Text: Jonah 3:1-10
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
Years ago, in a rural farming community, there was a scoundrel who borrowed his neighbor’s horse. He wasn’t very good to the animal and sadly, because of his negligence, the poor animal died. Understandably, the owner was furious and demanded compensation for his loss. The scoundrel admitted that he was liable, and agreed to pay his neighbor the full value of the horse. But, at the moment he didn’t have the money and wondered if they could come to an agreement. “What if I draw up a contract, and have it notarized, laying out all the payments to be made?” The neighbor replied, “I would accept that.” The scoundrel said, “You must give me a long enough date to allow me to come up with the cash.” The neighbor answered, “You can take as much time as you need.”
So the so the scoundrel drew up the paperwork, making it a legally binding contract, but wouldn’t you know it, he found a way to cheat his neighbor. The last line of the document read, “The full amount of the loan shall be paid in full on or before Judgment Day.” When he gave the promissory note to his neighbor, the neighbor declared, “What is this?” The scoundrel replied “you told me to take as much time as timed as I needed.”
Eventually, the matter went to court, and the judge asked to see the contract. He examined it thoroughly, and read every clause, and finally announced his ruling. “The contract is perfectly good, but as this is a day of judgment, I decree that you pay your neighbor immediately.”
As we come to the third chapter of Jonah, the prophet traveled to Nineveh to warn the people that judgment was coming. Nineveh was a large and powerful city in the heart of the Assyrian Empire. History tells us that it was a place full of violence and bloodshed. The Assyrians were notoriously cruel to their enemies, which was one of the reasons Jonah did not want to go when the Lord first spoke to him. Their military strength allowed them to conquer many of the surrounding nations, and they felt as if there was no one to hold them accountable. They would soon learn, however, that their actions had not gone unnoticed by God. A day of reckoning was fast approaching, and unless they turned from their evil ways, and experienced a change of heart, there would be no escape.
Their situation was not hopeless, however. Jonah’s message not only warned the Ninevites of looming judgment, but also anticipated God’s mercy. The prophet himself had recently been given a second chance, and the Lord would use him to offer a second chance to this rebellious people. But how would they respond? Would they laugh at the prophet and reject His words of warning, or would they humble themselves before the Lord calling out to Him in faith?
Jonah’s message was not only relevant for the people of his day, but continues to challenge men and women in every age. We must turn to God for mercy, because a day of judgment is coming. Whether we want to accept it or not, human beings are accountable to God for how we spend our lives. It is not just the city of Nineveh that deserves God’s wrath, but Scripture tells us that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Apart from His mercy, we would all stand condemned. Fortunately, the Lord reaches out in mercy, and is willing to deliver all who turn to Him in repentance and faith. How will we respond?
First of all, these verses remind us that God’s judgment is near, so let us turn to the Lord!
Verses 3b-4 tells us,
“Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’”
The passage tells us that the city was huge, a three days walk. That could mean that it took three days to walk around the entire metropolitan area along with its suburbs, which would which would have been about 60 miles hike. Interestingly, that’s about the same distance as the loop around Columbus, on I-270. Or, it could also mean that it took three days to visit all of the major sections of the city (the downtown, the marketplace, the industrial zone, the residential area…). Either way, Jonah wasted no time. As soon as he arrived, he immediately found opportunities to deliver the urgent warning.
His message was concise: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” This could very well be the shortest sermon in the Bible. In Hebrew, it is only five words, but the Lord doesn’t need a lengthy speech to make a point. He wanted them to know that the end was near. Disaster was coming, and would be there soon. The fact that God sent his prophet to announce the city’s imminent ruin shows that He is patient, but that patience was running thin, and there was no time to waste.
