REPENTANCE OF THE NINEVITES [Note: A Fast Sermon.]
Jon_3:8-10. Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth; and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way: and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
MEN of profane minds pour contempt on national fasts, under an idea that they can be of no use for averting of national judgments. But in my text there is abundant proof that God will hear the prayers of the contrite, and be gracious to them at the voice of their cry.
Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, was an exceeding large city, so large, that it would occupy a man three days to walk round it and through its principal streets. The wickedness of it was great; and God, having determined that in the space of forty days he would involve it, with all its inhabitants, in destruction, he sent his servant Jonah to advertise them of their impending ruin. The prophet had proceeded but one day’s journey into the city, and behold, all ranks of people, from the highest to the lowest, having heard his message, trembled at God’s displeasure, and united in humbling themselves before him, if peradventure they might prevail upon him to “turn from his fierce anger.” The success of their efforts leads me to set before you the conduct of the Ninevites,
As a record for our instruction—
[Though addressed by a perfect stranger who belonged to a despised nation, the people believed his testimony, delivered to them as it was in Jehovah’s name; and, though they were heathens, unused to acknowledge the one true God, they set themselves to implore mercy at his hands, and to deprecate his threatened judgments. The king and his nobles proclaimed a fast; in the observance of which all his subjects cordially concurred: and so intent were they on a due observance of the day, that all put on sackcloth from the least of them to the greatest, and even the king himself “laid aside his royal robes, and clothed himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes:” nor did any of them so much as “eat bread or drink water” the whole day. Even the herds and the flocks were kept without any species of food or refreshment, that by their privations they might participate in the general grief, and by their moanings produce on the minds of the penitents an increased effect.
To their fasting they added prayer: yea, “they cried mightily unto God.” They were not content with formal unmeaning acknowledgments. They bewailed their guilt; they saw how deeply they had merited the Divine displeasure; and they strove by earnest supplications to ward off from themselves the judgments which the avenging Deity was about to inflict upon them. The sincerity of their repentance they manifested by an instantaneous reformation of their lives; all of them turning from their besetting sins, and engaging to consecrate themselves to Jehovah as a holy and obedient people. How many of them maintained their steadfastness we know not: but from the mercy vouchsafed to them in answer to their prayers, we are led to hope that many became true servants of the living God.
Thus, at all events, they sought for mercy; and thus they obtained the deliverance they implored.]
Now then let me call your attention to their conduct,
As a pattern for your imitation—
Sorry am I to say, that there is occasion for the same humiliation on your part, as you have seen in them—
[— — — [Note: Here the particular occasion (war, pestilence, famine, or whatever it be) should be set forth.]; And this I am authorized to declare, that, whatever the second causes may have been, the evil itself is from the Lord: for, “Is there evil in the city, and the Lord hath not dune it [Note: Amo_3:6.];?” Yes, it is a chastisement from God on account of our sins: and I call upon you not only to “believe” this, but to “hear the rod, and him that has appointed it.” If we will not view the hand of God in these dispensations, we can have no hope that they shall be exchanged for mercies: but to acknowledge him in them will be the best preparation for the reception of mercies from him, and the most certain prelude to his bestowment of them.]
I must add, too, that your humiliation must resemble theirs—
[In a season of affliction fasting is highly proper. We see all the most eminent saints in Scripture having recourse to this under the pressure of any heavy calamity: and, in the history before us, we behold the king, and his nobles, together with all the inhabitants of a populous city, approaching the Divine Majesty with this expression of their grief and penitence. This is a fit pattern for us at this time.
But with fasting we must engage in fervent prayer. Luke-warm petitions will never find acceptance with God. We must “cry mightily unto the Lord, even with strong crying and tears,” if we would obtain from him the deliverance which we so greatly need.
And, to prove the sincerity of our hearts, we must turn, everyone of us, from our besetting sins to newness of life. No fasting will be of any avail without this; no, nor will prayer be heard without it. If our humiliation be not accompanied with this, God will say to us, as to his people of old, “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness [Note: Isa_58:5-6.];?” Search out then the peculiar evils which you are most accustomed to commit, and cast them off even though they be dear to you as a right hand or a right eye: and then may we hope that God will be gracious to us at the voice of our cry, and turn away from his fierce anger wherewith he has visited our guilty land.]
If you will not thus turn unto the Lord, your guilt will be greatly aggravated—
[Who were the people to whom this warning was delivered? Heathens. By whom were they addressed? A perfect stranger. What hope was held out to them of averting the threatened judgments? None at all. Not so much as a constructive promise was given them by any exhortation to repent. All the encouragement they felt was derived from a mere surmise: “Who Can Tell, whether God will turn from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” On the mere presumption that the exercise of mercy towards them was possible, they, at the very first announcement of God’s displeasure, turned to him, as it were, with their whole hearts; and thus obtained mercy. But you, brethren, are the professed servants of God, and followers of Christ. And you have been warned ten thousand times, and that too by those whom you yourselves acknowledge as appointed of God, to watch for your souls. You have had exceeding great and precious promises also set before you, with most assured declarations from God, that no one of you shall ever seek his face in vain. Say then, whether these Ninevites will not rise up in judgment to condemn you at the last day, if you dissemble with God on this occasion, as too many of us through the whole land, it is to be feared, are doing? Look at our king and his nobles, and at his subjects throughout the empire, and say, Whether there be any resemblance between our humiliation, and that which we have noticed in these penitent heathens? In them it was produced at the very first instant: but we have been warned ten thousand times in vain. Oh! could we but see any measure of the penitence amongst us that was evinced by them, I should have no fear but that the judgments under which we labour should be removed, or sanctified to our greater good.
In the case before us, God, in reversing the sentence denounced against that city, might appear weak, or mutable, or unworthy to be feared: and, at all events his prophet would appear to them as a deceiver. But He was more careful of their welfare than of his own honour, or of his servant’s reputation: and having produced a change in the people, he instantly changed his dispensations towards them. Not that the change was in him: it was in them only: for the removal of his threatened judgments was rather an execution, than a reversal, of his own decrees, which from eternity have been to pardon the penitent, and to bless the contrite. But in your ease there is no such obstacle in his way: for he has told you, that if you confess your sins, lie will not only forgive them, but display and magnify his own faithfulness and justice in that very dispensation towards you [Note: 1Jn_1:9.].
To obtain national mercies, our repentance must be national: but if there be but one amongst us that truly turns to God, he shall surely obtain mercy for his own soul, and be a monument of God’s pardoning love to all eternity.
Let me however hope, that this occasion shall not he lost upon the nation at large: but that our fasting shall be sincere, our prayers fervent, our reformation radical, and our success complete.]