Return to God

The Point:  God’s call to return to Him demands a response.

Jonah Flees the Presence of the Lord:  Jonah 1:1-3.

[1]  Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, [2]  "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." [3]  But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.  [ESV]

[1-3]  God’s call for Jonah to preach in Nineveh displays His grace for all the world. But it also reveals God’s sovereignty over all people. God’s sovereign call to Jonah was brief, direct, and imperative: Arise, go to Nineveh. It did not come with an explanation. Many people today consent to obey God’s Word only when it makes sense to them. But the sovereign God does not accept such an arrangement. God’s call to Jonah was sudden. We, too, may have a sudden command from God’s Word made known to us, and our duty to God is to obey immediately and submissively. Not only was God’s command to Jonah sovereign and sudden, it was also difficult. Nineveh was a great distance away (about 600 miles), in the heart of a violent empire. And God was sending Jonah alone, commanding him to pronounce a message of doom. Lastly, God’s call to Jonah was righteous. The incredible evil of Nineveh was known to the Lord. So it was right for Him to send a representative and to declare His displeasure against the city. Moreover, it was righteous of God to give that wicked city an opportunity to repent. The character of this command to Jonah – its sovereign, sudden, difficult, and righteous character – will be repeated in our own lives. Should we complain? Should we rebel? Should we drag our feet and kick back? Not if it is God who has given the command. He has the right and He has earned the trust to be taken at His bare word. Christians who know the Lord and understand His ways will therefore receive the word of the Lord in humble, submissive, and joyful obedience. This is not what Jonah did, however. God told Jonah to arise, and he arose all right. But he did not go to Nineveh. Instead, he went in precisely the opposite direction. His purpose was to flee from the presence of the Lord [3]. Tarshish seemed perfect for this. It was one of the places mentioned in Isaiah 66:19 that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. Jonah’s flight from God was extremely sinful. To begin with, he was sinning against his confession of faith. Jonah was a professed Israelite, a worshiper of Yahweh, the One True and Most High God. Secondly, Jonah was sinning against his privileges. He was, after all, a prophet of the Lord. He benefited from a personal knowledge of God and direct revelation from heaven. Thirdly, Jonah was sinning against reason. He thought he could flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. But his one profession of faith revealed how impossible this is. Jonah knew that he did not serve a local or otherwise limited deity: I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land [1:9]. Psalm 139:7-12 serves as a commentary on his folly. One of the major lessons from this story is that one can flee one’s home, Christian fellowship, and church, but one can never flee from God. Let us learn the lesson from Jonah. Our profession of faith demands a life that is yielded to God in obedience. Our privileges carry a responsibility, so that our sin is compounded according to the measure of the grace and knowledge we have received. And our sin is always unreasonable. Sin always denies something about God. Sin either denies God as Provider, or Father, or Savior, or Judge. It denies God’s attributes of goodness, power, holiness, and love.”  [Phillips, pp. 3-22]. 

The People of Nineveh Repent:  Jonah 3:1-10.

[1]  Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, [2]  "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you." [3]  So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. [4]  Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" [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.

