Old Testament Stories
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. 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. — Jonah 3:1-5, 10 ESV
Optional Reading: Jonah 1-4
The Book of Jonah is a story of repentance. It is not merely the Ninevites who needed to repent, however. Jonah too needed to get right with God. He had heard and then resisted the call of God to bring a message to Nineveh. In this ancient epic, God helps the prophet get over his merciless attitude toward them.
The word for “repent” suggests a change of heart and mind. With this definition before us, we can see a rather surprising third line of repentance in the story of Jonah. We read in the narrative that not only did Jonah and the Ninevites turn back to God, but God also “repented” (Jonah 3:10, KJV). When God repents, it is not for any sin on His part, but rather it is to show compassion for the penitent sinner. God often changes His mind about a pronounced judgment when a nation or person turns from their sinful ways (Exodus 32:12-14; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalm 106:45; Jeremiah 4:28; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:3, 6).
We who are made in God’s image can easily understand. Loving parents set standards and rules of discipline for their children to encourage good behavior and and to curb self-destructive tendencies. If a child is given warning about a particular action that is unacceptable and if the child has a complete change of heart for the better, the parents have a choice to make. They can rigidly apply the threatened punishment as a nonretractable law. Or, the parent can reward the child’s change of attitude with a lightening of the punishment as incentive for even better behavior.
There are instances in the Bible when God declares that his chastisement for the sins of a person or nation will not and cannot be diverted (Ezekiel 14:12-14). More often, however, God pulls back on the severity of his pronounced punishments when signs of true repentance are evident. We reap what we sow.
It might be asked, “How much repentance is required on the part of a nation to avert the rightful judgment of God?” No human can answer such a question completely because such decisions are in the hands of God. Based on the Book of Jonah, however, we may surmise that the surest way to elicit God’s mercy is to repent before God as did the Ninevites: En masse. From the greatest to the least, they put on sackcloth and fasted before God, pleading for mercy. And the King of Nineveh issued a decree:
“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.” — Jonah 3:7-9 ESV
The greatest miracle in the Book of Jonah is not the big fish. It is rather that a large and wicked city full of people humbled themselves before God, seeking mercy and forgiveness. Would that God might perform such a miracle again in our day. Oh that our entire nation might be swept up by a revival based on the sure foundations of true repentance.
Great and Gracious God, we know that revival begins with repentance. And repentance begins with each of us, for your judgments come first to those who know your will but neglect or run from it—the people of God (1 Peter 4:17). Enable us to see our sin, our pride, and our complacency. And help us to turn back to you with our whole heart. Then perhaps you will show mercy on us as you did on Jonah first and then on the Ninevites. Lead us down the rugged road of repentance until we can energetically climb the mountain of your mercies. In the name of Christ our Savior, we pray.
- From Jonah 1, why do you think Jonah resisted God’s call? What is God’s call on your life? Are you resistant? With Jonah’s story in mind, why is it stupid not to obey the Lord?
- In chapter 2, Jonah repented. In chapter 3, he obeyed, proclaiming God’s judgment for Nineveh. Picture Jonah walking down the crowed streets of evil Nineveh, preaching God’s message to the very enemies of the Jews. Describe his boldness. What, if anything, keeps you back from being so bold in obedience to the call God has placed on your life?
- Why was Jonah mad with God in chapter 4? What object lesson did God provide to help the prophet develop more compassion? Think about those you consider your enemies. Do you have God’s compassion for them?