John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The method the all-wise God chose, and used through His servant Jonah, succeeded in getting the elect in Nineveh to repent, turn from their evil ways and cry out for salvation. There was no “free offer” proclaimed unto these Ninevites. No “altar call” was voiced. Neither God nor Jonah pleaded with the Ninevites to accept the “gospel invitation”. The love of God was not held up before their eyes and used as the approach to attempt to get conversion and faith. Instead there was an announcement of God’s holy wrath because of sins committed, and a warning of a certain visitation upon these sins. But it worked! A goodly number of Ninevites did repent, did turn from their evil ways and the violence of their hands. And mightily they cried to God, seeking salvation.
This is amazing when you consider that the preacher God sent did not want to work there, and with all his heart wanted the city destroyed. He did not go there in the hope that a goodly number would be converted and that the city would not be overthrown. These Ninevites were not, a people that wanted fellowship with Jonah’s people. They sought no friendly relations with them. Instead they were a hostile people that threatened Israel’s life, and would like to introduce their idols and evil life into Canaan. This preacher was of the firm conviction that the best thing that could happen to this people was that they and their city were wiped off the face of this earth.
Many today that call themselves evangelists would reject Jonah as a proper tool to bring sinners. to repentance and unto faith in Christ. The method as well as the tool God chose would be rejected by them. Jonah would be put out of office and be told to seek employment in some other field of work. But the method worked, and the tool did not spoil the end that was sought; because that method was chosen by the all-wise God, and that tool was in His almighty hand.
This ought to be revealing to us today. It ought to say much to us in this day and age when the approach to the sinner is a distorted emphasis upon God’s love—which is claimed to be resting on every man, woman and child in the world—and God’s holy wrath against sin and the sinner is only whispered, if it is mentioned at all. Most of the time the hatred of God against the sinners whose names were not written in the Lamb’s book of life from eternity is emphatically denied.
O, God hates sin, but not the sinner, is the stand of so many today. Sin is just something that hangs in the air somewhere and is not attached to the person. It does not come out of and is not rooted in the evil thoughts and desires of man. It is not really his work, so that he cannot be blamed. God loves the man we dare to call a sinner, and hates only his sin. The cry is that Jesus Himself said in John 3:16 that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. And to them this means that God loves every single man, woman, and child in the world. But wait a minute. Is that not saying too much? Is Satan, in John 12:31, not called the prince of this world? Surely, if God loves everyone in the world, He will love its prince. By all means get that heretical idea out of your heart and mind! Hold on to Psalm 5:5: “The foolish shall not stand in Thy sight: Thou hatest all workers of iniquity”. Take careful note of how God approaches these sinners in that great city of Nineveh. He tells Jonah to tell these people that they are sinners and that He will overthrow them if they do not repent, turn from their evil ways, and confess Him to be their God. That preaching will bring to the faith and to repentance those sinners whose sins were paid for in the blood of God’s Son.
Why will this kind of preaching work sincere sorrow for sin and a cry for God’s mercy? Because God chose it and uses it. Conversion does not depend upon the man who preaches it. It depends upon God Who chose that method, and speaks through the man He called to preach that truth. You can pick up the brushes that a noted artist uses, and make use of his oils, but that does not mean that your painting will be beautiful like his. He can pick up the brushes and oils you use and paint therewith that which makes your picture look crude and off-color. It is not the tool, but the one who uses the tool. It was not Jonah, but God who planned Jonah’s sermons and spoke through him. It was God, Who by His Spirit spoke in the hearts of the elect Ninevites (while Jonah’s words entered their ears and fleshly minds) Who wrought this repentance.
And it is interesting as well as significant to note how Scripture here presents the success God gave to Jonah’s preaching. We read in Jonah 3:5, “So the people of Nineveh believed God.” It was Jonah who told them that God would overthrow Nineveh in forty days. And undoubtedly the elect in Nineveh believed Jonah when he cried this out to them. But believing the preacher is one thing. Believing God is quite another thing. Many today believe preachers who say that the bread and wine in the sacrament turn into the actual flesh and blood of Christ. But that will do them no good, and it will do them great harm. The question is not what man preaches but what God says through him, when he preaches what God has bidden him to preach.
