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Article on Jonah and Nineveh Lent

Nineveh - An Unlikely Revival

by Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer

Does God care about a pagan city? Does He care about Mexico City, Detroit or Chicago? More to the point: do we care about our city? Or could it be that our personal comforts outweigh our commitment to the plight of the urban centers of the world?

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, located about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad or 250 miles from ancient Babylon. Nineveh was on the eastern bank of the Tigris/Euphrates River, and as such, shared a common heritage with the great city of Babylon. In fact, Nimrod, according to Genesis 10:9-11, was the founder of both cities.

Nineveh is a paradise for archaeologists. The outline of the walls can still be traced. They were at least 8 miles in circumference and were so wide that chariots might have been driven on top of them. Surrounding the major city were many smaller cities and perhaps this is what the Bible means when it says Nineveh was "a three days walk" (Jonah 3:3). Palaces, temples, sanctuaries and even the palace of Sennacherib, one of Nineveh's outstanding kings, have been uncovered. Of most interest was a library with thousands of clay tablets on such topics as philosophy, law, geology, chemistry, and mathematics.

Religiously, Nineveh was much like Babylon. Both worshipped the stars and Ishtar, the goddess of sex. The city was filled with sorcery and witchcraft, and the people used incantations to summon the help of whatever gods there be.

Let's take two different snapshots of Nineveh as its existence touches biblical history.

The Revival In Nineveh

First, we have a revival in Nineveh. Recall that the Lord commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, but in disobedience to God, went to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. The prophet was so angry at God's will that he preferred to drown in the Mediterranean Sea rather than preach to the Ninevites. He knew that God might bring repentance to that city and then use the Ninevites to punish Israel. Jonah could not bring himself to preach to these heathen. Jehovah, he thought, belonged to the Jews, not these pagans. But being swallowed by a large fish, spending three days and three nights in its belly and being vomited up onto dry land, Jonah went to Nineveh and preached.

Think of the disadvantages this city had during this evangelistic campaign. The preacher had no burden, in fact he hated the people to whom he was called. He went hoping that they wouldn't believe his message. Then also, his message was only one of Judgment - there was no grace, no love, no mercy. There was no interesting introduction to this sermon; nor did he have an illustration in the conclusion. He told them simply, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown" (Jonah 3:4).

This city was steeped in paganism, deeply subject to demonic occult powers. There were no advance teams, no tracts, no prayer meetings to prepare the people for the coming of the evangelist — no media, no newspapers, no explanation of what was going to take place.

Yet the city was so responsive that it experienced one of the greatest revivals in history. We read "Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes" (3:5,6). In fact, he issued a proclamation that all people, even the animals, should repent! This is surely the most unlikely revival in all of history.

Jonah's message was conditional; that is, if the people would repent, the predicted calamity would not come. We read, "When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it" (3:10).

There are three accounts of repentance in this chapter. First of all, Jonah repented, then Nineveh repented and then God "repented." God knew all along that Nineveh would, indeed, respond to Jonah's message. The text simply means that God did not do what had been promised because the city turned to Him. When God "repents" it simply means that, from our point of view, it appears as if He changed His mind.

The suggestion has been made that after three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah's body was pure white. Perhaps this caused the people to believe that he was a special messenger from God. At any rate, our first snapshot of Nineveh is one that shows the mercy of God in giving a great spiritual revival.

The Aggression of Nineveh

Now we fast forward the historical perspective and jump ahead 40 or 50 years. After the revival of Nineveh, we have the aggression of Nineveh. The nation besieged the city of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. After the three year siege, Samaria fell, and the Assyrians enslaved 27,290 Jewish men, taking them to Assyria (according to Assyrian records) and repopulated Samaria with their own men. This, by the way, explains who the Samaritans were. They were despised because they were of a mixed race - - the offspring of the Jewish women who had intermarried with these Assyrian men.

