Having learned that God is the God of second chances, Jonah headed to the imposing city of Nineveh to warn of God’s impending judgment. The residents of Nineveh repented in the hope that God would relent and spare them—and remarkably, God did! As Alistair Begg clarifies, though, it was not a case of God “changing His mind.” Rather, it was an expression of His great love, which exceeds our capacity to understand it.
Now, I’ve set before us this task of getting through chapter 3, and you will be prayerful, I hope, that I will do this. Some of the younger people will be praying not simply that I do it but that I do it expeditiously, and that is fine. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get to chapter 4 for a couple of weeks, and someone said before coming in here, “Well, that will create a great sense of expectation amongst the congregation.” I said, “I wish it were so. Most of them will have forgotten in two weeks’ time that we were ever studying the book of Jonah.” And yet, I’m sure, not those of you who are present here this evening.
We have followed this story so far through his immediate response, which has been negative, to his being dumped in this fish and then being vomited onto dry ground, and then to the amazing discovery that God is the God of the second chance and now has for him the exact same commission and the responsibility of going with the message that he has given him to bear to this city of Nineveh.
And in this opening little section of chapter 3 we are reminded of the person, we are introduced once again to the place, and we see again the nature of the proclamation. Let me just iterate each of these in turn.
This man Jonah is the son of Amittai, as we’re told in the first verse of the book. We know very, very little about him beyond this. He is mentioned in other places, but there is not much concerning him. He was in every realistic sense an ordinary man, and he was at the same time an obedient man. A reminder to us, in passing, that God is not on the lookout for extraordinary individuals; he is able to use all kinds of people, but he delights to take those of us who are ordinary and who are at the same time obedient and grant to us the privileges of serving him.
This individual, Jonah, came from a place called Gath-hepher. You’ll need to take my word for this, although, if you have a concordance, you can go and verify it. We read of this in 2 Kings 14. In Joshua 19 we’re told that this place was in the region of Zebulun, which is also the context in which we find Nazareth. And indeed, Gath-hepher was only a few miles north of Nazareth. Jonah, then, we discover as being the only Old Testament prophet whom we know expressly to have come from Galilee. And you will remember in John chapter 7 that the people expressed tremendous interest that Jesus would have come out of Nazareth in Galilee, because they said, “Is there any prophet that comes out of Galilee at all?” And Jonah is the only one of whom we know as the Old Testament prophets. He is also the only Old Testament prophet to whom Jesus ever compares himself and his ministry, as we’ve seen in our studies in Luke 11. So there’s not really a tremendous amount about the person Jonah.
The place is Nineveh. It is not the capital of Assyria at this time, but it is a major center, as we saw in introducing our subject. It was a place that was not a royal residence, but it did have royal palaces, so that when the king made his visit there, he was able to stay not in the local hotel but in one of the palaces that had been established for him upon his arrival. Nineveh was, in that time—in about the eighth century BC—a large and wealthy city. It was, if you like, a major metropolitan area, and it was pagan in the extreme. Indeed, if you allow your eye to go down to the third verse, you will realize that it was such an important city that “a visit required three days.”
Now, what this means is difficult for us to assess. The idea that it took three days to go all around the city, I think, is probably stretching it. It would be hard to imagine a city of that size at that time. The best that I can do with it is this—that in reading a little, I discovered that Eastern etiquette in cities of significance was as follows: not only did ambassadors or diplomats have to observe a protocol upon entry to the city, but prophets, who would have been regarded with esteem and with a measure of superstition, were asked to do the same. And so there would be, for someone arriving in the city of Nineveh, a first day, which would be the day of settlement and arrival. There would be a second day, which was the day of formal presentation to the authorities of the city, with the indication given to them as to the reason for their coming to the city. And then there would be a third day, which may be the conducting of business and may, in fact, be the day of departure.
Now this, I think, will help us to understand that he was not wandering around some little backwater, but rather he was in a royal city where due protocol had to be followed. And it was to this city of significance—to this “great city,” as were told—that God was giving a gracious word of warning through his servant Jonah.
So the person is Jonah, the place is Nineveh, and the proclamation is this divine message of warning concerning its wickedness and concerning the judgment that is to come. Jonah’s proclamation in verse 4 was, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” In other words, the prophet had to convey the divine message and nothing else. Jonah was not at liberty to go into the city of Nineveh and simply say what he wanted to say. Nor was he at liberty to go into the city of Nineveh and tell them what they wanted to hear. But rather, he was to go into the city and to declare what God desired for them to know.