These Ninevites believed in God, and that means that they believed that HE is God, and that their idols were not gods. The Hebrew states that they believed in Elohim. He was their God, and they believed that there was no God beside Him. For Elohim means The Almighty One. Their idols therefore are worthless, have no might, and it is folly to trust in them. And because they believe in The Almighty One, they are sure that He can and will overthrow their city, if they do not repent and flee from their sins. It means that they believe that they should keep His law and walk in ways pleasing in His sight. Therefore it also means that they are keenly aware of having displeased Him with all their evil, and that they deserve to be punished by Him.
From the king’s question: “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?” it is evident that Jonah in no way and to no degree even hinted at the truth that God would show mercy to those who sincerely repented and turned from their sins. Had Jonah done so, the king would never have presented that question to his citizens. The king, however, was correct in commanding his people to cry mightily to God for forgiveness and for escape from punishment. That is quite in order, when there is sincere sorrow for sin and a turning away from it.
Now the sincerity of the Ninevites became evident in their fasting, wearing sackcloth and sitting in the ashes. All this was not an attempt to buy salvation, or earn it by their works. That would only be adding to their sin. Trying to buy anything from God is breaking the second commandment, and therefore also a breaking of the first commandment. When we sin, no matter what the sin is, we always break the first commandment and have before us another god than Jehovah. It is having a god who is not Elohim, the Almighty One. It is having a god of our own imagination, who allows these evil deeds. And as far as the Ninevites are concerned, it would have been making a god in their imagination, whom they can change by their cries and external deeds. Then they believe in a god over whom the sinner has power. He is not the Almighty One, for man can overpower him and change him and his mind by man’s deeds. No, the sackcloth and ashes together with the fasting were not to influence the Almighty One, but evidences of the sorrow in the hearts of the elect, because they had displeased God and rebelled against Him.
Fasting, sackcloth and ashes symbolize sadness, grief, and lack of joy and happiness. They meant that the smile on Gods face, His favor upon them, meant more than all the earthly treasures and pleasures. They meant that the elect Ninevites were so concerned with being pleasing in God’s sight that they found nothing pleasing in the things of this earth and of this life. The main thing was getting right with God! What concerned them was, as the king expressed it, escape from the fierce anger of the God against Whom they sinned. Yea, these were manifestations of the fact that they confessed that they did not deserve the things of this earth and of this life. These were signs of their acknowledgement that they did not deserve life, that they were guilty and had been using the things of this life and of this earth sinfully.
And is it not because we covet, and are breaking that tenth commandment, that we break all the rest of the second table of the law? Is it not true that our lives are such that we worship and live for delicious foods, dainty clothing of the latest style and fashion? Is it not true that we are so occupied with earthly things that God is pushed out of our minds and lives? Do we live for Him, or for a good time here below? What comes first in our lives? It happened years later, but Paul wrote it, because this situation always existed in the world since man fell. Paul writes in Colossians 3: 1, 2, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on the things on the earth.” And did Jesus not say in His Sermon on the Mount, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” Matthew 6:24, 25. And even before that He said in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is—there will your heart be also.” The hearts of these elect Ninevites was not on the things of this earth, but on peace with God. And we should duplicate their behavior today, instead of feasting and competing with the world in dazzling attire and ornamentation. We, too, have glaring evil ways and far more room for sorrow than for laughter and fleshly glee.
Crying mightily unto God goes hand in hand with such spiritual grief. Without it the fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes are mockery. Because the king commanded it, many unbelievers did go through all these motions, lest they be punished by the king, not by God Whom they did not love, and in Whom they did not believe.
Now crying mightily does not mean making a lot of noise. The Baal prophets did that when they wanted Baal to send down fire upon their altar and bullock. But we read of Elijah in I Kings 18:36, 37 that he merely said “. . . Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel . . .” And no sooner had he ended his calm prayer for fire, and it came down. Here, too, in Nineveh it was not the loudness of the cry of these penitent sinners, but the strength of desire, and the strong conviction that He is God and able to save them, that their true penitence produced. It was a cry of an intense, great desire.
We are not going to overwhelm God by loud and frequent prayers. He is the Almighty One. He warned Nineveh that it would be overthrown, if they did not repent. But He Himself will not now be overthrown by loud cries. If the king meant that, he was only advocating more sin. No, the mighty God will work in His elect a powerful desire for a salvation that they do not deserve. His almighty power will become manifest in a mighty cry which He works in them. His might wrought this amazing change in the elect Ninevites. There was spiritual might behind it and in it.