How many people have heard that word as a declaration of exasperation? Now, change the punctuation…
And the exasperation graduates to anger. Go one step further and put it in the mouth of a teenager…and a parent might best translate it as a two word obscene utterance (where the kid can get the same effect without the same punishment).
Often one or two words can communicate an amazing amount—and I'm not speaking of curse words. Ordinary words. Simple statements or questions.
One biblical case that especially intrigues me is "Who knows?"
The first time I remember noticing it was while preparing a sermon on what the questions in the book of Jonah tell us about God. In that case our reluctant (rebellious) prophet finally told the Ninevites what was in store for them. Then…
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish" (Jonah 3:6-9, English Standard Version).
Who knows? The Bible doesn't actually give any indication that the Lord's message through Jonah included an out. It simply was, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (Jonah 3:4) What was to be lost though? Their fate couldn't be worse by fasting and donning sackcloth…and who knows?…maybe God would give them a break.
Another interesting use of the question is with King David. Before we hear him utter the two words of interest, let's look at the background:
And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah's wife1 bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them (2 Samuel 12:15b-17).
Sadly, the child ultimately succumbed to his illness, and as soon as David got the news he washed, put on good clothes, and ate. This led to some head scratching:
Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food." He said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?' But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" (2 Samuel 12:21-23).
Who knows? David was a pragmatist. Now that his child was dead the fasting and prayers wouldn't do any good. Before, however, who knows?…maybe God would heal his young son.
I can't knock the King of Nineveh; maybe he was trying to manipulate God, but repenting (and showing true signs of it) was exactly what he and his people should do (and our Lord did spare them). David also appeared to be trying to maneuver God, but in his case he wasn't successful and the boy passed away. Maybe it was because David's visible adultery had to have its visible ramifications. Maybe David didn't fully get it, and God wasn't so keen on someone whose fasting was only going to last as long as the need. Who knows?
However, my favorite "Who knows?" came up in our church's Bible study last night. This one was from Joel:
"Yet even now," declares the Lord,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments."
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God? (Joel 2:12-14)
Who knows? What is especially interesting about this one is that God tells people to return to Him, but it is without any promise of deliverance. I may be reading too much into it, but maybe that's the way it has to work. The only way to get God's blessings is to do
You can't earn God's grace, and if you try maybe it makes receiving it impossible. Wanting to go to heaven (or to avoid hell) has never given eternity's key to anyone. We are saved by faith…by trust…by desiring the One who inhabits heaven…not by longing for everything else that comes with Him in that celestial home.
And I don't know about you—but I prefer it that way. It's to our God's glory that He expects (and promises) real (not superficial) change. It makes our Lord dependable in a way where you can ask, "Who knows?" fully knowing that His decision isn't arbitrary—that He knows what is best.
1 It’s not germane to this article, but don’t you find it interesting that in this narrative refers to Bathsheba as “Uriah’s wife”? It’s a good reminder of David’s sin.