If an entire evil city can repent, there is hope for us yet:
God is in the transformation business. He is in the business of changing lives. Millions and millions of lives have been turned around because of an encounter with the living Christ. But what is just as remarkable is that God can even turn around entire groups of people – even nations.
The book of Jonah contains a lot of incredible things, not least of which Jonah being swallowed up by a great fish. But for me, one of the most incredible things in the entire book has to do with what we find in chapter three. There we read about an entire evil, pagan city, Nineveh – the capital of the Assyrian empire – repenting!
Here is what we find in the ten verses of Jonah 3:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against 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, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 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.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
Wow. One can only pray, “Do it again Lord”. If the evil Assyrians can repent en masse – at least in one big city – there may be hope yet for pagan nations today. Of course in this case a prophet of God was specifically raised up to bring the message. And it took a while for that message to finally get delivered!
Let me look at a few aspects of this incredible story, and bring in some commentators to help me along the way. First, we must consider just how amazing it was that the Ninevites actually even bothered to listen to Jonah. As Warren Wiersbe states:
From a human perspective, this entire enterprise appears ridiculous. How could one man, claiming to be God’s prophet, confront thousands of people with this strange message, especially a message of judgment? How could a Jew, who worshiped the true God, ever get these idolatrous Gentiles to believe what he had to say? For all he knew, Jonah might end up impaled on a pole or skinned alive! But, in obedience to the Lord, Jonah went to Nineveh.
Remarkable indeed. Second, this certainly was an incredible turnaround. Such an evil and wicked city, known for its violence and bloodthirstiness, actually heeds the prophet’s word and repents. What a revival. As James Montgomery Boice says of Jonah’s preaching:
The result was the greatest and most thorough revival that has ever taken place. Writes Gaebelein … “If the miracle of the fish is great, that of this chapter is greater. For here is the record of nothing less than the greatest mass conversion in history. Though generalities must always be used with caution, we may say that never again has the world seen anything quite like the result of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh.”
Sure, one must ask just what sort of repentance took place. Did it lead to full-scale conversion and the following of Israel’s God? It seems things did not go that far, but enough repentance took place that God’s judgment was suspended, at least for a period. Nineveh was of course later destroyed in 611-612 B. C., just as prophesied in the book of Nahum.
Despite this, as Rosemary Nixon reminds us, “Nineveh’s repentance is held up by Jesus as standing in stark contrast to the continuing obduracy of his own contemporaries: ‘The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here’ [Matt. 12;41].”
In their NAC commentary Smith and Page say this:
Even though the Ninevite revival was brief, one must ask how long a revival must last to be genuine, and, “Was there ever a lasting and continuous conversion in the history of Israel?” The conclusion is that although we hope that the Ninevite revival amounted to a genuine conversion to faith in Yahweh, the text does not allow us to determine whether this was the case. We only know that the depth the repentance reached was sufficient for God to relent regarding the judgment he threatened. It is true that Nineveh did make a miraculous turn toward a correct faith, but we are uncertain whether they were being converted to Judaism, the Lord, or even monotheism. The response of the people of Nineveh was great, but it may have been primarily just a turning away from violence and wickedness.
Furthermore, Richard Phillips asks this: “The repentance of Nineveh was a truly extraordinary event and, from a human perspective, totally surprising. How can we account for this unprecedented repentance?” He goes on to say this:
The mass repentance of the most wicked metropolis of the ancient world was clearly the result of God’s supernatural working. There is no other sufficient explanation for this remarkable event. Who could expect that the arrival of one bedraggled prophet into the heart of violent, arrogant paganism would be received the way Jonah was received? Yet this one man brought low the capital of a bloodthirsty empire simply by the message that he preached! How did this happen? It happened by the secret working of God’s Spirit in and through the Word of God that was preached.
Another key point here is the need for God’s servants to obey God’s call, and leave the results up to God. Did Jonah know that Nineveh would repent? From what we know of him, he did NOT want them to repent. But he finally started to act in obedience, and he proclaimed the word of the Lord to the wicked Ninevites. Douglas Stuart is worth quoting at length here:
Jonah is not certain what will result from his finally preaching in Nineveh the words God has given him. Jonah can only hope for the destruction of the city, but cannot surely expect it (cf. 4:5). God alone will decide its fate. The citizens of Nineveh can believe and repent, but sincerity alone cannot control what God is free to do for them or against them. They can hope for deliverance, but cannot surely expect it (v. 9). The hearer/reader does not know what will happen either. Then, in v. 10 comes the answer to the suspense generated already in 1:2. Nineveh’s repentance was acceptable to God. He spared the city. None, after all, perished. God alone knows the answer to the question “who knows?”
That God should choose to make his own actions contingent–at least in part–upon human actions is no limitation of his sovereignty. Having first decided to place the option of obedience and disobedience before nations, his holding them responsible for their actions automatically involves a sort of contingency. He promises blessing if they repent, punishment if not (cf. Jer. 18:7-10). But this hardly makes God dependent on the nations; it rather makes them dependent on him, as is the point of the lesson at the potter’s house in Jer. 18:1-11, and the point of the mourning decree in Jonah 3:5-9. God holds all the right, all the power, and all the authority.
A message of the book of Jonah is that God does not exercise his power arbitrarily and discriminatorily. Jonah, the nationalist, wants God to bless Israel and harm all its enemies. His own actions, showing respect and concern for the sailors in chap. 1 and the plant in chap. 4, are, of course, evidence of the inconsistency of his own position. But God is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9), and “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). He manifests his sovereignty not in stubbornness but in grace; not in narrow particularism but in a willingness to forgive any people. There is, however, a contingency. The book of Jonah does not teach a naive, lowest-common-denominator universalism. Only genuine repentance can result in forgiveness. God’s threat is not to be taken lightly. His warning is as severe as the Ninevites took it to be.
One other thing can be said here. The Old Testament is full of examples of God actually using evil pagan nations for his purposes, including as instruments of divine judgements. Since we are speaking about Assyria here, consider what is found in Isaiah 10. There we read of God using the evil Assyrians to judge Israel!
And the book of Habakkuk deals with the question of why God would allow the evil Babylonians to exist, and worse yet, to judge Israel. Where is the justice of God in all this? Kevin Youngblood puts it this way:
YHWH’s mercy is not exclusively for Israel’s benefit. God’s special relationship with Israel is not an end in itself, but as a means to an end – the blessing of the nations (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). It is not difficult to understand why Jonah had issues with the indiscriminate nature of YHWH’s mercy. His mercy toward Assyria appeared to Jonah to create a serious conflict of interest with his covenant obligations to Israel. The question Jonah could not get around was how God could remain faithful to Israel while pardoning Assyria and thus assure Israel of destruction.
Many believers since have wrestled with Jonah’s issue. At times God’s mercy appears to allow injustice, perhaps even encourage injustice. It is at those moments that believers struggle most with the implications of God’s mercy. Mercy toward one’s enemies is the first imperative of the gospel for the simple reason that that is what God did when he took the initiative in reconciling sinners to himself by sending his Son.”
One final lesson that we all need to learn from this chapter is presented by Phillips:
The great need of our world today is a legion of Jonahs, fresh with the awareness of God’s grace in our own lives, who call out to the world with the same message of grace. God will and must judge the wickedness of our world. God will and must visit your sins with the fire of his wrath. Yet he has sent his own Son into the world to bear the sins of those who believe. This is the message that Christian pulpits must preach and the witness that Christian lives must present. In this respect, the ministry of Jonah stands as a perpetual encouragement to preaching the gospel of Christ.