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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Text:Jonah 3:5 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's gathering work

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 66:1,2

Psalm 51:1

Psalm 43:1,3,4

Psalm 103:4

Hymn 64:1,4

Read:  Jonah 3.

Text:  Jonah 3:5
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and Sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ.

So here we are, back in church again, settling down to hear another sermon.  Most of you were here last week.  And the week before.  It all gets to be a bit routine, after a while.  And that is good.  But there is an old proverb that says “familiarity breeds contempt.” 

For the preacher, the Sunday sermon can easily become something that has to be done.  Choose a Bible chapter, find a text, explain it with a bit of application, and go home.  For the listener, it can happen that you come to church with little sense of expectancy, hear what is being said – at least with one ear –  and then go home and get on with life.

But the message of the Gospel is not something to handle lightly.  Nor can we respond to it with a “whatever” or an indifferent “take it or leave it” attitude.  Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the Kingdom of heaven is opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel.  Opened and closed. 

Preaching is passing on a message.  It is an official communication which makes an appeal.  Your response to that message results in either life or death.

Jonah also had a message to preach.  “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  A message of destruction.  A message that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rested on the people of Nineveh for as long as they did not repent, and that the time to repent was running out.  Jonah’s message was a race against death.  But the command to repent and believe is always urgent.  That’s why the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.”

Be reconciled to God.  The message or the preaching that is proclaimed to us is not one of despair, but a call to hope.  And that was also the case for the “fire and brimstone” preaching of Jonah.  The LORD gave him a message of destruction, but in that message was a call to repent and so receive the mercy of God.  And so the theme for this morning’s sermon is:

The LORD extends mercy to Nineveh in a message of destruction.

1.    The message relayed.

2.    The message received.

3.    The message relieved.

1. The message relayed.

The women folk who were gathered at the Nineveh water hole could scarcely have guessed that their world would be turned upside down by this solitary figure walking towards them.  The morning would have started like any other.  The usual sights and sounds and smells.  The usual gossip.  The usual news.  The usual mix of laughter and shouts of anger.  A scene played out in numerous cities that morning throughout the Ancient Near East.  But all that was about to change.

The man coming towards them was a man called Jonah.  He was a stranger, a Hebrew.  That in itself was a little unusual.  There were not too many strangers travelling from country to country.  Travel was dangerous and slow, and one rarely took a long journey unless it was as part of an army, a royal envoy travelling under armed escort, or a caravan of merchants.  A solitary stranger from a country as far away as Israel was bound to raise a few eyebrows.

But Jonah is not a stranger to us.  We’ve been tracking his journey from Gath Hepher to Joppa, from Joppa to the bottom of the ocean.  From the ocean’s depths back to shore.  It is not important to the story, so we don’t get to know what Jonah did once he was spewed up on that beach, whether he went home or not, and how much time elapsed before he was sent out to Nineveh a second time.  Personally, I think he probably wanted a bath after being stuck in a fish for three days.  And a change of clothes.  He might have walked all the way back to Gath Hepher, or else to a house where the prophets of the LORD were welcome.  Wherever he was, the word of the LORD came to him a second time:  “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” 

Jonah had gone through quite an ordeal between the first and second command to go to Nineveh.  He had been the object of God’s wrath in a storm.  He came face to face with his sin and the consequences of his sin.  He was placed under the sentence of death.  But by an act of God’s grace, he was saved from drowning and miraculously delivered.  He’d virtually been to hell and back.  Surely the saved sinner would now be glad to see others saved?  Even if those others were the enemy, those feared men of Nineveh?

Whether or not Jonah would now be glad to see Nineveh saved is something we will consider further in chapter four.  But he had promised in Jonah 2:9 that he would pay what he had vowed with the voice of thanksgiving.  Whether or not it was against his personal judgment, Jonah was now ready to use his voice, to obey and preach whatever message the LORD would give him.  And so there is a difference between Jonah 1:3 and chapter 3:3.  “So Jonah arose . . . and went . . . to Nineveh … according to the Word of the LORD.”

Jonah gets up and he walks.  He crosses territorial boundaries in response to the call to preach not to the people of God’s covenant, those set apart to be His special people, but to the Gentiles, the wicked and profane.  It would have taken at least a month, probably more to travel to Nineveh.  Plenty of time to back out.  Plenty of time to convince himself that he could not have heard God correctly.  Plenty of time to find 101 reasons why it was a senseless exercise, why it was morally wrong, why it was too dangerous, why it was, perhaps even, unbiblical.  But Jonah walks on until he arrives at the gates of the great city of Nineveh.