Now, let us fast frame the history of Nineveh by jumping ahead another 100 years. The prophet Nahum wrote his entire prophecy as a judgment against the city. God, he says, is jealous, and avenging, and will not let the guilty go unpunished. Hear it from him, "Woe to the bloody city, completely full of lies and pillage... ‘Behold, I am against you,' declares the Lord of hosts...And it will come about that all who see you Will shrink from you and say, ‘Nineveh is devastated! Who will grieve for her?' Where will I seek comforters for you?" (Nahum 3:1-7).

Finally, Nahum ends, "There is no relief for your breakdown, Your wound is incurable. All who hear about you Will clap their hands over you, For on whom has not your evil passed continually?" (3:19).

In 612 B.C., Nineveh collapsed in a battle and was reduced to ashes. It became a vacant and desolate city, unknown throughout all of these centuries, just as Nahum predicted. Were it not for archaeologists, we would not know where it had been. Through its ruins God speaks to us today.

Lessons For Us

First, God loves even pagan cities. Contrast Jonah, who was more interested in his personal comfort, angry that a worm had cut down the plant that was his shade than in the salvation of the thousands of people in the city of Nineveh.

Jonah was as bigoted, narrow-minded, and self-serving as we ourselves can be. We, too, have retreated from our great cities; evangelicals have left the inner cities because we don't want to deal with crime, broken homes, alcoholism, and drugs. We prefer our own comfort zone and so we write off large sections of our population. The poor and needy are treated with benign neglect and careless indifference.

God needs to break our hearts, to expand our area of concern to cover the great cities of our nation. God had compassion for Nineveh though Jonah did not. To love a city is to love what God loves. As Christ wept over Jerusalem, so we too should weep for the cities of our nation.

Second, we learn that the spiritual fervor of one generation can vanish in the next. Nineveh experienced its great revival approximately in the year 765 B.C. Forty years later the same city was aggressively crushing the Jews, trying to expand its borders and strengthen its hold on the world. And another 100 years, the city was so ripe for judgment that God obliterated it from the face of the earth.

I agree with those who tell us that America is basically running on the religious capital of its past. We are drifting into the night of paganism and cruelty. John Bunyan, of Pilgrim's Progress fame, had a vision of a flame being doused with buckets of water, but nonetheless it continued to burn. As he inquired at this strange phenomenon, he discovered that tucked away on the other side of the wall was someone who kept feeding the fire with oil.

The only reason America has a semblance of morality and decency is because some people are still supplying the oil of the Spirit, the oil of the Gospel. Let us never think that a fervent spiritual past is any guarantee for future blessing. One generation can love God and the children can ignore Him. There are no "grandchildren" of God mentioned in the Bible. God makes Himself known to each generation and they must each declare themselves for the Lord.

Finally, we learned that judgment is according to knowledge. In Matthew 12:41 Christ said, "The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." The Ninevites repented despite the anger of the preacher, the slant of the message, and the paganism of their forefathers. And yet, Christ's generation would not repent, though they were in the presence of the King of kings.

I believe that in the Day of Judgment the men of Nineveh shall rise up and condemn the city of Chicago, as well. They had but one preacher; we have hundreds. He had but one means of communicating his message; we have Christian radio, television, the internet, tracts, magazines, books and Bibles readily available. His was a message only of judgment; ours is one of compassion and love. We have open forums to discuss religion, to answer questions, and to investigate truth. Our city, along with many others has rejected incredible light.

And so I must ask, have you repented? How many sermons have you heard? How many opportunities have you had to hear the Truth? Perhaps the men of Nineveh shall rise up and condemn you, for they responded to the light that they had, whereas, many people today simply pass it by.

There is a connection between the continued existence of a nation and its relationship with God. God judges nations, but the most important judgment is that of individuals. With that in mind, let me urge you to humble yourself as the people of Nineveh did so many years ago. Christ will receive those who come to receive His love and mercy.

Nineveh is a reminder to all of us that God cares about cities. We may not care, but He does. As believers who share His heart, we must allow our hearts to be broken for the cities we live in; for it's our hands God uses to rebuild broken walls, and our compassion He uses to rebuild broken lives.

The ruins of Nineveh speak to us today.

Source: Great Cities of the Bible: Chapter-3: Nineveh-An Unlikely Revival by Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer, The Moody Church

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Nineveh Lent

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