Of all the strange and unexpected details in the story of Jonah the true miracle is the revival in Nineveh. The morally clueless (4:11) people of that great city repented of their notorious wickedness and found grace in the sight of God.
We want those who are born into gospel-loving homes to own their sin, from the earliest age, and find refuge in the covenant-keeping God. We want those who have grown up in the church but have remained spiritually indifferent to be convicted by this truth: religious habits are not enough to make a person right before God. You must be born again! We want those who have no connection to the church to realize that they are sinners in the hands of a righteous God. We want them to seek and find Christ through the ministry of the gospel among us. We want to know the power that accomplished the greatest revival in the history of the world.
Our text invites us to witness how revivals happen. As we watch we should learn from the message of the preacher, the repentance of the sinners, and the mercy of God. And more than learning from the text we want to be transformed by the power of God’s Word.
Revivals Demand a Subversive Message (3:4)
Revivals are subversive; they overthrow the status quo of unbelief. For this reason Nineveh was a perfect place for God to work a revival. Built by the great-grandson of Noah (Gen. 10:11), Nineveh was one of the oldest and greatest cities of the ancient world. During the Neo-Assyrian Empire Nineveh expanded significantly with impressive architecture and art. The city is a symbol of human accomplishment and pride. If God can work here he can work anywhere.
To this great city Jonah preached his hard sermon: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (New King James Version). It is fair to ask, How does this sermon qualify Jonah as an evangelist? How is Jonah’s message good news? Calvin is right. “He did not gently lead the Ninevites to God, but threatened them with destruction, and seemed to have given them no hope of pardon.”1 From the Bible’s record we can say that “a denunciation of destruction was precisely all of his commission.”2 In just five Hebrew words God’s message through Jonah encapsulates the basic point of the ministry of the law.
Before the gospel settles our consciences the law must overthrow us. In his work of salvation God graciously uses the law to assist the elect to engage in penetrating self-examination. The law is subversive; it works to undermine the established system of self-confidence. The law says that you have sinned, fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 6:23), and have earned the wages of death (Rom. 6:23). Here’s how reformer Ulrich Zwingli describes how God uses hard messages like Jonah’s. The law induces the elect person to find “nothing but despair. Hence wholly distrusting himself, he is forced to take refuge in the mercy of God.”3 We need to know three things in order to live and die in the joy of abiding comfort. The first is how great our sins and misery are. Only when we know our sin can we be delivered from spiritual slavery into a new life of gratitude.4 “Unless we repent, are disgusted with ourselves, ashamed of ourselves, Christ does not become saving and valuable to us.”5
The law declares a hidden message of grace. The God who overthrows can also pardon. David summarized the gospel in this way: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (Ps. 32:1–2). God is just to charge sinners with guilt for their sin. The good news is that for the sake of Christ God is also able to not implicate the guilty. What is implied in Jonah’s message is explicit in Jeremiah’s: “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, 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” (Jer. 18:7–8).
The law has stopped our mouths and revealed our guilt (Rom. 3:19). The gospel invites us to turn from our sin with hope that God may relent from his threat of punishment.
Revivals Follow Sincere Repentance (3:5–9)
Repentance is hatred of sin and turning from it unto God in the light of his mercy.6 The revival of the Ninevites is beautiful because it documents clear and compelling repentance in response to a short and harsh sermon. Even through half-hearted, imbalanced preaching God can effect regeneration through the Spirit’s influence! Scripture highlights four parts of the sincere response of the Ninevites, which serve as a model of genuine repentance today.
Repentant People Believe God’s Word of Judgment (v. 5)
“From whatever preaching Jonah did,” the Ninevites “gathered enough of God’s true identity not only to believe in him and trust his mercy, but to recognize God’s sovereignty despite” the predicament in which they found themselves.7 The Ninevites came to believe that they were living in God’s world but not according to God’s terms. They believed that he had the right to destroy them and their city. This didn’t even surprise them. The law was written on their hearts. Their consciences bore witnesses. Their own thoughts accused them (Rom. 2:14–15). The most basic response to a confrontation with God is to believe him. True faith believes God even apart from the evidence one might like (Heb. 11:1). Without believing God, there is no salvation.
The question is for each of us to answer: Do you believe God? Is he telling the truth when he says that unrepentant sinners will not inherit the kingdom of God? (1 Cor. 6:9–10).
Repentant People Grieve Their Wicked Condition (v. 8)
The Ninevites’ grief was blatant; they wore it! In the ancient Near East sackcloth and ashes externalized inner grief and mourning (Job 1:20; 2:8). By donning stiff, unfashionable cloth and smudging their bodies with ashes the Ninevites weren’t putting on a show. They were using the body as an auxiliary to the soul. By fasting they afflicted their bodies to bring them into harmony with their afflicted souls. It was as if the entire city was attending a funeral. The pervasive body-and-soul grief we usually reserve for personal tragedies like death is the right response to the realization that an unrepentant life will result in our eternal death. Paul cried out in Romans, “O wretched man that I am” (7:24). Picture him in sackcloth and ashes. Sin isn’t a joke to repentant people. It is a tragedy. When confronted with their sin the Ninevites “were sorrowful, miserable, broken, and grief-stricken over their sin as they suddenly realized that their wickedness had offended God . . . A similar experience of repentance is needed today.”8
Repentant People Put Away Their Sin (vv. 8, 10)
A truly penitent person turns from his evil ways. Sinners cannot draw near to God simply by affirming he exists or by regretting their shortcomings. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). Friends, parents, and elders might be fooled by a mere verbal profession of faith. God isn’t. The king told each Ninevite to turn from “his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (3:8). What is your evil way? What violence are you holding in your hand? We can’t expect salvation if we refuse to part with the sins for which Christ died.
