(Please Read Jonah 3)
We are awed and thrilled as we study the account of Jonah’s experience, and notice how God led and dealt in Jonah’s life. The third chapter of Jonah contains the high point of this remarkable account. Although the first two chapters are filled with miracles and many lessons for us, the third chapter of Jonah has the most remarkable action and the great miracles that resulted from Jonah’s preaching. What happened at Nineveh could be described as “The Greatest Revival in History.“
1. The Prophet Is Recommissioned
The first lesson we notice in Jonah 3 is God’s continued love and concern for the lost Ninevites. God had no intention of abandoning this great city and its multitudes of people simply because of one prophet’s disobedience and waywardness. It is not God’s will that any should perish. Someone needs to take the Gospel message to those who have never heard!
A second lesson we notice here is that God offered Jonah a second chance. Jonah had deliberately and stubbornly gone away from the revealed will of God. God dealt with him in a very real way. He acknowledged his wrong, and repented in the belly of the fish. Now God comes to Jonah the second time, and the commission is the same as it was the first time.
We find several times in Scripture the principle of the Lord coming to an individual a second time. Take the case of Abraham. God told him to leave his country and people and go to a land that He would show him. Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees. But he stopped at Haran, still hundreds of miles from Palestine. He might have stayed there, had not God come to him a second time. We find the same thing in the case of the apostle Peter. Peter had boasted that no matter what should happen, he would not desert the Lord. Jesus told Peter that before morning he would deny Him, and Peter did. What should be done with Peter? Should he be disqualified from future service? Peter repented, and was again commissioned when Jesus came to him after the resurrection and said, “Feed my sheep” (see John 21:15-17).
James Montgomery Boice, in his book The Minor Prophets, relates the experience of a young girl in Philadelphia a few years ago who felt the call of God to Christian service. But she married a non-Christian, who soon left her to go his own way. The experience brought the girl back to desiring God’s will. But what was she to do? Should she divorce her husband? The Scriptures taught that she should not follow this course. According to 1 Corinthians 7, she was to be open to any possible reconciliation. She decided to leave the matter in God’s hands. Having confessed her sin to God, she let her separated husband know that she was open to reconciliation if he desired it. When he declined, she let the matter rest. Within a few months her husband was killed in a car accident, and God directed her to missionary work. The Word of the Lord clearly came to her a second time.
Yes, the Lord frequently does come a second time to His true children. He may need to discipline us, sometimes with a gentle nudge, other times in more drastic ways as He did with Jonah. But having done that, and having brought us to the place of repentance, He returns a second time to recommission us to service. Oh, the greatness of the unmerited grace of God! We deserve nothing. Yet we receive everything, even when we foolishly turn from Him.
A third lesson we learn in the early verses of Jonah 3 is that when the Word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, it came with the same commission as he had received the first time. Many times we act like children who do not like what they are being told to do, and who throw a tantrum, thinking that this might get the parents to change their minds. An unwise parent might fall for this manipulation, but a wise parent will not. Nor does God! The lesson is that if you try to run away from God, sooner or later He is going to catch up with you. And when He does, you will have to face the very things you were running from.
Jonah was again told to “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee” (verse 2). And that’s exactly what he did. Now the message in the New Testament comes to us today as Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the word, be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2). This is one of the great needs of today.
The first time the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, he ran away. This time, having learned the consequences of running, he obeyed. What were the results in each instance? When he ran, the storm came. When he obeyed, God blessed the message, and souls got saved! And so it is today. We Christians need to take a lesson from the life of Jonah. When God speaks, it becomes necessary for us to lend a listening ear, if we want the blessings of God to be experienced in our life. Many times however, we respond by saying, “Not now, Lord, I’m too busy,” or “Someone else can do it better,” or “Later, Lord.” But let us never lose sight of the fact that when God says, “I want you to do it,” He knows best. Let us obey in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the blessings will come!
Jonah’s message was not a long one. In fact, it contains eight words in the English text, and only five words in the Hebrew. Jonah’s message was not a flowery, soft message. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (verse 4). The same word “overthrown” is used to describe what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:29). I believe these Ninevites had heard of the experiences of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah were utterly destroyed, completely eliminated. When Jonah used the word “overthrow,” they realized what would be in store for them if they didn’t take notice and do something about it.
2. The Completeness of Nineveh’s Repentance
We can almost see Jonah as he entered into the city and began to cry out his message. What would his reception be? Would the Ninevites laugh at him? Would they turn against him and persecute him? Might they kill him?
As Jonah cried out, the people stopped to listen! The response of the city was immediate. The hum of commerce died down and a hush stole over the people as they gathered to hear Jonah. Soon there was weeping and there were other signs of a genuine repentance. The message entered the palace, the king removed his royal robes, and took his place alongside his repenting subjects.
The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest even to the least of them. When the word came to the king, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. What did the people believe? Who did they believe? The Bible tells us that the people believed God. That is the need today. We are to search out the contents of the Bible, even as the Bereans did. “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). After searching, they put into practice what they believed. And that is how it was over in Assyria. The people of Nineveh believed God.
