So Jonah disobeyed God, got caught by a terrible storm, had the sailors throw him overboard, was swallowed by a big fish, repented, got spit back on the beach, and now he’s learned his lesson. Right? Well, maybe not exactly. Yes, he’s given up on defying God, and he goes to Nineveh—but he doesn’t do it on his own initiative. Sure, you can’t expect him to start walking as soon as he’s back on his feet—he would at least have wanted a bath and some clean clothes—but once he’s freshened up a bit, he doesn’t need new orders from God; he knows where he’s supposed to go. And yet, he doesn’t start moving until God tells him a second time: “Go to Nineveh.” Clearly, he still resents God’s command. He’s learned his lesson about fighting God, he’ll be a good little prophet and do what he’s told, but he refuses to really accept it.
Which fits with his prayer in chapter 2, because there’s a major omission there. If you go back and take a look at that, he thanks God for his deliverance and promises to obey in future—but isn’t something missing? Where’s the repentance? Nowhere in his prayer does he admit that he was cast into the deep because of his own sin; nowhere does he confess his rebellion or ask forgiveness for his defiance. He goes to Nineveh because he has to, because God makes him; but his heart has not been humbled.
Jonah gets to Nineveh, and the book gives us an interesting statement about the city in verse 3. Literally, the Hebrew reads, “Nineveh was a city great to God, a visit of three days.” For the first part, I think it means more than just “a really big city”—I think the point here is that this was an important city to God. The second part’s more difficult, because we don’t have this expression anywhere else in the Bible, and so we get a lot of different translations; most of them, like the NIV, end up exaggerating the city’s size. What I think is in view here is that because Nineveh was a royal city, where the king had a palace and held court, there was protocol involved in any visit. Small towns, you could just show up, conduct your business, and then leave, but in places like Nineveh, there were formalities that had to be observed on arrival and departure, requiring a visit of at least three days. Think of it like traveling abroad and going through customs; their customs weren’t the same as ours, but they still had them, and they took time.
The expectation, then, is that Jonah would arrive at the city, meet with the officials at the gate, and declare his business. He would spend the second day preaching around the city. The third day, he would conclude his preaching, perhaps have an audience with the king, and then go through the proper rituals of farewell. Except—it didn’t work that way, because the people of Nineveh disrupted the schedule. From the moment Jonah opened his mouth, his message carried such power that it spread across the city like wildfire; the king commanded his people to fast and put on sackcloth, but he was only confirming what they were already doing. The Ninevites took Jonah’s warning with deadly seriousness, crying out to God and begging him to forgive them.
Now, we shouldn’t overstate this; it doesn’t mean that the people of Nineveh abandoned the worship of their own gods. They should have, but they didn’t go that far; as long as Assyria was in existence, they continued to worship Ishtar and the rest, and they kept right on waging war and conquering other nations—including, eventually, Israel. But they did recognize the God of Israel as a god they needed to honor and appease, and if they didn’t completely change their ways, they did mend them. There was an abrupt change in Assyrian behavior, as their exaltation of cruelty came to a sudden end; going forward, they treated the countries they conquered far more humanely. Their repentance wasn’t total, but it was real; and God saw it and lifted their sentence.
The irony here is that Jonah’s story very likely played a part in this. Though not a seafaring people, the Assyrians recognized the fish god, the god of the sea, as one of the deities they acknowledged and respected. Here comes Jonah, telling the story of his God who had overcome the fish god—who had called up a great storm on a whim, then dismissed it in a moment, and who had used the fish god as a beast of burden to save Jonah from drowning and deliver him to shore; and it’s not just a crazy story, because his skin is bleached and damaged from the stomach acids of the fish, and maybe he even still smells funny. Any god powerful enough to do that could well be the god who had sent Assyria the famine, the eclipse, and the earthquake; if that god was now threatening to destroy Nineveh, then it was time to repent, to change their ways and beg his forgiveness. Jonah’s message probably had more credibility and effect because of his disobedience than it would have if he’d just gone straight to Nineveh.
Now, it’s safe to say that Jonah didn’t appreciate that irony, because he didn’t want Nineveh to repent; he wanted God to be just on his side, against his enemies. But God is never just on our side. He doesn’t offer salvation to one group and refuse it to another; his concern is for the whole world, not just those who worship him. It’s tempting to imagine that God favors us because we’re better than everyone else—as demonstrated by the fact that we don’t commit those sins, like those people over there (whatever those sins and those people may be)—but it isn’t true; the fact is, we too are saved only by God’s grace, in spite of what we deserve; we need God’s mercy as badly as anyone.
It is no stranger that God shows mercy to Nineveh than it is that he gives us his grace, for we haven’t earned it any more than they had; both come because he desires to show mercy. God is just and holy, and so he punishes those who do evil because he will not allow their evil to endure—but that isn’t his preferred method of defeating his enemies. Rather, as he declares in Ezekiel 33, he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but only when they repent and come to him and live. As such, God will show mercy even where we are scandalized by the injustice—and so remind us that the grace we have received from his hand is every bit as scandalous and undeserved.
And in truth, we should rejoice at that; for it’s when God shows love and grace beyond reason that he produces blessing beyond all expectation. Sometimes the greatest mercies he gives us are the mercies he shows our enemies, for it is by this that he defeats them and makes them his friends—and ours. We object when God forgives those whom we believe unforgiveable, because we tend to think of his mercy as a free pass, but it’s nothing of the sort; his grace costs nothing, but it isn’t cheap. It is free, in that we don’t have to do anything to earn it—but as we saw last week, that very fact means that we can’t control what it costs us, or what it requires of us. We do not accept God’s mercy on our own terms, but only on his; receiving his grace necessarily means admitting that we need his grace. We must allow ourselves to be convicted of sin, called to repent, challenged to grow and to change; to refuse to repent is to insist that we don’t need mercy, and thus to reject it. Grace costs us nothing to gain and everything to receive; it’s just the nature of grace. It’s why we find grace so hard to take.