The same can be said today. The NT tells us that “The end of all things is near.” (1 Pet. 4:7). Whether it’s 40 days, 40 years, or 40 decades, we don’t know how many days we will have on this earth. But we do know that the Lord is coming quickly, and there’s no time to waste. People like to imagine that they have all the time in the world to get right with God. “One of these days, I will start thinking about spiritual things, because I know that’s important. But not today, I’m not quite ready.” “One of these days, I will say yes when my friend invites me to go with him to church. I know it would be good for me. Maybe when things slow down.” “One of these days, I will start reading the Bible that my parents gave me when I was a child. I know I need to hear it what it has to say. Maybe tomorrow.” It’s easy to keep putting it off… telling ourselves we’ll get around to it, eventually. But the truth is, none of us know how long we will be here. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. James writes, “Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord… strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” (James 5:7–9)
Imagine knowing that guests from out of town are going to arrive at your home for dinner. You’re not sure exactly when they will get there, just that it will be some time that evening. The house is a mess, and there are many things that need to be done before to prepare for their visit, but instead of getting dealing with these things you tell yourself there’s no rush, you still have a few hours, certainly enough time to watch a little TV, and maybe get in a short nap. The hands of the clock keep moving, and you keep thinking “five more minutes and I’ll get up from the couch,” but before you know it the day has slipped away. All of the sudden the doorbell rings. You jump up and look out the window, to see your guests are standing on the front porch, but you aren’t prepared. Are you prepared to meet the Lord? If you’re not sure whether or not your name has been written in the book of life, or you’re not sure where you will spend eternity, don’t rest until you have the answer. I want to be certain that if this is my last day on planet earth, I am going to a better a place to spend eternity with Christ. I’m not going to leave that to chance, or hope for the best. Place your trust in Him today, and receive Him as your Savior. Only then will you be ready.
The passage also shows us that God’s judgment is serious, (it couldn’t be more serious), so let us turn to the Lord.
In Jonah 3:5-8 we read,
“Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. 7 He issued a proclamation and it said, ‘In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8 But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands.’”
It was amazing. Jonah barely began to preach, and immediately the people responded to his words. The message brought conviction, and the population humbled themselves before the Lord. It was not at all what you might have expected. And it was nothing like he had experienced before. Back home in the land of Israel it was common for the prophets to be mocked, ridiculed, threatened, and mistreated. Their message often fell on deaf ears. If this was how they were treated by their own countrymen, we would have imagined far worse in this pagan land. But quite the opposite, everyone, from the greatest to the least, fell to their knees in repentance.
When the words of the prophet reached the king, he immediately sent out a decree to entire city. He declared a fast throughout the land. The people were to dress themselves in sackcloth, which was a rough material made out of goat or camel hair, very dark in color, usually black. This was one of the ways people expressed intense sorrow in that culture. The king also removed his fancy robes, and dressed in sackcloth, like everyone else. They even put the same material over their animals.
Why did the people of Nineveh respond overwhelmingly to the prophet’s message? Commentators point out that during this period of history, the Assyrian Empire had experienced a number of problems that the Lord may have used to make them more receptive: a severe famine had swept across the land, and a series of internal revolts weakened the kingdom. Then a solar eclipse appeared in the sky, which would have likely been seen as an omen. Now a mysterious prophet shows up at their door with news of impending doom. But ultimately, it was a miracle of God that changed their hearts. The greatest miracle in the book of Jonah is not that the prophet spent three days in the belly of the whale and lived, but that the people of Nineveh fell to their knees in repentance.
Today, many people dismiss the idea that we will one day be called to give an account of our lives before God. They imagine that the world will continue on, as it has since the beginning without interruption. Oh, they worry about all kinds of things (like the economy or potential conflict with North Korea, or the environment), but will brush aside all talk of future judgment. There is a common attitude among people in our culture today that says, “Don’t judge me, I can do as I please, no one has a right to criticize my decisions.” We forget, God has every right to stand in judgment over the human race. He is our creator, and His law is higher than the laws of man. Others argue, God is too loving to judge anyone. They like the idea of a God who is close when we are in trouble, and “need” His help. They have no interested in a just and holy God who actually makes demands on our lives. The truth is, God is both loving and righteous. Because He is just, He must deal with sin. But because of He is gracious, He has provided a way for us to be forgiven. What kind of response do we expect, if we reject His salvation? They don’t realize how serious our condition truly is.
I remember a time, in college, when I didn’t take a situation as seriously as I should have. I spent a semester at a university, in eastern Ohio, and lived on campus with a friend in a large three story dorm. Late one night, when we were sleeping, the fire alarm went off. We just assumed that it was a malfunction. We didn’t smell smoke, and didn’t see any flames. We would’ve have just rolled over, and gone back to bed, but people were going down the hallway banging on doors, telling us to evacuate. As we made our way down the stairs, towards the exit, we were making jokes and laughing the entire way. Then we got to the lobby, and saw the smoke. Finally, we realized it wasn’t a drill. It turned out to be just a small fire, and they put it out before it could do any really damage, but even still, this was not a situation for making jokes. Lives could have been a stake. People could have been injured. Our fellow students were upset at us for making light of the situation. It was no laughing matter.