Now, this is, of course, important in every generation, and there is at least a passing lesson concerning the nature of the prophetic role in the preaching of the Bible in every generation. And sadly, this is so misrepresented on so many fronts, so disguised on the part of so many, that we may be forgiven for being inept at noticing the extent to which pulpits have become places in which men, and in some cases women, have determined that they have been given the prerogative to tell people what they want to tell them—or perhaps even more significantly and more sinisterly, to tell the people what they think the people want to hear from them—instead of recognizing that they are there by divine commission and they have nothing to say except the word which God has given to them.
And, of course, in every generation there are those who have missed their way. Spurgeon, lecturing to his students, pointing out the solemn nature of being a preacher of the Bible, said this: “That hundreds have missed their way, and stumbled against a pulpit is sorrowfully evident from the fruitless ministries and decaying churches which surround us.” And this is so surprising to me. So few are prepared to look here as to the potential source for the absence of any striking impact in a community. Why do they think for any moment that people are going to come in their hundreds to listen to someone simply pontificating? To listen to somebody simply tickling their ears and telling them what they want to hear? And yet they say, “It’s amazing to me, you know. It seems such a dreadful cause, and there seem to be so few who are doing anything worthwhile.” I think, loved ones, it is because Spurgeon is right: that many have missed their way and banged up against a pulpit is sorrowfully evident in our day.
Richard Baxter, going back to Kidderminster in the seventeenth century, reminded his flock to whom he preached… And if you ever go to Shropshire, then you must go to Kidderminster. And when you get to Kidderminster, it will not be difficult to find the statue there of the godly Richard Baxter. And the plinth bears a striking testimony to the impact of a man who was prepared to tell people not what they wanted to hear, not what he had on his mind to share, but to tell them the very message of God. And he reminds his congregation, “Were you but as willing,” he says,
to get the knowledge of God and heavenly things as you are to know how to work in your trade, you would have set yourselves to it before this day, and you would have spared no cost or pains till you had … it. But you account seven years little enough to learn your trade.
He’s talking now about somebody who would be a carpenter in the making, or a carpetmaker in the making, or someone who was a brass worker, or someone who did wrought iron. He said,
You account seven years little enough to learn your trade, and [you] will not bestow one day in seven in diligent learning [of] the matters of your salvation.
A striking thing, isn’t it? But it’s true. People will spend seven years to become a doctor, and they will not give one day in seven to come to a knowledge of Christ.
And then one final illustration, while I’m on the subject. Let’s go to the eighteenth century and to Charles Simeon, who, as he approached the end of his days, was such a diligent character: getting up early in the morning to read and to pray and to prepare for the day. Someone said to him, “Charles, you’re an old man now. Do you not think you could back off? You don’t need to be doing these things the way you were doing them when you were a young man.” And his reply was, “Shall I not run with all my might, now that I see the finishing line in view?”
And Simeon, writing to John Venn to remind him of the wonder of his being thrust into the service of the gospel, on the occasion of his ordination, this is what he wrote: “I most sincerely congratulate you, not on a permission to receive [sixty-five or seventy-five dollars] a year, nor on the title of Reverend, but on your accession to the most valuable, most honourable, most important, and most glorious office in the world—to that of an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, you see, when a man has that sense within him, then it changes everything. And that, you see, was what made it so incongruous in the life of Jonah. He knew that his whole identity, his whole existence in life, was directly tied to the fact that God had come and laid hold of him, and that his whole raison d’être was to be a prophet to the name of God. And then he runs off to hide! And God, because of his great mercy, lays hold of him in this dramatic way, as we saw in chapter 2, and he comes back again, and he gives him, as it were, a mulligan, and he says, “Okay, you can put the ball down and you can try again. Go ahead and try and hit it the second time. I want you to hit it the same place, but not in the same way.”
Well, that’s enough on that, is it not? I think you would agree.
The contrast between 1:3 and 3:3 is quite striking: “Jonah ran away from the Lord,” 1:3. And in 3:3, “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and [he] went to Nineveh.”
