Sunday, May 21, 2017
Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10; Time of Action: around 780 B.C.; Place of Action: Nineveh and surrounding cities
Golden Text: “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” (Jonah 3:10).
I. INTRODUCTION. If we would be honest with ourselves, most of us have to admit that we really don’t have a deep desire to reach the lost for Christ. There may be many different reasons for this. We may be too preoccupied with our own lives to care for others, or we may have lost sight of the nature of eternal punishment in hell. No matter what our reason may be, many of us need a renewed concern for the lost people around us. In this week’s lesson, we get a glimpse of God’s love for lost people that should give us a renewed concern for them.
II. LESSON BACKGROUND. God had previously called Jonah to preach a message of condemnation to Nineveh. He had disobeyed and tried to evade his responsibility; so the Lord disciplined him by having members of the ship he was sailing on throw him overboard in order to save them from a terrible storm that his disobedience caused. After thrashing around in the Mediterranean Sea, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish where he remained for three days and three nights. After praying to God in the belly of the fish, the Lord commanded the great fish to spit Jonah out on dry land. Sometime after that, God gave Jonah a second chance to fulfill his mission to the Ninevites. This is where our lesson begins.
III. JONAH PREACHES THAT NINEVEH’S TIME IS LIMITED (Jonah 3:1-4)
A. Jonah is given a second chance to preach (Jonah 3:1-2).
1. (vs. 1). Our first verse says “And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying.” The phrase “And the word of the Lord” refers to the message that God gave to Jonah when He first called him to go to Nineveh and cry against it because their wickedness had come before the Lord. Since Jonah tried to escape from doing God’s will and had to be disciplined for it, God gave Jonah a second chance. Safe again on dry ground after being spit out of the great fish, “the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying.” The word “saying” introduces God’s instructions to Jonah in the next verse. Note: Although we are not told so, it is likely some time passed after Jonah was freed from the fish and returned to Israel which was about 550 miles east of Nineveh. While back in Israel, Jonah most likely fulfilled the vows he had taken while in the fish’s belly (see Jonah 2:9). God could’ve used someone else to preach to the Ninevites since Jonah failed the first time, but He gave him a second chance to prove himself. This should be encouraging to any Christian who has fallen short of complete obedience to God. However, we shouldn’t assume from Jonah’s experience that God gives every disobedient servant a second chance to respond to His will. As a sovereign God, He can use anyone He wants to accomplish His will (see Esther 4:13-14). But in this case, God wanted to show His sovereignty by getting His message to Nineveh and also by accomplishing His will in Jonah’s life.
2. (vs. 2). This verse goes on to say “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” The command God gave Jonah here to “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city” is essentially the same one He had given earlier (see Jonah 1:2). However, this time the Lord didn’t repeat the reason for His message to Nineveh. He simply ordered Jonah to “preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” This means that he was to wait for the Lord’s revelation and then preach to the Ninevites whatever message God gave him. The Lord demanded unconditional obedience from His prophet. God controlled not only the call, but also the message. He told Jonah to “preach…the preaching that I bid thee.” This was God’s message, not Jonah’s and it focused on the wickedness of Nineveh (see Jonah 1:2). Jonah was not free to change God’s message and neither are we (see Galatians 1:11-12).
B. Jonah preaches a strong message (Jonah 3:3-4).
1. (vs. 3). This verse says “So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.” After receiving the second command, the prophet didn’t rebel or hesitate to obey God. We are told that “Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” Instead of heading west as he did when he tried to run from God, Jonah traveled the 550 miles to the northeast, taking about a month or more to reach “Nineveh.” At his first calling, God told Jonah to go to “Nineveh, that great city” (see Jonah 1:2). But now the Lord added the term “exceeding” to “great city.” In the Hebrew, “exceeding” is a form of the word “Elohim,” or God. Thus the complete phrase “exceeding great city” literally means a “city great to God.” People might have been impressed by Nineveh’s physical size and military power, but God saw multitudes there who would respond to Jonah’s message (see Jonah 4:11). The expression “Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey” implies that it took three days to either walk through the city or around it. However, the ruins of Nineveh reveal that it had an inner wall less than eight miles long. Therefore, most likely the city as described here included the surrounding towns or suburbs of Rehoboth, Calah, and Resen (see Genesis 10:11-12). Therefore “three days’ journey” most likely means that it took three days of walking to visit every part of the city and its suburbs. This made Nineveh extremely large when compared with other ancient cities. Since a person might walk twenty miles in one day, it is virtually certain that Jonah’s ministry at Nineveh included the suburbs as well as the primary city.
