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. 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. 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 any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

Jonah 3:5-9

Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh brought about the kind of response most preachers only dream about. The majority of the city repented and believed, including the king who took the lead in humbling himself before God, acknowledging his sin and the sin of his people and throwing himself on the mercy of God. We may be sure that not every person in Nineveh was saved. That never happens, but the repentance of Nineveh is, nevertheless, one of the great events in history and the only event that the Word of God notices. Not Nineveh’s military might and victories, not her palaces and strongholds, not her magnificent kings with their unparalleled power, but her repentance in the days of Jonah is remembered by God.

There is disagreement among historians as to the identity of the Ninevite king. Some opt for Samshi-adad V and others for Adad-nirari III, the next king after Samshi-adad. The Bible does not tell us and it does not matter. Name, wealth, position, influence matter not the least in God’s sight. What matters is a broken and a contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). “Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Is. 66:1, 2). So it was in those days. So it is now.

Jonah’s preaching was a mere declaration that God would destroy the city in forty days and even revealed that Jonah preached with no desire for Nineveh’s repentance and salvation. His sinful attitude would become evident when he finished his task and left the city to wait for its destruction, something he dearly wanted to witness.

His message was the message that God gave him. After his ordeal in the fish’s belly we may be sure that he, however bad his attitude may have been, did exactly what God told him. God had said: “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee,” and there is no reason to think that he did anything else. We must remember, however, that his presence in the city was itself a sermon.

Jesus calls Jonah a sign to the Ninevites, which means that they not only knew the story of what had happened to him, but understood through that story both God’s wrath against sin and His merciful kindness as evidenced by Jonah himself. It was that living sermon that brought them to repentance and faith in God, as well as the threat of their city’s destruction.

One can imagine them saying, as Jonah made his way through the city: “There’s the man who tried to run away from his God. Did you hear how the anger of God followed him and how he spent three days and nights in the belly of a fish for his disobedience? His God was merciful to him, though, and saved him from the fish’s belly. Our gods are not like that. We’ve heard that He is the true God and have seen His hand in the creation around us. He is ever so much more merciful than the idols we serve and to which we sacrifice our children, but we had always heard that He was the God of Israel. Now His prophet has been sent here to tell us to turn from our wickedness. Why he should come here we do not know, but it is true that we have lived wickedly and need to change.”

They might have dismissed Jonah’s preaching as the ravings of a madman. Like Lot when he warned his children of Sodom’s impending doom, he might have seemed to them as one who mocked (Gen. 19:14). They might even have killed him as a despised Israelite, but instead they believed and repented, humbling themselves before God and seeking His mercy. How amazing and almighty is the grace of God! And what an encouragement Jonah’s preaching is to all who must bring the gospel without fear of men’s faces or of their response.

But was the repentance of Nineveh genuine? Was it just the sorrow of the world, which works death, sorrow for the consequences of their sins and for their threatened destruction, or was it a godly sorrow (II Cor. 7:10)? One writer says: “Shall we say that the repentance of Nineveh was thoroughly spiritual and saving in the light of eternity? Alas! There is no evidence to show that thorough conversion to God was effected, at least in the city generally.”1

Contrary to what this writer says, there is clear evidence that Nineveh’s repentance was genuine. Most important is the testimony of Jesus in Matthew 12:41 (Luke 11:32): “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” There is no indication in the words of Jesus that their repentance was false and every use of the word “repented” in the New Testament is of a real, spiritual repentance, worked by the Spirit of God.

Jesus in Matthew 12:41 is speaking to an “evil and adulterous generation” who refused in their self-righteousness to believe and humble themselves in repentance. They required a sign of Jesus in order to repent and believe. Jesus tells them that no sign would be given but the sign of the prophet Jonah and speaks of Nineveh’s repentance as testimony against them. If Nineveh’s repentance had not been genuine, then it would have been no testimony against those unbelieving Jews, but rather an example of their own folly.

Alongside the testimony of Jesus stands God’s own repentance, of which we will speak further, the actions of the Ninevites in humbling themselves before God, their crying to God, and their believing God. The latter refers to their believing Jonah’s preaching of judgment especially, but it is the word that Scripture uses to describe true faith, worked by God’s Spirit: they heard Jonah, but they believed God! Believing God, they prayed to Him and in praying to Him humbled themselves before Him. There can be no doubt that these Ninevites were saved as a demonstration of the great truth that salvation is of the Lord (2:9). God did in Nineveh what He would not do in Israel for their hardness of heart and continued idolatry.

