JONAH #5: THE GRACE OF HARD WORDS

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We all need to recognize some hard truths before we can truly know God’s grace. We truly need God more than anything else in the universe. We are truly morally corrupt, unable to be with God. We are separated from Him, yet, we will perish apart from Him. And there is nothing we can do about these things.

Once we accept these hard words, we can receive a flood of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Jonah Part 5

JONAH #5. JONAH 3:1-10

Let’s remember where we are in Jonah’s book. In case I haven’t said it before, I believe Jonah himself wrote this book. He almost goes out of his way to avoid making himself look good. He seems to be trying to take us, the readers, through the same lessons that he himself had to learn.

Remember that before this, Jonah was a national hero, a patriot, who, after helping his country become great again, was called to go and preach God’s word to the enemies of his country. Instead, he ran, trying to escape God. God sent a storm, which did not relent until Jonah was thrown overboard, and he began to drown. Before he died, however, God sent a fish, and the fish swallowed Jonah, saving him from drowning. Inside the fish, Jonah repented of his sins, and praised God. Three days later, God made the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Next comes our passage for today. God spoke once more, saying the same thing that he said at first: “Arise. Go to Nineveh – a great city of the Assyrians, who were enemies of Israel – and preach to them.” This time, Jonah got up and went.

Now, it would be easy for us to chuckle at this and say, “Yeah, I just bet he went, after that experience.” We think, “If I was nearly killed by a storm, then nearly drowned, and then swallowed by a fish, and then ended up on the beach lying in fish-vomit, I’d do what God said, too.” In other words,  we think that Jonah went because God forced him to.

However, I think that is a massive misunderstanding of what actually happened with Jonah. When he was drowning, literally dying, Jonah cried to the Lord. He knew that he was in that hard place precisely because he had cut himself off from God, precisely because he was rebellious and sinful. And yet, when Jonah had done nothing but rebel, God saved him anyway. So Jonah says:

9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9, ESV)

He said that while he was still in the fish. He says he will worship God, ‘sacrifice’ to him, and ‘pay what he has vowed,’ because “salvation is from the Lord. (2:9).” That is, Jonah experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, and that changed him into someone who wanted to be on the same page with God, someone who wanted to do what God asked.

It is really important for us to recognize this; it is one the major themes not only of Jonah, but of the whole Bible. Jonah knew he could not save himself, or redeem himself. He knew that salvation comes from God alone; he said as much.

In the sea, and in the fish, Jonah recognized three things:

1. His separation from God (“Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence,” 2:4).

2. His need of God (“As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD,” 2:7, and many other sentences like that).

3. His utter inability to help himself (“I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever.” 2:6, among other verses).

He cried out for help and mercy, and God answered him. It is because God saved him that he gets up and does what God asks. Jonah wants to do God’s will after this. Later on we will deal with the fact that although he is saved, and he wants to obey God, he still holds sinful thoughts and attitudes. For now, understand that Jonah is not motivated by law and fear, but rather, by grace and by love.

Now, let’s go to Nineveh with Jonah. I’m going to give you “Tom’s Literal-Ish” Translation (TLIT?): “Now Nineveh was a city great to God, of three days’ travel.”

The second half of verse three has been used by some skeptics to show that the bible is inaccurate. They point out that (as far as we know from archaeology) the city of Nineveh was not three days’ journey across at that point in history (three days walking would be about sixty miles). I bring this up in case you ever encounter arguments like these. There are several reasonable answers to this objection. First of all, though there is a lack of evidence showing a walled city that large at that time, a lack of evidence cannot actually prove anything. The evidence could be yet to be discovered. Or, it may have once existed, but now be lost for all time.

Second, in a crowded city, a person is extremely unlikely to average twenty miles a day walking. In ancient cities, the streets were narrow, crooked, and choked with traffic of all sorts: donkeys, donkey-carts, camels, caravans, cattle, street-vendors, beggars and business-people of all sorts. If you have ever been in a third-world city in modern times you realize that most of the residents spend their time outside, in the streets. It would be even more so in ancient times. So you would be lucky to go even ten miles a day through a populous city, which would shrink the size of Nineveh by at least half. In my opinion, it would be impossible to go even ten miles in a day, so that makes it even smaller.

There are other possible answers to this objection. Although Nineveh “proper” (say, the walled portion) may not have been three days journey across, there were three other cities (as well as a few smaller towns) close by, and these were sometimes included when people spoke of Nineveh. If you include these, and outlying “suburbs,” you have a “Greater Nineveh Area” that certainly would take three days to travel through. (See Genesis 10:11-12, if this topic interests you)

But I think these solutions, while possible, are unnecessary. First, as you see from my TLIT, the Hebrew leaves things open to interpretation. It could mean Nineveh was so large it took three days to journey from one side to the other – but that’s not exactly what it says. It might also mean that it took three days to see all the important parts of Nineveh. However, if we simply pay attention to the context, it is clear what the author is getting at. The NLT puts it most clearly.

4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. (Jonah 3:4-5, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Nineveh was a big city, and it was going to take Jonah three days to complete his work of preaching, in order to make sure everyone had a chance to hear. Even so, on the very first day, the people responded to God’s word. The point is this: the people listened to God immediately, even before Jonah had completed his assignment. That is the point of the three-day comment. It is about Jonah’s mission, and it is there to show us that the people repented even before Jonah was halfway done.

