Jonah Obeyed The Word Of The Lord
Key Verse 3:5
“The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.”
The first time around, when God commanded Jonah to deliver a message of God’s judgment on the city and people of Nineveh, Jonah bought a ticket on a ship sailing the opposite direction. But God wouldn’t let him get away. A storm nearly ripped the ship apart, until the sailors figured out that the fault was with Jonah. When they threw him overboard, God provided a large fish that swallowed Jonah. From inside the fish, Jonah prayed a prayer of repentance, and God spared his life. The fish vomited him out on dry land. That’s what the last verse of chapter 2 tells us. It isn’t clear exactly where the fish dropped Jonah off, there are several different possibilities, including the possibility that the fish (depending on its size) may have also travelled up or down the Euphrates or Tigris rivers and dropped him off right by Nineveh. What is important however, is not the distance he had to travel on land to the city of Nineveh, but what chapter 3 relates to us as the continuation of his story. Jonah makes it to Nineveh and delivers the message God had asked him to deliver. And here’s the marvel in all this. At his preaching, the city experienced a spiritual revival unlike any other revival in Biblical history. The whole city— more than a 120,000 people— repented and returned to the Lord with all their hearts. Even the Pentecost event looks small compared to this. Never did such a thing happen again in history.
Today we want to look at the record of details describing what happened at Jonah’s arrival in Nineveh. Read verses 1-2. Read verse 1-2. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” These words, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” surely speak to our hearts. They tell us something wondrous about our God. They tell us that our God is a God of “second chances”. Jonah may have had much time to reflect on what had happened to him thus far— how he had angered God with his rebellion— how God had so graciously disciplined him— and how he had now firmly decided to do as the Lord commanded him to do, even if he wasn’t happy about it. But even if Jonah had once again gone back to Joppa to catch another ship going in the opposite direction, God would have found another fish to swallow him, and to spit him out again in the direction God wanted him to go— the city of Nineveh. Why would God do that for Jonah? Because God is a God of second chances. This is the character of our God. He loves his children and would give them many second chances if necessary until they can fulfill the purpose for which God created them. No one is like this. When we prove ourselves untrustworthy, or betray the trust of those who have put their trust in us, it is very difficult, almost impossible to give them second chances. Even among Christians, second chances are so hard to come by. They require a character so firmly grounded in the grace of God, that they are willing to give second chances to those who fail them, or betray their trust. But God is different.
God loves his children. He understands them. He knows their weaknesses. He would give them many chances to turn their hearts to him so that he might fulfill in them his great and wondrous purpose. We all have such an experience with God’s second chances to us. I speak from experience. I have betrayed God on many occasions, I have been reluctant to do what is right in his sight. I have failed miserably at living the life God called me to live. Yet, he is generous enough with me with his second chances. He has always given me a second chance at doing what is right in his sight. This is not only my experience, but the experience of Christians and non-Christians alike. People only need to reflect on their lives to see the many times God has given them second chances to listen to him, to follow him, to come back to him in their hearts, to confess their inability to fix the mess they made with their lives, the times God has given them second chances to correct the wrong they had done, to lay aside the guilt and shame for forgiveness and recovery— and no one can deny those second chances God had given them, and still gives them every day of their lives. You listen to his word, and it calls you to submit to him. It urges you to repent and turn your life over to the Lord. Yet, you close your heart and insist that your way is more comfortable. But it is not. God does not want us to live with uncertainties. He wants to make sure that we listen to him because in the end, only his way leads to life and peace. God severely disciplined Jonah to listen to God. Then after Jonah was on land, God tested him. His word came to him a second time: “Go the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (2)
Look at verse 3. “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord, and went to Nineveh.” Jonah wasn’t going to let this second chance slip by him, as so many people do, thinking that they could return to God tomorrow. It was the grace of God that called him a second time to do as God wanted. And Jonah obeyed the word of God. And he went to Nineveh. Look at how the city of Nineveh is described. Read verse 3. “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city— a visit required three days.” Apparently, the city of Nineveh was a great city at the time, renowned all over the world, a world center, a crossroads of many cultures. Soon, the city would become the capital city of the known world— the rising world-wide Assyrian empire. So Jonah obeyed God and went to that great and important city. We can only imagine what was going through in his mind and heart. It is easy to let human thinking and emotion take over his heart. It is easy to let fear and uncertainty flood his heart to discourage him and to make him reconsider what to do. We don’t know the battle that was going on in Jonah’s heart at the time. But we do know that he overcame all that warred against his heart and soul, and decided to obey God. From Jonah we learn many things, and this one of them: Jonah feared God more than he feared people—more than he feared being caught and treated as an enemy— more than he feared failure or success— more than he feared anything else. This is a mark of greatness in a person— fearing God above all else.