When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his Word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
[When] we do his good will,
He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
[For] we never can prove
The delights of his love,
Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor he shows,
[And] the joy he bestows,
Are for [those] who will trust and obey.
And in verse 4, there is no dragging of his feet, especially if what I’ve said is at all accurate concerning the protocol of going into a city. If there was this protocol of the first day for settling, the second day for declaring your purpose, and then getting on with the business in the second part of the second day, notice what happens to him here: “And Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and he went to Nineveh. And Nineveh was an important city, and a visit required three days”—notice—“and on the first day, Jonah started into the city, and he proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’” You almost get the impression of him saying, “Look, I made such a hash of it in the last venture that as soon as I get there, the first opportunity I get, to the first cluster of people that I see, the first street corner I come to, I’m just going to blurt it right out. Now, I know I’m supposed to go and report to the social services, and I know you’re supposed to go in there, and I’ll go in there tomorrow. But listen, folks: Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned! You just need to know that!”
“Who are you?”
“Uh-huh. Okay, well thanks for sharing that.”
And off down the road he goes, and once again…
Now, I wonder, are we supposed to conclude that this is all he said in Nineveh? I mean, I suppose we could conclude that all that he ever did was say, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” In other words, he just went through the city saying that all the time. Now, God could honor that, and that may be what he did. But I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because there are indications that he had expanded upon it. I think this is his summary statement.
When you see the king’s response in urging people to give up their evil ways and to set aside their violence, there seems to be an indication there that Jonah had worked out the expressions of judgment that were to come and had called the people to a measure of repentance. I think it’s more probable for us to conceive of him telling these people just why the judgment was coming, and also at the same time, I think, giving them a word of testimony. I think it would be very difficult for him not to say, “Listen folks, I have to tell you about the judgment of God, and I know firsthand about the divine consequences of disobedience. I mean, just in recent days, I have been in a whale of a problem, I have to tell you. It’s taken me weeks now to get the smell off me, and I want you to know that when God says go, you go, and when he says come, you come. But if he says go, don’t say no, because there is no end to which he may be prepared to go in order to lay hold upon you. And I also want you to know that God is a wonderful God, and he has power, and he can save from even the most extreme circumstances.”
And so he brought a warning, and with it a personal testimony of the fact that God is both willing and able to save. The mercy that had been shown to Jonah must surely pervade his message. He had no right to complain about the mercy shown to others, as he does in 4:1, as we’re going to see. And the reason he had no right to complain about mercy shown to others was in light of the mercy that God had shown to him.
Listen, when I as a preacher sound brittle and cold and heartless and legalistic and metallic, then you can be sure that my heart has not been softened by the mercy and the grace and the love of God. But when you hear from the lips of the preacher not only words but with them a sense of the winning and wooing and wonder of the mercy of God, then you are safe to assume that one, he has needed to know that mercy, and two, that that mercy has so been unfolded to him that he cannot wait for the opportunity not to tell people simply where they’re all wrong but to tell them how it is that God can take those of us who are all wrong and, by his mercy, make us all right. That is not to stand back from the word of judgment any more than he did; he said, “You know, forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” “It is appointed unto man once to die and after this comes judgment.” But the sense of wonder at God’s dealing with us will permeate the way in which we tell the story to others.
I wrote down, and then left behind, the words of a hymn that I wanted to quote. And I’ll give you the start, and you go find a hymnbook. You may, some of you, know this hymn; it begins, “Depth of mercy! Can there be mercy still reserved for me?” And then it has lines like, “I have long withstood his grace, long provoked him to his face,” and yet still he loves me.
You know, I am the prodigal, aren’t you? “Let me out of here. Let me do this my own way! Let me have some fun for a while, huh?” And what was it that brought the prodigal back up the road to his father? I don’t think the prodigal went back to his father primarily because he was tormented by a guilty conscience but because he was driven by the hope of mercy. See, because a guilty conscience could have left him simply in the pigsty. What was it got him out and up the road? The prospect that when he looked into his father’s eyes he would discover mercy and grace.
That’s, of course, what Paul is saying when he writes concerning the predicament of humanity in Romans, as he begins to unfold things in his great theological treatise. And he says to the people, “Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” And then here’s the verse: “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?”
