As God moved the Ninevites to turn and repent, so he invites us today: Turn, repent and experience My grace in forgiveness, mercy and more.

Jonah 3:5-10: 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

Have you ever seen a young man try to entice his wandering girlfriend back to himself by temporarily turning his attention to another girl? He spends time at hanging out at the new girl’s locker. He brings her little gifts. He talks and laughs with her. But not secretly. He does it obviously, extravagantly and loudly so that his girlfriend will notice. What’s he doing?

He’s trying make his girlfriend jealous by showing his favor to someone else.  His goal is to cause his girlfriend to return to him. That’s similar to what God is doing in these verses. God’s purpose for sending Jonah to Nineveh was not only to extend his kingdom into the Gentile world.  He also intended to cause Israel, his chosen people, to become jealous and return to him.  The boy can’t truly love two girls at a time, but God can truly love two groups of people at the same time.  In this story he blesses Nineveh while coaxing Israel to return to him. God’s purpose for modern day preaching is the same as in Jonah’s day. We preach the gospel to unbelievers and believers simultaneously, because all of us are fallen and live in a fallen world. Even today, God sometimes uses the repentance of unbelievers to cause believers to look again at their own sin.  We are all in need of God’s grace, since we too are a wicked and even a violent people – like the ancient Ninevites and Israelites.  We must learn, like them, the true nature of repentance and the proper motivation for repentance in order to live in harmony with God and one another in such broken world.

The Nature of Repentance

What is the true nature of repentance? There are three aspects of the nature of repentance found here: 1) sincere sorrow for sin; 2) sincere turning from sin; and, 3) sincere turning to God.

The nature of repentance is first, sincere sorrow for sin. In v3 we are told “the people called for a fast and put on sackcloth and sat in ashes…the greatest to the least.”  And in vv 6-8 we learn that even the king – even the sheep and cattle – participated in the public display of lament over their sin. In that day and culture, sorrow for sin was demonstrated by fasting, wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes. Fasting is going without food and water, even down to their beasts – in order to demonstrate the sincerity of their guilt and sadness over sin. Wearing sackcloth – like wearing burlap bags instead of their fine clothing  demonstrated self-humiliation and humility before God. Sitting in dirty ashes, applying ashes or dirt to one’s face, or throwing ashes or dirt on their heads demonstrated their abhorrence and sorrow for sin. Going without food and water, wearing rags, and sitting in ashes illustrated to themselves and to God their spiritual poverty and the filth of sin in their lives. The king set the example for them all. His was the greatest glory and thus the greatest humiliation. He replaced his royal robes with sackcloth and sat in ashes instead of on his royal throne.  Likewise, Jesus expressed his sorrow for our sin by exchanging the glory of heaven for the humiliation of life among us on earth. But Jesus tells us that sincere sorrow also goes beyond the external. It must especially be manifested in our hearts. So much so that he says…when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18) What is most important is sincere inner sorrow because God has enabled us to see sin’s true nature.  As the Westminster Confession says, “In repentance the sinner is able to see his sins as God sees them, as filthy and hateful, and as involving great danger to the sinner, because they are contrary to God’s holy nature…and his righteous law. Understanding that God in Christ is merciful to those who repent, the sinner suffers deep sorrow for and hates his sin and so determines to turn away from them all, and turning to God, he tries to walk with him according to all his commandments. (WCF 15.2)

That leads us to the second aspect of the nature of repentance. Repentance is not only sincere sorrow for sin, but also sincere turning from sin.  In v8 the king and his nobles proclaimed, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” The Assyrians, the greatest power in the world at the time, were notoriously violent.  Jonah was fortunate he was not killed as he entered the city with his gloomy message of warning. The Israelites of that day, having recently recovered much of their political power and prosperity, were not much better. According to Amos, they were notorious for their oppression of the poor (2:6-7a), their perverting of religion (5:18-27) and for their complacent pride (6:1-7).  Like Nineveh and Israel, in our sinful nature we too are prone to evil and violence. We attack our loved ones, co-workers, class-mates, or fellow church members directly or indirectly with hurtful and hateful words and actions. We take little thought for the poor in our city.  We go through the motions of our religion with little thought or care to what’s really going on in our hearts. We are complacently proud of our positions in the community, in our school, on our teams, in our workplace, or in our church as if we achieved these in our own strength. Repentance is turning away from these with God’s help.