Repentant People Appeal to God for Mercy (vv. 5, 9)
The thought of being rejected by God so horrified the Ninevites that experiencing God’s mercy became their main concern. The king’s decree asked, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” How did the people get the idea that God might have compassion on them? Maybe they simply reasoned from odds. Thomas Goodwin put these words in their mouths: Salvation “must be somebody’s lot . . . why not mine?”9 Even this modest hope “may quicken you, and stir you to cast yourselves upon his free grace, and since all is in him, to refer yourselves to his mercy, depending upon him in the use of all means.”10 Why assume that you must remain unsaved? The Ninevites didn’t. They also deduced the possibility of mercy from the prophet who had come to warn them. Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites (Luke 11:30). God had compassion on Jonah. Maybe he would have compassion on them also.
“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 than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41). The Ninevites are our sign. They teach us how to repent. They warn us to lament our sins now or to lament them forever in hell.
Revivals Depend on God’s Mercy (3:10)
“God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and he did not do it” (3:10). The Lord is not the God merely of second chances, but the God who accepts even those who have squandered their entire lives in rebellious living.
God’s relenting raises important questions. Did God change course? Is God himself repenting? Answering these questions can help us better understand God and how he saves sinners.
First, the rest of Scripture assures us that God never adjusts his intentions based on newfound information. “I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure,’ . . . Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it” (Isa. 46:9–11). God’s mercy wasn’t a new decision for God. God’s foreordination of “whatsoever comes to pass” includes his eternal decree of clemency for repentant sinners.11
Second, sometimes the Bible uses anthropomorphic, or human-shaped, language to describe God. He changed his mind about destroying Nineveh in the same way that he led Israel out of Egypt by a strong hand and outstretched arm (Ps. 136:12). Calvin said that it is as if God speaks to us in baby talk. As leaders in many human fields could spin the minds of non-experts with technical jargon, so God could speak to us in ways that we could not begin to understand. But God is a communicator. God graciously condescends to help us relate to the Almighty.
Third, God’s judgment is always conditional. He promised Adam and Eve that the day that they ate the fruit they would surely die (Gen. 2:17). God presents judgment as a conditional consequence of disobedience and unbelief. God graciously sets before us life and death, blessing and curses. His judgment is always conditioned on sin.
Fourth, God didn’t change his mind; he changed the Ninevites! The proud, wicked, atheistic people against whom he had threatened judgment ceased to exist when they were made into a new creation by God’s grace.12 God saw their works, “that they turned from their evil way” because he had changed them. God had answered for Nineveh a similar prayer to Jeremiah’s: “Turn us back to You, O Lord, and we will be restored; Renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:21).
Fifth, God didn’t retract the judgment that he had promised; he redirected it. God saved Nineveh from overthrow by following through on his threat to overthrow his Son. The Ninevites did not know Christ like we do. But they had before their eyes a sign of Christ who had tasted something of God’s justice. Jonah doesn’t mention Christ. But Jesus’ righteousness saturates this narrative. God doesn’t excuse sin. He either punishes it in the sinner or in his Son.
God’s judgment is terrifying.
But for believers the gospel answers that fear. Christ “has satisfied the divine justice for our trespasses. When once there is faith in Him, then salvation is found; for He is the infallible pledge of God’s mercy.”13
1. Revival is always a miracle. But what makes the revival in Nineveh particularly remarkable?
2. Describe how God uses the negative message of the law toward the salvation of the elect. How should this fact impact our personal evangelism?
3. How do the Ninevites model proper grief over sin?
4. Why must true conversion include an appeal for God’s mercy in addition to grieving over and turning from the sin that exposes our ruined condition?
5. How should we understand God relenting from his threat to destroy Nineveh?
6. How can we see Christ in the mercy God showed toward Nineveh?
7. What grounds do we have for believing that the conversion of the Ninevites was genuine? (see Matt. 12:41).
1 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989), 97.
2 The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 23.
3 The Latin Works of Ulrich Zwingli, ed. Clarence Nevin Heller, vol. 3, Commentary on True and False Religion (Philadelphia: The Heidelberg Press, 1929), 122–23.
4 Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 2.
5 Zwingli, Commentaries, 120.
6 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 87.
7 Daniel Timmer, “Jonah and Mission: Missiological Dichotomy, Biblical Theology, and the Via Tertia,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 167.
8 Steve Lawson, “The Power of Biblical Preaching: An Expository Study of Jonah 3:1–10,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (July–September 2001): 343.
9 Goodwin, Works, 230.
10 Goodwin, Works, 567.
11 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 7.
12 Martin, The Prophet Jonah. 290.
13 Zwingli, Commentaries, 122–23.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.