Nineveh.  Last time it was the gates of Sheol.  Now he’s at the gates of Nineveh.  A big city.  A great city.  Literally, a city “great unto God.”  For a “hill-billy” from Gath Hepher, a city that was staggering in its size, its grandeur, and its importance as one of the great cities of the world.

From what we know of that time in Nineveh’s history, Nineveh was not faring too well.  Most cities of that time were not exceptionally well off.  Real prosperity for cities such as Nineveh only happened when there was a king and a palace, and the king was victorious in war.  Then there would be the spoils of war as well as the tribute from subjected cities and the gifts of intimidated neighbours.  But we know that at this time, Israel was gaining in strength, and Nineveh appeared to be struggling.  In our first sermon on Jonah, I noted that this was a period of unparalleled turmoil for Nineveh, with a weak king, Assur-Dan III.  States around Nineveh rebelled against them and the Assyrian army lacked the strength to stop them.  There was plague and famine, poverty and disorder.  One could conclude from this that God was at work in Nineveh long before Jonah showed up, preparing the hearts and minds of the people to receive His message.

But grand empires don’t go down without a whimper.  There may have been a lull in the fortunes of Nineveh, but it remained a great city.  Big, and undoubtedly proud with an air of sophistication and civilization about it.  Verse 3 of Jonah 3 says, “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.”  It is not clear how we are to understand the “three days” bit.  If you included all the land and the surrounding cities that were under the rule of Nineveh, it would have taken a good three days to walk from one end to the other.  More likely, however, is the explanation that this simply means that Nineveh was still a very big and a culturally important city.  News of its size and grandeur would have spread throughout the world.  A city wall that was 14km in length.  A population of well over 120,000 people.  A race that considered themselves superior to every other on the earth.

And into that city walked Jonah.  He trudges around with his message for a whole day, but does not even get to the city centre.  It is as though he is lost like a needle in a haystack in this vast city.  But as he walks, he stops and calls out his message, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

A short message.  Just five words in the Hebrew language; perhaps the same number in the Assyrian language.  But a powerful message.  One of judgment and coming punishment.  The God of steadfast love and mercy, the God of hesed who revealed Himself as a loving and gracious God to Jonah is now declaring that He will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the city, and even upon the livestock.  “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

Actually, we need not assume that this is all that Jonah preached.  He went in obedience to the LORD, and must have preached the full message that the LORD had given him.  It is likely that God made it clear to Nineveh just how they had sinned and their violence had come before Him.  But the message was clear, simple, and to the point.  God had plans to destroy Nineveh within 40 days of them receiving notice. 

Jonah’s message was one of destruction.  A message of God’s majesty, His power and His wrath.  A message of terror for a terrible nation.  It does not suggest in itself that Jonah gave Nineveh any reason for hope. 

And yet there was hope.  The king asked, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”  He did not know the answer to this question, but there was reason for the king to believe that perhaps the LORD might change His mind.

“Yet forty days” and Nineveh would be destroyed.  The LORD announced His intentions in advance.  He did not do that to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Aside from the family of Lot, the only others from Sodom who were warned that the city would be destroyed were Lot’s two sons-in-law.  And incidentally, there was no repentance from them: they thought Lot was joking.  In Daniel 5, Belshazzar was told by the writing on the wall via Daniel that his kingdom would be handed over to the Medes and Persians.  But there was no 40 days:  the king was killed that very night.  For Nineveh, however, it was different.  They had a “grace period” of 40 days before the threatened punishment would take place.

The Bible uses the time frame of 40 days more often.  For example, it rained for 40 days at the time of the Great Flood.  Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law for 40 days.  And Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.  It could be that this time frame of 40 days comes from an ancient solar calendar system.  That being the case, it is most likely that the people of Nineveh understood this to mean that they were right on the brink, that destruction was just around the corner.  At the end of the month, so to speak.  It could also mean that the destruction of Nineveh would not take place on the 40th day exactly, which would explain why Jonah hung around and waited for the action to happen.  At any rate, the 40 day period gave the people of Nineveh a window of hope.