2. (vs. 4). This verse goes on to say “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The statement “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey” means that Jonah entered the city and covered a distance of one day’s journey. This does not mean that he walked straight through without stopping. The word “began” implies that Jonah’s preaching took place sometime after he had begun his day’s journey. The important point is that he gave God’s message the first day he entered Nineveh. He wasted no time! The message Jonah gave was “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” We don’t know whether these were the only words Jonah spoke or the central feature of his message. It seems likely that he would have told the Ninevites that they needed to repent of their sins. The seriousness of God’s judgment is revealed by the fact that Jonah used the same Hebrew verb “overthrown” that is also used to describe the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 19:26). Jonah’s message also revealed God’s grace as well, because His judgment wouldn’t fall until “forty days” had passed. This was a time of grace when the people would have a chance to repent and turn away God’s anger (see Jeremiah 18:7-10).
IV. NINEVEH BELIEVES JONAH’S MESSAGE (Jonah 3:5-9)
A. Nineveh’s response of belief (Jonah 3:5-6).
1. (vs. 5). This verse says “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” The people took the message seriously and responded immediately as they “believed God.” This is the same thing as saying that the Ninevites repented of their sins and experienced spiritual revival. Jonah was received by the Ninevites as an authentic prophet bearing God’s words. Note: We are not told why the people accepted Jonah, but it may very well have been because as Jesus later said, he was “a sign unto the Ninevites” (see Luke 11:30). Although Jesus didn’t elaborate on what He meant, He did liken Jonah’s role to His own—that of bearing witness to an evil generation and giving them a sign from God (see Luke 11:29, 32). In addition, the news of Jonah’s miraculous preservation in the fish and his subsequent deliverance had most likely become known in Nineveh. To outwardly demonstrate their feelings of grief, remorse, and penitence, the Ninevites “proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth.” Fasting and wearing “sackcloth” (garments of coarse cloth) were common reactions of Eastern peoples to messages of tragedy and grief. The genuineness of the revival was shown by the fact that the whole population of Nineveh participated in it “from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” A great fear came upon all who heard God’s message of doom.
2. (vs. 6). This verse goes on to say “For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Jonah’s message also reached the Assyrian king here called “the king of Nineveh,” and he reacted just as his people had. He “arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” The king of Nineveh “arose from his throne,” not only in reverence to a message from God in general, but also in fear of a message of wrath in particular. In sorrow and shame for sin, “he laid his robe from him.” The king’s “robe” was a sign of the king’s imperial dignity, but on this occasion, he laid it aside. This was an acknowledgment that since he had not used his power as he should have by restraining violence and wrongdoing, and maintaining right, he had forfeited his throne and “robe” to the justice of God. Then he “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes,” as a sign of mourning and repentance for sin and his fear of divine vengeance. It is a good thing for the greatest of men to humble themselves before the great God (see Matthew 23:12). Only the greatest fear and peril could explain why a normally proud king would take his place among the lowliest of his subjects. Note: It’s interesting that God didn’t send Jonah to the king first with His message as did Moses to Pharaoh (see Exodus 3:18; 4:21-22), in respect for his royal dignity. This undoubtedly was because crowned heads or kings, when they are guilty leaders, are on the same level with common people before God. Therefore, Jonah was not sent to the king’s court, but to the streets of Nineveh, to make his proclamation. However, Jonah’s message is brought to the king of Nineveh, not to be used against Jonah, as if he was disturbing the peace so that he might be silenced and punished. Perhaps that would have been the case if Jonah had proclaimed God’s message in the streets of Jerusalem, who killed God’s prophets and stoned those that were sent unto her (see Matthew 23:37). Instead, Jonah’s message was probably brought to the king by some who were concerned about the public welfare, and whose hearts trembled, not as if his message was a crime, but as a message from heaven. God was still demonstrating His protective love for Jonah.
