The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. Jonah 3:6-10, ESV.
God not only gave Jonah a second chance at obedience, but He used Jonah’s reluctant sermon to bring about a spiritual awakening in Nineveh! Word spreads around the city about the prophet from Israel who is preaching the future judgment of God. News reaches the king and he not only repents but demands the entire city do acts of repentance. It is his repentance that demands our attention today, for it is extraordinary.
His repentance is physical. He symbolically steps off his throne, removes his royal regalia, and assumes the garb and position of a mourner (sackcloth and ashes). This display is not just a show. Godly sorrow for sin is often too great to hold inside. The physical and spiritual natures of man are not disconnected. We cannot deal with something as serious as sin without involving them both in our expressions of repentance.
His repentance is public. Everyone sees the king’s repentance. He calls for the city to be publicly repentant, too. There are good reasons. First, the sin of Nineveh was public. The Ninevites were renowned for their wickedness and violence. Public sin demands public repentance. Second, those who openly lead others in sin need to openly take the responsibility to lead them in repentance. Each Ninevite was responsible for his own sin, but the Old Testament prophets make it clear that God holds the king who leads his people into sin responsible for their sin as well as his own.
His repentance is humble. This repentant king wants nothing to do with displays of majesty. Desiring his city to bow along with him, he calls for a fast and for a mighty cry to ascend to heaven in search of forgiveness. The great city of Nineveh is to bring itself low before the God of Israel, begging Him to defer His anger and judgment.
It is amazing that God forgave the pagan Ninevites. They were open enemies of Israel and God. Nonetheless, their corporate pleas for forgiveness, led by a humbled king, reach the heart of God. He sees their turn from evil, their repentance, and He holds back the destruction He had promised. God is merciful to Assyria.
Friends, our nation has descended into an abyss of sin every bit as deep as the one in Nineveh. Consider this brief list: racism, violence, abuse, pornography, lives ruined by drugs and alcohol, and the killing of the unborn. It seems that our forty-day warning should have come long ago. Yet, our government leaders are anything but humble and seem unwilling to lead us to cry out to God in repentance.
What can we do? What do we need to do as a church? We can start being open and honest about our own sin, both individually and corporately. We can specifically admit our sin of pride and indifference to the plight of our suffering neighbors. We can cry out to God to forgive us for being a self-absorbed and judgmental church instead of a repentant and forgiven church that offers the good news of forgiveness to others. We can do this. Will we? Will you?
Let’s deal with our sin and pray for each other and our nation, that we will see our sin clearly, experience godly sorrow over it, cry out to God in repentance, and be forgiven.
Church, I am praying for you.