What does someone do when they’ve been rescued from great danger—pulled from a burning house, or saved from drowning? Or how does a person act after his life’s been spared: when he should’ve been killed, but someone had mercy? A natural response is the desire to tell people about it. Because what’s happened is so significant, a rescued person wants to share the story.
It’s true for our deliverance, too. If God has shown you life-restoring mercy, how eager should you be to talk about it? The apostle Paul shows us. He knew himself to be a great sinner; he was someone who’d even persecuted Christ and his church. Yet God broke into Paul’s life and redeemed him. And ever since, Paul felt compelled to share the good news. The good news is that Christ rescued him, as Christ will rescue all who put their trust in his Name! So Paul will bring that message until he has no more strength to tell it.
This then is part of the puzzle of Jonah. Now, Jonah is unique among the twelve minor prophets, for it’s not a collection of oracles or prophecies like the others are, but it’s a story. And unlike Paul, Jonah is very much a reluctant prophet. For God tells him to go and preach at Nineveh. Jonah disobeys, and he sails in the opposite direction. But he can’t get away from the power and presence of the LORD, for Jonah first encounters a terrible storm, then he gets thrown overboard, and finally is swallowed by a great fish.
Really, Jonah shouldn’t be alive by this point. But deep in the fish’s belly, he seems to repent of his sin. In chapter 2 he confesses dependence on God, who shows him mercy. He has been plucked from his watery grave, and for a second time the LORD will send Jonah to Nineveh.
But here’s the mystery: having received grace, Jonah isn’t that excited to talk about it. Having been delivered, he’s not that eager to see Nineveh spared from the coming wrath. Not the reaction that you’d expect from someone just saved from death! Yet God doesn’t let Jonah steal the spotlight. Jonah can’t take away from what God is doing, as the LORD shows great compassion to a pagan city. This is our theme from Jonah 3,
For a second time, the LORD sends Jonah to preach at Nineveh:
1) Jonah’s disturbing message
2) Nineveh’s pleading repentance
3) God’s relenting mercy
1) Jonah’s disturbing message: We don’t want to be too graphic about it, but our text begins with Jonah covered in the vomit of a sea creature. He’s somewhere along the Mediterranean coast, wherever that great fish left him. That’s how chapter 2 ends, “So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (2:10).
Standing there on the shore, likely a big question was at the forefront of Jonah’s mind: “Now what?” And he probably had a hunch of what to do, but to make it perfectly clear: “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” (3:1-2). Jonah has received a second chance, he’s been granted a pardon from death. But now if he’s going to live, he has to do what God wants him to.
So Jonah sets sights on Nineveh. In his day, it was the capital city of Assyria. And by that time it was already an ancient city, having been founded long ago by Nimrod, the grandson of Noah. It had grown to be one of the largest cities in the world. As verse 3 says, “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.”
That last phrase is a bit difficult. Does it mean that it would take three days to walk all the way around it? The evidence from archaeology shows that ancient Nineveh wasn’t that big; it had a wall that ran for about ten kilometers around. It wasn’t a massive city in modern terms, yet it was important: “a three day journey in extent” probably means it had great political importance. If you were a foreign ambassador, a proper visit to Nineveh would take at least three days. That’s where all the movers and shakers were.
There’s something else revealing about that description in verse 3. When our translation says it “was an exceedingly great city,” it reads literally: “Nineveh was a great city to God.” That doesn’t mean this was a city that honoured God—certainly not! It also doesn’t mean that this city deserved anything from God. For Nineveh was infamous for its cruelty and violence. Yet Nineveh was significant to the LORD.
Important—for what reason? Jonah might’ve thought it was important, only in the sense that they were at the top of God’s list of cities to destroy. Because of their sin, Nineveh was overripe for judgment, Public Enemy #1.
But there’s more to Nineveh’s value than being a priority target for some brimstone. For weren’t all these people too, made in God’s image? And doesn’t God always have a concern for the sinners and the lost? Isn’t God interested in helping those who seem like they’re past all helping? He is!
