God’s purposes are higher than yours, so you do not know what will happen when God rebukes and people repent, but you do know that God is righteous and merciful; therefore you must trust that God will work all things for good according to his higher purposes.
Introduction – My grandfather was from Texas, and he lived life like a Texan! When I was a kid I visited him for a couple weeks one summer. I loved his house. It was “Texas-sized”, and so was the lake across the street, and the forest in the front yard, and the pool next to the driveway. One Friday he pulled up to the house in his big Texas-sized pickup truck home from work. When he hopped out of the truck in his business suit and tie and called for him from where I was swimming in the pool. “Hey Granddad! Are you gonna come swimming with me?” As he stood at the pool’s edge, a wide grin stretched across his face, and before I could blink he had reared back and plunged into the water fully clothed! I’ll never forget how larger-than-life he seemed to me.
Similarly, the account of Jonah is “giantesque.” This does not mean that the events are historically exaggerated in the story. Rather, we are to marvel at the largeness (or great importance) of the city of Nineveh, the overwhelming response to Jonah’s brief sermon, and the surpassing mercy of God on the repentant Ninevites. God’s mercy is expansive, which is exactly what Jonah feared. The rest of the story is ironic. Jonah obeys, Nineveh repents, God relents, and Jonah throws a tantrum! Nineveh serves as a narrative foil (opponent) to Jonah (and to judgmental, hateful religious people). Nineveh’s repentance serves as an indictment on religious people who think they somehow deserve God’s mercy while others do not (Mt 18:21-35). Why does God not bring judgment on those who do not believe and behave like us, especially our enemies? Is the LORD really a just God when he forgives those with a history of evil so quickly after they repent? Don’t we deserve better treatment for our loyal service to God? The answer to these questions is found in God’s purposes. God’s purposes are higher than yours, so you do not know what will happen when God rebukes and people repent, but you do know that God is righteous and merciful; therefore you must trust that God will work all things for good according to his higher purposes.
I. When God Rebukes
A. He seeks the lost (Nineveh) (vv. 3-4)
God loved the great city of Nineveh. It was an “exceedingly” great city—literally “a great city to God” (see ESV fn.). This is astounding considering that the one pagan city God chose to seek was Nineveh. Nineveh was the hub of Assyria, the first great empire in the ancient Near East. They were Israel’s greatest threat during Jonah’s day. It would be like an American diplomat traveling to Berlin during WW2, or to Moscow during the Cold War, or to Afghanistan during the War on Terror, and delivering a message of judgment with the possibility of full forgiveness and pardon from God if they demonstrated repentance. But even these examples are not close enough, because our country is not weaker and at the mercy of the other. Imagine a superpower that could completely defeat us, humiliate us, enslave us, torture us, rape and murder us at its will! That is who Nineveh was to Jonah and Israel.
God loved the people and culture of Nineveh enough to send one of Israel’s prophets to warn them of his imminent judgment should they not stop their violence and repent of their evil ways. God sent the perfect messenger, a broken evangelist seemingly back from the dead, to ignite revival.
B. He guides the found (Jonah) (vv. 1-2)
1. God is so gracious to Jonah. He has saved him from the storm, from the sea, and from the belly of the great fish. He could not have been confused about God’s will for him—go to Nineveh and preach God’s message. Yet God condescended to speak to Jonah by calling him a second time, in essence recommissioning his fallen prophet for this undesirable assignment. God was determined that Jonah be his instrument to preach to Nineveh. These verses take us back to the first 2 chapters of Jonah, confirming the futility of running away from God and his call. God did not rescue Jonah then dismiss him for aborting the mission. God has great love, forgiveness, and patience with his disobedient, obstinate, immature, protesting, and wayward people.
God delights to call people who are broken and who consider themselves disqualified because of past sins and mistakes. God chooses to bring more glory to himself by saving sinners, equipping them for service, and stretching them to serve in ways that are uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable with a particular ministry in the Church, that is probably a good place to start serving to discover where God is calling you to serve. Don’t like kids (Been there done that!)? Don’t like committee/team work (I’m not an organizational person!)? Don’t like the elderly or infirm (They’re depressing and make me uncomfortable!)? Don’t like foreigners (Different languages and customs are weird!)? Don’t like outsiders from questionable backgrounds (They’re not safe or welcome in my little kingdom!)? Don’t like physical labor (It’s thankless work and my time is more valuable!)? Everyone can identify with some of these examples because we are all Jonahs. Find your Nineveh and heed God’s call to deny yourself, die to yourself, and follow Jesus.
