Sovereign Over The Nations: In a fallen world, it’s only natural to see people outside our tribe, people, language, or nation as our enemy. But is that how God sees them? In Jonah 3, God is a God of second chances, giving grace and mercy, to both Jonah and the people of Nineveh, the enemies of Jonah’s people. Why? Because God is sovereign over the nations and He is sovereign to save. Recorded on June 19, 2022, on Jonah 3, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our “Sovereign to Save” sermon series from the book of Jonah in the Bible. Jonah’s story is well-known both in and outside the church for his encounter with the great fish. But Jonah is really about the incredible heart of a sovereign God to save even his enemies.
This whole past year, we’ve had the annual theme of our preaching ministry of The Greatness of God. After today, we only have one more week of this theme before we start our new theme of Learning the way of Jesus. Truthfully, I can’t wait to start this new theme. But we still have two more chapters in the story of Jonah in our Sovereign to Save series before we’re done with this theme. And we’ve said, the basic story of Jonah is well-known in and outside the church. But when you dig into what it actually says, you find a God who is sovereign, with divine power/authority over all. In Jonah, we see that this is a very good thing, because we find the great compassion and love of God, even for his enemies, and we see the lengths he goes to save them. Our God is sovereign to save. Last week, Kyle preached on the fact that God is sovereign over the deep, over even the worst times in our lives, and he often uses those dark/uncomfortable times to prune us for our good. Today, we finally get to Nineveh (after Jonah ran hard away from his calling) and we’ll see that God isn’t only sovereign over his people — God is sovereign over the nations, God is sovereign over all people, but again, with a heart to save. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Jonah 3.
Jonah 3:1–10 (NIV), “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”
If you haven’t been with us, let me give you a little recap of the story so far. About 2,800 years ago, Jonah was a prophet of Yahweh God in the northern kingdom of Israel during a time of crisis for his people. The Assyrian Empire was the most powerful nation on the earth at the time. They would eventually conquer pretty much everybody before the rise of the Babylonian Empire. But they were on Jonah’s doorstep and were a real threat to him and to everyone he knew and loved. Jonah’s story starts with a word from the Lord, but (surprisingly) not for Israel. Jonah was sent with a message to Nineveh, to the capitol of the evil Assyrian Empire. In response, Jonah ran away. He left his hometown, boarded a ship, and set sail for a place about 2000 miles in the wrong direction. Jonah didn’t want to preach to Nineveh because he knew the character of God, he knew that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love. And he didn’t want his enemies to receive the goodness of God; justice maybe, but not grace/mercy. But the plans of the Sovereign Lord cannot be altered, even by disobedience. And the Lord demonstrated his power/authority over all of creation by sending a storm to stop Jonah. The pagan sailors realized that Jonah was the problem, and against their better judgment, they threw him overboard, the storm was calmed, they were saved, and they praised the God of Jonah. Now Jonah thought he was going to die in the sea, but God flexed his sovereign power once again, and he was saved by a great fish. In the deep, Jonah turned back to God in repentance and praise and was saved in a different way than the sailors. So what happened next? Now we’re back to chapter 3. Let’s start again with v.1.
Jonah 3:1–3a (NIV), “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” Here, we have almost the same calling word for word that Jonah received at the start of chapter 1. The three imperatives are “arise” (not translated in the NIV), “go,” and “proclaim.” But instead of running away in disobedience, Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord. And arose, he went to the home of his enemy, and he preached the word of God. And let’s not overlook the cost of his obedience. If Jonah somehow secured an animal such as a camel to ride, it would’ve taken him a month to get to Nineveh, even longer if he had to walk. He likely had to rely on the hospitality of strangers for food and shelter. Have you ever had to sacrifice for someone you didn’t like? How fun is that? Every day for a month or more, Jonah woke up, hot or cold, perhaps sore from travel, and had to make that same right decision to be obedient to God. v.3.
Jonah 3:3b-5 (NIV), “Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” Let’s pause here. There is some confusion about this passage. There’s no doubt that Nineveh was a huge city according to the standards of their time. It’s not clear if the three days in the original Hebrew meant walking through the city proper or the whole metro area as we would say today. Or perhaps the meaning is that it would take three days to walk around it. Or maybe something else. But either way, I don’t think it really matters, because the meaning is the same. Nineveh was like New York or LA or London or Tokyo. It was huge and had many, many people living there, working there, and raising families there. Sure there was corruption and wicked violence, but I would guess that most people were just trying to live their lives as best they could. The second question from this passage is whether the message of Jonah, the sentence recorded here, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” was the whole message or whether this was just a summary of his preaching which actually included more details about who this proclamation of judgment was coming from and why. Now, if this was the whole of his message, then Jonah did the absolute bare minimum in his obedience to God. He technically preached the word of the Lord to this foreign nation, but frankly, not very well. Maybe he hoped that by giving no introduction/illustration/application of his message, no context whatsoever, that his enemies wouldn’t be moved to respond well. Or, giving him a little benefit of the doubt, maybe this is just a summary of his preaching, and he did in fact fulfill his duty to the best of his ability. Either way, again, surprisingly, against all the odds, v. 5 says the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, which meant they refused to eat or drink so as to put their full attention into prayer. Their physical hunger was meant to represent their spiritual hunger and dependency upon God. They also put on sackcloth which was a sign of grief or mourning. They were mourning not just the coming destruction but their actions that had caused this judgment. And again, this is another example of the irony we see throughout the story of Jonah. Remember, Jonah ran in response to the word of the Lord. But the Assyrians, the dreaded enemy of God’s people, humbled themselves before the word of the Lord. They didn’t just believe Jonah, they believed God. But what about the rich and powerful? What about those with the power to command armies and nations of armies against the God of Jonah? Look at v. 6.
