The title of this post may seem peculiar because we hardly think of Nineveh, a metropolitan city of Assyria, being full of faith. They worshipped foreign gods, did not believe in God, and were so wicked that their wickedness came up before God (Jon 1:2)! Even the king of Nineveh himself admitted that the people were evil and that violence was in their hands (Jon 3:8b). How could such a city, great as it was, have faith in God?
[Jonah] cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ (Jon 3:4)
Perhaps there was more to God’s message. But all we see recorded is that Jonah basically proclaimed that Nineveh was doomed; that they were condemned already. If we were to hear such a message today, how would we respond? Perhaps we would retaliate and question how God could be so unmerciful and so unloving. Perhaps we would become discouraged and just give up. Or worse yet, we would choose to completely disregard God’s warning and continue in our ways. But how did Nineveh respond immediately after Jonah had proclaimed God’s judgment on them?
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. (Jon 3:5)
The way that everyone in Nineveh responded—in both their hearts and their actions—was by no means easy. How is it that they could believe in God and even humble themselves right after they had been condemned? It is because they had faith. Faith that their repentance might change God’s mind, even though their fate had already been decided. The king of Nineveh posed this question:
Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish? (Jon 3:9)
The obvious answer is: no one. Not even Jonah, the prophet who delivered God’s word. In today’s terms, we need to have this same kind of faith in God. This faith does not mean that we can do whatever we want, and just believe that God will forgive us. Rather, it involves true humility and repentance. It is a faith that does not give up, but believes that there is always hope.
No wonder the Lord Jesus gave credit to the men of Nineveh in the New Testament. He said that they would “rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here” (Lk 11:32).
Today, we live in a generation that is far more wicked than Nineveh ever was. There are many people who feel as though they have sinned so much that they cannot possibly be saved. This is why some people do not even want to believe in God in the first place. And more pitifully, this is the same reason why some believers within the household of God have already given up on their faith. Nevertheless, we can learn from the people of Nineveh that as long as we have life, be it forty days or less, we still have hope. And how much more will we be called righteous when we repent at the words of our Lord Jesus?
The book of Acts records two instances where people were “cut to the heart”, much like how the people of Nineveh were. In the first instance, three thousand people repented and were baptized (Acts 2:37-41). However, in the other instance, the people gnashed their teeth and ended up stoning Stephen to death (Acts 7:54-58). These examples reveal two extremes, resulting from two completely different responses.
So, the next time we receive a warning from God or feel cut to the heart, how will we choose to respond? We know that Nineveh was spared. Therefore, how much more do we, the children of God, have the hope of eternal salvation?
Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ezek 33:11)