A Heathen City in Sackcloth
Jonah 3:4-10
And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.…

Let us try to realize the scene. An Eastern city sleeps in the rosy morning light. Its moated ramparts tower a hundred feet in air, and, dotted with fifteen hundred lofty towers, sweep around it a length of over sixty miles. Already the gates are open for the early traffic, and conspicuous among the crowd a stranger enters. The stains of travel are on his dress, and he looks with curious awe at the figures of winged colossal bulls that keep silent symbolic guard over the gate by which he passes in. Within, things new and strange appear at every step. The houses, sitting each in its own grounds, are bowered in green. The streets are spanned at intervals with triumphal arches, whose entablature is enriched by many a sculptured story. On every eminence is a palace, or monument, or idol temple, guarded by symbolic monsters in stone, and adorned in carving of bas-relief with sacred symbols. The markets fill, the bazaars are alive with multifarious dealing, soldiers and war chariots parade the streets, and the evidences of despotic power and barbaric wealth and heathenish worship, with their inevitable accompaniments of luxury, corruption, and violence, abound on every side. The stranger is deeply moved. Surprise gives place to horror, then horror warms into righteous indignation; and with trumpet voice and dilating form and eye of fire he utters the words of doom, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed." Through street, and park, and Barrack, and bazaar the direful message rings. There is momentary incredulity, then swift alarm, then utter consternation. Like wildfire the news, and with it the panic spreads. It reaches the nobles in their palaces. It penetrates to the king upon his throne. It moves society to its depths. And the result is the scenes of mourning and self-abasement our text records.

I. REPENTANCE COMES READILY TO UNTUTORED MINDS. Never did preacher see better or speedier fruit of his labours than Jonah did in heathen Nineveh. By a single sermon but a few sentences long he sent the entire city into penitence and sackcloth. Granted that there was much to account for this in the preaching itself. It was bold and oracular and explicit, and spoken with the conviction that is most of all contagious. It was enforced by such a narrative of his own recent history as made him nothing less than a sign to the men of Nineveh (Luke 11:80). Granted too "the great susceptibility of Oriental races to emotion, the awe of one Supreme Being which is peculiar to all the heathen religions of Asia, and the great esteem in which soothsaying and oracles were held in Assyria from the very earhest times" (Keil). Yet still the repentance, so widespread, so real, so sadden, has in it something phenomenal in the religious sphere. Not thus did the prophets and their utterances move the Jews. They "beat one, and killed another, and stoned another," and disregarded all as a general rule (Matthew 21:35). A greater than Jonah, the Truth himself, spoke to them, and spoke in vain (Matthew 12:41). Unbelieving and lengthened contact with truth had no doubt produced the exceptional hardness of the Jewish nature. The works done in vain in the gospel hardened Chorazin or Bethsaida would, as we know, have Brought Tyre and Sidon to repentance in dust and ashes. Even filthy Sodom would have cleansed its way, and been spared on earth, had it seen the mighty works by which Capernaum was yet utterly unmoved (Matthew 11:20-24). So when the soil of the Jewish nature, plied with the truth seed till trodden hard by the sowers' feet, refused utterly to produce, the apostles found a fertile seed bed in the virtu soil of the Gentile mind (Acts 13:44-48). An analogous fact is the success of Christ among the common people (Mark 12:37), when the scribes and Pharisees, who were more familiar with revelation, remained uninfluenced almost to a man (John 7:48, 49). It would seem as if Divine truth, like potent drugs with the body, is effective most of all in its first contacts with the soul. Lengthened and frequent contact with truth, if it does not regenerate, only thickens the spiritual skin, and much hearing means little heeding as a general rule.

