The Problem of Repentance and Relapse as a Unifying Theme in the Book of the Twelve
Gary E. Yates
Beginning with the book of Joel, a pattern emerges that is repeated three times in the Book of the Twelve. An episode of repentance is followed by a relapse into sin. In the first instance, Israel’s repentance in Joel 2:12–27 is followed by a relapse into sin that leads to the judgment of exile for Israel (Amos) and for Judah (Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah). The book of Jonah tells the story of Nineveh’s repentance, but the announcement in Nahum is that Yahweh is prepared to destroy Nineveh for its violence and bloodshed. In the postexilic period, the books of Haggai and Zechariah document the repentance of the people in response to the prophets’ calls to rebuild the temple and return to the Lord, but the message of Malachi indicates another relapse into disobedience and rebellion. This pattern that emerges in the Twelve reflects Israel’s persistent disobedience and refusal to return to Yahweh. The postexilic community is as guilty of unfaithfulness toward Yahweh as Israel and Judah before the exile. The inclusion of the Nineveh narrative in this pattern reflects that the story of the nations is essentially the same as that of Israel in terms of their persistent rebellion against Yahweh as the one true God.
The significance of this literary pattern is seen in three specific ways. First, the pattern of repentance and relapse reflects the pervasiveness of Israel’s unbelief and attributes the “day of the Lord” judgments associated with exile in large part to improper response to the prophetic word. In the three centuries of prophetic activity reflected in the Twelve, there are only limited examples of turning to Yahweh, and one of those examples comes from the pagan Ninevites.
Second, the problems of partial repentance or repentance and then relapse also explain why the conditions of exile and alienation from Yahweh persist for Israel even after the return from exile. The people would only fully enjoy the blessings of return when they had truly turned back to Yahweh. Geographical return to the land without a spiritual turning back to Yahweh was inadequate. Thus, the calls for repentance in the Book of the Twelve and especially in the postexilic prophets serve as a call for successive generations reading these books to always be returning to the Lord.
Finally, in light of Israel’s persistent inability to return to Yahweh, the Book of the Twelve reflects the reality that the only hope for Israel’s future lies in Yahweh’s work of sovereign grace that would internally transform the people so that they would be able to faithfully follow and obey him.
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