The Reach of Mercy

Jonah 3:1-10

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.

Nineveh was the capital of the nation of Assyria. You may know Assyria from Bible history as the nation that conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and sent them into exile. That hasn’t happened quite yet in Jonah’s day, but he’s already seen them waging war against his countrymen in their outlying towns, and Assyrian warfare was brutal and devastating. They liked to organize their enemies into separate piles, bodies and heads, mounting some of them on poles and leaving others in trees around the city. Archeologists have found reliefs from Assyria portraying soldiers skinning their enemies alive.

Their armies would invade, decimate a city’s defenses, and exile the people from their homes, scattering them throughout the Assyrian empire. In their place, Assyrian nobles would have their choice of the best of whatever remained, rebuilding the city as one of their own empire. Assyria didn’t just conquer a nation. They destroyed its very identity.

Jonah has heard the stories. He knows that these very things have happened to Israel’s neighboring countries, and even to some of their own people in cities at the edge of their borders. Assyria is the threat that constantly looms over them.

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh,” that huge city in the heart of Assyria. And Jonah, with smell of fish puke lingering on his clothes, reluctantly journeys to Nineveh. Jonah walks a third of the way in, finds a street corner, and gives the shortest sermon on record. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Only five words in Hebrew.

I think of one of those fire-and-brimstone, street “evangelists”, maybe even with a picket sign, who stand around and yell at people how much God hates them. Not exactly the best method way of preaching the gospel to begin with, and I’d imagine that Jonah had about an eighth the gusto as the guy with the sign. And yet somehow, it worked.

“And the people of Nineveh believed God.”

They put on sackcloth and fasted. Every one of them, from the greatest to the least, from the King to the cows, tasted nothing and drank nothing, but called out mightily to God, turning away from their evil ways and the violence that was on their hands. A city of murderers and war criminals, notorious for their brutality and savagery, who laid waste to nations and even to cities of God’s chosen people, were stricken with guilt and cried out to the Lord for mercy. And somehow, it worked.

“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.”

Nineveh was the worst of the worst, and yet they were not beyond reach of the mercy of God. Not because the Ninevites were deserving of mercy, not because Jonah was a good missionary, but because God is merciful. If you think your sins are too great to be forgiven, you’re wrong. If God saved Nineveh through a five word sermon from the world’s most stubborn prophet, imagine how he can use the grace of Jesus, our perfect, sinless Savior, to heal the brokenness even of sinners like you and me.

And if you ever think you don’t know enough, aren’t good enough, aren’t bold enough, to share the gospel with someone, take a look at Jonah. I bet you can’t mess it up half as bad as he did, and God used his five words to save a city of more than 120,000. It’s not the preacher who does the saving, but the one who is preached. Tell people about Jesus as faithfully as you know how, and you can’t know how God will use it for his glory.


1. The Ninevites were supposed to be the bad guys in this story, but even their king humbled himself and turned to the Lord. Who can you think of in the world today or maybe in your community that are painted as the bad guys but really just need the mercy the Lord? What can you do or how can you pray for them?

2. Spend some time reflecting and praying with the painting below, The Repentance of Nineveh, by John Martin. See the vast city goes on as far as the eye can see. Notice the sea of gray that first looks like the background but is really a multitude of people. See the people in the foreground on their knees, crying out to God for the evil they have done. Then above we see from amidst the darkness that covers the city, a light breaking through.

The Repentance of Nineveh, by John Martin, c. 1829. Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, England.


Father, thank you for your mercies that are new every morning and your grace that is sufficient for me. I know that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and I am undeserving of your love. You are holy, and my sin against you is great, but your mercy is more. I know that the number of those who need your mercy today is far more than those who were in Nineveh. Help me to be an instrument of your love and mercy to those I meet today. Amen.

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