II. REPENTANCE IMPLIES A RELIEF OF THE TRUTH. (Ver. 5.) Belief of the truth is a logical first step to every religious attainment (Hebrews 11:6). Truth is the revelation of things as they are - of character, of destiny, of duty. Until that has been received there can be no spiritual beginning. While not only danger but the disease itself is disbelieved in, the patient will take no step toward cure. "He that cometh to the Lord must believe that he is." This is the least modicum of knowledge conceivable in any intelligent comer. So he that comes away from sin must believe that sin is. Unless he does, and until he does, he has no reason for moving. He that comes by repentance and faith, moreover, must believe in the propriety and dutifulness of these acts. Forecasting the possible result of Timothy's ministry in the turning of the wicked, Paul says, "If God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth." This aspiration brings out the point exactly. Repentance and the acknowledging of the truth imply and involve each other. Impenitence is largely the result of incredulity. If a man really believed what God says about sin - its demerit, deformity, and destroying character - the grief and hatred and turning which constitute repentance must arise. The impenitent man either does not believe God at all, or he gives him a weak and heedless credence that is never acted on, and so is practical disbelief. Let God's word of dogma, God's word of promise, be truly and adequately believed, and God's word of precept will be infallibly obeyed. A man may contemplate his sin indifferently and commit it with even pulse, but the power to do so means that the Scripture testimony against it has been silenced, or the witness put out of the court of conscience altogether. "It is to be observed that faith operates differently according to the matter believed, When faith looks to the redeeming love of Christ, faith worketh by love. 'We love him who first loved us.' When faith looks to the infinite wrath of God, faith worketh fear, and we 'flee for refuge to the hope set before us.' When faith looks at Christ, beating in his love the wrath from which he calls us to flee, faith worketh by grief; and, 'looking on him whom we have pierced, we mourn.' And all these operations of faith - love, fear, grief - enter into that repentance unto salvation which true faith produces" (Martin).

III. REPENTANCE IS AT ONCE DEEPENED BY FEAR AND SWEETENED BY HOPE. The Ninevites feared to "perish" through the "fierce anger" of God, yet hoped he might "turn away" from it and "repent." Fear is a rather ignoble emotion, but it is not without its place and power in the religious sphere. A man's life, in the widest sense, is his most precious trust. To gain the whole world would not compensate for the loss of it. Hence the universal instinct of self-preservation. "All that a man hath will he give for his life." And by appealing to this instinct, as it so often does, the Scripture assumes its lawfulness (Luke 13:3; Matthew 10:28). The less of soul and body in hell is a loss unparalleled and irreparable, and which it would be madness not to fear. The Ninevites feared it. Their dread of it was a chief cause of the penitence they showed. And naturally so. To a man as yet unspiritual, the bearing of his sin on his own fate is the supreme consideration. When he becomes better he will be amenable to higher motives, but fear as opposed to carnal security, is always a prominent factor in the early stages of the religious life. But the Ninevites repentance did not spring from fear alone; it based on hope as well. "Who can tell," etc.? (ver. 9). The hope here was far from assured. It was a mere glimmer in the soul Yet still it was hope. Escape was deemed not impossible, - that was all And there was a shadow of ground for hope, which the keen eye of the doomed did not fail to detect. They had an intuitive idea that God would make some difference between a penitent city and an impenitent one. Then the catastrophe was not to come for forty days, and, in the granting of so long a respite, they would see the door left open for a possible change before its close. Besides, Jonah's own deliverance in's more dire extremity still, and of which he evidently told them in his preaching (Luke 11:80),would suggest the possibility of a like escape to them with like repentance. If the preacher had been saved in tits very moment of imminent death, the fact was ground of hope to the people who had forty days' reprieve. Thus the faith in which the Ninevites' repentance originated "wrought by fear and hope combined. The evil dreaded was sufficient to break and humble all their pride. And the hope they entertained was sufficient to prevent their fear from turning into mere despair" (Martin). It is the element of hope in it that marks off the sorrow which worketh only death from the sorrow which worketh repentance to salvation. There is a persuasion of men which bases on the terrors of the Lord, and a beseeching of them also by the mercies he has shown. And what is this but to make fear and hope the limbs of a stable arch to carry the repentance "that needeth not to be repented of"?