B. The king’s proclamation of repentance (Jonah 3:7-8).
1. (vs. 7). This verse says “And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water.” Not only did the king join the people in demonstrating their repentance, he also turned this spontaneous outpouring of sorrow into an official mandate. This is what is meant by “And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles.” The “decree” was a fast ordered by “the king and his nobles” indicating that the whole governing power agreed to observe the fast, as well as all the people. This made observing the “decree” a national act since it was to prevent a national ruin. The “decree” or mandate was “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water.” In other words, the king’s orders for fasting, no food or water included animals as well. Note: The inclusion of animals in the king’s decree for fasting may seem strange to us, since it was not their guilt that brought judgment. However, the Ninevites saw a close relationship between men and domestic animals, which shared the same experiences, whether good or bad. Therefore, just as humans in Nineveh were expected to humble themselves to appease or satisfy an angry God, so too were the animals. Though the Bible nowhere declares that animals should participate in repentant acts, it does reveal the truth that human sin affects animals and they suffer the results of sin along with us. When God rebuked Jonah for his hatred of the Ninevites, He reminded him that along with its large human population, the city also had “much cattle” (see Jonah 4:11). Animals are part of the creation that groans because of human sin (see Romans 8:22).
2. (vs. 8). This verse says “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.” Not only did the decree for a national fast call on “man and beast be covered with sackcloth,” it also said to “let man,” a general term for the men, women, and children, to “cry mightily unto God” for the pardon of the sins. It was time to “cry mightily unto God” since there was just a step between them and God’s judgment. Therefore, it was high time for them to seek the Lord. In addition to their fasting and praying, everyone was to reform and amend their lives. The decree said “Let them turn every one from his evil way.” Everyone was called on to “turn” or repent from the “evil way” he or she had chosen; the “evil way” he or she was addicted to, and walked in; the “evil way” of his or her heart, and the “evil way” of his or her language. In addition to turning or repenting from every “evil way,” they were to especially turn “from the violence that is in their hands.” For sure, this means that they were to restore what they had unjustly taken from others and make reparations for any wrong they have done. They were not to oppress those they have power over nor defraud those they having dealings with. The men in authority, at the court-end of the town, must turn “from the violence that is in their hands,” and not make unrighteous decrees, nor give wrong judgments when appeals were made to them. The businessmen, at the trading-end of the town, were to turn “from the violence in their hands,” and use no unjust weights or measures, nor take advantage of the ignorance of those they trade with. If the Ninevites did all of these things, turn from sin (see Psalms 66:18), live a new life, and not return to sin like a dog returns to his vomit (see Proverbs 26:11), then that would be the fast that God would accept (see Isaiah 58:1-7). Note: Many people have questioned whether the repentance of the Ninevites was really sincere, because barely one century later, Nineveh was just as bad again and was destroyed in 612 B.C. Truth is, only God knows! However, maybe this was similar to what happened to King Ahab (see I Kings 21:27). Perhaps what happened here in our lesson was more religious ritual than genuine repentance, but Jesus spoke favorably of the repentance of the Ninevites (see Matthew 12:41) which might indicate that it was genuine. However, at the very least, this generation of Ninevites recognized that it was necessary to change their conduct if they were to avoid God’s judgment. Unfortunately, this is more than many in our culture today are willing to recognize.
C. The reason for Nineveh’s actions of repentance (Jonah 3:9). This verse goes on to say “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” The Assyrian king apparently had some understanding of God’s justice and hatred of sin. Believing that if his people forsook their sins and did everything mentioned in the previous verse, the king said “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” In other words the king was saying that even though no one knows for sure, if everyone turned from their wicked ways “God may turn (showing compassion) and relent and withdraw His burning anger (judgment) so that we will not perish.” The term “repent” when used of God does not mean that He changes His mind, but that He withholds judgment or punishment. Jonah’s message didn’t give any hint that God might withhold His judgment; it only foretold judgment. So the king’s statement may have been only a vague hope, brought on by the mercy God had already shown to Jonah. If the truth be told, not a single sinner has a right to expect God to call back or withhold the judgment He has already declared. It’s His grace alone that withholds punishment from those who repent. This grace can operate only because Jesus Christ has taken the punishment for sin on Himself. Note: We may wonder what degree of hope did the Ninevites have to cause the king to ask in today’s language, “Who knows? Perhaps even yet God will decide to let us live and will hold back his fierce anger from destroying us?” Jonah didn’t tell them and they didn’t have any other prophets among them to tell them. Therefore, they could not be as confident of finding mercy upon their repentance as we may be who have the whole Bible. We have the promise and oath of God to depend upon, and especially the merit and mediation of Christ to trust for pardon upon our repentance. Yet the Ninevites had a general notion of the goodness of God’s nature, His mercy to man, and His being pleased with the repentance and conversion of sinners; and from this they raised some hope that He would spare them. The hope for mercy is the great encouragement to those who repent and reform. Let us boldly cast ourselves at the footstool of free grace, resolving that if we perish, we will perish there; yet who knows, maybe God will look upon us with compassion?
