Learning from Jonah and Ninevah: Joseph Sewell

Called Unto Liberty, Founding Era Sermons, 1740, Joseph Sewell

Boston, 1740

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.

Jonah III. 10.

In this book we have a very memorable and instructive history. The prophet Jonah, whose name the book bears, was call’d of God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian monarchy, and cry against it: He criminally attempted to fly from the presence of the Lord, by going to Joppa, and from thence to Tarshish; but that God whom the winds and sea obey, raised such a storm as made the heathen mariners conclude there was something very extraordinary, and accordingly they propose to cast lots, that they might know for whose cause this evil was upon them.

Jonah is taken, and cast into the sea; upon which it ceased from raging: And thus, by the wonderful Providence of God, he became a type of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who having appeased the wrath of God by his obedience unto death, lay buried in the earth three days, Matth. 12. 40. For as Jonas was three Days and three Nights in the Whale’s Belly: So shall the Son of Man be three Days and three Nights in the Heart of the Earth.

Jonah having cried to God, as out of the Belly of Hell, was delivered from his dreadful confinement. Chap. 2. v. 10. The Lord spake unto the Fish, and it vomited Jonah upon the dry Land. Thus the brute creation, even the mighty whales, obey the word of God’s power, while men transgress his law. Jonah, being thus delivered from the depth of distress, obeys the second call of God to him, Ch. 3. v. 1. Happy is that rebuke, how sharp soever, which is sanctified to make us return to God and our duty.

And here it is observ’d, in the third verse, that Nineveh was an exceeding great city, great to or of God,* “Things great and eminent have the name of God put upon them in scripture[,]” of three days journey. It is computed to have been sixty miles in compass, which may well be reckon’d three days journey for a footman, twenty miles a day, says Mr. Henry; or as the same author observeth, walking slowly and gravely, as Jonah must, when he went about preaching, it would take him up at least three days to go thro’ all the principal streets and lanes of the city, to proclaim his message, that all might have notice of it.” However, no greatness or wordly glory will be any security against God’s destroying judgments, if such places go on obstinately in their sins. O let not London! let not Boston, presume to deal unjustly in the Land of Uprightness, lest the holy God say of them as of his ancient people, You have I known of all the Families of the Earth: Therefore I will punish you for all your Iniquities, Amos 3. 2.

But to return, Jonah, in obedience to the divine command, cries against this great city, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown, v. 4. In the five following verses, we have the faith and repentance of the Ninevites described, which our Lord takes particular notice of, Matth. 12. 41. The Men of Nineveh shall rise in Judgment with this Generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and behold, a greater than Jonas is here. Let us then attend to these words with reverence and godly fear, lest they also rise up in judgment against us in the terrible day of the Lord.

And here I would more particularly observe, 1. The People of Nineveh believed God, v. 5. Jonah, we may suppose, declared to them the true and living God, who made heaven and earth, and publish’d his message in his name; and God wrought such a faith in them as excited a fear of his judgments, and made them deeply concern’d to put away their provoking sins, that they might escape the threatned destruction.

And this impression of fear and concern was general; for we find, 2dly, That they proclaim’d a Fast, and put on Sackcloth from the greatest of them even to the least of them. Yea, there was a royal proclamation for this by the Decree of the King and his Nobles, v. 7. And this great monarch humbled himself before the Most High, who cuts off the spirit of princes, and is terrible to the kings of the earth. The king of Nineveh arose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and cover’d him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes, v. 6. Thus did he practically confess, that he had behav’d unworthy his royal dignity, and deserv’d to have it taken from him. And the proclamation requir’d the strictest abstinence, Let neither Man nor Beast taste any Thing. Not as if the beasts were capable of moral good or evil; but as these had been abus’d by them, they would have their moans and cries under the want of food, further to excite penitential sorrow in themselves. And all are commanded to cry mightily to God, v. 8. Yea, all are exhorted to turn every one from his evil Way, and from the violence that is in their hands.

The Ninevites were sensible, that to outward signs and means of humiliation, they must add repentance and reformation. 3. We have their Encouragement to attend this Duty, in a time of impending judgment, v. 9.

Who can tell if God will turn and repent. We may suppose that Jonah declar’d to them the grace and mercy of the God of Israel, and shew’d them the way of salvation thro’ the then promised Messiah; that tho’ their bodies should be destroy’d, their souls might be sav’d in the day of the Lord.

And they might well infer some ground of hope as to their temporal deliverance from this, that the judgment was not presently executed; but the space of forty days was given them for repentance. However, as it doth not appear they had any particular promise respecting this matter, so their faith and hope are here express’d as attended with doubt and fear. Who can tell? A like expression we have, even respecting God’s covenant people, Who knows if he will return and repent? Joel 2. 14. 4. We have an account of Nineveh’s repentance, and God’s gracious deliverance, v. 10. God saw their Works, i.e. with approbation and gracious acceptance. Their works “whereby they testified the sincerity of their faith and repentance.” Our Saviour says, they repented at the preaching of Jonas. Luke 11. 32. We may conclude therefore that his preaching was accompanied with the powerful influences of the spirit of God convincing them of their many hainous transgressions, awakening them with fears of God’s judgments, and prevailing upon them to turn from their sins to the Lord. Had it not been for this wonderful work of grace upon them, they had been like to the sinners of the old world, who went on securely, tho’ Noah was a Preacher of Righteousness to them, ’till the Flood came, and took them all away. Here were some, I hope, and that not a few, who had saving repentance given them; and others were so terrified and awakened, that they engaged at least in an outward and publick reformation. And may we not suppose that in this wonderful work, God gave his ancient people a specimen and earnest of the call of the gentiles?

Now, upon this their repentance it is said, Godrepented of the Evil, and he did it not. Which words must be understood in such a sense as is consistent with the divine perfections. It is not spoken of God, as if he could in a proper sense be griev’d for what he had done in threatning the Ninevites; no, this was right, and he had a gracious design in it: Nor, as if he had alter’d his counsels concerning them. He is of one mind, and who can turn him? Nor, as if he acted contrary to truth and faithfulness; no, the threatning was conditional. And accordingly when they repented God turned from his fierce anger, and gave them deliverance; which is agreable to that rule of his government which we have declar’d. Jer. 18. 7. 8. At what Instant I shall speak concerning a Nation, and concerning a Kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it: If that Nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their Evil, I will repent of the Evil that I thought to do unto them.

From the words thus explained to you, I would observe the following doctrines,

(1.) If we would seek the Lord in a right manner, we must believe him; the threatnings and promises of his word. (2.) It is the duty of a people to cry to God in prayer with fasting, when he threatens to bring destroying judgments upon them; and their rulers should be ready to lead in the right discharge of this duty. (3.) Our seeking to God by prayer with fasting must be attended with true repentance, and sincere endeavours after reformation. (4.) When a people do thus attend their duty, God will repent of the evil, and not bring destruction upon them.

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Source: Reverend Joseph Sewell, Excerpt from his 1740 Sermon: “Ninevah’s Repentance and Deliverance.” One lengthy paragraph has been broken into 11 paragraphs by the Editor, Steve Farrell, for easier reading. See the full text of this sermon here.

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