The Preacher of Doom and the Merciful God


The Preacher of Doom and the Merciful God

Jonah 3:1-10

Main Idea: Jonah’s obedient proclamation of the destruction of Nineveh results in mercy for the Ninevites as the Lord turns from destroying them when He sees their belief in His Word.

  1. I. Childhood Disdain for Preaching Doom
  2. II. We Must Preach the Message of Doom in Obedience to the Command to Preach the Gospel of God (3:1-3).
  3. III. We Must Preach the Message of Doom, for Wicked People Might Repent toward God (3:3-5).
  4. IV. We Must Preach the Message of Doom, for It Might Bring the Mighty to a Place of Humility before God (3:6-10).
  5. V. Closing Exhortation on Preaching Doom

Childhood Disdain for Preaching Doom

Maybe you’ve had an incident like this in your home or when you were growing up: You and/or your brother and/or your sister were playing around rambunctiously in the house. There was a valuable item that your mom or your dad had told you, “If you keep horsing around, you’re going to knock that over and break it.” You knew you better not knock that over and break it.

As playing among siblings goes, one day you were doing just what Mom and Dad said you should not do—horsing around—having a great time and Oops. . . . That thing fell: that picture frame broke; there went Mom’s favorite glass goblet; gone is that nice (and irreplaceable) piece on the coffee table.

Everyone looks at one another. Oh . . . Now there’s a question: Who is going to tell Mom? Who’s going to take that thing you broke—and everyone in the house heard the glass break—to find Mom or Dad and say, “Yes, we were playing around and did that”?

The oldest siblings probably escaped by threatening the others, and so the youngest was drafted. If it did not work like that, someone had to be the one to go look Mom or Dad in the eye and risk Mom or Dad taking out the first part of anger on the messenger—you were hoping they would not choose to discipline now and ask questions later!

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. We learned that as children; it sticks with us when we become adults. The first time you get a management position and someone above you tells you, “You need to fire Bill,” you say, “I’ve never fired anybody. Are you sure that I have to be the one to say it?” “Yes, that’s part of your job.” We don’t like that job.

Equally so, we do not like being bearers of the bad news when it comes to the gospel. The gospel has a bad-news side to it. That’s the side that we don’t like talking about. We love to talk about the love of God and the wonderful relationship He would like to have with people. But before someone has a reason to listen to that part of the message, there’s some bad news you and I need to tell them: If you do not turn your life over to God, you are doomed for all of eternity.

If we never tell the people we know that bad side of the good news, they most likely will never have an opportunity to receive the mercy of God. There is no salvation without hearing the bad news. That’s the predicament in which we find Jonah: Jonah has to be the one to take Nineveh the bad news so that they can have a chance to hear some really good news. However, it is in receiving this bad news that the Ninevites will become objects of the glorious mercy of God.

We might be hesitant to bring up the subject of the gospel because the other side of the good news is the bad news, and we don’t want to have to tell people the bad news. Jonah, on the other hand, does not like the job of preaching to the Ninevites because the other side of the bad news is the good news. If he tells these exceedingly wicked people the bad news, God might have opportunity to have mercy on them and forgive them of all their sins. They will not have to give an account in this life for all the acts of wickedness they have committed toward Jonah’s people, Israel. An equivalent thought would be of terrorist organizations getting away with attacks on American soil or American military installations without a Gitmo. The Ninevites will be forgiven of all wickedness, and they will be welcomed before God just like the people of Israel.

Rather than taking the mercy of God to them, he says, “I’m going to go completely the opposite direction, to Tarshish.” Yet the Lord—who loves mercy and enjoys giving it to sinners far more than any philanthropist or government enjoys giving money to those in need—so wants to give mercy to Nineveh that He drops rebellious Jonah into the sea. Although Jonah doesn’t want to give mercy to anyone else, he wants it for himself, which is where most of us are: We love having mercy for ourselves. In mercy through a fish the Lord rescues the rebellious prophet and puts him on the dry land of Nineveh. He has another opportunity to say what God wants him to say.

We Must Preach the Message of Doom in Obedience to the Command to Preach the Gospel of God

Jonah 3:1-2

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the Lord’s command.” This second time Jonah goes to Nineveh in obedience rather than attempting to go to Tarshish. The words of 3:1-3 mirror those of 1:1-3, except instead of saying, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me,” it says, “preach the message that I tell you.” Akin to an awakened Ebenezer Scrooge, Jonah is ready to do what is right. He does not want his life turned upside down again.