That this repentance lasted for only a short time, that is, for that generation, is evident. Within 100 years the prophets Nahum and Zephaniah would speak again of Nineveh’s evil ways and would prophesy her destruction (Nah. 3:7; Zeph. 2:13). In 612 B.C. Nineveh would be destroyed by the Medes. Nineveh was not saved in its generations. Nineveh, in the Old Testament, was not numbered with God’s covenant people and God did not continue His covenant there. That would not happen among the Gentiles until the New Testament. Nevertheless, God demonstrated the sovereignty of His mercy and foretold the New Testament salvation of the Gentiles in Nineveh’s repentance.

The Ninevites, therefore, are an illustration of what the Word says in I John 1:8, 9: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” May God grant us all repentance unto life, as He granted it to these Gentiles, and not take away this grace from us as He took it from Israel.

Nineveh’s salvation demonstrates, too, the importance of repentance. We cannot be saved except from sin, and salvation from sin includes not only the justifying work of Christ, but the Spirit’s work of sanctification in turning us from our sinful ways. In the justice of God we cannot be saved in our sins but must be saved from them, and so salvation includes conversion and sanctification, a work of grace not finished until we are in heaven and our deliverance is complete and perfect.

Nor may the gospel call for repentance be set aside. It is that call which reminds us, as it did the people of Nineveh, that He is not a God who takes pleasure in sin (Ps. 5:4). God uses the call to repentance to work repentance in the hearts of His own as He did in the whole business of sending Israel’s prophet to Nineveh. He would show to the remnant in Israel the importance of repenting and so would turn them from their sins and, in that way, save chosen and redeemed Israel in those terrible days of apostasy and idolatry.

Nineveh’s fasting and sackcloth were signs of humiliation and self-denial. Self-denial is always part of repentance for, when we repent, we deny all the inclinations of our own sinful natures. Self-denial is what the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 89) calls the “mortification of the old man,” the putting to death of our sinful natures: “What is the mortification of the old man? It is a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.” So it was in Nineveh and so it is with us. Humiliation comes from the knowledge that we have sinned against the most high majesty and glory of God and involves complete self-abnegation.

We do not sit in ashes anymore, not literally, nor do we wear sackcloth, but what they represent are as much a part of true repentance now as they were then. We sit in ashes when all our pride and self-sufficiency are burned away and we confront the fire of God’s holiness. Humiliation is ours when we say with David, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest” (Ps. 51:4).

That even the beasts were required to fast and were draped in sackcloth is simply an acknowledgment that they had been instrumental in the service of sin and violence. The beasts were not guilty before God, but had been used, as the sinner uses all things, sinfully, and so were involved in the repentance of Nineveh. Would that Israel and the church today gave heed to the example of Nineveh and walked humbly before God acknowledging such wickedness and evil-doing.

When the king of Nineveh is quoted saying, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” Scripture does not mean that there is any possibility on God’s part that He will not forgive and restore those who humble themselves. The promise of I John 1:9 is clear. Such language is rather the expression of a sorrowful heart that has seen its own wickedness and, without doubting the mercy of God, is amazed that God’s mercy and grace are so great as to cover those horrendous sins that seem to the person who has committed them, but is not repentant, far beyond mercy and forgiveness and worthy of eternal punishment.

We might notice, too, that this repentance and humiliation are referred to in Jonah as works (v. 10), as indeed they are. Repentance for sin is one of the best works a Christian does, and so is humbling oneself before the Almighty. They are good works because they are an acknowledgment of all God says about His own justice and righteousness and about man’s depravity and sin. They are a confession that God is indeed God and worthy of our service and obedience. They are the Christian’s way of saying that man is nothing and God is everything.

Such repentance and humiliation God blesses, not because it is worth anything in itself, but because it was purchased by the blood of God’s Son (even in the Old Testament before that blood was shed) and worked by God’s Spirit. He blessed the repentance of the Ninevites. He blesses true repentance today when He in His grace lifts up the repentant sinner to a knowledge of His lovingkindness and wonderful favor.

The repentant Ninevites still stand in the Word of God, therefore, as a testimony against those, especially in the church, who refuse to speak of sin, who preach a gospel that requires no turning from wickedness and violence (spoil) and that even encourages it. They stand as a testimony against those who try to adapt the gospel to the age in which we live and who preach smooth things instead of the rough word, “Repent or perish.” They stand as a testimony against all those who in their own self-righteousness despise others and who are so confident in their own righteousness that they can find nothing for which to humble themselves before God. They stand as a testimony against all those who will not believe in the Son of God and who say, as the Pharisees did, “Show us a sign.” Truly, “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.”

What a thought that when we stand in judgment, we will stand with those whom we have offended, to whom our behavior was a stumbling block, whose zeal and love for God is a testimony against our own carelessness and coldness and stubborn persistence in sin. Our only hope and refuge in that day will be the shed blood and sacrifice of Christ.

1 Hugh Martin, Jonah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982),