Nineveh Repents

Scripture: Jonah 3


Title: Nineveh Repents



  • Introduction
  • Jonah’s preaching
  • Nineveh’s repentance
  • God’s compassion
  • Conclusion



The Economist Intelligence Unit did a global livability study looking at the most “tolerable” cities to live in given crime levels, threat of conflict, quality of medical care, levels of censorship, climate, schools and transport links [1]

–         And they came up with a list of the 10 best cities in the world

–         There were 4 Australian cities in the top 10 and 3 Canadian cities

–         With Melbourne being rated the best city to live in, in the world

–         Auckland, NZ, came in tenth – which made me wonder whether they had considered Wellington at all

–         We lived in Auckland for 3 years and while it wasn’t too bad, Wellington is a way better city in pretty much every way


At the other end of the spectrum, if you google ‘most violent cities’ then Latin American countries are predominant

–         The city of Caracas, in Venezuela, is currently ranked the most dangerous with nearly 120 homicides per 100,000 people  [2]


Today we continue our series on the city of Nineveh

–         These days Nineveh is more of a province in northern Iraq

–         But in ancient times it was a significant city

–         Nineveh would not have won any prizes for being the most tolerable place to live but it was certainly up there as one of the most violent places


For two Sundays now we’ve looked at the city of Nineveh through the book of Jonah

–         This morning we pick up the story from Jonah chapter 3

–         I will be reading from the New International Version – the words will appear on the wall…


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.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.


Now Nineveh was a very important city; a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.


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. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals 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.”


10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us


There are essentially three parts to this chapter…

–         Jonah’s preaching

–         Nineveh’s repentance

–         And God’s compassion


First let’s consider Jonah’s preaching…


Jonah’s preaching:

Robert Frost has a poem called Reluctance

–         The last verse goes like this…


Ah, when to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things,

To yield with a grace to reason,

And bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season?


Jonah is sometimes described as the reluctant prophet – and for good reason


When God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah protested and when his protest failed he tried running away

–         Then when God saved Jonah from drowning, by providing a large fish, Jonah was thankful but he wasn’t really sorry for running away

–         Nevertheless God wanted to give Jonah a second chance, so he spoke to the fish and the fish spewed Jonah out onto the beach


Once again God calls Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh

–         This time Jonah obeys God, but only reluctantly

–         His heart is not really in it

–         ‘The drift of things’ (of everything in fact) is pulling Jonah towards Nineveh and yet it still feels to his heart like treason

–         Yes, Jonah obeys God this time, but it is a reluctant yielding to reason

–         Like a man subject to the change of seasons or to a love which is ending, Jonah is subject to forces he cannot control

–         The most sensible option available to Jonah is simply to go with it


We can’t be sure where the fish spewed Jonah out, but we do know that Nineveh was inland by quite a distance (about 500 miles north of Jerusalem) so it would have taken Jonah a fair while to walk there


Verse 3 tells us that a visit to Nineveh required three days

–         This probably means Jonah could reasonably expect to budget three days to proclaim his message in all of Nineveh’s public places


Jonah’s sermon, in a nutshell went like this…

–         “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned”


Now you might think, a short sermon is a good sermon

–         But this is too short

–         We know for a fact that Jonah could do better

–         Just last week we heard his beautifully composed poem about how God rescued him from drowning

–         Jonah delivered this poem in the belly of a fish where no one but God could hear

–         Now, when he is faced with an enormous audience, Jonah gives 8 words of doom (it’s actually only 5 words in the original Hebrew)


There are no illustrations or movie clips and no miracles to prove his point

–         There is no explanation of what Nineveh has done wrong, nor is there any specific application about what they can do to put things right

–         In fact, God’s name is not mentioned at all

–         If Jonah wanted to save Nineveh then we might expect him to be a bit clearer with the details

–         Instead Jonah’s message is blunt and vague

–         It appears that Jonah is forcing himself to obey God – all the time hoping that his message won’t be successful

–         To be fair to Jonah though, the people of Nineveh spoke a different language – so that may have been a limitation


Language is a funny thing

–         One word, spelt exactly the same, can have two quite different meanings

–         For example, the word bark can mean a loud noise, like a dog might make, or it can mean the covering of a tree

