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Fasting, Repentance, and the Primacy of God

In ancient times, Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. It was known for great wealth, but it was also known for cruelty, violence, and pride. In fact, the prophet Nahum described the city as one that was “never without victims,” as well as one that was full of “endless cruelty” (Nahum 3:1, and Nahum 3:19).

But about 150 years before Nahum, God attempted to spare the city from its ever increasing evil. So he sent to Nineveh the reluctant prophet Jonah (Jonah 1:1-3). Through Jonah, God told Nineveh that if they did not repent from their sins that he would destroy the city through an invasion. The people of Nineveh in that day believed God and Jonah, and the King instituted a fast. Consider how that fast was implemented:

“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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened (Jonah 3:6-10).

The king relinquished his pride by taking off his royal robes. He then covered himself in uncomfortable sack cloth, sat in ashes as a symbol of humiliation, ordered a fast, and urged the people under his authority to turn away from their evil ways and their violence.

The King was modeling through self-denial that they had forgotten the order that all men should never forget: that God is above all, and that we must submit to his goodness and authority. The king then demonstrated the sincerity of the fast by encouraging people to change their behaviors.

The fast was not just a show, but the first step in a changed life in which God and his ways became recognized as prime. God saw their sincerity, and spared that generation in Nineveh.

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