Just like Jonah, you and I are charged to go into the entire world to proclaim the good news about the death of Jesus for people’s sin and about His resurrection from the dead to offer life. Every person who names the name of Christ has a calling from God to proclaim to all men that Christ alone has defeated death so that no one needs to fear death. Christ has shown that He has life after death and He has more power after that. The church much equip and encourage every believer to share his faith, and raise up and call out people who will “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also” (Luther, “A Mighty Fortress”) in order to take the gospel to places where Christ has not yet been proclaimed. As the apostle Paul states, “My aim is to evangelize where Christ has not been named” (Rom 15:20).

Why did Jesus die? He died to pay the penalty for our sins. In doing so, He is the only One who took on the wrath of God that is due to us for our sin. No one has to take on that penalty himself. No one has to die on his own for sins because God has sent His Son, Jesus, to do that. We must tell people that.

There are some other things we must say in order to talk to people about what the Lord has done. People must understand that God’s will is for people to follow Him, that this has been true since the creation, and not one of us has followed God’s will. We have broken God’s law. We have desperately failed at following God. If we wanted to outline the Ten Commandments, we could show where everyone has broken all of them and all of God’s other commands as well. Most people would confess to having used the Lord’s name in vain, breaking the Sabbath, committing sexual immorality, and coveting. If we are honest, we would agree with Shakespeare:

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye

And all my soul, and all my every part;

And for this sin there is no remedy,

It is so grounded inward in my heart. (Sonnet LXII)

For these sins and more, we stand in jeopardy before a holy God. This brings us to the bad news: We have to tell people that we will stand before God to be judged under His eternal wrath because we have broken His law.

It’s not easy to proclaim this other side of the gospel. It’s like being the doctor who has to share bad news about terminal illness with a patient. You and I want to be the doctor who says, “It’s a boy!” or “Your blood pressure looks good!” But we have to proclaim the message that God has given us, and that message has some ugly truths in it.

We Must Preach the Message of Doom, for Wicked People Might Repent toward God

Jonah 3:3-5[11]

Jonah takes that message, and he goes in obedience to preach the word of the Lord: “Now Nineveh was an extremely large city, a three-day walk” (3:3). Here comes one man to preach to tens of thousands in this great city.

Sometimes the translators describe Nineveh as “an exceedingly great city” (ESV). What this designation means is that it stands before God as a very large city, maybe even a very prosperous city. Nineveh was well known all over the ancient world, and it had lots of people. In fact, the phrase that it was a three-day walk in that day indicates Nineveh was a city about seven and a half miles long—an enormous city for ancient times. Jonah is one prophet facing scores of scores of wicked people. He has no assurance that they will accept or reject his message. Yet he is concerned because he knows that God will do something.

Jonah walks into the city, one day’s journey, saying only these words: “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!” (3:4). Somehow, in an unrecorded parenthesis, footnote, or logical reasoning processes, the Ninevites also heard these words: “And it’s going to be at the hand of God. God is the one who sent me here and who is going to demolish you.” Jonah preaches his message, and “the men of Nineveh believed in God” (v. 5).

This is amazing! Jonah’s sermon is only five words in the Hebrew text (Estelle, Salvation through Judgment and Mercy, 108).[12]To borrow words from the Ellison scholar, Adam Bradley, Jonah’s words were “amoebic in form, Jurassic in size” (Bradley, Ralph Ellison, 9). Or, as Theodore Beza said of John Calvin’s preaching, “Every word weighed a pound” (as cited in Beeke, Living, 279).

How is it that Jonah gets this response such that everybody in the entire city believes God, repents, and puts on sackcloth in mourning? He gains this response because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (see Rom 1:16). He gets these results because the Father gives these people in salvation to His Son (John 6:37,39,65). The message has the power because it comes from God! As Jonah said in his prayer, “Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9).