–         The word light can refer to a lamp but it can also mean not heavy

–         And the word cool – can refer to temperature but it can also mean something is really good or acceptable – as in, ‘that’s cool man’


The word, “overturned”, which Jonah uses in his sermon (hapak in the original Hebrew), has a double meaning [3]

–         On the one hand it can mean destroyed – as in God is going to wreck this city

–         But on the other hand it can also mean changed – as in God is going to transform this city, he is going to turn your world upside down so that your whole way of life is different


Jonah was hoping for the first meaning (destroyed) but he knew God well enough not to rule out the second meaning (changed)


Nineveh’s repentance:

Despite his half-hearted (reluctant) sermon, Jonah’s success as a preacher is unparalleled in history

–         The entire city from the least to the greatest (from the livestock to the king himself) took Jonah’s message to heart and very quickly repented


Apparently Jonah didn’t need to use the full three days to spread his message, because the people of Nineveh spread it themselves

–         They didn’t need the problem explained to them because they already knew what they had done wrong

–         The king of Nineveh certainly knew – he summed it up as…

–         “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence

–         What’s more, even though Jonah never mentioned Yahweh’s name, verse 5 tells us the people of Nineveh believed God


Belief in God goes hand in hand with repentance

–         You can’t really have one without the other

–         If we believe in God it will inevitably lead to repentance

–         If belief doesn’t lead to repentance then we are just kidding ourselves


For example, if it’s cold and the clothes you are wearing are wet, then the best way to get warm is to get out of the wet clothes and into something dry

–         Simply thinking warm thoughts isn’t repentance

–         Actually changing your clothes (changing your behaviour) is repentance


The problem is, most people don’t want to get out of their wet clothes because they think, “I’m not that wet anyway” or “I’ll soon dry off” or “It’s going to make me even colder getting changed”

–         They’re not really facing the problem

–         In order to change our clothes we need to feel even colder


If we apply this metaphor to the people of Nineveh, then they were already cold, standing around in wet clothes, when Jonah turned up

–         Jonah’s message to them was, “You’re going to get hyperthermia & die”


The people of Nineveh didn’t need convincing – they were freezing and they knew what they had to do to get warm – change into some dry clothes

–         In other words, stop their violent ways and practice kindness


Real repentance only comes about when we realise just how cold & wet we are

–         So long as we hold on to the illusion that we are right – so long as we keep denying the truth and justifying ourselves,

–         So long as we keep saying, “I’m not that wet, I’ll dry off soon” – we can’t change


It’s harder for good people, respectable people (like Jonah) to admit when they are wrong – they don’t want to change their wet clothes, it’s too embarrassing

–         It was easier for the people of Nineveh to admit they were wrong because they could feel the coldness of their actions


Again it is ironic that Jonah (who has experienced God’s miraculous power & grace) is unwilling to say sorry and seek forgiveness

–         Yet the people of Nineveh (who have never experienced God’s miraculous power and only hear a message of judgment) are willing to repent and seek mercy


In Matthew 12 Jesus says to the men & women of his day…

–         The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here.


If the people of Nineveh listened to Jonah (a foreigner) and believed his message (as poor as it was), it seems crazy that Jesus’ own people did not believe Jesus’ message (as rich as it was)


In some ways the king of Nineveh shows more insight than Jonah himself

–         In verse 9, after making a royal decree for everyone to repent and change their ways, the king says…

–         Who knows? God may relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish


This is interesting for what it reveals

–         Unlike Jonah, the king of Nineveh seems to intuitively understand that God is free

–         Just because they have repented, it doesn’t automatically follow that God must forgive them

–         The king throws himself and his people at God’s mercy and hopes for the best


Earlier this week Brian Gillies sent me a link to an article about Henry Gerecke[4]

–         Gerecke was an American army chaplain during the second world war

–         He served in a field hospital in 1944 following the D Day invasions

–         He also saw inside the Nazi concentration camps at the end of the war


Gerecke was preparing to return to the US following the war when he was asked by Colonel Andrus if he would stay behind to act as a chaplain to some high profile Nazi war criminals (Hitler’s henchmen) as they stood trial at Nuremburg

–         Many people on the home front thought these Nazi’s shouldn’t be given the chance to make their peace with God

–         Consequently, Henry Gerecke (a Lutheran pastor) together with Father Richard O’Connor (a Catholic priest), were inundated with hate mail

