to clear my mind and body preparing myself for God to work in me. When fasting, the obvious effect is physical, but there is always something that happens spiritually, too, that is hard to explain. The thought of wearing coarse sackcloth and sitting in ashes in exhibition of one’s remorse of their actions is far beyond my comfort level. To use something that has been burnt, for whatever reason, strikes a chord in me. When I reﬂect on my actions from some of my worst times, it always involves damaging a relationship with others. If I had to cover myself in ashes it would signify the relationships that I have burned due to my sinful nature. My repentance is usually triggered by how my actions have affected others. I tend to have more tolerance for my own well-being for some odd reason.
Ash, the remains of something that has come before. A shadow of what once was. Consumed by ﬁre, burned down to it’s most raw form. Perched on something that had to be destroyed for me to repent. It holds truths in my heart that I have a hard time facing. Where is repentance held in your heart? Are we willing to sit in the ashes of our lives to come back to God, or do we simply pass on life hoping all will be taken care of eventually? I guess it’s time to look deeper into ourselves to find out.