Jonah went into the city and proclaimed the message from God. Read verse 4. “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’” This is what he said. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jonah wasn’t happy about the mission God had given him to do. When he first heard the word of God, he had quickly turned and ran in the opposite direction. We looked very closely at why Jonah resisted going to Nineveh and delivering the message God gave him to deliver to those people. To begin with, it was a message of God’s judgment upon this wicked and violent nation.
So what was it that bothered Jonah so much that he ended up running away from the Lord. He tells us in chapter 4 what he was afraid of— that they would actually repent at his preaching and God would change his mind and not destroy them. It seems strange that a prophet of the Most High God would be unhappy at the repentance of those to whom he preaches the word of God! If you think about it, this is the hope of every servant of God in the world— that people would repent of their sins and turn their hearts to the Lord when they preach. But Jonah was very unhappy at the prospect of preaching God’s message of judgment to these people. He didn’t want them to hear the message, because he didn’t want them to repent, but wanted them destroyed. This kind of anti-sinners mentality is not so unusual within the fellowship of God-worshipers. We hear of church goers who would rather hear messages that spew fire and brimstone on the unrighteous. We hear of church goers who would rejoice at hearing that some gay-bar had been burnt to the ground with those in it. We hear of church goers who would almost consider it godly justice that an earthquake devastated an enemy nation. I am not saying that Jonah shares in their bigotry. I am saying that Jonah didn’t want to see the city of Nineveh repent and enjoy God’s saving grace.
It is still hard to understand Jonah’s sentiment towards the Assyrian people and their capital city Nineveh, until we take a closer look at the burden God laid on Jonah in asking him to preach judgment in their city. It was a tremendous burden that no ordinary human being can bear unless that person is thoroughly immersed in the grace of God. The whole book of Jonah moves towards one surprising end, where God unveils his heart to the stubborn Jonah and explains to him why he had laid on him such a heavy burden. God was so deeply concerned for the people of that city. God was ready to destroy them. But he would first give them a chance to repent, in order to avert his judgment from them. That is always the heart of God. God always wants that people come to repentance and to faith in him, so that he might not have to destroy them. The book of Jonah ends with a wonderful exposition of the heart of our Father God who was so concerned for the wicked people of Nineveh that he raised one prophet to go and give them a message of judgment— just so that they might have a chance to repent and be saved. But Jonah wasn’t listening to God’s heart. As far as he was concerned, they didn’t deserve to live, let alone to hear the message of God’s judgment, and repent and be saved. This brings us back to Jonah’s burden— the burden of delivering the message of judgment to these people. We will talk about Jonah’s burden next lesson, where we can get a glimpse at why Jonah so much resisted his mission, and would not budge even after God tried to reason with him. But for now, I want to talk about Jonah’s faith.
I told you many things about Jonah in the last two chapters that we reviewed. But we did not examine Jonah’s faith closely enough. We see him running away from the Lord. We see him getting disciplined. We see him repenting and making a vow before God to obey God’s directive. But we have not stopped to consider his faith. What kind of faith did Jonah have? Perhaps if we can understand his faith or get a glimpse at the kind of faith he carried in his heart, we would also understand how he was instrumental in turning a whole nation from sin to faith in God. What kind of faith did he have? He had remarkable faith. He had absolute faith in the word of God. Not just faith in the word of God— but he had faith in the power of God’s word— Power in the word of God to do what? He believed the word of God had the power to penetrate hearts. But not just any heart. He had faith in the power of the word of God to penetrate sinners’ hearts— to touch these hearts and to change them. In other words, he had faith that the word of God had the power to make hearts repent and turn to God in faith! Therefore, we can say that Jonah had clear Faith that the word of God had the power within it to penetrate the hearts of sinful, wicked, evil people and cause them to take a good long hard look at themselves. What great faith Jonah had! We realize the man’s greatness. Why God chose him to deliver the message of judgment to the people of Nineveh. This is a man who feared that if he spoke the word of God to these evil people, the word of God had the power to convict them and to lead them to repentance. This is the kind of faith he had in the word of God.