Jonah did not present all of the arguments for the existence of God. Neither did he make a case for the Lord as the true God in opposition to the idols of Nineveh. He was not polished in professional attire, and neither was he casually dressed so as not to offend anyone. Having hopped out of a fish, he probably didn’t look presentable to anybody! The results here show that human effort is not what changes the hearts of the Ninevites or anyone else. Instead, they demonstrate that believers, as stewards of the gospel, should be faithful to saying what God says and leave the results to God. As Sinclair Ferguson says of the power of the gospel,

This power lays waste to its enemies. But its enemies are not foreign nations, but sin and death and Satan and hell. And this power in the gospel . . . has enormous efficiency. But its efficiency is to save men and women for all eternity. (“Saving Power of God”)

In response to the message, the text simply says, “The men of Nineveh believed in God.” A great and wicked people should have laughed at Jonah, saying, “Take your fish-smelling babble back to Jerusalem.” Instead, they believed his message! Even the people of great social status believed, for the message was received “from the greatest of them to the least.”

If you are waiting for the perfect moment to tell an unbeliever that he is condemned to hell before an all-holy God, you’re never going to say anything because there is no perfect moment. The perfect moment to say it is whenever you have a chance to talk freely: “I need to talk to you about the most important thing to me, and it’s going to be the most important thing to you. Let me know when we can sit down and talk about it. I want to talk to you about your relationship with God.”

“I don’t want to hear about that.”

“Well, you need to know all of us are sinners before God and anybody without God is going to be judged forever before God.”

On opportunities to share the gospel, theologian Donald Whitney writes,

They won’t just happen. You’ll have to discipline yourself to ask your neighbors how you can pray for them or when you can share a meal with them. You’ll have to discipline yourself to get with your coworkers during off-hours. Many such opportunities for evangelism will never take place if you wait for them to occur spontaneously. The World, the flesh, and the Devil will do their best to see to that. You, however, backed by invincible power of the Holy Spirit, can make sure that these enemies of the gospel do not win. (Spiritual Disciplines, 131–32)

With words of even greater encouragement to share the gospel, Whitney also writes, “Only the sheer rapture of being lost in the worship of God is as exhilarating and intoxicating as telling someone about Jesus Christ” (Spiritual Disciplines, 119). This thrill will be ours when we proclaim the gospel boldly and leave the results in the hands of the Almighty.

We Must Preach the Message of Doom, for It Might Bring the Mighty to a Place of Humility before God

Jonah 3:6-9

So Jonah preaches the message the Lord tells him to preach, and that message reaches the king of Nineveh. There’s a beautiful picture in here when the king gets the message. It says: “He got up from his throne, took off his royal robe”—he removed his great royal covering—and he “put on sackcloth.” Then he doesn’t go back and sit on the throne; instead he “sat in ashes.”

This great king of this great city who sits on a great throne and who is wearing great robes of royalty one minute looks like an insignificant nobody who’s mourning and sitting in ashes another minute. The Lord’s message has made this great statesman, who is part of an empire that is ruling the world, understand that even he must humble himself before God.

The king then makes this great edict: “Look, there’s no eating; there’s no drinking. I don’t want anybody without sackcloth, even down to the animals.” Of course the animals cannot receive salvation. However, in the ancient Near East people even pulled their beasts into the fast. They would sacrifice their beasts when the animals started to die off from lack of food and water.

So the king’s words would have communicated, “If we lose all of our business and we lose all of our food here, it does not matter because we’re in trouble before God. Let’s just put all of that aside right now. Don’t let anyone do anything but cry out to God and turn from the evil way of his hands.” The king gives that proclamation while sitting in an ash heap, humble before God.

This present world witnesses scores of mighty people—world leaders—who need to hear about the Lord. They lead superpowers with military forces that repel protesters and would-be rebels in the thousands. Often they are inaccessible to the common citizen, if not untouchable. Yet someone needs to tell the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the Lord and Kim Jong Il about the mercy of God in Christ, lest they perish. We need to tell our own city, county, state, and national leaders about the wrath of God.

How do we reach such powerful people? We have to keep preaching and praying faithfully, hoping that the Lord might be pleased to rescue an entire, world-class city through a Spirit-wrought revival, and hoping then that a whole nation might turn from their wicked ways and turn to God in fear. If you want to see your nation make changes in its views on gun control, homosexuality, abortion, and its treatment of the poor, and if you desire to see gang violence and crime leave your neighborhood—if you want our cities and nation to put away the evil in their hands—it does not start with protests, lobbying, and more at-risk youth programs; they are secondary. It starts with the power of God changing hearts as people come to fear the wrath of God through believing the message of the gospel.