If we thought for a moment about the terror of spending an eternity in hell, apart from the glory of God, we would fall to our knees, like the residents of Nineveh, calling out to God for His mercy. But many refuse to take the gospel seriously. The apostle Peter writes,
“…you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
“…But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:3-4; 8-9)
It is God’s desire that all would come to repentance, but that choice is left to us.
Our passage in Jonah also tells us that God’s judgment is conditional, so let us turn to the Lord!
The king of Assyria was holding onto hope that there was still a chance the city might be spared. After declaring a fast, and humbling themselves before the Lord, he said in verse 9, “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw his burning anger, so that we will not perish.” The people must have spent the next few weeks wondering if it was too late, checking the sky for any indication that fire and brimstone was about to fall. Could they be saved? Would the Lord respond to their change of heart, and withhold his hand of judgment? Or was their fate already sealed?
Those are questions people still ask today. When we realize how sinful we are, and come to terms with our need for God’s mercy, we want to know if there is still hope for us? Can we be saved, or is our fate already sealed? Verse 10 provides the answer: “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.” The Bible shows us that the Lord is gracious, and compassionate, willing to forgive all who turn to Him in repentance and faith. He had no desire to pour out His wrath on the inhabitants of Nineveh. His preference, by far, was to demonstrate His great mercy. But He gave them the choice, as to whether or not they would respond to His message. He leaves that choice to us as well. Will we repent, and turn to the Lord? Will we acknowledge our sinfulness before Lord, without making excuses, and admit our need for His grace? Will we cling to Lord in faith, instead of relying on our own inadequate efforts? Will we take refuge in the cross, before it is too late, and escape the coming judgment that will soon fall upon this earth?
I picture a stubborn man, sitting in his living room, while warning sirens are blaring outside. A friend knocks on his door and barges in. “What are you doing? Don’t you know a tornado has been spotted, and it’s headed our way? Come with me to my basement where you’ll be safe!” The man doesn’t move from his chair. “No thanks, I’ll be fine. I’ve heard that warning plenty of times, and this house is still standing. If you want to run to the shelter that’s your choice, but I won’t do it.” The neighbor makes one more plea before disappearing out the door, and taking refuge in his shelter. When the storm finally passes, the people emerge to see what is left of their neighborhood. Sadly, his friend’s house is gone, and his friend is nowhere to be found. Scripture tells us that a day of wrath is coming, but it is not God’s desire that any should perish. He provided a way for us to escape, but we must take refuge in the cross of Christ.
Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Is. 55:6-7)
I like the words of one commentator who writes,
God’s compassionate heart is always sensitive to those who cry out for mercy… Here (in the book of Jonah) one finds irrefutable evidence that God wishes not for the destruction of the sinner but for the redemption and reconciliation of his creation… This same truth could be said of every believer [today] who has taken hold of the promises of God through Jesus Christ. Because of sin, which pervades the world, all stand condemned. Only through God’s miraculous intervention in the person of Jesus Christ is there any hope. The story of Jonah and Nineveh is the story of every true believer. (New American Commentary: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Smith, B. K., & Page, F. S. 1995. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. p.270)
It is not easy to preach about the Day of Judgment. We would much rather focus on God’s love, rather than thinking about His wrath. But we need to hear the bad news before we can accept the good news.
The Lord is a holy, and righteous, and pure and that means He must deal with sin. He cannot allow this wicked world to go like this forever. If we’re honest, we will admit that the world is not getting better and better as some claim, but it has been in rebellion against God since the garden, and that will continue until the day Christ comes as conquering king to reclaim this universe from the powers of darkness.
God has demonstrated remarkable patience, and is calling out to us today to turn to Him and experience forgiveness. It is not too late, but don’t delay, the Day of Judgment draws near, and there is no time to waste.
Our change of heart should produce a desire within us to follow God and to walk in His ways. If we have truly experienced God’s mercy it should show in our lives.
And we should go forth with a renewed sense of urgency to share our faith with others.