God Relented

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: 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.”

10 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 3:6-10 ESV

There seems to be little doubt that Jonah delivered his message of God’s pending overthrow of the Ninevites with “evangelistic” zeal. As a dedicated Hebrew, Jonah would have relished the opportunity to be God’s messenger of destruction to such a wicked and godless people. He fully recognized the danger associated with his task but enthusiastically and repeatedly warned them, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). So, when the Ninevites responded to his message with repentance and not revenge, Jonah was completely dumbfounded and extremely disappointed. This was not the outcome he had hoped for. But it was the one he had feared. In the very next chapter, Jonah will express to God the depth of his displeasure and anger over the repentance of the Ninevites.

“O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish…” – Jonah 4:2 ESV

His worst fears had come to fruition. Rather than destroy the Ninevites, God had responded to them with grace, mercy, patience, and love. But rather than rejoicing over the miraculous conversion of these former enemies of Israel, Jonah complained bitterly to God. This brings us back to the opening line of this book.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah… – Jonah 1:1 ESV

In the original Hebrew, the very first word of this entire narrative was intended to set the stage for all that was to follow. It can be translated as “and it happened.” This word usually serves to connect the narrative to something that has preceded it. The author is letting his readers know that what they are about to read is a story, but it is not an isolated or independent one. The book of Jonah was not intended to be taken as a free-standing narrative but as an integral part of a much larger story. The author is linking his chronicle of Jonah’s Ninevite mission to the writings of Amos and Hosea. These two men had been prophets to the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II, making them contemporaries of Jonah. And like Jonah, both of them have books that bear their names. In those books, they paint a bleak image of the spiritual state of Israel.

There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
    and no knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
    they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. – Hosea 4:1-2 ESV

They have deeply corrupted themselves – Hosea 9:9 ESV

…they multiply falsehood and violence – Hosea 12:1 ESV

…you turn justice into poison
    and the sweet fruit of righteousness into bitterness – Amos 6:12 NLT

Amos and Hosea describe God’s people as rebellious, idolatrous, immoral, unjust, and stubbornly unrepentant. In fact, God says of them, “The more they were called, the more they went away” (Hosea 11:2 ESV). Amos reminds them how God had punished them with drought, famine, disease, and destruction, yet they would not return to Him (Amos 4:6).

God had repeatedly called His people to repentance.

“Seek me and live…” – Amos 5:4 ESV

Seek good, and not evil, that you may live – Amos 5:14 ESV

Hate evil, and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. – Amos 5:15 ESV

But God’s gracious calls to repent and return to Him had fallen on deaf ears. So, He had warned them that he would raise up a nation against them (Amos 6:14). And that brings us back to verse 1 of Jonah chapter one.

“Now (and it happened) the word of the Lord came to Jonah…” (Jonah 1:1 ESV). And God told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). But was their evil any worse than that of Israel? That seems to be the point. God was sending Jonah to a people who were renowned for their wickedness but Amos and Hosea had clearly exposed the wanton sinfulness of the covenant people of God.

By sending His reluctant prophet to Nineveh and bringing about the repentance of its godless inhabitants, God was indicting His own chosen people. He was revealing just how faithless and spiritually adulterous Israel really was. Years of prophetic warnings had failed to produce repentance among the covenant people of God. But Jonah’s message produced a citywide revival in Nineveh. It reminds me of the words of Jesus, spoken to the prideful, unrepentant religious leaders of Israel in His day.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:7-9 ESV

Jonah had claimed to be a Hebrew who feared the Lord, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). Yet, he had refused to obey the One he claimed to fear. In a similar way, the people of Israel had claimed to know God.

To me they cry, “My God, we—Israel—know you.” – Hosea 8:2 ESV

But God exposed their hypocrisy.

“They do not cry to me from the heart…” – Hosea 7:14 ESV

Yet, the people of Nineveh, who had no knowledge of or past experience with Yahweh, repented and mourned at the word of His prophet. Even the king of Nineveh “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6 ESV). This royal ruler of the dreaded Assyrian empire humbled himself before God Almighty. Yet the kings of Israel had repeatedly refused to bow the knee to Yahweh, choosing instead to lead the people into apostasy and idolatry. These arrogant, pride-filled kings had made a habit of turning their backs on God. And the day was coming when the people of Israel would find themselves without a king. The very same Assyrians who repented at Jonah’s message would eventually come to Israel as God’s agents of judgment. And, as a result, “Samaria’s king shall perish” (Hosea 10:11 ESV). But rather than respond in humility and repentance, the people of Israel will continue to reject Yahweh as their true King.

“We have no king,
for we do not fear the Lord;
    and a king—what could he do for us?” – Hosea 10:3 ESV

But, in stark contrast, Sennacherib, the king over Nineveh, “issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: 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’” (Jonah 3:7-8 ESV).

This was a corporate call for the entire city to fast and mourn before God. And the king included men and animals in that call. Every living creature within the walls of Nineveh was to experience the pain associated with self-denial. The Ninevites were even expected to deny their domesticated animals food and water, as a sign of the entire city’s humble submission to Yahweh. They recognized the pervasive nature of their sin and wanted to do whatever was necessary to assuage the righteous anger of Israel’s God.

The king was well aware of their corporate guilt and wanted to ensure that their repentance was equally shared among every stratum of society – from the rich to the poor. And he set the example, declaring his hope that Yahweh may yet show them mercy.

“Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” – Jonah 3:9 ESV

And when God saw that their repentance was sincere and heartfelt, “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 3:10 ESV). The God of the nations had graciously declared His message of pending judgment and His loving offer of redemption, and the Ninevites had responded in repentance.

But the prophet of Israel found all of this to be disconcerting and disappointing. He failed to see the lesson contained in the miraculous conversion of the Ninevites. The God he claimed to believe in was capable of saving even the worst of sinners. Yet the people whom God had graciously set apart as His own, had repeatedly refused to accept His call to repent and experience restoration and redemption. Jonah had just witnessed the truth of God’s statement to Moses lived out.

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

But Jonah would find no joy in the display of God’s grace, mercy, and love. And rather than being convicted by the repentance of the Ninevites, Jonah would respond in anger and resentment.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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