That might sound like a New Testament idea, but we see it already in the Old Testament. Listen to what God says in Jeremiah 18, “The instant I speak concerning a nation… to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (vv 7-8). God pardons those who turn to him. That’s his mercy. He says it again in Jonah’s final verse, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons?” (4:11). God will have pity on all who repent!
Yet this city, we said, was notorious for brutality. For example, about a hundred years after Jonah, the prophet Nahum brought a message against this same place. Nahum is worth reading later on, like chapter 3, where he declares about Nineveh, “Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and robbery. Its victim never departs… There is a multitude of slain, a great number of bodies, and countless corpses” (vv 1,3). That’s the kind of city it was.
Here was the thing, though: Nineveh would be a tool in God’s hand. Some of Jonah’s own colleagues had warned Israel that they’d be taken into exile here. That was hard to believe at the moment, with Israel enjoying a time of peace and prosperity—according to 2 Kings 14:25, it was this same Jonah who prophesied that Israel would expand their territory. Yet as we saw in Amos, in Israel there was injustice and idolatry. So God warned that Assyria was sharpening their swords for battle.
Nineveh: a wicked city, a godless city, violent, bent on world conquest. Jonah’s reluctance to preach there isn’t excusable, but it is understandable. But he’ll no longer resist. Assuming he begins somewhere near Joppa, it would’ve taken about a month to reach Nineveh. Jonah had plenty of time to think about his message, but it was really quite simple. Verse 4 says that when Jonah got to the city, he “cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” These are ominous words.
Was that all he said? Did Jonah bring only that warning of judgment, or was there more to it? Did he know that a message of God’s wrath always comes with an obvious action item? Namely: “Make sure you repent! Change your ways!” And this is exactly why Jonah didn’t want to go. If you warn someone about a coming disaster, they’re going to ask, “So what should I do? How can I avoid this?” It was the thing Jonah feared most: that his preaching would be successful, and Nineveh would listen.
Here we might compare Jonah with Obadiah. That prophet spoke of God’s judgment on another foreign nation, Edom. And he spoke no word of repentance. Obadiah didn’t even go to Edom—he was prophesying only for the comfort of God’s people, so they could know that their enemies were doomed. But Jonah is very different. He brings a word of God’s judgment right to the ears of those who needed to hear it. Somehow, for some reason, God is giving them a chance.
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In the Bible, forty days is often a period of testing. It’s long enough to see a person’s real character. The people of Nineveh had forty days to think about Jonah was saying, forty days to consider their response.
But the question is still there: Why should God be concerned with this pagan city? Why even give the opportunity to change? For the LORD is the God of Israel, isn’t He? This was true. Yet those covenant people had become blinded to God’s greatness. In pride, they didn’t consider that God’s grace might have a much wider extent, a greater spread—Israel thought they had a monopoly on the LORD’s love.
The LORD had showed this in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha, some decades before. He called these prophets to get involved with people that had no place in the covenant, whether the poor widow from Zarephath, or Naaman, the Syrian army officer. These things were a wake-up call to Israel, and they also revealed something essential about the LORD. God wants his Word to be welcomed, so He’ll send his Word to those who listen to it. He’ll even send it to the heathen nations, like Jonah does.
In this way, Jonah reminds us of the Lord Jesus. In Matthew 12, we read how the people wanted a miracle from him. But Christ points them to a lesson from the past. He says, “No sign will be given to [this generation] except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (v 39). Jesus wants them to see the connections between Jonah and himself.
What were the connections? Both Jonah and Jesus would descend to the depths. For three days, both Jesus and Jonah would be considered lost. But then both men arose to new life through God’s power: Jonah arising from the fish, Jesus from the grave. And having been “resurrected,” as it were, both went on to announce God’s Word—even to the Gentiles.
