“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:1–10, ESV)
The book of Jonah is a shocking account of God’s righteous wrath against sin, but also of His great mercy. It is a story of sin and repentance. Nineveh was a principle city in the nation of Assyria. In a nation known for it’s pagan idolatry, brutality, and corruption, this city excelled in sinning. God knew of all their sin. Being a holy and righteous King, He needed to put an end to these horrible crimes, to bring justice and peace. It would be just to crush this city for what they had done and good to stop them from doing further damage.
Yet God does not delight in executing judgment upon even the most deserving of lawbreakers. It is alien to His nature. He will do it, because He is a just judge. But He is by nature merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He would rather show mercy. And so He sent Jonah to Nineveh with a warning.
When Jonah (finally!) delivered the message to the King of Nineveh, the king responded in a very peculiar way. He stopped eating, put on cheap, scratchy clothes, and sat in a pile of ashes. This was a sign that he sorrowful and broken. What a change had come over him. This merciful warning had brought him to his knees. He even called his people to do the same, and to repent from their evil ways with the hope that God would show them mercy.
And God did show them mercy! Even though they were vile and wicked, God graciously forgave them. In Psalm 51 King David says “a broken and contrite heart [God] will not despise.”
Let us all remember what happened in Nineveh. You see, we are not so different than Nineveh. God’s Word tells us that all of us have sinned against Him (Romans 3) and because of it we will die. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”” (Genesis 3:19, ESV) That was the judgment upon Adam and Eve when they sinned, and it is still upon us all today. This is not only a physical death we must die, but a spiritual death. If we do not repent of our sins as the people of Nineveh did, we will face God’s eternal judgment against our sin.
God does not desire to pour out His wrath upon you, so He has sent you this warning. He also sent His Son Jesus for you, and even poured out His righteous wrath against your sin on His Son, so that you may be set free!
As many Christians have ashes mark the sign of the Cross marked on their foreheads this Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14), we should remember that all of us face death because of our sin and we will return to dust. May it be a call to repentance for our sins and a sign of “a broken and contrite heart” of repentance. And may it also be a reminder of what Jesus did for us through His death on the Cross and in our baptism as the water washes away that dirty mark.