It may surprise some people to read that every single person in the city responded with fasting. Some cultural information is helpful here. In those days, the community was much more important than the individual. In matters of religion the people decided together which gods they would worship, and how they would do so. In these decisions, the community leaders had the most important voices. Therefore, I think verse 5 describes the outcome (everyone gets on board with fasting), while verses 6-9 are an explanation, showing exactly how this came about. Basically, the king and his nobles led the entire community into repentance for their sins.

I want to take a moment and think about what provoked this immediate and drastic response. We are not told exactly what Jonah said in his preaching, other than this: ““Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (NLT). It is safe to assume that Jonah said more than that, and that this is just a kind of summary. I think we can read between the lines here, and, with a knowledge of the rest of the Bible, get a sense for Jonah’s main message.

Remember Jonah’s background. He was a hero to his own people, an Israeli patriot. Now, God has called him to go preach to Israel’s enemies. Although Jonah has experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, it has not yet filtered down to change all of his thinking and attitudes. So, he doesn’t like the people of Nineveh. He doesn’t understand why God is concerned about them. He doesn’t care that they experience God’s grace and forgiveness and salvation. In fact, he doesn’t want them to. Therefore, he states God word as unappealingly as possible. Basically I think he said this:

  • You all are full of sin and evil. Your actions, and your very lives, are offensive to the one, true, living God. (Jonah might also have preached about the specific kinds of sins that they were committing.)
  • Because your sins have separated you from that one true God, you will be destroyed in forty days’ time.

Jonah did not expect this sort of preaching to be effective. I don’t think he wanted it to be. But two things were going on of which Jonah was unaware. In the first place, before anyone can truly experience God’s grace, they must come face to face with their own sin and evil, and their own helplessness to be better. This is exactly what happened to Jonah in the ocean and fish, but he still didn’t realize that God loves all people, not just Israelites.

If you think you can make yourself into a better person, you cannot experience the grace of God. If you think you aren’t so bad, or that God compares you to other, more sinful people and says, “She’s not so bad, compared to _____,” you cannot be saved. In order to be saved, we must both admit that we are hopelessly sinful, and that we deserve nothing good from God, and that we cannot do anything about this predicament. Jonah helped the people of Nineveh by bringing them face to face with their own depravity. They heard his preaching, and thought, “We need God’s forgiveness, but we have separated ourselves from Him! We cannot do anything to fix it!”

So the fact that Jonah was so harsh and clear about their doom was actually very good and helpful. (Again, however, I don’t think he actually wanted them to repent).

The second thing Jonah didn’t think about was this: God is loving, gracious and forgiving. And so, even though Jonah was trying to simply condemn his enemies, the Ninevites, even though he thought maybe he had succeeded in doing it, God will make his grace known to anyone who is willing to listen. Think about it for a moment. How in the world did God’s grace come through Jonah’s harsh preaching? Hint: in the New Living Translation it is four words. In the ESV, it is three words.

Here are the words of grace, from the NLT: “Forty days from now.”

These words may not sound that amazing to you, but imagine the people of Nineveh. They heard God’s word, and they believed it. They believed that their souls were riddled through with sin. They accepted that they were evil, and deserved to be destroyed. Most importantly, they accepted that there was nothing they could do about it. Put yourself in that position and then ask: “Why forty days from now? Why not destroy us immediately?”

There’s only one logical answer: “Because God doesn’t want to destroy us.”

So they responded with earnest and true repentance.

6 When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he issued a decree in Nineveh:
“By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. 8 Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.” ( Jonah 3:6-9, HCSB)

Sackcloth was basically the cheapest, ugliest, most humiliating and uncomfortable thing you could wear. It was usually very roughly made out of goat-hair. Goat hair clothing is smelly and itchy, and they deliberately made it utterly unstylish. People wore it in order to show that they were full of extreme grief, remorse and repentance. Ashes were dumped on the head for the same purpose. To wear sackcloth and sit in ashes was to humiliate yourself, to show extreme sorrow and shame and regret.

When they heard that God was going to give them forty days, they believed that meant he might forgive them after all. Since his forgiveness was their only hope, they turned to him. In short, they turned away from the path of sin, and they put all of their hope in God alone. Once more, we find the gospel – the good news – even in the Old Testament, even from a prophet who didn’t want to preach it.

Let’s begin to apply this to our lives right now.

First, think again about why Jonah now obeyed God. It would be easy to think that God forced him to go. Certainly, there was still work to be done in Jonah’s heart, but I think the evidence we have is that he went as a response to God’s grace. I wonder if sometimes we almost have an attitude toward God that is like this: “If you want me to do this (or stop doing that) so bad, why don’t you just make me?” When we think this way, it shows that we don’t understand God’s grace. We may not truly believe that we would be cut off and without hope if it wasn’t for His love and forgiveness. Maybe we think we’re not such bad people, and God’s love is only a small favor that he does for us. If you are having trouble with your behavior, try meditating on God’s incredible love and grace.

Second, let’s not miss the big message. In our natural state, we, like all other humans, have sin wrapped up in our bodies and minds. It cuts us off from God, and there is nothing – nothing – we can do to fix this problem. Yet God says this:

Let the wicked one abandon his way
and the sinful one his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD,
so He may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for He will freely forgive. (Isaiah 55:7, HCSB)

Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit today!

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