Next we observe three outward signs of repentance being demonstrated by the Ninevites: Fasting, putting on of sackcloth, and sitting in ashes.
Fasting is abstaining from food altogether. A study of Scripture reveals many reasons for fasting. Numerous Bible characters fasted, as did early church leaders in the book of Acts. During fasting, the desire for food is replaced by a desire to seek God’s will more earnestly through prayer, study, meditation, or just to be alone with God.
The putting on of sackcloth was a second outward sign of repentance. Sackcloth was a coarse, rough, dark-colored cloth usually made of goat or camel hair (or sometimes of flax, hemp, or cotton). It was worn as a sign of mourning, distress, humiliation, penitence, or protest.
The third indication of their repentance was the use of ashes. In Nineveh, the king sat in ashes. There are other times in Scripture when ashes were used. Ashes were a sign of humiliation when Tamar put ashes on her head as a result of her being defiled by her half-brother Amnon. Daniel, as he prayed for his people, used ashes. Ashes were also used as a sign of grief and mourning in the experience of Job, when he was so sorely afflicted.
When the news of Jonah’s preaching came to the king of Nineveh, he called his council and his advisors together, and they prepared an official document and sent it throughout the city, telling the people that they were to repent. The king gave orders that the Ninevites were not to taste anything, nor feed the animals, nor drink water. It is evident that withholding food and water from the animals would cause them to groan and make noise. It was the belief of the Ninevites that extending the external signs of repentance and sorrow in this manner would demonstrate to God their intense determination to cease their iniquity, and to stop their sinning. The king’s order to put sackcloth on the animals shows how intense was the desire for total repentance.
The king not only ordered the people to show the outward signs of repentance, but also to take moral action. “Yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands” (verse 8). Every inhabitant of Nineveh was ordered to turn from, and forsake his evil way. This meant that they should do something about the things in their lives that were contrary to the will of God. Now it’s not mentioned what the evil ways were. But note particularly several passages of Scripture.
Solomon says in Proverbs, “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6: 16-19). These are evil ways that take place within man, and then obviously produce results on the outside as well. These are things that we need to deal with as we would seek to let God help us turn from our wicked ways.
Several verses of the New Testament warrant citing. “Mortify (put to death) therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds” (Colossians 3: 5,6,8,9). These, among many other things, are evil ways that need to be dealt with.
Also, all in the city were ordered to put away violence out of their hands. There are many things that are violent these days, among which are professional sports. On the football field, fellows dive at each other and end up with injuries. Is that really what God wants? Then there are professional hockey games, where clubs are used and blood is drawn, and that’s what makes the crowds yell the loudest. God is asking professing Christians to turn from these things, and to put away the violence that is in their hands.
The king asks, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (verse 9). These words are not a question of doubt or uncertainty so much as they are an expression of hope. The Ninevites believed God’s message to them, as it was delivered by Jonah, and they acted in simple, honest faith. When we hear God’s Word, we need to act in faith as the Ninevites did. “Without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
“And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not” (verse 10). God didn’t need to bring the impending judgment on them that He had said would come, because they judged themselves.
A comparative New Testament Scripture for us to keep in mind is this: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). As a result of our hearts being transformed, and our lives being different, we need not fall under the wrath of God. And we won’t need to suffer for our own sins because we’ve confessed them, acknowledged them, and asked God to forgive us of them. And so instead, He’ll clothe us with Christ’s righteousness, and we’ll be heirs of Heaven, and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ.
3. Steps that Characterize a True Revival
In summary, I would like to suggest that there are four distinct steps given in Jonah 3 that characterize a revival which results in true repentance and godliness.
First, there must be a faithful preaching and a faithful hearing of the Word of God. Jonah preached what God had given him to preach, and it was highly effective. His message wasn’t lengthy, nor was it intellectual. But it was God’s message, preached and heard in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Second, there must be a positive response to the message—a belief in God. Notice that the Ninevites did more than just hear Jonah’s message. As soon as they heard, they responded by believing God. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
Third, having heard the Word of God and having believed God, the people of the City took action upon their faith by proclaiming a fast and putting on clothes of mourning. There is no true belief without some corresponding action. In the great faith chapter of the Bible (Hebrews 11), we are told about the lives of godly people of the past. In each case, belief resulted in specific action by which the person’s trust in God was demonstrated.
Finally, as part of this action, there must be a turning from specific sin. The Ninevites turned from the sin that was most characteristic of them—the sin of violence. We noticed that the people were to give up their evil ways and their violence (verse 8). We too must turn from our specific sins, whatever they may be. We must repent specifically, if we want to be blessed by God and come to know Him fully.
These are basic needs today. For the greatest revival to happen, not only at Nineveh, but at any place, we need to have the faithful preaching of God’s Word, the faithful hearing of it, the believing and putting into practice of the message that comes, and a turning from sin. May God help all of us to search our hearts and to apply these principles so that God might make Himself more real, that we might be better used in His Kingdom, and experience the blessings that He has in store for us.