2. This time Jonah obeyed God, but he still hated Nineveh. Has he learned his lesson? Yes and no. Yes, because he learned it is better to obey God than run from him. Running only got him back where he started. No, because he still harbored hatred in his heart. He did not have God’s heart of compassion for pagan Gentiles. Remember Jonah was a nationalistic and militaristic man who prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (2 Kgs 14:23-25). But when God showed mercy to the Ninevites he humbled this angry and zealously patriotic prophet. Perhaps that is why God called Jonah in particular for this mission!
If our patriotism causes us to see ourselves and our country in the best possible light, and to see countries (and others of a different political party, ethnicity, skin color, subculture, or language within our own country) in a poorer light, then we need to learn this lesson of Jonah—that God loves people who are not like us, and the faith of others may in fact shame us.
C. He confronts his own (Israel). Jonah personifies God’s people.
1. Notice that Jonah the prophet is the only Israelite character in the entire book. Prophets were the servants of the LORD and supposed to be paragons of virtue. But in this story Jonah is not unlike Israel; Jonah represents Israel. Therefore Jonah’s sins are Israel’s sins. Jonah’s heart attitude toward pagans is Israel’s attitude. If Jonah does not understand God’s love for the lost, then how much worse does Israel understand God’s love?
2. How the city of Nineveh must have shamed the nation of Israel by their repentance! History records that only decades later Israel was “shamed” (conquered) by the powerful Assyrian empire which God ordained as a punishment for Israel’s unrepentant response to his prophets. Similarly in the days of Jesus the people of Israel were “shamed” by the men of Nineveh. Nineveh repented while Israel did not (Lk 11:32). The principle is that the more notable the privilege, the less responsive hardened sinners are to the message of the gospel. Nineveh’s repentance served as a historical indictment against hard-heartedness in Jesus’ day—and still serves this purpose today! Israel heard many prophets calling for their repentance, but they refused to listen and even killed the prophets! Nineveh heard a one-sentence sermon and it was enough, they listened to God’s prophet and sorrowfully repented of their sins.
Some commentators think the one-sentence sermon is a summary of Jonah’s longer message, assuming God could not use a sentence to convict of sin. But God has done it before. Augustine was converted while reading Romans 13:12-14. Spurgeon heard a simple exposition of “Look unto Me, and be ye saved” (Isa 45:22). R.C. Sproul turned to Christ after reading “where a tree falls, there it lies” (Ecc 11:3)!
II. When People Repent
A. It is swift (vv. 5-9). Repentance does not delay. To delay is to bleed the life from conviction.
Remarkably the people of Nineveh believed God! History records that in the early 8th century B.C. the Assyrian empire experienced a hostile foreign invasion, famine, a solar eclipse, a major flood and earthquake, and rebellion. This helps to explain from a human perspective why the Ninevites so eagerly responded to Jonah’s message. Jonah’s recounting to Nineveh of his watery “trial by ordeal” served as an alarming testimony of the spiritual danger when one disregards God’s call. But all things considered, remember that it is the LORD who sovereignly purposed that they should repent, and thereby ordained those naturalistic disasters to prepare the people’s hearts for Jonah’s message. Even the king of Nineveh repented—taking responsibility to lead his city in corporate repentance. When he heard Jonah’s message, the king arose from his throne to remove his royal clothes (literally his “glory”), covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in a heap of ashes.
Do not presume on God giving you more time to repent and turn to him, or that you will hear his gospel call many more times with opportunity to respond. For each of us “today is the day of salvation” (Heb 3:7-13).
B. It is sincere (vv. 5b-8a). Repentance does not flatter, belittle, ignore, or kill the messenger.
1. Not half-hearted. Nineveh took Jonah’s message of doom seriously, and they repented with all due seriousness. Their hearts were broken with conviction of sin, and so they sought to turn from their evil with all their hearts. They even shunned the most important things in life—food, water, resources of livelihood—so they might put away their sin and the guilt they accrued.
2. Not with half-effort. The king of Nineveh issued a royal decree to enforce the fast. Everyone in his kingdom was to participate in mourning for sin—including all the domesticated animals! He decreed that men and beasts should wear sackcloth (the clothing of mourning and repentance of sin) and call out with strength to God for mercy.
3. Not with hypocrisy. Religious hypocrisy portrays, insincerely and under false pretense, that one is right with God. Nineveh sincerely responded according to their culture’s traditions regarding proper repentance. They concentrated on their own sin and need for repentance, such that only their city’s status before the LORD mattered at this point (2 Cor 7:9-11a).
C. It is specific (v. 8b). Repentance is not vague or impersonal.
Fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes were accompanied by repentance of every person’s particular sin and especially the violence of which they were guilty. What were the sins of Nineveh? The prophet Nahum (who more than a century later prophesied doom on another generation of Ninevites that did come to pass) confronted the city with the sins of ”plotting evil against the LORD, cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution, witchcraft and commercial exploitation” (Nah 1:11; 2:12-13; 3:1, 4-7, 16, 19).