IV. REPENTANCE INCLUDES GRIEF FOR THE PAST AND REFORMATION FOR THE FUTURE. The Ninevites "put on sackcloth," etc., and "turned them every one from his evil way." There was Compendious logic in this. Sackcloth and ashes were the conventional livery of abasement and grief (2 Corinthians 7:9, 10), and these have a distinct place in the spiritual connection (Joel 2:13). But they must be spiritual. Not the result of wounded pride, or baffled purpose, or ruined prospects. These things are utterly carnal. They involve no sense of sin's demerit, no horror of its impurity. They are merely aspects and expressions of selfishness. Every detected rogue can see that he has blundered in his sinuing, and from that standpoint grieves. Saul does it, exclaiming, in the bitterness of failure, "I have played the fool exceedingly." But the sorrow "after a godly sort" is a radically different thing, and done in a different spiritual atmosphere altogether. And David crying with contrite and humbled spirit, "I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me," is a perfect moral contrast. His is a sorrow that has God in it. Sin is viewed in its relation to God, from God's standpoint, and with feelings like to God's. Job sorrowed thus with God when he said, "Now mine eye sooth thee; wherefore I abhor myself," etc. Such sorrow has hope in it, and so "the promise and potency" of a reformed life. Under its impulse the Ninevites "turned every one from his evil way." Reformation is the work meet for repentance - the crystalline form revealing the genuine metal. "Numbers will do everything in religion but turning from sin to the Saviour; and where this is not done, all the rest is lost labour - their religion is hypocrisy, their hope is mere delusion, and their latter end is bitterness and woe; for all who refuse to depart from sin must perish in sin. In vain shall we fast for sin, if we do not fast from sin; and what blessings can all our prayers bring down while we refuse to turn from our evil ways?" (Jones).

V. REPENTANCE CRIES TO GOD IN PRAYER. The words of Jonah were like an earthquake in the vast city. From king to beggar there was consternation and dismay. The destroying armies of heaven were at hand. Men can neither disbelieve, nor doubt, nor resist, nor fly, nor survive. What remains but to submit and beg for mercy - the last resort of the sinner, but the very first command of God? And so the king descends from his throne, and the beggar rises from his straw, and a stricken universal cry for help goes up in the ear of Heaven. In such an exercise true repentance is at home. Prayer is the spontaneous, the instinctive expression of the soul's new found need. A true sense of sin, together with an apprehension of God's mercy in Christ which all genuine repentance includes, leads logically to prayer. Given a sick man thoroughly alarmed, and a willing physician accessible, and the application for help will infallibly follow.

"On bender knees, replete with godly grief,
See where the mourner kneels to seek relief;
From his full heart pours forth the gushing plea,
God of the lost, be merciful to me!'
The light of life descends in heavenly rays,
And angels shout and sing, 'Behold, he prays!'"

VI. REPENTANCE IS TO BE NATIONAL WHEN THE SIN IS NATIONAL. The Ninevites' was a "public, general, royal fast." So when the Divine judgments menaced Jerusalem in the reign of Jehoiakim, all the people proclaimed a fast (Jeremiah 36:9). Then it was observed by all the people in accordance with a royal edict. So Jehoshaphat "feared and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah" (2 Chronicles 20:3) when Moab and Ammon invaded the kingdom. In the nature of the case, the repentance must correspond to the transgression. The people must repent who have sinned, and in the character and relations in which the sin has been committed. That their action in the matter was suggested and shaped by royal edict detracted in nothing from the value of the Ninevites' repentance. The obligations of religion rule every relation of life. Each community ought to be religious, and the rulers of each to consider their office sacred to the accomplishment of this result. Monarchs should reign for the glory of God, and they do so when they "take order" for the observance of religious worship with due regard to the prerogatives of the Church, and to the right of private judgment. "It is an evil and dangerous principle that would exempt the rulers of a kingdom from being in subjection in their public capacity to the Word of Christ, and from being under obligation in their government to rule for the promotion of his kingdom. It strikes at the root of all family as well as national religion; and while it would confine Christ to the separate consciences of individual men, it would refuse him the right to govern the households and communities into which in Providence they are combined" (Martin). The practical lesson of this is read to us by Jesus Christ (Luke 11:32). The existence of saints in the world is a virtual condemnation of all the sinners. With similar privileges and opportunities, why are these spiritually changed, and those not? Unless the believers have done more than their duty, the unbelievers have fallen woefully short. Every saint in a Christian congregation will stand up in the judgment a silent but damning witness against its unconverted members who remain so under equal inducements to repentance. And the case is worse when the balance of privilege was on the unbelievers' side. It was so as between Nineveh and Israel. The one was brought to repentance by means incomparably less than those which had proved entirely inoperative with the other. It will be so as between each of them and us, if we are blind to our greater light, and insensible to our more potent spiritual agencies. "A greater than Jonah is here" -greater in person, greater in office, greater in power, and greater in influence. Have we resisted him? Have we withstood his mightier striving? Then who so inexcusable, who so hopeless, as we? What guilt so deep, what condemnation so great, as ours (Hebrews 10:28)? - J.E.H.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.

WEB: Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried out, and said, "In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!"

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