Text: Jonah 3
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
There are times when a preacher feels compelled to address the recent news of the day, and there are other times when he feels that it is more appropriate to continue with his original plan of working through a Biblical passage or series, letting God’s words set the context for today. Both of these strategies are appropriate, and good men differ on when they should use one or the other. Today, however, is one of those rare occasions when the two strategies become one. The news has been dominated, of course, by the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. But also, as you know, we have been reading and preaching through Jonah, and this week happens to be where he preaches before the Ninevites and brings their king to repentance. What we will see in this passage is that Jonah preaches judgment, the people respond to the judgment in fear, belief, and repentance, and therefore God relents from His judgment and spares them. As we look at this passage, we will also try to make a few points of contact with our current day and see how we ought to respond to God’s judgment in world.
The picture we are given is of Jonah preaching in the streets. The city took three days to walk across, and Jonah proclaimed his message as he walked. We are not given the entirety of his message. He probably had more to say than just the one line. But the central point was judgment. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
The proclamation of judgment is a constant theme throughout all of the prophets. Most of them are preaching the message to Israel and Judah, but a few, like Jonah, Nahum, and Obadiah preached to the surrounding Gentile nations. They all proclaimed judgment. God has seen your evil deeds and is now about to act.
As we have mentioned previously in this series, the message of judgment is effective. Modern people try to deny this, saying that people only want an accepting and affirming god, but no one ever worship a nice-guy with whom they can relate. People only worship someone or something if it is awesome, mighty, and terrible. People only repent when they are convicted. People only ask for mercy if judgment is about to befall them.
There are certainly wrong and unbiblical ways to preach judgment. Our personal anger or desire to “fight back” should never be confused with God’s righteousness. “For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). We shouldn’t single out our pet sins and leave others unmentioned. This is all true. And yet, it is still true, that the message of divine judgment is a legitimate message that God uses to change people. Do you know the single most famous sermon in all of Christian history? It is Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Reading it today, I can’t say that it suits my tastes. I would not preach it exactly, if it were up to me. But despite all of that, it changed the continent of North America. Don’t forget reality. We must continue to preach truth in the face of unrighteousness, and this means that we must continue to proclaim judgment in various times and places. This is what Jonah did. Let us now see its effect.
The People’s Response
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying,
“Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”
Incredibly, the people of Nineveh heard Jonah’s prophecy of judgment, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” and they “believed God.” This is an important description. These were Gentiles and worshippers of idols. They were not followers of the true God who had gone astray. They were pagans. Yet, when they heard Jonah’s preaching, they believed it. They believed that his God was real, and they believed that his God was going to do what He had said. This is what caused them to repent.
This repentance was demonstrated after the manner of the day. The people fasted, put on sackcloth, and their king sat in ashes. This is a classic form of mourning and repentance, and we see it throughout the Bible. This shows that what we feel in our heart must come to external expression, and when confronted with judgment, we must first respond internally and then externally. We need to show what we believe. It would be worthwhile for you to consider how to express your piety appropriately today in your life.
We should also notice the role that the king played in all of this. He functioned as the literal representative of the people, their corporate head, and so the message naturally went to him. He responded and commanded national repentance, for all of the people, and even the animals, to put on the sackcloth and cry out to God. “Yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (vs. 8). This is a great violation of modern political thought. We’ve been taught that the government should have nothing at all to do with religion and that the only kind of piety that’s worth anything is individual and “grass roots.” Now is not the place to give a lengthy defense or critique of classical liberal political theory, but we should see that the bible presents other options, and it presents them favorable. For most of world history the kings were responsible for both tables of the law, the spiritual commandments and the temporal ones. We see this with Joseph in Egypt. We see it in ancient Israel. We see it with Daniel’s ministry in Babylon. We see it here in Nineveh. After the coming of Christ, the apostle Paul preached before Caesar, and a few hundred years later, Constantine converted to Christ. The Franks, Germans, and Russians were all baptized because their king led the way. If you read the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, you’ll see the same is true there. I am very happy to have many of our modern freedoms, but we should not look back at those earlier situations with scorn. And it remains true that our political leaders have great moral and religious influence. Sadly, many of them now use that influence for evil. We ought to pray for them. We should ask that God would convict their hearts and show them grace. Perhaps He can make them to be as righteous as the ancient Ninevites.
