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. (Jonah 3:4-5a)
We don’t know if Jonah preached a lengthier sermon to the Ninevites and this is a summary of his prophecy, or if this is indeed all he said. Either way, it’s interesting when you look at verse 5a.
The Ninevites “believed God.”
Here was a prophet from Israel come to Nineveh, the “great city”. (Jonah 1:2; 3:1). Normally the prophets preached from Jerusalem. Nahum later preached to the Gentiles as a follow up from Jonah, but to my knowledge this is the first time God sent a prophet to go to them. The pagan Ninevites didn’t know Jonah from Adam, as they say. Nor did they know God.
We do not read that Jonah did any miraculous works as a sign to make them believe he was from Yahweh and not some other god. He simply spoke God’s words and they believed not only the words the man Jonah was saying, but they believed God.
Why would an evil, pagan society believe God, from the King all the way to the meanest peasant? What would make them believe they had only 40 days left before judgment and destruction would come came from a God they didn’t know?
It’s an old fashioned word. Its a word more used by the Catholic and Greek Orthodox (false) faiths than Christians nowadays. In today’s terms it’s used as a synonym with anointing. You see it used to mean that the LORD anoints His prophets with power (1 Kings 19:16), or He anoints His kings with earthly authority. (1 Samuel 9:16). It means He has set apart someone for a special purpose and endowed them with power to perform it. We usually think of anointing in conjunction with oil, the ceremony where oil is poured on a receiver’s head as a mark of this anointing for particular service.
But unction also means more than that. EM Bounds in his book Power Through Prayer explains-
This unction is the art of preaching. The preacher who never had this unction never had the art of preaching. The preacher who has lost this unction has lost the art of preaching. Whatever other arts he may have and retain — the art of sermon-making, the art of eloquence, the art of great, clear thinking, the art of pleasing an audience — he has lost the divine art of preaching. This unction makes God’s truth powerful and interesting, draws and attracts, edifies, convicts, saves. This unction vitalizes God’s revealed truth, makes it living and life-giving. … It is this unction which makes the word of God “quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” It is this unction which gives the words of the preacher such point, sharpness, and power, and which creates such friction and stir in many a dead congregation.
Strong’s: anointing, [unction] referring to the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding the receptive believer into fullness of God’s preferred-will…
I see unction as a way that the Spirit applies the word of God to hearts upon hearing an anointed speaker delivering God’s words. As noted in the Bounds quote, the verse from Hebrews 4:12 says
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Sinclair Ferguson explains in his book Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah
It is that special ‘coming’ or ‘filling’ of the Spirit of God which makes the word of God run from the heart of the preacher to those of the hearers.
When you feel a different heaviness after hearing your pastor preach something, or when your mind won’t let go of a truth you’d read from the Bible, when you feel compelled to stop a certain sin after a friend mentions something from His word, when you repent and your attitude and behavior changes, that’s unction. The LORD is applying the word of His Word to your heart and mind, like He did to the Ninevites.
The evil and pagan Ninevites “believed God.” They could not have done this on their own. We know the sin-nature in us all prevents that because pagans suppress His truth. (Romans 1:18). It is God applying His truth to them that made the difference.
Today if you hear a verse that speaks to you, it remains in your mind, convicts you of something, do not ignore it. We like to tell of the ways God is involved in our lives when He blesses us. He also is involved in our lives to convict us, in order to shape us toward His image and to spur us to pursue holiness. Tout and exalt that too. Because what better image can we be shaped into than His? What better pursuit is there than holiness? What better mechanism that His hand directly sending His word to pierce bone from marrow?
No matter what you may want to call it, anointing, unction, pressure, conviction, believe God when He sends His Spirit to specially inhabit a verse for you, because God is for you.