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Nineveh Repents (Part 1 of 2)

Nineveh Repents

Part 1 of 2

Based on an exposition of Jonah 3 by Pastor Linus Chua during a PCC Evening Worship Service

Previously, we looked at Jonah chapter 3 and focused on Jonah’s preaching ministry to the people of Nineveh. In this article and the next, I’ll like us to consider again that same chapter but this time focusing on the repentance of Nineveh.

The Bible talks about two kinds of repentance – repentance that leads to life and repentance that needs to be repented of, or true and false repentance. 2 Corinthians 7:10 mentions both these kinds when it says, “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” 

Now it is clear, based on our text, that the people at Nineveh truly repented. We see that especially from verse 10 which says, “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”

The Lord saw that they had truly repented and turned from their evil ways, and that theirs was not a superficial or hypocritical or insincere kind of repentance. And so in response, the Lord also repented of the evil that He threatened to do to them, and did not do it.

But another way we know that the repentance of Nineveh was genuine is from what the Lord Jesus said about them in the New Testament. In Luke 11:32, He said, “The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” The men of Nineveh truly repented at the preaching of Jonah and because of that, they would rise up in judgment and condemn that generation of Jews who failed to repent at the preaching of the greater Jonah, even Christ Jesus.

Now I’ll like us to observe five things about the nature of repentance based on what we see in this passage.

1. Flows from Faith

First, repentance flows from faith. There can be no true repentance without true faith. That is exactly what we find in verse 5, “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”

Fasting and putting sackcloth are outward symbols of repentance, which we’ll talk about later. But notice how the people first believed in God before they repented. There must first be true faith in God and in what God has revealed before there can be true repentance.

Jonah preached the word of God the moment he entered the city of Nineveh. The people heard Jonah and they received his message not as the word of a mere man, but as the very word of the living God. The people of Nineveh were convinced that the God of Jonah was for real, and His threat of imminent judgement against them was no laughing matter. They took Jonah seriously and received his word as the word of God, which worked effectually in them. And one of the effects of that word was repentance.

2. True Sight & Sense of Sin

But second, repentance involves a true sight and sense of sin. The second half of verse 8 and verse 9 says, “yea, let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” 

These are the words of the king of Nineveh. He understood that they, as a people, had done great evil and violence. And he understood that their wickedness had gone up before God as chapter 1 verse 2 says. Nineveh was a city of great wickedness in the sight of God, and God was very angry with them. And the people of Nineveh had come to understand and be convicted of that truth through Jonah’s ministry.

There can be no true repentance without a true sense and sight of one’s own sin; not just sin in general or some vague idea about it, but specific and actual sins.

The problem with sinners is that they are all very good at seeing the specific sins and faults of other people, but not very good at seeing their own sins and the wickedness of their own hearts. And furthermore, even when they are confronted with the reality of specific sins in their lives, they tend to focus not on the sins themselves but rather on the consequences of sins.

But the person who truly repents is the one who sees his sin for what it is – that it is an offence against and an affront to the Most Holy God. Sin is a terrible insult to God. It is like spitting in His face and saying to Him, “I don’t care what you think is right and wrong or what is pleasing to you or not. I will decide for myself what I will or will not do.”

Sin is not just a wrong action or attitude towards another someone else or even against ourselves. No, sin is first and foremost against God. The king of Nineveh saw that. And he knew that God was justly angry with them for all the evil and violence that they had done.

So the second thing we observe about repentance is that it involves a true sight and sense of sin and not merely the consequences of sin.      

3. Grief & Hatred for Sin

The third thing we learn about repentance is that it involves grief and hatred for sin.

We read in verses 6-8, “For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God:”

In the ancient world, fasting, putting on sackcloth and sitting in ashes was a common means of expressing one’s grief and humility and penitence.

The king of Nineveh was so grieved about his sin and the sin of his people that he arose from his throne, laid aside his royal robes, put on sackcloth, and sat down in ashes. His true sense and sight of his sin led to his deep sorrow and grief and even hatred for his sin. Like Job, he could say, “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” 

The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “He that can believe without doubting, suspect his faith; and he that can repent without sorrowing, suspect his repentance.”

4. Actual Turning from Sin

Fourth, repentance involves an actual turning from sin. Again, the second part of verse 8 reads, “let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.”

Repentance involves both inward attitude and outward action. It involves more than just what a person says with his lips. It involves what he actually does with his hands and feet.

The king instructed all his people to stop walking in the way of evil and to withdraw their hands from doing violence. The person who has truly repented in his heart will manifest a change in the way he lives.

This does not mean that the person will now be absolutely perfect or that he will never ever commit those same sins again. But it does mean that the person is willing to deal with all the sins that he is made conscious of. He resolves to turn away from them. He is not content to remain status quo about his sin and do nothing about it. Rather, he endeavours to lead a life of new obedience to God.

3. A Plea for Mercy

Fifth, repentance involves looking to God for mercy. Verse 9, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” And again, earlier in verse 8, the king instructed the people to cry mightily unto God.

Turning away from sin is only one part of true repentance. The other part is a turning to God and a looking to Him for mercy. Isaiah 55:6-7, “Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: (that’s the negative part of repentance) and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (that’s the positive side of it).” 

The one who truly repents is also the one who seeks mercy from the very One whom he has offended. Notice how the king did not demand that God be merciful to them. Rather, he recognised God’s freedom in giving or withholding His grace and mercy. God is under no obligation whatsoever to pardon them for all their sins. He would be perfectly just to utterly destroy them, like how He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah many years ago.

If the Lord pardoned them so that they perished not, it would be entirely due to the free exercise of His mercy. All they could do was to cast themselves into the hands of a merciful God and leave Him to do with them as He pleases.

But let’s pause for a moment to ask where in the first place did the people of Nineveh even get the idea that God is merciful and compassionate, and that they could possibly find mercy with Him?

I suspect Jonah’s very own life and experience had something to do with that. Despite himself, Jonah was the very embodiment of the message that God was compassionate and merciful. He was a living testimony of God’s grace. He had sinned grievously against the Lord by running from His clearly revealed will. As a result of his fleeing from God’s presence, his ship was caught in a severe storm and he was eventually thrown overboard and he sunk deep down into the sea. But from the depths of the sea, the Lord rescued him by providing a big fish to save him, and then three days later, to return him to dry land.

Jonah was still alive despite his sin. But that was not all. Jonah was given yet another opportunity to serve God. Jonah’s very arrival in Nineveh was a testimony of grace, and the people must have been encouraged whenever they looked at Jonah. Perhaps the God who had shown such mercy and compassion to a sinful prophet would likewise show mercy and compassion to them. And so they cried, every one of them, to the God of Jonah for His mercy and grace so that they do not perish in His fierce anger. 


So here again are the five things we learn about the nature of repentance from the repentance of Nineveh.

First, repentance flows from a true faith in God’s word. Second, repentance involves a true sight and understanding of what sin really is. Third, repentance involves a godly sorrow and even a hatred for sin. Fourth, repentance includes an actual turning away from sin, and fifth, repentance involves a turning and looking to God for mercy.

Next time, we’ll look at the reasons for repentance and a call to repentance.

—Linus Chua