John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
A question which we may not avoid in our consideration of the book of Jonah is “Where do we find Christ in the sermon that God gave Jonah to preach in Nineveh?” After all is said and done, a Christless sermon is not the gospel. And it is only through the gospel that the Spirit brings us to faith and salvation. In the day of shadows, as well as today, Christ had to be preached. There was no salvation in the Old Testament dispensation apart from Christ any more than there is today. And the preaching had to be preaching of Christ to be the gospel then, as well as it does now in the new dispensation. Christless sermons do not bring men to faith and salvation. And a sermon has to have more in it than the name of Christ to be the gospel. Antichristian sermons will have His name in them; and sermons that strengthen in unbelief also do. Did not Satan, in his first attack upon mankind, use God’s name, Genesis 3:1, 5? No, Paul spells it out clearly inI Corinthians 1:23, when he writes, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” There you have it! Christ crucified is the gospel, the good news of salvation.
In the day of shadows, from the fall of Adam onward, the cross of Christ was held before the eyes of the church. There was the shedding of blood that provided Adam and Eve with skins to cover their nakedness and consciousness of guilt. There were lambs sacrificed and high priests who sacrificed them. There were altars on which these lambs were sacrificed. Indeed the shadow of the cross of Christ was there for the Old Testament saints as the way of salvation.
But where do you read of any of this preached in Nineveh, when a goodly number of people, from the king downward, believed and repented? Did Jonah preach salvation? Did he not instead preach damnation?
Dare we say that God forgot to give the Ninevites this important, indispensable element? Is Christ in those eight words which Jonah preached, namely, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown”?
To answer this question we must first of all consider the fact that wherever God’s grace is, there is Christ; and wherever Christ is, there is God’s grace. There just is no grace apart from Christ and His cross. As Paul writes in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” God already said that to fallen Adam and Eve in the very first preaching of the gospel. He assured fallen man that The Seed of the Woman, namely, Christ, would crush the head of the serpent, and that He would have His own heel crushed, which later on the church saw in His cross. And everlasting life—I prefer to call it that, and always speak of everlasting when referring to the creature which always has a beginning, and then reserve the word eternal for God, with the meaning of without beginning or end—this everlasting life is a gift of God through Christ and His cross. As a gift it is a work of grace. Man deserves the wages of sin, and the gospel promises that which the sinner does not deserve, yea is the opposite of what he deserves.
Jonah himself realized all this. In Jonah 4:2 we read, “I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, and repentest Thee of evil.” THAT is exactly why he did not want to go and preach in Nineveh, and as he said, “Therefore I fled before unto Tar-shish.” He saw God’s grace in his message, and thus in effect saw Christ, in those eight words which he was to preach.
Wherein was that grace of God in that message? In this that it was a warning, and not a mere prediction; and it was a warning that contained a time period wherein repentance and escape from that punishment could be realized. For a warning is quite different from a mere prediction, as was clearly the case with Sodom and Gomorrah. There only Lot and his family were warned. The Sodomites were not even informed of a destruction coming in a matter of hours. Here is a warning with a period of time for repentance.
Now the idea is not that God is going to give them a chance to be saved. God takes no chances and gives no chances. He is not a gambler. He eternally decreed all things that will happen, and in time executes what He sovereignly, unchangeably and eternally decreed. Because He had eternally decreed to bring some of these Ninevites to the faith and repentance, He in His grace warned them, and then applied that warning by His Spirit. He specified forty days, not so that the Ninevites could help Him make His counsel stand, for He needs no help. But the forty-day-period is given so that every last elect Ninevite in that great city might be contacted with this warning and gospel, and might by His grace be brought not merely to fear of physical harm and woe, but to sorrow for sin and faith in God.
But the cross of Christ is also here for the Ninevites. Jonah did not preach it, or want to preach it. He did not urge the Ninevites to repent and approach God through the blood of a lamb. He did not offer to sacrifice for them. He did not hold up before their eyes a picture of that cross by telling them of the types and shadows that Israel had. But God did so through the king of Nineveh, when He moved him to command the people to cry mightily to God and then said, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?”