But there is also something else that gave Nineveh reason for hope, and that is Jonah himself.  Luke 11:30 says, “For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.”  The sign Christ gave to the unbelieving Jews was that He would be in the belly of the earth for 3 days and then rise from the grave, just as Jonah had been in the belly of the fish for 3 days, and then received new life.  But this Bible verse also teaches that Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites.  Nineveh learned that the very man who was preaching their destruction at the hands of God had himself been delivered from certain destruction at the hands of that same God!  Jonah’s own deliverance from what appeared certain death was a sign to the people of Nineveh that the God who will punish sin is also the God who is ready to forgive sin and offer His steadfast love.

And those are the two sides to all preaching.  The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent.  But that same kingdom is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ’s merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel.  (Lord’s Day 31)

That is the message that was basically preached, that was relayed to the people of Nineveh.  But to them the message was a dark one, and it was, in a sense, incomplete. 

Today we also receive the message of the LORD.  “For the wrath of God against sin is so great that he can not leave it unpunished.” But, praise be to God, One greater than Jonah is here.  And the message we receive, the full offer of the Gospel, is deeper and richer than the preaching of Jonah.  We do not have the sign of the prophet Jonah, but the sign of Jesus Christ!

Luke 24:46,47 says, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”  That is the message that is preached to us every Sunday.  The message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  That is the message to which we must both hear and respond.  And we must respond.  It is a matter of life or death.

2. The Message Received.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous sermon, the book of Jonah is a very well written book, with an excellent structure.  The events of Jonah 3 are also well structured.  What happens in chapter three is put in the framework of God’s actions.  First God speaks, and then God decides to relent.  At the middle of all of this is verse 5:  “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.”  We can see this verse as a summary statement of how the people responded when they heard the message of the LORD that Jonah spoke to them.  Then in verse 6-9 we have the response of the king, where He also ordered the people of Nineveh to repent.

It is likely that the king of Nineveh did not hear a report about Jonah right away.  It has been discovered that the palace and the temple were separated from the common people and were on a different level and quite walled off from the rest of the city.  But a message that sent the people reeling and shaking in fear would find its way to the king’s palace quite quickly.  And when he received the message, he responded immediately.    A message, a decree from the king and his nobles calling every living thing in Nineveh to neither taste, eat or drink, and that both men and animals be covered with sackcloth and cry to God.  And the king himself led by example.

The king did it.  Kings tend to be proud and above the law.  It is a sign of weakness to give in to someone.  They don’t even like to be admonished by their equals.  But here is Jonah, a foreigner.  And the Word of the LORD, spoken through Jonah, caused the king to put aside his royal clothes, yes, his claim as king above all, and to humble himself by putting on rough and scratchy sackcloth, and sitting in ashes.  Rather than being inflamed by fury – as, by the way, king Jehoiakim of Judah was when he received the word of the LORD from Jeremiah – rather than being inflamed by fury, the king was humbled.  He submitted himself to the just judgment of God and confessed, ‘I am a sinner.  I deserve God’ fierce anger.  I repent in sackcloth and ashes.”

Even the animals had to fast and be covered in sackcloth.  In some cultures, there was the practice of covering animals when mourning for the death of an important person.  Perhaps that was the case in Nineveh.  Joel chapter 1 also speaks of the animals groaning and crying out to God in their distress.  What I would see as the most important thing, however, is that the repentance of Nineveh was complete and total.  From the king all the way down to horse in the stable.  Whoever and whatever was in the city was to mourn in sackcloth and ashes.

And not just mourn, but change.  The king commanded, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”  The words “mercy” and “compassion” do not appear to be a part of the regular vocabulary of the people of Nineveh.  The god that they mostly worshipped was the goddess Ishtar, who for them was the goddess of war.  This goddess did not encourage compassion, but cruelty.  The soldiers of Assyria regularly cut off the noses of the people they conquered and literally skinned them alive.  But now the king of Nineveh is confronted with a God who is not like that.  Who is offended and very angry about such wickedness and violence.  A God who is so angry that in forty days he would be ready to overthrow the city.

