John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The first time that God called Jonah to go to Nineveh (Jonah 1:2), but also the second time that He called him to preach there (Jonah 3:2), God called Nineveh “that great city”. In fact in the Hebrew we read “a great city to God”. The idea undoubtedly is that it was exceedingly great in comparison with other cities in that day. We cannot be sure of the exact measurements, but it may have had a million or more citizens. Jonah 4:11 reveals that there were in it 120,000 little children too young to discern yet between their right and their left hands. It is claimed that the city was 60 miles in circumference, had walls that were 100 feet high and wide enough for three chariots to ride side by side upon them. It is credited with having 1500 towers which were 200 feet high. But we can take the Word of God for it that it was a great city in size. Great it also was in the judgment and evaluation of men in that day. It was THE city of that day and age.
We must not, however, get the impression that this caused Jonah to fear going there and preaching what God had bidden him to preach. He did not flee to Tarshish because he was afraid of the Ninevites. We are expressly told in Jonah 1:3 that he rose up to flee “from the presence of the Lord”. It was not because of what he feared the Ninevites might do to him, but rather because he feared what God would do through his preaching. It is certainly true that it was a dangerous undertaking for Jonah to go there and preach the message given him. But he needed no visa to get into the city. We may be sure that he did not need to go through immigration and custom inspection and state his reason for coming and how long he intended to stay in that city. But to “cry against it; for their wickedness” (Jonah 1:2) and to publish throughout the city “yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4) was something its citizens would not like to hear. Could he expect the authorities through their police or soldiers to silence him by capture, by expelling him, or even by death? That was not Jonah’s concern when he was called the first time. It certainly was not now after the second call. His experiences as to what God could do to him, after that terrible storm, and being cast into the belly of hell, revealed clearly to him that there was far more to fear, as far as God is concerned, than men of flesh and blood.
Now that it was a great city, and was labeled as such by God Himself, does bring out a point we must not overlook. Man may reach amazing heights, as far as earthly standards are concerned; and he may become very great in the judgment of men and in their estimation; but, if he walks in sin, he can expect God to overthrow him. Earthly wealth and grandure, becoming very numerous and affluent, mean nothing before the holy wrath of the holy God Who by sin is defied and denied.
Let the truth of the day of shadows speak to us today. Man has today attained to much more than Nineveh had in Jonah’s day. In the field of science and technology; in man’s conquest of space, that moves him to boast of having walked on the moon and of coming back home safely; in the innumerable multitude of labor-saving devices, which seem to have removed from mankind the curse to a very great extent, and God’s word that in the sweat of our brows we would have to toil for food and drink, living in cities that have skyscrapers Nineveh could never have built; in the midst of all the comforts and conveniences we know today; does it not seem as though man will some day escape the holy wrath of God and nullify the curse?
Do not for one split second think that! Modern Nineveh is going to be overthrown. The Nineveh of the Antichrist will bring pleasure to mankind unheard of yet today. And although that Antichrist’s kingdom will make Nineveh look sick and weak and tiny, the day is ahead of us when it will be overthrown. Though it is not widely published, cancer is on the increase. The recent story of what happened in the Russian nuclear power plant, sending cancer-producing gases around the whole world, reveals that God is not mocked. Acid rain, which man does not seem able to stop or control, likewise brings cancer to mankind and death to God’s plant world. And we are the Jonahs of today who must cry out that the present Nineveh’s are going to be overthrown; and that only those therein who repent and flee from their sins are going to escape the awful wrath of God. Not only was Nineveh a great city, but also a city of great wickedness. Not only is this present world far greater than Nineveh; it is also a world of greater wickedness.
Now the book of Jonah does not in very much detail list or describe the wickedness that came up before God out of Nineveh. We do read in Jonah 3:8 that the king passed a decree that all must turn from their “evil ways, and from the violence that is in their hands”. But if we go to the book of Nahum, we get a clearer picture of Nineveh. In Nahum 3:1-4 we read, “Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not . . . . Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the well-favored harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcraft.” From all this it is plain that Nineveh broke the first and second tables of God’s law left and right.
And when you consider all the crime in the world today, all the sabbath desecrations, false doctrines which also are witchcraft, the defense and protection of homosexuals—repeating the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah that called for fire and brimstone—and millions of abortion murders, one wonders whether the modern Nineveh of this world has forty years yet before it is overthrown!
