Jonah is a fascinating story! God asks the prophet Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh; which is in Assyria – a terrorist nation known for its brutality, and an enemy of Israel. Jonah does not want God to grant mercy to his enemies and so he is reluctant to go. Jonah wishes judgment would fall on his enemies. If there had been no hope for Nineveh, God would not have sent Jonah; just as if there had been no hope for Jonah as he fell into the ocean, there would have been no point to his prayer for deliverance. But God is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” (Exodus 34:6-7a) God is not unjust, but he is also slow to anger and forgiving. He relents of the judgment on Nineveh, and in this we learn something about God.
God forgives those who ask for it. God sees the repentance of the Ninevites and changes his mind. “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) It is this merciful nature of God that invites a response. In a closely related passage, Joel 2:12-14, God invites stubborn Israel to repent of their own sin: “Yet even now… return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful… Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” (cf. Jeremiah 18:7-10)
Our actions, our repentance, our prayers – these things really matter to God. He is the ruler of all creation and accomplishes his purposes, yet passages like this remind us that our actions really do matter to him. This text in Jonah shows us that it is the actions of the Ninevites, their prayers and fasting and repentance, that move God to have compassion on them and “relent of the disaster” that was coming their way.
The nature of our merciful God, and stories about the repentance of Nineveh, are facts which make us ask: are we right to hate our enemies? To think they cannot be reconciled to us, or worse, to God? To, by our stubborn hatred, deny them a chance to come to know this God who delights in showing them grace and forgiveness and love in Christ?