In the first chapter of this book we saw Jonah running FROM the Lord in rebellion. In chapter two we saw Jonah running TO the Lord in prayer. Here in chapter three we see Jonah running FOR the Lord in obedience. I love the way the chapter begins: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time” (v.1). To me, that is a surprising twist in the story. Jonah had blown it. He had rebelled against God and caused all kinds of trouble, showing that he was not a faithful prophet. We would expect God to say, “Jonah, I’m finished with you — you are disobedient and I can’t trust you. You are a sorry excuse for a prophet. I’ll never be able to use you again.” But instead, the Lord spoke to Jonah “the second time”, re-commissioning him and repeating his orders: “Go to Nineveh and call out against it the message that I tell you” (v.2). I’m glad God gives second chances (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.!). As many times as I’ve blown it, He has never given up on me.
When the great fish “vomited Jonah out onto dry land” (see 2:10), he hit the beach running. He arrived in Nineveh and got straight to work, preaching as he walked the streets. By ancient standards Nineveh was a mega-city, “three days journey in breadth” (v.3) — and it was as evil as it was big. The Ninevites were ruthless, wicked people. In the ancient world, few cultures matched the cruelty of the Assyrians of Nineveh. They were known for their violence; they showed no mercy to their enemies. (Note: What could one preacher accomplish among thousands of wicked pagans? From the human perspective the odds were ridiculous. But Jonah stepped out on God’s Word, and he did it. He must have realized that God plus one makes a majority!)
Jonah’s sermon was very brief and very blunt. The entire sermon is only eight words in English, and only five words in Jonah’s language. Some have speculated that after three days inside a fish, Jonah had a bizarre appearance: the fish’s gastric acid would have dissolved all his hair and bleached his skin white. What a sight! And this man began to preach, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (v.4). It was a short sermon, but it had two points: the mercy of God and the judgment of God. They had forty days to get right with God — that was mercy (God could have given them forty seconds, or four seconds). If they didn’t get right they would be annihilated — that was judgment. It was a message of opportunity: the people had forty days to repent. God gave a warning and then He gave a deadline.
As Jonah made his way through the city preaching his one-sentence sermon, the hum of activity began to cease. A holy hush fell over Nineveh. Before long, weeping could be heard in every corner of every house. People began to fall on their knees, praying and crying and turning to the Lord. They “believed God”, meaning that each of them placed their faith in God to save them. From the greatest to the least, every citizen put on sackcloth and repented of their sins, praying to the one true God. Waves of revival began sweeping over that city and reached the royal residence. The king did an amazing thing: he rose from his throne, laid aside his royal robe, and covered himself with the signs of mourning and contrition (v.6). Having turned to the Lord himself, the king took over for Jonah and began to preach to the nation, calling on them to repent and believe!
When God saw the Ninevites’ repentance, He “relented” (v.10). Instead of destroying them, He forgave them. What a gracious God! Faith and desperation always get His attention. If you turn to Him, He will shower you with His mercy. If you have drifted away from the Lord and wandered out of His will, there are only two options for you: continue to run from Him and end up facing His judgment, or turn around and run to Him and He will forgive you and use you a second time.