Are these outward expressions of repentance a model for your repentance? In other words, do you have to wear burlap and sit in the fireplace when you are confessing your sins and resolving to change? Not really, although it wouldn’t hurt you to express your inner humility with some outward expression of repentance. God cares about your heart first. Changed behavior without a changed mind toward sin is merely cosmetic change. But inner repentance necessarily works itself out in changed behavior. If you are truly sorry for a sin of which you’ve repented, that sorrow will often be noticeable to others who know you well. They might see evidence of repentance in your demeanor, your words, your patience when confronted with adversity or frustration, your facial expressions toward others, and yes, even your clothing of choice. Clothing that sends proud, superior, irreverent, or immodest messages can contradict and even derail a repentant heart. Ancient people understood that the body and soul form a unit, only unnaturally separated at death. Therefore your body presentation affects your soul, and your soul should affect your body presentation.
III. When God Relents
A. He acts sovereignly (vv. 4, 9-10). The king is free to forgive or not.
Jonah’s threat that Nineveh will be “overthrown” is the same word used to threaten Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:21, 25, 29). God is the king of creation. Everything belongs to him. He is free to judge, destroy, or be gracious because he is the ruler of all. When God relents from punishing sin he exercises his royal prerogative. No one else can do so (Rom 9:14-18).
B. He knows omnisciently (v. 10). Nothing surprises God, including uncoerced human actions.
1. God’s thoughts and workings are analogical to ours (the Bible speaks of God “repenting/relenting” to comprehensibly describe how God thinks and works in our vocabulary which is unavoidably bound by our creaturely limitations). Didactic portions of Scripture teach that God does not change his mind or his plans like we do (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:28-29).
2. God is the Lord of history. He declares the end from the beginning by providentially directing everything and everyone from beginning to end (Isa 46:8-11). God does not change his plan (contra the heresy of “open theism”). God sometimes wills his plans to be contingent upon human response (Gen 18:23-26; Ex 32:14; Jer 18:7-10; Am 7:3-6). Yet God never loses control.
3. God ordains the means and the end. God ordained Nineveh’s repentance by means of prophetic rebuke, and their forgiveness by means of their repentance. The people of Nineveh acted freely and were responsible to repent of their own sinful ways, yet God ordained the result for his glory. God even uses scandalous sin for his higher purposes. (Gen 50:20; Acts 2:22-23).
C. He loves mercifully (vv. 3b, 10; 4:2, 11). His loving pity overwhelms his righteous anger.
God in the OT is not (as some contend) a nationalistic god. He loves the nations and desires that they turn from their sinful purposes to find salvation in his higher purposes. But do not forget that God’s blessing is never an end in itself. From the beginning, God’s purpose was to bless his children to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3; Dt 4:6-8; 1 Kgs 8:57-61).
Through the preaching of Jonah God reminds the Church of their evangelistic and missionary purposes. God expects the Church to treasure and share the gospel with our neighbors, even to the ends of the earth. God expects the Church to remain on mission. God expects us to be missionaries wherever we are and wherever he sends us. God loves people who are not in our group, who do not share our background, our culture, our race, or our denomination. God even loves people of other religions! He desires that all kinds of people turn from their evil ways, their selfishness, their idol-worship, their self-worship, their unconscious and conscious atheism, their half-hearted worship, their presumptuous religion, their divided loyalties, whatever that keeps them from giving their life completely to him. Jonah’s experience teaches us that we cannot love God rightly if we do not love others (Lk 10:25-37).
Conclusion – The people of Nineveh responded to the “sign of Jonah” (his preaching coupled with his rescue from the great fish’s belly after 3 days and nights). This was the “sign” given to the generation of Jews alive during the time of Jesus. The “sign of Jesus” (his preaching of the gospel and his death, burial, and resurrection) is also the sign for unbelievers today. Jesus is the “greater Jonah.” While Jonah reluctantly preached to a city full of sinners against his will, Jesus willingly preached the gospel of God and freely gave his own life for many. God suffered the penalty when the perfectly righteous Son of God hung on the cross enduring divine wrath for the sins of those forgiven. Jesus Christ, as he bled and died, took upon himself the evil of man’s sin. He died so that even self-righteous, complacent, religious people might be forgiven. He died so that Israel and Nineveh (natural enemies!) might be reconciled to God and each other. He died to save all of his people. Such a great salvation makes both your evil and imperfect goodness pale in comparison to God’s immense forgiveness. This is God’s higher purpose: that your heart might be like God’s. That you may grow to have compassion for your enemies, to pray for them, to share God’s love with them, to rejoice when they repent and escape God’s judgment. Learn well the lesson of Jonah. Friend, do what you need to do and do it quickly—no matter how “giantesque” it may seem—to align your heart with God’s purposes today.