–         What they were doing was thought to be anti-Semitic, unpatriotic and unjust – a kind of betrayal of the Jews and allies who had died at the hands of the Nazi’s


It was a difficult decision to make but in the end Gerecke and O’Connor felt that ministering to these loathsome men was what Christ would have them do

–         Christ too was criticised for keeping bad company but always maintained he came to seek and save the lost


Gerecke’s situation was similar to Jonah’s in that God had called Jonah to minister to his enemies – people Jonah considered beyond redemption

–         It would have felt like a betrayal of his own people

However, unlike Jonah, Gerecke and O’Connor were willing to serve and did not try to run away from God

–         Gerecke & O’Connor were not as successful as Jonah

–         Of the 21 men who stood trial, 11 were condemned to die and, according to Gerecke’s final report, only four of them…

–         “…died as penitent sinners trusting God’s mercy for forgiveness [and] believing in Jesus who shed his blood for their sins.”


Will those repentant Nazi’s be forgiven and make it into heaven?

–         God is free, so like the king of Nineveh the most we can say is…

–         Who knows? God may relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish


God’s compassion:

Jonah’s preaching was reluctant – half hearted

–         By contrast, Nineveh’s repentance was genuine – fully committed

–         But it’s God’s compassion which triumphs in the end


10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.


There are two sides to the coin of compassion

–         One side is entering into the suffering of another – sharing their pain

–         The other side is doing something to alleviate that pain

–         When we feel someone else’s pain as our own then we are motivated to relieve their suffering

–         So to have compassion is firstly to feel and then to heal


This is a picture of the memorial at Gallipoli


The story that goes with this memorial is that there was a wounded British soldier groaning in agony in no man’s land between the trenches

  • – At that moment a piece of white underwear was raised from the Turkish side and a well-built, unarmed soldier appeared.
  • – The Turk walked slowly towards the wounded British soldier, took him in his arms and carried him to the Allies’ side, before gently placing him down on the ground and returning to his trench.


There are some who question the accuracy of this story

  • – I don’t know, I wasn’t there
  • – Either way, it is a picture of compassion
  • – Feeling another’s pain and then acting to help & heal that person
  • – Feeling and healing


To say that God had compassion on the people of Nineveh means that he was affected by their sin (he felt the hurt they inflicted on each other) and he acted to heal that hurt – feeling and healing


God’s compassion wasn’t just a response to the people’s repentance

–         His compassion is seen long before that, when he sent Jonah to warn them


That God is compassionate and open to change tells us that the details of God’s will are not fixed in stone

–         Sometimes we are tempted to think of God’s will as a train travelling along the tracks

–         The thing about a train is that it can’t really deviate off the tracks – it has to follow the path laid out for it

–         And once the train gets up some speed it is very hard to stop, because it’s got all this weight (all this history) behind it


But I don’t believe God’s will is like a train following the tracks

–         I see God’s will as more dynamic than that

–         God’s will is like a 4WD vehicle

–         God can follow the road or he can go off road

–         If someone or something is in the way then God can easily stop to wait or change course to avoid a collision

–         Yes, he has a fixed destination in mind (the redemption of his creation)

–         But he also has the power and freedom to alter his course in getting to that destination

–         And that’s what he does in the case of Nineveh – God changes his course (without changing his overall purpose) and saves the city



This morning we’ve heard that Jonah was a reluctant preacher

–         But despite his reluctance the people of Nineveh still humbled themselves in genuine repentance

–         And God had compassion on Nineveh

–         God is free and he uses his freedom to love his enemies


I’m conscious that today is September 11 – fifteen years since the attack on the Twin Towers in New York

–         The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and injured over 6,000 others

–         In response to these attacks America declared a war on terror and thousands more died

–         So people might say the city of New York is akin to Nineveh, with its violence

–         Others say, no, it’s the terrorists who are more akin to the people of Nineveh

–         I suspect it’s not that black & white

–         All of our cities have violence in them

–         All of our hearts the seeds of terror

–         None of us can claim to be completely pure or righteous


I don’t think the events of 9/11 were God’s will

–         I think what happened that day grieved his heart and went against his will


Jesus points us to the will of God (to the compassion of God) when he says…


Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…



Let us pray…



[3] James Bruckner, NIVAC ‘Jonah’, pages 90-91.