What was Jonah’s message to these people? Look at verse 4. “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’” This was the bulk of his message to the people of that city. As he walked the streets of this city, he proclaimed this shockingly dreadful message of judgment: “In forty days, your city will be destroyed.” We wonder, did these people know that he wasn’t just a raving madman but that he was actually a Hebrew prophet of the One True God? We wonder whether they knew his story of being carried in the belly of a fish for three days and then spat out on dry land? There is a possibility that Jonah’s arrival on dry land was witnessed and his tale carried to that city. There is much we do not know. But we do know that on the first day and in obedience to God, Jonah preached God’s message of judgment to them. And there is no mention of his preaching a second day. Jonah’s faith baffles us. Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord. More than that, he had faith that the word of God could penetrate the innermost parts of their beings with its mighty power and make them listen to it as it really was— the word of God. They were degenerate people, and far from God. But it seems that Jonah’s message found room in their hearts.
Look at verse 5. “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” Their response was extraordinary— un-witnessed in all of Biblical history. Jonah’s faith in the power of God’s word bore fruit. They responded to a man whose faith was in the word of God. When Jesus preached, people listened because his faith was in the word of God— because he believed in the power of the word of God to work in men’s hearts. When Paul preached, people listened, because his faith was not in his own charisma or intellect or ability to reach people’s hearts but in the word of God. The author of Hebrews tells us something momentous about the word of God. He says: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) God himself tells us what his word does. He says: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) This too was the faith of Jonah, a man who trusted the word of God to accomplish its purpose. There are those who trust more in their own abilities and experiences than in the living and active word of God. They cannot reach the hearts of others, even if their motives are good and noble. But Jonah trusted in the word of God. He had faith that the word of God is powerful— that it accomplishes its purpose.
And so it did. The people who heard the message responded in three ways. Look again at verse 5. “The Ninevites believed God.” That was the first response to the word of God which Jonah preached. They “believed God.” I can tell you quite honestly and with confidence that that’s all that God wants from us— to believe him. Our debacle in the Garden of Eden began when we didn’t believe God and believed the devil instead. We broke trust with God, we no longer trusted him. From then on, our journey in history has been disastrous. All of our troubles, and sins and disasters and sorrows and failures at life — all is because we do not believe God, and our trust relationship with him is broken. This is what happened to humanity— and humanity went its own way, and God went another. When God found one man named Abraham, he tried to help him restore his trust relationship with God. He gave him promises. And Abraham, as the Bible tells us, believed God— although what God promised Abraham was unbelievable. And so God called to himself a small group of people who believed him. He worked through them until all the promises he made came true. He sent the Messiah according to his promise. And the Messiah’s message was simple: Believe God. Believe that God sent his Son to die on the cross for your sins, and believe that God raised him from the dead to give you a new life— to fix this failed and botched up attempt at the life you are trying to live and run on your own. Jesus called us to believe God, to trust him, to take his word on faith. It’s all that God wants! It’s all that God ever wanted from anyone. God’s message to us today is the same: Believe God. In your situation, believe God. In your struggle believe God. In your back sliding believe God. In your sinfulness, believe God. It was the first response of the Ninevites to the message Jonah gave them. Believing God is the first step in our journey back to God, and with God.
What exactly did the Ninevites believe? Foremost they believed that come 40 days, they would all perish. The people of Nineveh believed God. They trusted and esteemed the word of God which Jonah spoke to them— in the name of God. They honored it as the word of God. Whatever they believed before, they now believed that there is only One Living and True God, and that there is no other. Whatever they had believed before about life and to whom life belongs and the responsibility of life, they now believed that life belonged to God and that they were accountable to him. Whatever they may have believed before about sin, they now believed that they had greatly sinned against him. They had been godless and wicked and had turned their face against him. They also believed that this message of their imminent destruction was sent from God to them because they deserved it. They believed that it was a judgment on their wicked ways— having not cared about anything but themselves and their own welfare— as all men also care nothing for that which does not concern them. They believed that in spite of all that, God is still a merciful and compassionate God, and that there might be some hope he would turn away from the wrath he threatened to bring against them, if they would repent their sins. They believed God and his message. Today, people have the Bible, the full message of the word of God, yet they believe not a word it says. The Lord talks about the day of judgment as a day of mourning for many. Men will weep when they realize that throughout their lifetime they held in their hands the word of God, but turned a deaf ear to it. However, the people of Nineveh believed God. It was the first response to the message of God.