So this message of doom brings a king down. When the king is humbled by the Lord’s message, he makes an edict to the whole nation, effectively telling them, “If we do this, maybe God will have mercy on us and spare us from this disaster so that we do not perish” (because that’s what people do without God—they perish).

Verse 10 concludes the episode, saying, “Then God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented [your translation might say God “repented”] from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.” What? In forty days Nineveh should be overthrown. The people go into repentance, agreeing with the king’s reasoning: “Perhaps God will hear us and we will not perish.” God sees their actions—that they believe the word that He sent through His prophet—and God turns away from disaster.

Earlier I alluded to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a story many revisit annually near Christmas through many media venues, including print, older and more recent movies, and live stage productions. One mention of the title of this classic and immediately images come to mind of a greedy, stingy curmudgeon being led through his life’s story by ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. One of the most vivid of these images might be of the terrified Scrooge, having seen the panorama of his entire life, speaking to the Ghost of Christmas Future while standing near his own grave, saying, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 96). Dickens, through Scrooge’s character, recognizes that people are in need of change—in need of repentance—in order to avoid destruction. God, in contrast, is “a spirit, whose being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable” (Kelly, Rollinson, and Marsh, Westminster Shorter Catechism, 5).

Some people think God changed His mind. God can’t change His mind because God can’t change. It looks like God said one thing and then He said another. Yet Scripture teaches that we serve a God who is immutable. He cannot change.

Whatever character God has now, He’s had it from eternity past, and He will have it forever. Whatever power God has, He’s had that power from eternity past and He’s never lost any of it. He will always have it. He’s not increasing in power. Whatever knowledge He has, God has already had that knowledge His entire existence and will have it through all of eternity. God does not learn; He does not go to school, so He cannot increase in knowledge. God does not catch colds, so God doesn’t need to heal. He doesn’t stub His toe or do anything that could imply a need for change.

So He never changes. If He could change, we wouldn’t want to serve Him. If God could change, He could change in faithfulness, goodness, mercy, or truthfulness. If the Lord could change in His mercy, in the year 10001 He could say, “That’s enough; time for you to go to hell.”

God does not change. God is who He is and has always been who He is, and forever He will be who He is and always has been. Even His mind does not change, for it is not as if He did not know what the Ninevites were going to do. God has sent a word through the prophet of threatened judgment. A threat always has two intended outcomes based on which option the receiver chooses.

Whenever a parent makes a threat such as “You’re going to be in trouble for not cleaning your room,” the child understands that if he cleans his room, he will not be in trouble. The ability to avoid disaster is inherent in the word of judgment. Or if someone sees a sign on a fence that says, “Danger: Electric Fence, High Voltage; You Will Be Shocked,” that person understands that if he does not touch the fence, he will not be shocked. (However, if you were a child who just had to test everything, you might not understand fully the nature of safety measures within warnings!)

Both receiving judgment and avoiding judgment are contained within the words of the warning sign. Similarly, when God says, “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished,” He threatens judgment as a God who is slow to anger and abounding in mercy. Jonah knows this because he later says that he knew that is what the Lord would do (4:2). Jonah understood that mercy was riding with judgment when he took the message of the Lord to Nineveh. The co-traveling of judgment and mercy always is the Lord’s way because the Lord is not just throwing around wrath and judgment in an effort to doom and destroy people; God also seeks to save people from His wrath.

Therefore, God doesn’t change His mind. Inherent within His message of doom and judgment is this: “But if you change your ways, if you repent and yield to Me, if you will bow to My Son and believe in Him, I will spare you.” We know Scripture teaches, “God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind. Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill?” (Num 23:19). The prophet Samuel says, “The Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind, for He is not man who changes his mind” (1 Sam 15:29). James, too, teaches, “Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning” (Jas 1:17). For God, there is no changing His mind or essence. He has been and is the way that He will always be. He always has been, is, and will be a merciful God. He always has been a God who is slow to anger and abounding in mercy. He loves to give His love and mercy to anyone who will believe His message of judgment and mercy. He simply invites you to take that message to people so that they can have a second chance at life.

Closing Exhortation on Preaching Doom

When I was graduating from college, about to get married, I applied for a job at a federal agency about February of that year. I was offered the full-time job about late March, and although I had only part-time work at that time, I turned it down because I was holding out for a job in which I would use my biblical studies degree—a ministry job.