V. GOD DEMONSTRATES COMPASSION FOR NINEVEH (Jonah 3:10). Our final verse says “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.” Indeed, God did take note of the Ninevites’ actions, for “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.” The expression, “And God saw” is an anthropomorphism, meaning that human characteristics are ascribed to God. Of course God does not have physical eyes, because He is a Spirit (see John 4:24). The Bible declares that “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (see Proverbs 15:3), which means that God is omnipresent and omniscient. Nothing escapes His notice. The numerous anthropomorphisms in the Bible help finite humans to better understand the infinite God. The phrase “their works, that they turned from their evil way” summarizes the outward expressions of repentance by the Ninevites that are recorded in the preceding verses 5-8. As a result of turning “from their evil way” or sinful behavior, “God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.” In other words, when “God saw” that they had put a stop to their evil ways, He abandoned His plan to destroy them (see Jonah 3:4) and didn’t carry it through. Our passage here states that the Ninevites turned “from their evil way” and also says “God repented of the evil.” However, the words “evil” are used differently when used of God and man. When used concerning the Ninevites “evil” refers to the moral wickedness from which the Ninevites turned. Because God is holy (see Leviticus 11:44), He cannot tolerate wickedness (see Habakkuk 1:13). God justly brings “evil” in the sense of calamities or disasters into the lives of morally wicked people who refuse to repent or change their behavior (see Isaiah 31:2; 45:7; Amos 3:6). In the case of the Ninevites, their change in behavior led God to withhold the “evil” or the destruction He had planned for the people. It was their change in behavior that led God to defer judgment. The conditions that existed in Nineveh that brought forth Jonah’s prophecy had changed, so the result also changed (see Jeremiah 18:7-8). Note: God saw among the Ninevites a general conviction of their sins and a general resolution not to return to them. For some days afterwards they lived better, and there was a new face of things upon the city, and God was well pleased with this. God takes notice of every instance of reformation of sinners, even those instances that are not observed by the world. He sees who turns from their evil ways and those who do not. When the people repented of the evil of sin committed by them, God repents or withholds the evil of judgment He pronounced against them. Thus, He spared Nineveh, and did not overthrow the city as He said He would (see Jonah 3:4). As it turned out, Nineveh had a reprieve from judgment that lasted about 150 years. We should take note that as far as we know, the Ninevites offered no sacrifices to God to make atonement for sin. That’s because as the psalmist said, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (see Psalms 51:17). This is what the Ninevites now had, and it’s what God will take notice of and put honor upon.
VI. Conclusion. God’s heart is for sinners. It does not matter how hardened the sinner or how deep in sin he or she is, God still loves that person. His love for those who are lost is such that He takes no pleasure in the perishing of anyone (see II Peter 3:9). God is always eager to forgive and embrace everyone who is genuinely penitent. Christ said that He had “come to seek and to save that which was lost” (see Luke 19:10). Unfortunately like Jonah, oftentimes we too turn away from spreading the gospel and fail to recognize the depth of our Father’s love for the lost. We treat the gospel too lightly, taking for granted our salvation and its joy. We let our passion for sharing the good news grow cold and become overshadowed by our own prejudices. As we consider our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members, we should never give up on anyone. We must continue to pray even for the person who, from a human standpoint, seems to be a million miles away from ever repenting and trusting Christ as Saviour. Remember, if the Ninevites could be saved, so can anyone who is weighing on our hearts.
***The Bible Expositor and Illuminator, Union Gospel Press***