The second response was this: Look again at verse 5. “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” They also responded to the message by humbling themselves before God. All of them, regardless of social status, the greatest to the least believed and humbled themselves before God. They declared a fast and put on sackcloth. In other words, they repented. When we consider them “in sackcloth”, one and all, great and small, they had declared themselves without merit, without position, without special favor from the least of them to the greatest. Even though outward appearances do not impress God at all, and do not necessarily reflect a man’s true intentions, putting sackcloth testifies to their humility before God. It testifies to their willingness to repent one and all, and to forgo all the ornaments that identify one from another. In their repentance, they were willing to give up the luxuries and comforts of life as a joint effort to appeal to God’s mercy. How difficult it must have been for some who are used to their freedom and their comforts to sacrifice them in a joint cause to save the city from God’s wrath. Where do we find such selflessness in people and this kind of wholehearted repentance! We don’t hardly find it— sometimes not even among the godly and the chosen of God. Even when we declare a month of prayer for the sake of revival, there are those who care less what we are trying to do as church in desperate need of God’s mercy— and there are those who will not bother to join in this effort to humble ourselves before God and to seek his revival. It is amazing how a godless city— the hub of sin and corruption in the world for Nineveh was the jewel city of the world at the time— would know what God requires of man. How did they know what God wants? Here is what the Bible tells us about what God requires of us all: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) In another place God also tells us: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.’” (Isaiah 66:2) These people trembled at God’s word. They humbled themselves before him.
The third response they had towards the word of God is found in verse 6 which says: “When the news reached the king of Nineveh….” Their influence was widespread. When they believed the word of God and humbled themselves, it reached the ears of the king. And this is what the king did when he heard the message that Jonah was preaching. Read verses 6-9. “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’” It surprises us that the king’s response should be like this. Who is this king? And why did he so quickly do what he did? Scholars believe this king may be Sardanapalus. But whoever this king may have been, whatever atrocities he may have committed during his reign, regardless of how many nations he may have conquered in cruelty and oppression— something definitely changed in his heart when he heard the message of God. He understood the gravity of the situation. He felt the sentence of death upon himself and his kingdom. Whether he had heard of the God of Israel of not, he now knew in his heart that God Almighty is the sovereign God of the heavens and the earth. And he humbled himself before God. The Bible tells us that all men know God in their hearts, that they believe in him, but that most men suppress the truth of God because they are proud and unthankful to God.
This king realized his sin before God. He had been spurned God in his life, and had sat down on his throne as if he were God himself. So he rose from his throne in sorrow and in shame for his sins, through which he and his people had become a stench to God. He lays aside his royal robe, the mark of his imperial dignity. In that, he acknowledges that he had not used his throne of power for good, but for evil. He then covers himself with sackcloth, and sits in ashes. It was his expression and sincere effort at repenting before the King of heaven. He calls out for a general fast to be observed by all people throughout the city. He is a king who identifies with his subjects and calls for all to observe days of mourning, showing reverence for the Lord of heaven who had ordained that they should perish for their wickedness. He also calls for prayer. “Let everyone call urgently on God” he says. He goes further than that. He calls for reformation— a change of life and ways— “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence” he says. This is a king who knows in his heart that he and his people have offended God Almighty with their evil ways. In other words, he calls for practical repentance, a repentance from the heart— giving up the life that offends God— and striving towards what is good and right in the sight of God.
We see in him a model leader for the people. He was an evil man doing what is evil in the sight of God and influencing his people towards the kind of life that is godless and abhorrent to God. But when he heard the word of the Lord, he believed God, and humbled himself before God and repented of his sins. And then he also led his people back to God. This is the kind of leader God would call to serve his people, a leader whose interest is not self centered, but God-centered and whose love for his people compels him to use his authority and power for his people’s good and the good of God and country. This nameless king led a whole city on the path of revival. Like a good leader he used his influence and his power to turn people’s hearts back to God. He did not know whether God would relent from sending judgment on them. But he would not give up hope that God in his compassion would spare the city and save the people. Our country today needs leaders like this. Our churches today needs leaders like this who care more for God’s glory than their own— leaders who are willing to humble themselves before God— setting an example of humility, repentance, prayer and hope in a loving merciful God. May God raise leader shepherds like this for our church.
His actions did not go unnoticed by a loving and compassionate God who would see all men receive the salvation that comes from faith. Jonah had anticipated this. He had known that God would be merciful. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”