The principle of hierarchy and corporate responsibility is important here. The king leads the repentance because he represents the people. He knows that his people’s sins will definitely affect him. Perhaps his repentance will help change them and thus, together, they can be spared “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (vs. 9). And while our political establishment is very different, these principles do remain with us in the various relationships of representation and responsibility. Every one of you who enjoy a position of authority and influence over others must also take some responsibility for them. You are not responsible for every decision and action people under you make. They are their own person in that regard. But you are responsible for whatever they learn from you. You are responsible for how they see God’s rule and authority modeled in you. As I’ve heard this explained, the fate of people under your care isn’t “your fault,” but it is your responsibility.
This is true of husbands, fathers, mothers, bosses, pastors, teachers, and magistrates. People under us will necessarily be like us, that’s just the way it is, and so we must model faith and repentance. Perhaps most of all, we must model humility. How do we react when God uses people to call attention to our sins? How do we react when we are called to repentance? Do we bristle with defensiveness and anger? Do we deny our sins? Or do we put on sackcloth and ashes? Our response will necessarily influence those under us. One thing’s for sure, if we set a consistently sinful, selfish, and self-righteous example, our friends, works, neighbors, and family members will definitely notice. And they will remember it for their entire lives. A man who does not submit to the authorities over them will never command authority in his own right.
Amazingly, the Ninevites repented. This was not what most people would have expected. But they did. They believed God and repented, and so God saw their repentance and spared them. The text says: “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
We learn that God always forgives when we repent. “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” (Prov. 28:13) “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)
Does this mean that God had to “change” His prediction that Nineveh would be destroyed? No, God’s pronouncements of judgment always take account of the possibility of repentance. The point of the prophecy is not to simply predict the future but to convict the people sin and cause a reaction. If they repent, then they can be spared. This is how God works.
And so when God announces His judgment on us, the appropriate response is not despair or anger but repentance. We must humble ourselves and confess our sins. But what if we are swept up in the judgment, what if we are taken off into captivity or worse? What do we do then? Remain calm. It has happened before.
Our duty then, as ever, is to be faithful, do the right thing, and preach the gospel. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). When hardship arises, that’s your opportunity to be like the prophets before you. James writes, “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2). Paul says something very similar in Romans 5:
We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
And so our duty today, in the face of what appears to be the dawn of post-Christian America, is to keep our heads up. Yes, we should examine ourselves to see if there is any secret sin within us. Yes, we should repent. But we should also see this as a great opportunity. Now is the chance for us to be like the prophets. Now is our chance to be like Christ! The trials and tribulations of this life are themselves things that God uses to perfect us and make us the kinds of people He wants us to be. If Romans 5:4 is true, then you cannot have true hope without tribulation. That means we’ve got a lot to look forward to.
Jonah was sent to preach a message of judgment, and he wasn’t told what would happen. He was just told to go. The results were in God’s hands. And they still are. We must be Jonahs as well and go preach to even a wicked city. We must tell them the truth. But there is another way in which we must not be like Jonah, and that will be the topic of next week’s sermon. We must not be bitter. We must not be angry. We must not close off the possibility of repentance, grace, and forgiveness.
Remember the big picture. Jesus Christ is Lord. Our God reigns. Remember the promise we have of the future. Jesus Christ is victorious. His kingdom is forever. His Church will be triumphant. And so now, whatever happens, know that those truths cannot be changed. And when things do look dark for a season, we can prepare for difficulties, but we must not lose heart. As G.K. Chesteron said, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.”
Let us pray.