Now, don’t we know that to be true? When first the Word of God comes and shows us the extent of our wickedness, shows us the rightful nature of the impending judgment as in the city of Nineveh, makes it clear to us that we’re busted and that we have nothing to claim in our defense. And then the love of God shown to us in the Lord Jesus Christ comes and buffets over us and envelops us in the wonder of it all. It is then, you see, the tears smart to our eyes.
Oh, the love that sought me!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, the grace that brought me to the fold,
Well, the remarkable thing in verse 4 is that Jonah gets to the business as directly as he does. And the equally remarkable thing is, in verse 5, that the Ninevites respond as quickly as they do. Now, I don’t want to labor this; I want simply to point out to you that “the Ninevites,” as verse 5 says, “believed God.” They listened to the warning; their response was pointed up by their wearing of the garments of penitence. Here we understand just why it is that Jesus said to the people of his day, as we saw in Luke chapter 11, that “the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment and condemn you because they listened to the preaching of another prophet called Jonah and responded, and you have listened to the preaching of one greater than Jonah and you choose not to respond.”
And it was a widespread reaction: “They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” This was not some kind of proletariat response. This went right through the structure of the civilization. They were all going around in sackcloth. The news reaches the king, and the public response is more than matched by the royal response. And he changes his clothes: puts on sackcloth instead of royal robes. He changes his place: he sits down in the dust. And he changes his tune: he issues a proclamation in Nineveh, and he says, “We’re all going to do this now, even beasts. We will all be covered with sackcloth. Let us all call urgently on God. Let us give up our evil ways.”
Can you imagine this in our generation? You see all the talk of revival, and “revival is here,” and “revival is there,” you know. And “Mr. So-and-So said this, and I think he’s leaning in that direction,” and so on. Let me tell you, when we will have reason to believe that revival has come is when the people, from the youngest to the oldest and the least to the greatest, are joined with the very structures of government, and we declare ourselves to be urgently in need of God’s mercy and truly deserving of his judgment. And someone stands up and makes a national broadcast and says, “Let us then have genuinely a day of repentance, and let us see whether God will not, in his mercy, come and free us as we give up our violent deeds and as we turn away from the evil that we have embraced.”
Now, the amazing thing is that this king has got a real insight. He says, “Let everyone call urgently on God” and do this, and then he says, “Who knows?” “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” In other words, he recognizes that because they repent, it is not automatic that God will be forbearing in his reaction. There is no definite indication that their turning in repentance will be accompanied by a divine turning. He says, “But you never know, God may actually respond in this way.” It’s a reminder to us of this: that the repentant have no case to argue for acceptance. And the future well-being of the repentant remains solely dependent on the grace of God.
That’s why I get so tired of people in America here—sorry to say, that makes me an alien again—I get so tired of people in America and in Britain trotting out 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and turn from their wicked ways and do this and do this and do this, and then I will hear from heaven and heal their sin and do their land.” And the way that it comes out is this: “If we press Button A, he is duty bound to press Button B.” We have it completely upside down.
Why is it, then, that God has not responded in this way? Does he make a liar of himself? Does he declare his Word to be untrue? No! Because the genuinely repentant heart says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son, so make me as one of your hired servants. I deserve nothing. My repentance doesn’t guarantee me anything. It doesn’t guarantee me a place in the house. It doesn’t guarantee me your love and your affection. If you choose to do that, who knows what you may choose to do?”
So our part is, let us then humble ourselves and pray, recognizing that we do not manipulate the hand of God. We deserve nothing, for repentance is what we should do. God does not commend us for our repentance—give us prizes, as it were: “There, there. Very good! Excellent response! Go to the top of the class!” You see how man-centered our thinking is? And this pagan king is better off! He says, “We need to do this… and who knows? Who knows?”
And look at verse 10, and with this we stop: “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.”
Now, here we come to a point of great discussion—which is unfortunate, because it is now past time for stopping. But let me give you just enough to send you home intrigued but not confused.
How are we to understand this? If you have a King James Version it says that “God repented,” which is a really unfortunate translation, because we think of repentance in terms of turning away from something that we know to be wrong, and God never has to turn away from something that is wrong. The Old Testament affirms that God is unchanging, and yet at the same time, it affirms that he can and does alter his attitude towards people and his way of dealing with them.