And the people of Nineveh believed God.  Nineveh accepted the Word of the LORD, that the LORD had the power to do what He had threatened.  They believed God.  They were certain about Him, and convinced that what He said was true.  But it was more than believing that Nineveh would be overthrown.  If all they believed about God was His justice and His wrath, they would have fled from him.  They would have cried out to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”  But they did not.  Instead, they turned to the LORD in repentance.  They had a faint hope that the LORD might yet save them.  They believed that the LORD was not like the goddess Ishtar, but was a God who also had mercy and compassion.  They hoped that even though they were not the covenant children of God, that they might somehow be like the dogs that lick the crumbs from beneath the table (Mark 7:28).  Jonah was to the people of Nineveh a sign that God’s wrath against sin can in some way be atoned for, and the sinner can be spared.

By the preaching of the gospel the kingdom of heaven is closed to all unbelievers and hypocrites, for the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rests on them.  But that same message is an aroma of life and hope to all who receive it in true faith.  Our Lord Jesus Christ said that the repentance of Nineveh was a rebuke to Israel.  The message to Nineveh was one of destruction, a message of “fire and brimstone”.  Nineveh believed and clung to the glimmer of hope that they saw in Jonah himself.  The message preached to us today is so much fuller, so much richer, so much deeper.  Nineveh calls us to the foot of the cross and asks, “what will you do with this Jesus?”  The message is preached to you every Sunday that God has really forgiven all your sins for the sake of Christ’s merits, as often as you by true faith accept the promise of the gospel.  We can not treat this message with indifference or a “whatever” attitude.  Hold on to the promises of God and cry out, “Lord, I believe!  Help me in my unbelief!”

3. The Message Relieved.

Did Nineveh really repent, and was that repentance genuine?  Many people say it was not, for they do not believe that God’s message can have such a profound effect.  It is also noted that none of the other Old Testament prophets speak of this great event, and there is no evidence from the ruins of Nineveh itself.  Nineveh itself, by the way, was totally destroyed 150 years later, in 612 BC, and so it is not surprising that we haven’t found a written record of this event from there.  But we, who believe in God’s Word, accept the truth of Jonah 3 itself, and the witness of Jesus Christ, that Nineveh did repent.

There is also something else that is quite fascinating.  Archaeologists discovered a record of a solar eclipse that occurred in that time.  It has now been scientifically determined that Nineveh experienced a total solar eclipse on June 15, 763 B.C. in the days of Jonah, and during the reign of King Assur Dan III.  The Assyrians of Nineveh believed that an eclipse was a sign from the gods that disaster was imminent: the king would die, there would be a great flood, there would be a famine, or fire would consume the land.  It also appears that there was an earthquake at around the same time.  We could perhaps see this as evidence that the LORD, who has all things in His hand, was using these so-called natural events and even using the superstitions of the Ninevites to prepare them to accept His message as preached by the prophet Jonah.  At any rate, we can be confident that God ensures that His Word does not come back empty, but it accomplishes what He purposes.  And for Nineveh, His purpose was that Nineveh would repent.  And repent they did.

And God in turn, seeing that they had turned from their evil way, relented from the disaster He had said would come.  The message was relieved, it was alleviated.  God did not do what He said he would; Nineveh was spared.  Nineveh was confronted not just the wrath of God, but also His mercy.

And the LORD relented.  Other translations say that the LORD repented, He changed his mind.  God’s nature does not change, and all events, also the future, is in His hand.  But in His providence, when men believe the Word and turn to Him in repentance, then He does relent of the punishment He has threatened, He does have mercy.  Jeremiah 18:7,8 says,

“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.”

The LORD is merciful to all who come to Him in faith and repentance.  How sad that the nation of Israel did not do this.  How sad that the “apple of God’s eye” turned from him in unbelief and evil.  How sad that the other great city, Jerusalem, turned its back on the Great prophet from Galilee, Jesus Christ.  As Christ Himself cried out in Matthew 23:37,

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

For the women standing around that water hole in Nineveh, life would never quite be the same again.  A solitary figure, a Hebrew by the name of Jonah, was walking towards them to give the message of God:  “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  Nineveh was not overthrown in the sense of being destroyed.  But Nineveh was turned on its head in a radical turning to the LORD in faith and repentance.

So here we are, back in church again, listening to the call of the gospel.  The message is not something we can handle lightly, with a “take it or leave it” approach.  Listen to the message that is preached.  Turn to the Lord in faith and repentance.  Remember that He will not turn away anyone who comes to Him.  For to us is the promise that God has really forgiven our sins for the sake of Christ’s merits.  His mercy is great to those who fear Him.  And He removes the sins of all those who fear Him as far as east from west extends.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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