Jonah 3:6-9 (NIV), “When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Even in Nineveh, the capital of the evil empire, repentance and faith is still the way to salvation. The people heard the message and believed God. They recognized that the message of this Hebrew prophet was a message from God and they believed it. The king heard the message and he joined the people in the dust. He didn’t respond with ego and arrogant pride. He responded in humble repentance. Honestly, and ironically, this is one of the best examples of repentance in the whole Bible. Let’s consider his example. First, he rose from his throne, he stepped down from his place of sovereign power and control over Assyria because he was dealing with one who was sovereign over every nation. Who was the king compared to the King of kings? Second, he replaced his royal robes, symbolizing his own glory, honor, and praise, for sackcloth, a mark of humility. Third, he moved from an inner realization of the error of his ways to external action. He used his position as the king to make the response of fasting and prayer and, more importantly, of giving up their evil ways and their violence, to be an official decree. Finally, he made no excuses for his actions or the actions of his people. He didn’t shift the blame or make false apologies. He cast himself and his people before the mercy of God. “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” This is how you repent. When you are made aware of your sin, give up your glory, humble yourself before the Lord, turn from your sin and go in a new direction, and trust in the grace and mercy of God without making any excuses or blaming anyone else for your actions. But how would God respond to all this? However God responds would tell us a lot about the character of God and his heart for people who are far from him. Look again at v. 10.
Jonah 3:10 (NIV), “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Our God is sovereign to save. God has divine power and authority over creation, over the wind and the waves, over the great fish of the deep, and over all the nations. But to what end? What does God do with his sovereignty? He is sovereign to save. And not just for the so-called good guys, but for people of every nation, people, and language. But do you know what this means? This means that our God is a God of second chances. In this chapter, God gives both Jonah and the people of Nineveh a second chance (or maybe a third, fourth, or fifth chance). Some of us have lost count of the chances that God has given us. He relents when we repent. He gives grace in the place of righteous judgment. He gives mercy in the place of being fair. Karma isn’t real. Praise God! Now, I think it’s clear from this story, but God’s willingness to give Jonah a second chance doesn’t mean that Jonah was actually a good guy. He wasn’t pure evil, but he certainly isn’t the hero of this story, just as we aren’t the heroes of our story. In the same way, God’s willingness to give the Assyrians a second chance doesn’t mean they were really good people deep down. They were wicked. God says that in Jonah chapter 1, verse 2. So why would God save these people? My friends, this is the offense of grace. This is the shocking nature of the gospel. That God would bless the villain. That God would forgive the wrong kind of people. That God would love Israel and the Assyrians. Now, even though many of us have been given many chances by God, the number of chances that God gives is ultimately God’s prerogative. And we dare not think we are entitled to endless chances. But who among us hasn’t received a second chance from God? And if so, then we praise him with all of our heart/mind/soul/strength for the divine mercies that are new every day. And we sing for the divine grace that we would be lost without!
So what do we do with this teaching; how do we apply this to our lives today? And how does this relate to the greatness of God? First, let’s think about how this teaching and this view of the character and heart of God impacts our view of our nation and the other nations of this world. It is the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth, who is sovereign over the nations. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him [even the Assyrians] shall not perish but have eternal life.” God doesn’t ignore wickedness, evil, and oppression. He is the perfect judge. But his heart does not delight in the death of the wicked. So he offers his message of salvation to all peoples. In the beginning, there was no division between people, but sin separates. Now, our many kingdoms and tribes and all the ways we divide ourselves are so often a source of conflict. Like Jonah, we tend to see ourselves and our nation and our people as the good guys and the others as the evil empire. But that is not how God sees us. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are all equally in need of the miraculous and saving grace/mercy of God, we’re all equal at the foot of the cross. The Russians are just as much in need of the grace of God as the Ukrainians, the Chinese as much in need as the Americans, and on and on. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 10, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Ro 10:11-13). Second, it was the plan of God to reunite all the peoples of the earth. He prophesied what he would do in Isaiah 49 saying, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6). And who was God talking to here? The one who would be his suffering servant, the one who would give his life to save the lives of people from every nation; he was talking to his son, Jesus Christ. Third, this chapter of Jonah’s story is totally consistent with what we find after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when he paid the price not only for the wickedness of the people of Nineveh, but for our sin as well. God’s heart for the nations that we see here is seen once again in his call not just to Jonah, but to every follower of Jesus to arise, go, and proclaim. Before ascending back into heaven, Jesus gave us his great commission saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of [who? of…] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” This is God’s heart. This is our calling. And if we pay the cost of obedience to the word of God, then we too will enjoy the great blessing of seeing many men and women, perhaps even our enemies, become our brothers and sisters in Christ. May it be. God, let it happen here and now, for your glory and for the saving of many lives. Let us pray.