Now, if you doubt that, let me give you one illustration, and I promise you I will draw this to a close; I won’t belabor it, but I have to do service to this. First Samuel 15:11, it says—God speaks, and he says, “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” “I wish I hadn’t made Saul king.” Verse 29: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.” Now, doesn’t that sound to you like in verse 11 he just changed his mind, and then in verse 29 we’re told that he doesn’t change his mind? “I’m grieved that I made Saul king. I wish I hadn’t made him king.”
Now, how then are you to understand that? Well, the fact is, loved ones, that there is no ultimate inconsistency between these two modes of expression. Because actually, when God is said to change his mind, it is really an accommodation to us. When God is said to change his mind, matters are being viewed from our human perspective. Because it appears to us that there has been a change in God. But what in fact has actually changed is our human conduct, not God.
So in other words, Saul was no longer the man he had once been. He had now become persistently disobedient. The Ninevites, in reverse, had also changed their conduct, but in the opposite direction: they had turned away from evil. And so God would have been inconsistent in his attitude towards them had he responded in the same way despite the change in their behavior. Right? That would have been the inconsistency. Because God is consistently against sin. There is no variation in his loathing of it or in his determination to punish it. That is a constant feature of his character. But when God announces that his judgment is about to fall upon the sinful, it is a statement of what will inevitably happen if they continue on their present course. But it is a conditional statement. It is intended to alert the wayward, to bring them to repentance. And if that occurs, then God responds accordingly to the changed circumstances.
Now, I said I wouldn’t belabor it, but let me just give you one verse to go home and worry about overnight. Jeremiah 18:7. And I quoted this last Sunday:
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or [a] kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
So, though it may not be explicitly stated, the announcement of impending disaster is conditioned on continuing disobedience, just as the enjoyment of the blessings of God’s covenant is conditioned on obedience. So the just judgment of God takes into account—and listen to this carefully—the just judgment of God takes into account the attitude and the situation of those to whom his demands are addressed.
And it is only because God does respond in this way that the sinner who believes in Jesus can come to know divine acceptance. Otherwise, how could anybody be saved? Why is it that one thief was banished from the presence of Christ, and the other thief was “today in paradise”? God was absolutely settled in his response to sin. He never equivocated for a moment. He never changed his mind in relationship to it. He said, “If you remain in your unbelief, if you remain impenitent, if you remain rebellious, then inevitably the judgment will fall on you.” And that’s what’ll happen to you. And the thief said, “Lord, will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” He said, “Yeah, today you’ll be with me in paradise.” What changed? The heart of the individual.
Well, that such a response should result from one man’s preaching in a pagan metropolis should surely provide a great encouragement to us whenever and wherever we are called upon to proclaim the gospel. Go back to Bremen, and take your place, and declare the word of the Lord. And let us here, in this great metropolitan region of Cleveland, determine to do the same thing.
And beware, lest you go home with Jonah in 4:1: “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. And he prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, [is that] not what I said when I was still at home? That’s why I wanted to run away. I knew you were gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. God, why did you have to go ahead and save those people?’” How strange, from the lips of a prophet. How strange.
Father, the Bible exhausts us, draws us in, demands our best. We bow before the immensity of its truth. Our best thinking is beggared before the immensity of it. And here we are, back with Paul again: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the knowledge of God!” How vast, how beyond our ability to find out!
But we do thank you, Lord, that though you are the God who pronounces inevitable judgment, that when, in the hearing of the prophetic word, we come in penitence and in childlike faith, you respond with compassion and with mercy. And from our perspective it looks as though you change your mind, when in point of fact you have remained true to every word you have ever spoken. And we bow our tiny minds before the greatness of your truth, as we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 See 2 Kings 14:25.
 See Joshua 19:13.
 John 7:52 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 11:29–32.
 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, First Series (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 22.
 Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 7:269.
 William Carus, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, M. A. (London: Hatchard, 1847), 28.
 John Henry Sammis, “Trust and Obey” (1887).
 Hebrews 9:27 (paraphrased).
 Charles Wesley, “Depth of Mercy” (1740).
 See Luke 15:11–24.
 Romans 2:2–4 (NIV 1984).
 W. Spencer Walton, “In Tenderness He Sought Me” (1894).
 Luke 11:32 (paraphrased).
 2 Chronicles 7:14 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:18–19 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:42–43 (paraphrased).
 Jonah 4:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Romans 11:33 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.