When God first called Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah instead headed to Tarshish, which is in the opposite direction. He wanted nothing to do with Nineveh, for they were enemies of Israel. God wanted to show them mercy and in order to show them mercy they needed to hear the message of repentance. Jonah refused and so he found himself in the sea swallowed by a great fish. It was only then that he acknowledged his rebellion. In response to his own repentance God spared his life and then caused the fish to spit him out on dry ground. If anyone understands God’s mercy and grace and willingness to forgive even the most stubborn rebellion, it’s Jonah.
By this time Jonah knows he cannot escape from God. God speaks to him again and says, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). We do not have the entirety of the message God tells him, but it clearly included the offer of mercy and forgiveness. What is the message he proclaimed, however?
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!”Jonah 3:3–4 ESV
Jonah warns the city about impending judgment, but where is the offer of mercy? Even as he appears to obey God, he is disobeying him, for partial obedience is disobedience. In spite of his incomplete proclamation God moved in the hearts of the people of Nineveh.
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.Jonah 3:5–9 ESV
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.”
The king of Nineveh asks who knows if God would relent from the disaster he warned them of. Well, Jonah knows, and he’s not saying! The people hear the warning of coming judgment and are stirred to action—to repentance. They don’t know what to do so they’re left to figure it out themselves. They fasted and put on clothing that symbolized mourning (sackcloth) and sat in ashes, which also symbolized their sorrow. The king instructed his people to cry out to God in hopes that he would show them mercy. It’s clear he knew what prompted God’s anger: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” As we’ve seen, the Assyrians were a brutal and violent nation and Nineveh was clearly its capital. Jonah had included enough of God’s message for them to know God was angry at their wickedness and violence and that judgment was coming upon them, and that’s it. But God sent Jonah for a much greater reason than judgment:
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 3:10 ESV
God’s plan all along was to show mercy to the people of Nineveh. Though Jonah himself had received God’s mercy he refused to proclaim God’s offer to Nineveh, warning them only of judgment. Each one of us should be thankful that God’s mercy is greater than our stubborn rebellion.
Whether we struggle with violence or pride or immorality or laziness or envy or greed or just plain old fashioned vanity, God’s mercy is greater still. This is the message we are given to proclaim. Yes, there is coming judgment, but greater than that judgment is the immensity of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ, mercy and grace that takes away the worst sins imaginable. We ourselves must live in full light of his ongoing mercy and grace and we must be faithful to proclaim the full message of who our God is and what he has done in Jesus.