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!
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].”