Of all the revivals recorded for us in the Bible then one of my favourites, if I'm allowed to have such a thing, is the revival in the city of Nineveh as told us in Jonah 3. It's a short chapter so I'll quote it all:
"Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened."
There's a lot of things to take notice of in this short passage. We have a large city, so big it took three days to travel through, probably a million or so inhabitants (in chapter 4 it is recorded that there were 120,000 people who could not tell their right hand from their left, which is taken by a lot of commentators to refer to young children) and it was a city known for its sin and evil. In fact, it was sinful enough that God was going to judge the city for their wickedness.
Against this city of a million sinners God sends one man, and that man is Jonah. Chapter 1 records how Jonah ran the opposite way when God told him to go to Nineveh; chapter 4 records Jonah's grumpiness at seeing Nineveh delivered. He is hardly a shining example to us but he is a very accurate example to us of how we often are. Most of us are Jonahs at heart, prone to running in the opposite direction, prone to correcting God on how he should deal with us and others and prone to disobedience. Yet God can use us, as he used Jonah, as long as we, like Jonah, start to obey God again.
Consider too the graciousness of God in sending Jonah. Not only did he use and deal kindly with an unwilling servant, he also gave the city of Nineveh a warning. Yes, they deserved judgement because of their sin but out of love God grants them a warning. Did they ask for a warning? Were they concerned before Jonah came? Did they seek God out? No. But God was concerned, he sent them an unasked for warning, he cared about the city when they did not care for him. As it says in Psalm 103v8: "The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love."
We see the unsought and unasked for mercy of God more clearly still in the death and resurrection of Christ. In this we see the gospel: Jesus Christ died for our sins, loving us before we loved him, dying for his enemies, and caring for those who cared nothing for him. Jonah preached temporal judgement; today we preach a coming eternal judgement and a present salvation on offer through Jesus Christ.
The results of Jonah's preaching were quite incredible. The entire city put on sackcloth, a symbol of grief, and fasted before God. The King urged his people to turn aside from evil and seek God's mercy. Can you imagine such a scene? Walking down a street to see person after person on his knees before God seeking mercy from a coming judgement. There was no discrimination, no dividing line, everyone from the least to greatest, from king to beggar, was affected. All recognise their need to be right before God. When revival comes it transcends all social and cultural barriers for the gospel is addressed to humanity in its totality.
As Jonah says in his prayer in Chapter 2: "Salvation comes from the Lord," and we see the power of God to save in this account of revival in Nineveh. God stretched out his mighty hand in saving power and the people of this wicked city repented of their sin. Such a scene has played out time and time again in church history: we see it on Pentecost when three thousand people were converted after one sermon, we see it in the First and Second Great Awakenings in Britain and America in the 18th century and arguably we see it today in the growth of the church in China.
I've been reading a book on the Ulster revival which occurred in the early 19th century and it makes for heart firing stuff. To have story after story told of town after town where hundreds of people were coming to Christ in repentance and faith. To hear of the change to society and public behaviour because of this flood of salvation. It makes me long, with great jealously, to see such a thing occur today. The need then was much as it is today with Christianity on a slow decline and the morality of society is a similar free-fall.
The encouragement to us of Jonah 3 is simply that neither man nor God has changed. Man is no more sinful or stubborn than he was back in the time of Jonah; God is no less loving, powerful, gracious and mighty to save. What excuse then to we have not to pray for revival? Who among us would not like to see millions come to know Christ? Who among us does not long for the church in our country to grow rather than shrink? Who among us does not feel the need for the Lord to come down in reviving power today? What hinders our prayers then if not the doubt that God will not or cannot answer?
Yet we know from his Word that he can and we know he is willing. Sight shows us the darkness of the day and the smallness of the hour. Faith paints for us a more certain picture of the graciousness of God, the victory of Christ and the sure and promised prosperity of the gospel and the church of Christ.
The world around us scorns the church, scorns the power of the gospel, scorns our Lord Jesus Christ but salvation from God will come, as it always does, from the care of God for an uncaring people, the love of God for loveless rebels and the grace of God to grace scorning sinners. Let us pray to see revival come soon and that God would work in Edinburgh what he worked in Nineveh.