April came and went without any hits from all my other job applications. May disappeared without any sign of a job. Now the pressure to secure work was increasing because I was getting married in July. My wife’s parents wanted to know if she was about to marry Deadbeat Bob, possibly having to provide for us, of which they were not going to approve. June came and went without a call for a job.

Then one day, very near the first of July, I got a call. It was from the aforementioned federal agency. A supervisor in an office wanted to know when I could start work. I asked her, “How did you come to call me about this job?” She said that she was about to leave this job for another one, but she was finishing up loose ends and had my application on her desk—the one Human Resources had sent her in February. She said that the call was late, but if I still wanted the job, it was mine. “Yes, I’ll take it!” I said right then because I knew with that call, it could only be the Lord giving me a second chance at this job offer.

There are many times when God gives us second chances, third chances, and fiftieth chances to get something right. We make many mistakes in our parenting. No worries; He allows us to try again with grandchildren. We slack off school with poor effort. Later in life, in mercy, He provides us skills training or an opportunity to complete school as an adult. We squander our finances; when we become faithful stewards, He cleans up a credit score or gets rid of our debts. Most of all, when we live in sin, rejecting His call for salvation, worshiping other gods of our own making, living life our own way, the Lord has a second chance for that too: He offers us eternal life through Jesus Christ who died on the cross as our substitute and rose again to justify us before the Lord.

Many others, too, will have second chances to repent and believe the gospel, if we preach the message of doom to them just like it was preached to us.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. Donald Whitney says, “I think the seriousness of evangelism is the main reason it frightens us. We realize that in talking with someone about Christ, heaven and hell are at stake. The eternal destiny of the person looms before us. And even when we rightly believe that the results of this encounter rest in God’s hands and that we bear no accountability for the person’s response to the gospel, we still sense a solemn duty to communicate the message faithfully, as well as the holy dread of saying or doing anything that might rise as a stumbling block to this person’s salvation” (Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 123). Give reasons why you think someone might sense a concern about being a stumbling block even when he understands the Lord must provide power for a saving response to the gospel.
  2. Consider the last time you failed to respond faithfully to an opportunity or prompting to share the gospel with an unbeliever. What do you need to do to be prepared to share immediately the next time a similar situation arises?
  3. Jonah’s message was simple; it was five words long in the Hebrew text. What is the most simple way you can share the gospel message without omitting its necessary aspects?
  4. Think of the last evangelistic sermon you heard that included a call to repentance from sin. How did the audience respond? What were you hoping would be the response of people and why? What does this tell you about how you feel about preaching the need for repentance?
  5. Based on Jonah 1–3, what sort of attitude do you think Jonah should have had toward both God and the Ninevites when the Lord gave him the command a second time? Why do you feel he should have had such an attitude? What emotions do you think he should be feeling and why?
  6. Jonah’s preaching of the Lord’s message brings a contrast between two kings—the king of Nineveh and Christ the King. How is Christ exalted as the true King by Jonah’s preaching and the king’s response thereto? Compare and contrast the posture of the two kings in response to Jonah’s preaching. What might this tell you about how God is glorified through our proclamation of the gospel?
  7. In place of courageously, verbally proclaiming the gospel of Christ, it is common for modern believers to bring an unbelieving friend to church to hear the gospel, hoping the sermon will do the work of evangelism instead. Based on your reading of Jonah 3, how is this idea slightly wrong-headed? In contrast, what might some typical behavior tell a church about its preparation and planning for its worship services?
  8. In a modern setting, how might a group of evangelical churches proclaim the gospel to every resident within a city? How might a group of believers contribute to an effort to see the gospel proclaimed to their city and state leaders? What might these efforts mean for any one church’s traditional ministry programming and yearly budget?
  9. Consider the following passages: Acts 2:36-41; 4:13-22; 5:27-42; 7:51-58; 13:42-46; 17:32-34. What types of responses do people give to the apostles’ preaching of Christ? What might these varied responses tell you about the type of response Nineveh gave to Jonah’s preaching? What might it tell you about the type of response you may receive if you make it a habit to share your faith with unbelievers regularly, courageously, zealously, and boldly?
  10. What confidence do you gain from knowing the Lord is immutable? How does His immutability strengthen your hope for the salvation of your lost friends and relatives? How might this truth also affect your thinking about sharing the gospel without shame or fear?