Overthrow – definition
Traditional Legal Model – To overthrow, as understood in the case of Nineveh, is God’s work to destroy a people/city as punishment for their wickedness.
Biblical Healing Model – To overthrow, as in that case, can also refer to God’s work to change the hearts of the people.
The point of this study is to show, using the case of Nineveh, that when God is said “to overthrow” it can mean other than destruction from Him.
Relevant Dictionary Definitions
A Modern Definition
1. to depose, as from a position of power; overcome, defeat, or vanquish: to overthrow a tyrant.
2. to put an end to by force, as a government or institution.
3. to throw or knock down; overturn; topple:
4. Archaic. to destroy the sound condition of (the mind).
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary
1. To turn upside down.
2. To throw down.
3. To ruin; to demolish.
Defeat; discomfiture; as the overthrow of enemies.
As we are especially examining the use of words in relation to God’s character, this passage is important:
“And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:1-4)
This passage is commonly understood as a threat to physically destroy the city of Nineveh including the killing of all of its inhabitants. (Note that while Nahum, writing in about 660 BC, wrote about Nineveh’s destruction he was referring to an event about 200 years later.)
However, there is an interesting clue in verse 2. “Preach unto it” must be referring to the people of Nineveh. You don’t literally preach to a city – buildings and walls. If “Nineveh,” in verse 2, is referring to the people of Nineveh, then, in verse 4, it is also referring to the people and would mean there would be a turning of or within the people. Could that be referring to repentance?
Would God Do That?
We could also ask: “Does God personally destroy those who turn against Him?” (as many understand to be the case with Sodom and Gomorrah) The word “overthrown” in Jonah 3:4 is translated from the Hebrew word “haphak” (H2015). Its uses in the KJV are:
AV-turn 57, overthrow 13, overturn 5, change 3, turn … 6, become 1, came 1, converted 1, gave 1, make 1, perverse 1, perverted 1, retired 1, tumbled 1; 94
It is interesting that the same original word is used to describe the heart of God and his feelings towards Israel:
“How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? mine heart is turned (H2015) within me, my repentings are kindled together.” (Hosea 11:8)
The “how shall I give thee up?” etc are rhetorical questions – because of His great love it pains Him greatly to even consider it. Mine (God’s) heart is “destroyed“? It can’t mean that. Note that God never said He would destroy Nineveh. Could He have been predicting a turning or a changing of the heart of the people of Nineveh (which is what actually happened)?
In reference to Israel, Hosea later wrote:
“O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.” (Hosea 13:9)
God did not need to actively destroy either Israel or Nineveh. Why did God need to do anything? The Ninevites sinful course would have led to self-destruction as happened to Israel. In so many cases, sin brings its own punishment as an inevitable result.
This all started because of the evil of Nineveh:
“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2)
What should a merciful God do in reaction to such as state of wickedness? How about an appeal to change the heart? Remember that:
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
To overthrow the city as in destroying it and its inhabitants would not only cut off any further opportunity for them to come to repentance; it would go against God’s own will.
There are other Biblical uses of the word “overthrow” that very much sound like physical destruction. For example:
“And ye shall overthrow (05422) their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.” (Deuteronomy 12:3)
However, in that case, which is not speaking of God destroying, the word “overthrow” is translated from a different Hebrew word: “nathats” (H5422) which is translated in these ways:
AV-break down 22, throw down 5, destroy 5, cast down 3, beat down 3, pull down 2, break out 1, overthrow 1; 42
The destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim is described using the word “overthrow” (“mahpekah,” H4114) which comes from “haphak.”
“And that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom, and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim, which the LORD overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath:” (Deuteronomy 29:23)
H4114 מהפכה mahpekah mah-pay-kaw’
from 02015; n f; [BDB-246a]
AV-overthrow 6; 6
1) overthrow, destruction
1a) always of Sodom and Gomorrah
Except perhaps (Isaiah 1:7: “as overthrown by strangers”)
In the case of those cities, there was a definite destructive overthrow but the overthrow was not the work of God as evidenced by a correct understanding of the words “anger” and “wrath.” God’s work would have been to appeal to those cities to mend their ways to avert the destruction.
That such appeals are not always successful is evidenced by:
“And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
We know that most people will not be prepared for the Lord’s return but God makes every effort to give them opportunity to do so.
God’s anger and wrath is His reluctant withdrawal to allow people to experience the consequences of their free-will decisions or, at times, the forces of nature from which He had previously been protecting them. There are many cases in which it is worded as though God did the destruction, when it was a case of God being said to do what He merely allowed or permitted.
It is when we rebel and don’t want His involvement that He honors our free-will decisions and backs off allowing the natural consequences of our actions to occur.