So Jesus says to those who don’t believe, “Jonah’s enough of a sign for you—and my ministry is enough. Don’t spend your life looking for more miracles. Don’t wait for something better than the Saviour whom God sent. But see in Christ the power of God, and see his mercy, and put your faith in him!” He is all that you need.
And it’s still urgent that we receive Christ, and that we receive him before it’s too late: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That message is heard again and again in Scripture, and even more so as the day of the Lord approaches. Turn from sin, and turn to the Lord. It’s a serious warning, and in Nineveh’s case it was received with repentance.
2) Nineveh’s pleading repentance: So how long did it take? Was it the first day of Jonah’s preaching? Was it Day #39? Our text gives the impression that Jonah gains an instant hearing, that it didn’t take long before he had people crying in the streets.
There’s different explanations for what was behind this quick response. Maybe Jonah attracted an audience by first telling them about his experience in the fish. The theory goes that people had heard his “fish story” already long before he arrived in Nineveh! Here was someone who had gone to the depths and back, someone whom God so wanted to preach that He saved him from a terrible death!
Others suggest that Nineveh was primed for this message. They point to evidence that there’d been a recent earthquake in Nineveh, or perhaps a solar eclipse, or even pending invasion by eastern tribes. Nineveh was already on pins and needles, so they were ready to hear this message. This sudden warning of judgment broke their spirits, and they repented.
It’s hard to say, of course. God actually doesn’t need more than his preached Word, and in the proclaimed message there is great power. You can be perfectly happy in your sin, when the Word convicts you. You can be blissfully unaware, when the Word humbles you. So it was in Nineveh: “The people… Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them” (v 5). They respond to Jonah’s preaching.
So what does it mean that they “believed God”? Did it mean that the whole city became true worshipers of the LORD? That’s not very likely. It probably means that the people gave credit to the word which Jonah brought. They acknowledge this message from God, that it was true. Now, it wasn’t so unusual for pagans to recognize other gods besides the ones they worshiped—if you have two dozen gods in your collection, what’s one more? Even so, this was genuine: Jesus said that Nineveh “repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Matt 12:41). Jonah’s worst fears are realized: hearing his message, the people ask, “What now shall we do?”
And this spirit of repentance sweeps the city, right up to king. “He arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes” (v 6). His response is as immediate as his people’s. Royal dignity gave way to utter humility.
And he’ll take no chances that some might fail in humbling themselves. The king made it an edict, “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” (vv 7-8). Even the animals were involved—not that they had beastly sins to repent from, but the king wanted the whole city to show signs of grief. Sometimes the situation is so serious that every bit of ordinary life has to grind to a halt, until we deal properly with sin.
That doesn’t mean that true repentance is about those outward expressions of sorrow. It wasn’t about sackcloth and ashes back then, just like it’s not about long faces or sombre prayers today. If you’re going to repent, it’s not enough to say, “I’m sorry, God. I feel really bad.” Repentance is about change. Nineveh’s king knew this, too. It’s why he urges, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (v 8). That’s always the test of repentance: when we do differently next time. Putting your resolve into practice, and actually turning from your evil way.
This again was a lesson to the people of Israel. They would surely hear about this event—imagine the people in Jerusalem talking about what had happened in the Assyrian capital. Remember, there was much idolatry in Israel, and injustice. God was sending prophets to his people, almost constantly, often with little effect. Meanwhile, Jonah goes to Nineveh, and at once they repent! God’s people are put to shame.
Jesus made it a lesson for his fellow Israelites too. He says in Matthew 12, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater [one] than Jonah is here” (v 41). Jesus pictures the scene on the last day, when everyone has to appear before the Lord. And He says that the men of Nineveh will shake their heads at some of God’s covenant people.
They’ll even condemn them. For Jonah, total stranger that he was, came to them with a message that could hardly be called good news. All he said was, “Forty days, and Nineveh falls!” But that was enough. The LORD gave Nineveh an opportunity to repent, and they took it!
