So often what people remember from the book of Jonah is the fish, but this chapter describes something even more amazing and wonderful: an extraordinary revival as an entire city – 120,000 people – turn to God in repentance, and then, more wonderful still, God in mercy relents of the destruction he had threatened.
The chapter opens in a way that clearly echoes the beginning of chapter 1 as Jonah is given a second chance, a fresh start. God’s mercy to Jonah is a pointer to the mercy the Ninevites too will find in God. God could of course have sent another prophet, but he wants to use Jonah: partly because, as we will see, there are things he wants to teach Jonah through this mission, and perhaps partly too because Jonah is to be a sign for the Ninevites (see Matt 12:38-41, which perhaps suggests that the Ninevites would have been aware of Jonah’s experience of deliverance from death, pointing to the folly of ignoring God’s word and the kindness and mercy of God).
Jonah this time obeys. It would have been a 500 mile journey from Israel to Ninevah, a city marked by violence and cruelty and very much enemy territory for an Israelite. The message he was given to proclaim was one of imminent doom, a message he faithfully passes on without delay, presumably also explaining why they had brought this judgment on themselves.
“The Ninevites believed God” (v.5), for like the Thessalonians they accepted the message “not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God” (1Thess.2:13). Their response is immediate (it is striking that there is no mention of a 2nd or 3rd day), universal (“all of them, from the greatest to the least”, v.5), earnest (they put on sackcloth and fast), and active (“Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and violence”, v.8).
They had no grounds to presume upon God’s compassion, but they entrust themselves to it (v.9). Jonah will become annoyed by God’s response in verse 10, seeing it as pathetic and weak. Is God fickle? Is the threat of judgment an idle threat? No. Though from a human perspective God seems to have changed his mind, actually what has changed is the behaviour of the Ninevites. God’s purpose and will is not changed. Jeremiah 18:5-10 might be a useful cross-reference. We see how God is wonderfully compassionate, he takes no delight in the death of the wicked but longs that they should turn and live.
We can surely learn from Jonah the importance of passing on faithfully the message we are given. It is only because God’s justice was explained that God’s mercy was sought. So easily we shy away from speaking of God’s justice, though it is still part of the “eternal Gospel” (Rev.14:7). Though perhaps for different reasons than Jonah, we have often sought to avoid passing on that message, but we see here how God is gracious to reluctant evangelists.
We can learn from the Ninevites about the proper response to God’s word. How often do we repent with such earnestness and conviction? And surely we can learn too from God’s gracious response to the Ninevites. They would in fact face his judgment before long, for their repentance would be seen to be shallow, but how patient and compassionate God is. It’s compassion we shouldn’t presume upon, but upon which we depend utterly.