[1-4]  The book of Jonah records the education a prophet received in the school of God’s grace. The third chapter of Jonah shows how God’s gracious purposes always succeed, although they often follow a path that is surprising to the human observer. God’s grace is first revealed in this chapter by the second chance that God provides to Jonah: Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh [1]. We remember that this book opened with very similar words, a calling to preach to the Ninevites, which Jonah rejected. Unwilling to obey, he fled for Joppa, and from there he boarded a ship bound for the most distant port possible. But God intervened with a great storm that threatened to destroy Jonah’s ship. To save the ship, the crew cast Jonah overboard. But instead of drowning, he was swallowed by a great fish or a whale that God had sent. In the belly of the fish, Jonah recognized his utter need for the very grace he had been withholding from Nineveh. The prophet repented and called out to God, and the Lord answered his prayer by delivering him safely to dry ground. Now Jonah is called a second time to God’s task. This tells us a good deal about God’s grace. Jonah was given a second chance by God, just as God’s people often receive manifold chances when they repent and call upon the Lord. What an encouragement it is to know the second chances of God as you face your disobedience and sin, repent, and seek the grace of the Lord again. God’s second chance also meant that the Lord intended to get His way with His servant. Jonah’s deliverance through the belly of the great fish was not a way out of God’s calling on his life. God still called Jonah to preach in Nineveh, so Jonah’s restoration to God’s presence included the restoration of his calling to serve. When Jonah receives God’s calling again to preach in Nineveh, he goes forth as a living testimony to the grace of the Lord. In this way we realize that Jonah’s rebellion had actually served the purposes of God. God is never to blame for our sin, yet in His sovereign plan of grace He uses even our folly, sin, and rebellion as occasions for achieving the designs of His grace. So when Jonah received his second call to Nineveh, he answered it as a man who had been changed by grace. Another way to say this is to observe that God’s hand of chastisement in the lives of His children is guided by His purpose for our lives. Having been changed by God’s disciplining grace, Jonah is now ready to serve as an instrument fit for God’s design in preaching the gospel. We can mark the change in Jonah’s life by first realizing that he now knew himself to be a sinner who had been forgiven. Earlier, Jonah had refused to preach to Nineveh because he did not think that such great sinners deserved to receive God’s grace. But what an education he had received while at sea and in the belly of the great fish. Jonah’s lesson is one that God wants all His servants to learn. This is one reason why the Lord permits us to slide back into sin. When He has called us to repentance, we are ready to serve Him again in the joy of His amazing grace. The change in Jonah’s life is reflected immediately in his response to God’s renewed call. The first time God called Jonah to preach against wicked Nineveh, the prophet fled from the Lord’s presence. But this time, Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord [3]. His gratitude for God’s grace showed forth in new obedience. Forgiveness fuels the zeal of God’s people to serve Him. Jonah had been changed in a second way that also shaped his response to God’s renewed call. Now he was a man who had prayed and been heard by God. Having been in the belly of the whale, Jonah knew what it was like to be in total need and utter dependence on God’s answer to prayer, only to find how faithful the Lord is to all who call on Him in faith. There is a third aspect we should note regarding how God’s grace had changed Jonah. Through the trials brought on by his own sin, he was a man who had known affliction and found the blessing of God. The effect of Jonah’s experience and the change worked in him by the grace of God went beyond mere obedience. It conveyed to him a holy boldness about God’s work. He had learned the reality of God’s power and the tenacity of God’s purposes. Jonah finally arrived in the great city and began preaching: Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown [4]. This was a warning of God’s judgment, apparently according to instructions that God had given. This is where the grace of the gospel properly begins, with warnings of God’s certain judgment on sin. [5-10]  Of all the great revivals in the history of this world, few can compare with the mass repentance of ancient Nineveh. This great revival occurred through the preaching of one man, the prophet Jonah. As always with revivals, it began with the awakening of the messenger. Revivals began in the repentance and renewed faith of the church, just as the repentance of Nineveh began with Jonah’s contrition and spiritual renewal. Seeing the genesis of this work in Jonah’s own experience, we realize that the revival of Nineveh was a mighty act of God in His mercy. Jonah had obeyed God’s call to preach in Nineveh. To the astonishment of history, the wicked Ninevites did not respond with violence against the prophet, or even with mocking indifference to his call. Instead, they presented one of the classic instances of corporate repentance, as an entire society turned from sin and called upon the Lord. A biblical definition of repentance will include at least three vital elements, each of which is present in the case of Nineveh. The first is a sorrowful mourning over sin. We see this in that the Ninevites called for a fast and put on sackcloth [5]. False repentance grieves only over the consequences of sin; people are not sorry that they sinned but that they got caught. True repentance grieves over the sin itself. But the Ninevites tore their hearts in conviction for their sin and the offense they had given to Jonah’s God. We see the Ninevites’ sorrow for sin in three ways. The first is that they called for a fast. Fasting has several biblical purposes, one of which is a public expression of penitence. Secondly, the Ninevites’ sorrow was acted out by the wearing of sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them [5]. Sackcloth was coarse and rough cloth used for making sacks, which normally only the poorest of people wore. Like fasting, sackcloth expressed lament, grief, and humiliation. Thirdly, the king of Nineveh set an example for his subjects by sitting in ashes [6]. Taking off his rich and costly robes, donning sackcloth, and then squatting in ashes was the ultimate public display of self-humiliation. All these actions by the Ninevites expressed repentance in terms of sorrow for sin. But repentance also requires an actual turning from sin. We see this in the king’s proclamation: Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands [8]. Nineveh was notorious for violence, so here its king acknowledges the evil of their ways and calls the people to repudiate their chief and characteristic sin. Thirdly, repentance culminates in a turning to God in renewed faith. Thus the king of Nineveh decreed, let them call out mightily to God [8]. He was summoning the people to pray to the God of Jonah for mercy. Throughout the Bible we find sinners who repent turning to God in prayer and discovering His grace in reply. The repentance of Nineveh was a truly extraordinary event and, from a human perspective, totally surprising. How can we account for this unprecedented repentance? The first answer is found in the initial words of Jonah 3:5: And the people of Nineveh believed God. This shows us that repentance is always a firstfruit of belief in the Word of God. They repented because they believed the message Jonah preached. Jonah proclaimed the reasons for their coming judgment and the holiness of the God who threatened them. Believing Jonah’s message, their faith was the catalyst for the repentance that followed. Nor was it merely that they repented because they believed the word of judgment against them. They must also have believed that God might have mercy if they turned from their sin. So their king mused: Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish [9]. This hope of mercy was essential to their change of heart; true repentance is always grounded not merely in the law of God but also in the hope of the gospel. The second source behind their repentance was the grace of God. The mass repentance of the most wicked metropolis of the ancient world was clearly the result of God’s supernatural working. There is no other sufficient explanation for this remarkable event. Who could expect that the arrival of one bedraggled prophet into the heart of violent, arrogant paganism would be received the way Jonah was received? Yet this one man brought low the capital of a bloodthirsty empire simply by the message that he preached! How did this happen? It happened by the secret working of God’s Spirit in and through the Word of God that was preached. Our repentance must also be empowered by the grace of the Lord. Repentance, like salvation, is by grace and through faith, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit bearing witness to God’s Word. The chapter closes with the strongest encouragement for us to repent, for it tells of God’s response to the humbling of Nineveh. The wicked people having repented of sin, God repented of His plans for their destruction: 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. Notice what it is that God desires to see: how they turned from their evil way. It was not outward ceremonies that God desired to see. God relented not because he observed that they abstained from food and water for a time, or briefly wore cheap material in the place of their normally luxurious dress. It was not because sacrifices of animals or money were made in an effort to purchase God’s favor. It was because they repented: their hearts turned from their evil ways.”  [Phillips, pp. 93-112]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe the character of God’s call to Jonah (it was sovereign, sudden, difficult, and righteous). Why did God’s call cause concern in Jonah? How did Jonah respond to the call? Describe the sinfulness of Jonah’s response.

2.         Describe how God responded to Jonah’s disobedience. What do we learn about God in His treatment of sinful behavior; both Jonah’s and the Ninevites? What characteristics of God do you see in these verses?

3.         Describe the reaction of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching. What evidences of true repentance do you see?


Jonah, Joyce Baldwin, Baker.

The Minor Prophets, James Boice, Kregel.

Jonah and Micah, Richard Phillips, REC, P & R Publishing.

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