Now our King James Version does not bring this out as clearly and powerfully as the Hebrew does—although the KJV by no means denies it or fails to suggest it—for what the king said was, “But let man . . . cry mightily to Elohim . . . Who can tell if Elohim will turn and repent . . . ?” And that name Elohim means The Almighty One. Doing so the king expresses his own conviction that God can “turn and repent and turn from His fierce anger.” He does not question God’s ability to save Nineveh; but he is not sure yet of His intent. We have a similar example in Matthew 8:2 where a leper, who had a much richer doctrinal background, said to Jesus, “Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.” He wanted healing, and was absolutely sure that Jesus could. But he had no way of knowing whether Jesus intended to do so. This does not mean that neither the king nor that leper had faith in God. They both did, and later on they both learned that God’s intent was to save them. The very question of the king revealed that God had begun the work of salvation in him. He was born again, and he who speaks here of God turning and repenting was himself turned and caused to repent of his sin.
Do not think ill of this king because he asked that question. Did Jesus not ask on His cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” All questioning of God’s ways is not sinful. Well might the Gentiles in Nineveh wonder whether the God, Who had done so much for the Israelites, would also do so much for Ninevites. They believed that He could, but would He?
The point is that the king was given to see, and to call the attention of the Ninevites to the fact, that the cross of Christ is the only hope of salvation. No, he did not see that cross itself. He did not even see the Old Testament types and shadows of it. He had no picture of it in the bloody sacrifices to look at; and the cross would not be there yet for hundreds of years. But he saw two basic truths, namely, that what happened at the cross was indispensable for our salvation, and that God would have to do something without our help. Man cannot turn the Almighty One. Man cannot make Him repent and turn away from His fierce anger. Man can, after God begins the work of salvation in him, cry mightily to God. But his cry will have to be that God fulfills all the conditions of our salvation. Our turning and repenting will not save us. Our turning and repenting are due to the fact that God has already begun salvation in us.
That which we, on this side of Pentecost, now see as the repenting and turning away of God’s fierce anger is the cross. There God turns in the sense that He, having the vials of His holy wrath against our sins in His hand, turns away from us to pour these vials out upon His Son, yea, pours them out upon HIMSELF—His Son in our flesh. Surely we could not make Him do that! God does not turn off His holy wrath. He cannot wink at sin or forget it. But He can turn to pour it out on Him Whom He had eternally decreed to be our Head and representative, and Whom He in His love and grace sent into our flesh.
Do we not read in John 3:16 that He gave His only begotten Son that we might not perish but have everlasting life? Did He not through Isaiah say that He laid on Him the iniquity of us all, and that He was wounded for our transgression, bruised for our iniquities, Isaiah 53:5, 6? Does Paul not write in II Corinthians 5:21 that He was made to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him?
God does not turn in the sense that He changes His mind. All this was eternally planned. The cross was the execution of an eternal plan. The saving of Nineveh likewise was decreed before the world began. The cross was no after-thought or repair work. The saving of Nineveh was not due to a change of God’s mind. It looks that way to us who are so limited in our vision and do not know what God has for us in the future outside of the broad lines of prophecy in His Word. But God never turns around. He goes straight forward to execute in minutest detail His eternal counsel.
The word nacham, which is here translated repent, has the root meaning of lament, be grieved, find no pleasure. When it refers to one’s attitude towards one’s own works, it is translated as be comforted or repent. And although it is translated more often as “be comforted,” the context here certainly reveals that God repents, that is, finds no pleasure. Here in Jonah 3:9 it means that God finds no pleasure in pouring out the vials of His holy wrath upon those whose sins have already been fully paid for by His Son. Rather He will turn away from doing anything like that. And because eternally He saw His elect in Christ, He never found delight in punishing them. To us as creatures of time it looks as though there is a change or turning in God, and that He repents, but note Revelation 13:8 which speaks of “. . . the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Because we are creatures of time, we must often speak to each other about God the way we would about each other. We experience a change in our lives, but God planned it unchangeably from eternity.
How clear it ought to be to us then that the king was correct. God had to fulfill all the conditions of our salvation, and did so through the cross of His only begotten Son. We could not bring forth in a human nature one without sin, and one who could bring an everlasting punishment to an end. We could not realize a virgin birth so that a divine Person could come into human flesh. No, God must turn, repent, and turn away from His fierce anger. We cannot turn Him, make Him repent and turn away from His wrath. He designed and realized the cross of His own Son.
And when, after forty days, Nineveh was not overthrown, the believing Ninevites saw that God’s fierce anger was not only turned away from Israelites but also from believing Ninevites. They did not see the cross as we now can see it by God’s grace. But they did see the same fruit of that cross that the whole church of God enjoys. And remember that even the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection did not see that cross as they did from the day of Pentecost onward. They and we see that Ninevites as well as Israelites are saved by that cross, and that Gentiles as well as Jews are saved by Christ’s blood. God’s justice must be satisfied, and it was by the cross of Christ for the whole church of God.