Nineveh's Repentance

 •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 6
"The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here." Luke 11:3232The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. (Luke 11:32).
Such is the testimony of the Lord Jesus to the effect of the short sermon of the unwilling preacher. "They repented at the preaching of Jonas." If we turn to this sermon and mark its effects, we shall see what repentance is, and how faith did and must precede it. (Read Jonah 3.)
Jonah was sent by the Lord the second time, saying, "Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee." Mark, it was not to be a sermon of his own composing, or the suggestion of his own thoughts, but, "Preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee." Oh, what different sermons there would be in this day if the preacher's ear were opened to hear that voice saying, "Preach... the preaching that I bid thee." Many a preacher would rise up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord; most unwilling would some be to declare the coming judgments on this ungodly world.
"So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD." "And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said." Now let us listen to Jonah's sermon. "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown." What a sermon! The English translation is in eight words. Not a word about repentance. Not a hope of mercy, or forgiveness, or sparing. This is the whole sermon: The message of Jehovah was of coming judgment, speedy overthrow. And the testimony of the Lord Jesus is, "They repented at the preaching of Jonas." But did they repent first, and then believe? or believe first, and this produce repentance? The answer could not be clearer or more decisive. The immediate effect of this sermon of eight words on the scores of thousands of the people of Nineveh was this: "So the people of Nineveh BELIEVED GOD, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them."
How could they have done this if they had not believed God? Would they have proclaimed a fast? No; they would have treated Jonah as a lying imposter. It does not say they believed Jonah, but they believed God. They believed God, and repented at the preaching of Jonah.
"For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose: from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes." Yes, the sure effect of the word is to bring man from his throne. Blessed effect of faith in God—to break one to pieces.
We will now look at the second step, as brought out in this scripture. "And he laid his robe from him." If any man had a robe worth keeping, Saul of Tarsus was the man. He says, "And be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." Phil. 3:99And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: (Philippians 3:9). Have you laid your robe, your righteousness, every hope of being able to stand righteous before God by works of law, from you? This is not all.
The third step recorded is this: "and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes." This is deep, deep work in the soul. 'What an expression of self-abhorrence! Have y o u taken this place? The whole old man covered with sackcloth. This is not merely sorrow for sins we have committed. Repentance in Job's case was exactly the same. He did not say, I hate the sin I have committed; surely we should do this. But he said, "I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee: wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Job 42:5, 65I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. 6Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5‑6). God must be known and believed, to produce this self-abhorrence. When God is thus known, instead of my own fancied righteousness, it is sackcloth and ashes.
We will now notice the fourth step. "And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything: let them not feed, nor drink water." Most assuredly a mere assent to the truths of the gospel is not the repentance of the Scriptures. Has that mighty proclamation been made in every recess of your soul, like the streets of Nineveh, so that your eyes and mouth have been fast closed to everything the world and Satan can present to you? O for a mighty work of the Spirit to bring souls thus before God in brokenness of heart!
And, further, the fifth step. "But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God." Hearken to the cry of the awakened jailer, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" These are the inspired marks of repentance.
Neither must we omit the sixth step in the words of the king. "Yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands." Would it have been true repentance in this case, had Nineveh continued to practice the fearful wickedness of an eastern imperial city? Neither is that true repentance in anyone who, while assenting to the truths of the gospel, continues to practice iniquity.
Is it not clear then that if all this could possibly take place before faith and divine life in the soul, then man would save himself? No; they believed God; faith takes hold of God. Nothing could be more striking than the divine order in this scripture. God sends the word, using His poor weak servant. That word comes in mighty power. It brings man from his throne, strips him of his robe, of all self-righteousness—opens his eyes to see his vileness. He abhors himself in sackcloth and ashes. He judges himself according to that word. He fasts; that is, nothing can satisfy his soul until Christ is known in His Person and work. Everything fails; he now cries out mightily to the Lord. He is heard, and this leads to fruits of repentance in a holy life.
What a witness will this repentance at the eight words of Jonah be in the day of judgment! There was no hope of mercy held out, but they believed God, they repented, and now they count on God, they trust God. They say, "Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away His fierce anger, that we perish not?" Thus it was the goodness of God that led them to repentance. And did God disappoint the trust of the vast multitude of Nineveh? No. "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did it not." And Jesus says, "The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here."
Jonas, an unwilling preacher, came from Palestine to Nineveh, and preached eight words, and scores of thousands believed God, and repented. The Son of God has come from heaven and revealed the whole character of God in righteousness, yet love, of certain and everlasting wrath coming on all who believe not on Him, yet present repentance and forgiveness of sins preached in His name. It is not now, "Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?" Not a shadow of uncertainty remains. "Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." Luke 24:4747And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47). "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." Acts 16:3131And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. (Acts 16:31). Jesus has been lifted up on the cross; He has died for our sins. God has raised Him from the dead for our justification. God is pledged in righteousness and love. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." John 3:1616For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16).
Yes, God is now fully revealed in Christ. With the Scriptures in our hands we can come into His presence and hear the words of Christ. We hear God speaking to us in the Person of His Son. But do not forget, God is now commanding all men to repent. "Because He hath appointed a day, in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He bath raised Him from the dead." Acts 17:3131Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. (Acts 17:31). Oh, how gracious of God—not merely announcing judgment, as in Jonah's sermon, but now the atoning work is done; God commands all men everywhere to repent.
It is thus the goodness of God leads to repentance. Oh, be not deceived, sin and self must be judged now in the presence of God in grace, or all must be brought out in judgment. Trust not in a false peace—a mere assent to the truth without any exercise of soul as to sin, or any giving up the pleasures of a world which is hastening on to judgment. We fear many souls are thus deceived. They adopt a mere form of godliness, but deny the power.