So think of Christ. He’s a far greater prophet than Jonah. Far greater, because He tells about the joy of redemption, and the open doors of the kingdom, and the full remission of sins. He’s the long-promised Saviour! He is both message, and messenger. And how is He received? What do people do with him? In Christ’s day, many reject his Word. They want signs and wonders instead of truth and peace.
And what about those others who’ve heard about the Saviour? Now we’re speaking about the church today, God’s covenant people—we’re speaking about us. We’ve been entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have the full Word of God. We’ve listened to Christ, to one who is so much greater than Jonah. We’ve heard one who died and rose again the third day.
So how are we, next to that pagan city Nineveh? Will the Ninevites outdo us when it comes to repentance? Will that city rise up in the judgment and condemn us for our failure to believe? Will they wonder about our failure to embrace the gospel with heart and soul? This is the possibility that Jesus puts to us in Matthew 12. What will the Ninevites say about us?
And then the Word of God moves us to ask another question. It’s a question asked by each one of us when we hear Christ’s Word: “What shall we do?” It needs to be asked by the repentant sinner. Asked by the repentant husband and the repentant wife. It’s asked by the repentant father, the mother, the child, “What shall we do?” It’s asked by the repentant young person, and the repentant senior: “So how will I show fruits of repentance? How will I show a true response to the gospel of Christ?” How are things going to be different in my life?” And that’s not a one-time question. That’s a question we ask again and again: “What shall we do?”
For the people of Nineveh, repentance was their one hope. It went with a fervent hope of mercy. As the king says, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (v 9). He says “Who can tell?” because they still don’t know for sure that mercy’s possible. God may spare them, or He may not. But in Christ we know the truth about God, that He’s a God of rich mercy.
3) God’s relenting mercy: Sometimes people ask why God allowed sin to enter the world. It’s a thorny question. Could God not have stopped sin, and destroyed Satan before He did any damage? If He could’ve, why didn’t He? It’s hard to answer questions like that, but we can’t go wrong when we bring it back to the glory of the LORD. It is through God’s compassion for sinners that his majesty becomes most obvious. He is magnified for his mercy!
And what happened at Nineveh is just one more example of this. Verse 10 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.” He had mercy.
Maybe it wasn’t actually conversion in the way we understand it. Nineveh probably didn’t start building synagogues instead of pagan shrines. Nonetheless, for the LORD this was enough of a response to withhold his punishment. As verse 5 said, “They believed God.” At a basic level, the people of Nineveh did something pleasing to the LORD. And they were spared.
Now, someone may go to Wikipedia and point out that Nineveh was in fact destroyed, in around 612 BC. The capital of the Assyrian empire did fall—so did God actually relent from his anger? Was this real mercy? Yet that destruction was some 150 years after Jonah. For 150 years, the LORD held back his hand. He let Nineveh live on, even thrive.
And this was God being faithful to his word. Remember what He says in Jeremiah 18, “If [a] nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (vv 7-8). God spares those who turn to him. That’s his mercy. He showed it to Israel. He showed it to Nineveh. And God shows it to us too!
We know how Jonah felt about God’s mercy. In the next chapter we see him pouting in his little shelter. For one who knew God’s rich mercy, this was a most unmerciful response. In so many ways, Jonah was ignorant of just how glorious God is. He thought he could run from God. He thought he could resist God. He thought he knew better than God. But as we said, this book’s spotlight still falls on the LORD. God magnifies his great name by sparing Nineveh!
And now remember Jesus’ words: “A greater one than Jonah is here.” More than Jonah could ever understand, Jesus reveals the greatness of God’s mercy. God’s mercy is for sinners. His mercy is for Jews, it’s for Gentiles, it’s for everyone, his mercy is for all who seek him. God desires that all should turn from their evil way and receive life everlasting. In Christ Jesus we’ve received it: God’s mercy, the full forgiveness of sins. And having received mercy, we should speak about it. We can’t keep this to ourselves, but should gladly share it! Amen.