The nature of repentance is not only sincere turning from sin, but third, sincere turning to God.  The king and his nobles understood this when they proclaimed in v 8, “and let them call out mightily to God.” Just as earlier in the story, the sailors cried out to God to save them from the storm, just as Jonah cried out to God to save him from drowning in the sea, so now the N’vites call out to God to save their city and those who lived in it from destruction. Through Jonah’s message they understood a holy God had been offended and he required justice for those offenses. So in desperation they call out for mercy because they could not undo what they had done. They needed to be forgiven for their past evil, and they needed new power to amend their future ways. It’s not enough merely to turn away from sin trying to reform our ways in our own strength. Like them, we need not only reformation, but also reconciliation with God whom we’ve offended and cleansing from past sins. That’s why we’re reminded to turn to God for forgiveness and cleansing. “If we confess our sins, he his faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Only God can forgive us, only God can cleanse us, only God can change us, only God can save us. “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”

The Motivation for Repentance

Now that we understand the nature of repentance, what is it that motivates us to experience sincere sorrow, turning from sin and turning to God in repentance? There are three ways God motivates us to repentance: 1) belief in the word of God; 2) hope in the mercy of God; and, 3) trust in the faithfulness of God.

Belief in the word of God is the first motivation to repentance here. In vv 5-6 we are told, “the people – including the king – believed God.”  That is, they believed what God said through Jonah, that the city would be overthrown in 40 days, and they took action based on those words.  And notice they acted on them immediately, as soon as they heard it.  By contrast, Israel had turned a deaf ear to the warnings of the prophets as we see in Amos 5. They heard but they did not heed.

God gives us his words warning in Scripture so that like the N’vites, we might act on them immediately and obediently.  We should not only hear, we should also heed.  We should respond quickly in repentance and faith – like the people on the day of Pentecost after Peter’s sermon. It’s often not our first reaction, but our second reaction that’s most important. We will hurt one another from time to time. The question is, once we realize what we’ve done, how quickly will we take responsibility for our actions, go to the person, and ask forgiveness for our part? God gives us his word by the means of grace – through preaching and public reading of the Scriptures – to warn us away from evil or to cause us to repent of the evil we have done.

God not only motivates us to repentance by believing the word of God, second we are motivated to repentance by hoping in the mercy of God.  The king said in v 9, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”  How did the N’vites come to the conclusion that there was hope for mercy? Two ways. First, it was implied in Jonah’s warning. Jonah’s warning that in 40 days, God would destroy Nineveh implied that the people still had time to repent. Have you ever received an electric bill that you forgot to pay that threatened to turn off your power? The implication of the warning is that if you pay the bill before the deadline they will not turn off your power. That’s why God warns us, to draw us to mercy, to cause us to repent, to get us to do the right thing so he will not have to carry out his threat. Hope for mercy was implied not only by Jonah’s warning but also by Jonah’s presence. Here he was walking among them, alive after three days in the belly of a great fish. Jesus said about Jonah in Luke 11: 30, “Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh….”  The sign of Jonah was Jonah himself, alive and well.  His “resurrection from the dead” told the Ninevites that his words were from God and were true.  Likewise, the sign of Christ’s resurrection was Christ himself, alive after 3 days in the grave. The sign of Christ’s resurrection was instrumental in my own conversion.  The preacher said, “If he really did rise from the dead that would make all the difference in the world.”  Because of that difference I had hope in God’s mercy for me. Likewise, because of Jonah’s “resurrection,” the Ninevites gained hope in God’s mercy for them.

The third way God motivates us to repentance is through trust in the faithfulness of God.  In v10 we are told, When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. God gives us this story to remind us once again of his faithfulness to relent when we repent.  It moves us from hoping that “God may relent” to trusting that “God will relent” when we repent.  How can we be assured of this? Because in his mercy God was willing to suffer for us. God can relent from judgment against us because he has taken the judgment on himself.  The word for God’s relenting here is different from the people’s repenting. God’s relenting is an inward suffering best translated “moved to pity.” God literally suffers in repenting from judging our sins. He suffered on the cross of Christ.  He causes the judgment to fall on himself instead of us. As Richard Phillips says of this verse in his commentary, “God placed the evil of all those who turn to him on the cross of Christ, so that he might justly repent of his obligation to condemn us, all because of the merciful grace that calls us to believe and repent.”[i] (p.111)

What happens if we do not turn to him in repentance?  If we are believers, God will discipline us, because He disciplines those he loves. Like Israel in the wilderness, God will take us another turn through the desert, so to speak. Like Israel in the Promised Land, God will send another nation, as it were, to carry us into exile. But he will never finally forsake us. If we are unbelievers and stubbornly refuse the gifts of his grace, we will receive our just condemnation.


However, God desires that none should perish, that all should reach repentance. (2 Pet 3.9) That’s why he sent his son, that all who turn to him would receive forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. Because we are a fallen people in a fallen world, in his compassion, God offers us the gift of repentance to rescue us from his judgment against our sin. By his grace – through belief in his word, through hope in his mercy, and through trust in his faithfulness, He enables us to feel sincere sorrow, even hatred, for our sins. He enables us to turn away from our dependence on our sins, and enables us to turn to dependence on him.  Will you receive God’s gracious gift of repentance today by faith?

[i] This sermon is indebted in a number of ways to Richard D. Phillips, Jonah & Micah, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2010). This quote appears on p. 111.