When you hear the word “Nineveh,” what comes to mind? Maybe it is the fact that it was built by Nimrod the mighty hunter (Genesis 10:9,11). Perhaps you associate Nineveh with the book of Nahum, in which it is portrayed as “the bloody city” with an inevitable doom (Nahum 1:1; 3:1). Or maybe you think of Nineveh as the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire.
My guess is that, for many of us, when we hear the name “Nineveh,” our first thought is of the book of Jonah. You recall it, right, Jonah going to preach to the Ninevites? Here is what I think. I think if you and I had absolutely no past knowledge of the contents of the book of Jonah, and we sat down and read this short book in one setting, we would be amazed. Over and over, we would be amazed. Why? Because the book records amazing things!
I mean, in each chapter of this book, amazing happenings are revealed. It was amazing that God prepared a huge fish which swallowed Jonah (Jonah 1:17). It was incredible that the runaway prophet survived inside the fish’s belly for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). It was amazing that when God spoke to the fish, the fish understood God-language and emptied his stomach, so out came Jonah (Jonah 2:10). It was incredible that the people of Nineveh turned from their evil way after they heard Jonah’s preaching (Jonah 3:10). And, the fourth chapter records the amazing truth that the Lord’s prophet was terribly displeased that God did not destroy Nineveh (Jonah 4:1,2). I love this book!
Right now, we want to focus on the great turnaround of the Ninevite people. To appreciate that, we must understand the point from which they started. What is the first information that we are given about the Ninevites in the book of Jonah? “Their wickedness” had come up before God (1:2).
Two things come to mind when we read about the Ninevites’ wickedness coming before God. First, God saw what was going on in their lives. How? He just did – the Creator “knows all things” (1 John 3:20), so “there is no creature hidden from His sight” (Hebrews 4:13). No evildoing that escapes the eyes of humans goes unseen by the Almighty – ever.
A second truth about Nineveh’s wickedness is that the people were lawbreakers. They were wicked, and they turned from their “evil” way (3:10). To say that they did “evil” or were “wicked” shows clearly that they had violated God’s law, because that is what sin is – breaking His law, or lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Here, then, is an example from the Old Testament era which demonstrates that Gentiles were under God’s law. Granted, they were not required to keep the Law of Moses, which was a covenant between God and Israel (Deuteronomy 5:1-3), but still, they were under law to Jehovah, and He held them accountable for their actions. Remember, where there is no law, there can be no transgression (Romans 4:15). Since the Ninevites were guilty of wickedness, then they had broken God’s law.
So, to what extent had the wickedness of Nineveh progressed? Far enough that God was prepared to destroy it. In the 48 verses that comprise this book, there is only one recorded message from Jonah to the people of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4). From a spiritual point of view, Nineveh was in sorry shape.
After being vomited out by the fish, Jonah received his second charge from God to go to Nineveh and preach. What did the Ninevites need to hear? The Lord said, “. . . preach to it the message that I tell you” (3:2). Those people, just like folks in every generation in every location, needed to hear God’s word. Jesus said that what the men of Nineveh heard was “the preaching of Jonah” (Luke 11:32). How did God propose to get the Ninevites out of darkness? Two factors are mentioned. One, “Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites” (Luke 11:30), and two, God’s word was preached to them by His spokesman.
How did the Ninevites respond to Jonah’s message? This is the really good stuff! They heard Jonah’s words (3:4). Then “the people of Nineveh believed God” (3:5). What else? “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way” (3:10). They heard, they believe, and they repented. “How do we know for sure that they repented? Nowhere in the book of Jonah do we read that they repented.” That is true, but God’s revelation is not limited to this one book. The Christ said, “The men of Nineveh . . . repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Luke 11:32). This case helps us see the meaning of “repentance.” The Ninevites “repented” (Luke 11:32) when they “turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3:10). Of course, to please God, they would need to forsake their past sins plus turn to Him, the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
This historical episode in the life of Jonah reminds us that when bad people are taught God’s word, there is always a chance that they will accept and obey it. Read the book of Acts and you will be thrilled to see people converted out of darkness. God’s word has the power to change people. Those who are living as slaves of sin need God’s truth. Let us not fall into the trap of trying to predict who will or will not obey God’s word. Our task is to sow the seed and leave the response to the hearers.
It was an amazing turnaround in Nineveh! The doomed were spared by a merciful God. What about Jonah’s attitude when he saw that Nineveh escaped destruction? That is another topic for another day.
— Roger D. Campbell