Bearing all these things in mind we ought to see that it is an appropriate approach when God gives Jonah these words to preach to the Ninevites: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown”. That was not a message Jonah concocted because he did not want the city to be spared. We may believe, and must believe, that God gave Jonah that message. Yes, God gave him more to preach. He surely did not preach only eight words. In fact in the Hebrew it is only four words. No, we need to know much more. The sinner must know that it is God Who is coming with punishment, and that He comes with this overthrow because of sin. The Ninevites must know that the earthquake, or fire and brimstone—as was the case in the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah—the pestilence or invading army is God’s tool and comes because of His holy wrath. They must know that the overthrow is because “their wickedness is come up before” Him.
It is quite possible that they recognized Jonah by his clothes, facial features, and speech, to be a Jew, and thus one from the nation that worshipped Jehovah. They may have seen him as a representative of this God Who had done such wondrous works for Abraham’s seed in the past. Nevertheless they have to know their sinfulness in His sight and that this woe is coming because of their guilt. As sinners they were not living in the consciousness of their evil, and considered themselves blest by their idols. And because Jonah is sent to warn the elect and to bring them to repentance, God would see to it that they in the preaching have Him presented, and their sin against Him condemned in no uncertain terms.
That this also happened is evident from the decree of the king. He not only mentions God as the one—He uses the name Elohim—Who will overthrow Nineveh, but he also points to the sin of these Ninevites as not only the reason for that punishment, but as that which deserves such an overthrow.
And the tragedy is that so little is said today about sin in the preaching. The approach of those who call themselves evangelists is that God loves everybody. On bumper stickers too there is the incorrect statement: “Smile, God loves you.” It would be well if we would instead read wherever we go, “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Romans 6:23. And do you note that Paul’s approach is sin and its worthiness of punishment? Then, too, did God come to fallen Adam and Eve shouting, “I love you! I love you! Come and get salvation?” Not at all. He first made them painfully aware of their guilt. In fact before there was any sin in the world yet, He warned righteous man and spelled out clearly what sin would bring. And even as God’s approach to fallen Adam and Eve was appropriate—very fitting and served their appreciation of the promise of The Seed of the woman, Who would deliver us from the power and dominion of Satan—so He gave Jonah a message to preach that fit the situation perfectly and served to bring the elect to repentance. He sent Jonah with a warning in order to work a turning away from sin and unto Himself. That is why all that is pointed out to us and preserved here in Holy Writ about Jonah’s preaching are those words, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed”. But we may believe that he said more, and that he was even questioned for further knowledge by some of the elect in the city. After all, although Jonah wanted Nineveh destroyed, and was even angry when the city was spared because of a goodly number of converts, God sent him there to work repentance and gave him the preaching that he must preach in order that this repentance would be realized.
Take Jesus Himself in His preaching as an example. Was He forever shouting how much God loves everyone? Was He trying to get through to the Scribes and Pharisees how much God loved them and invited them to come and get salvation? Do we not find Him constantly in every contact with these self-righteous Jews pointing out their sins? What a contrast He makes in His Parable of The Pharisee and the Publican! The Pharisee saw no sin, and therefore no need of Christ and of God’s mercy. The publican saw nothing but sin. Our King James Version does not bring this out as clearly as the Greek. But, whereas the Greek uses the definite article the very seldom, it is used by Jesus here, and the publican smites his breast, hangs his head in shame, and cries out, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” He saw the need of mercy. He realized that he deserved the torments of hell. Repentance, sorrow for sin, seeking salvation where it may be found, demands a clear and unquestionable awareness of guilt before God. And without that misery of knowing how sinful we are, the cross has no meaning. Yea, not seeing their sin, the chief priests committed the further sin of crucifying the Son of God.
When God, before man sinned, said that sin would bring forth death, Satan said, “No, it will improve man’s lot, for he will become like God.” And even as God still says that the wages of sin is death, Satan assures man that sin will benefit him. And the sad truth is that today we hardly ever hear of hell and damnation. Instead, many churches deny it and call it a sin to believe that the God Who is love would maintain a place like that!
Churches there are also who would not think of reading God’s law to the congregation during the worship services. That is inappropriate, since we are under grace and not under the law. But they will place throughout their buildings signs reading, “No Smoking”; and they will mark off parking places for the handicapped. Yes, man may have laws and insist that they be kept. But the unchangeable God Who wrote the law in stone with His finger can change and drop that law; and it is so inappropriate to speak words about displeasing Him. Speak only of His love.
Yet God’s approach through Jonah is as appropriate today as it was in Jonah’s day. It worked then and brought repentance and the enjoyment of salvation. And if we do not know God’s law, we cannot know His Son as our Savior. Nor can we see any reason for andneed for His cross. And we will not know the love which He reveals in Scripture.