When Jonah tried to flee God’s call to preach to Nineveh, God sent a storm to destroy his getaway ship. When the sailors threw him overboard in terror, God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah up for three days. When Jonah prayed for deliverance, God caused the fish to vomit Jonah back onto dry land–and then he gave Jonah a nearly identical call to preach to Nineveh that he had given at first.
Finally, when Jonah finally graces the presence of the Ninevites, he completes his mission virtually kicking and screaming. Jonah’s last recourse is to deliver a poorly written sermon (“Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”), but even that is not enough to stay the conversion of Nineveh.
And so, in a tragic triumph, Jonah witnesses revival spread like wildfire through Nineveh, “from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:5). When the word reaches the king of Nineveh, the king decrees that all the people and even the animals (!) must fast from food and water and wear sackcloth, for “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger so that we may not perish” (3:9).
So where did Jonah fail? What more could he have done to prevent the salvation of Nineveh?
Nothing. There was nothing that Jonah could have done. Yahweh had purposed to deal graciously with the Ninevites, and he had decreed to use Jonah as his prophetic instrument to bring the Ninevites to repentance. This is free grace in all its glory, but more than that, this story illustrates the relentless, stubborn, and unstoppable power of God’s grace. Jonah is stubborn, but God in his mission is far more stubborn still.
But how can this be? The entire story has been about God’s wrath against Nineveh. Jonah was told to “call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (1:2). How does God’s compassion for Nineveh overpower his own wrath against it?
In the story, we read that it is the king of Nineveh who causes Yahweh to relent from his wrath against Nineveh. This king, upon hearing of the impending doom of his people, acts immediately to attempt to secure his people’s salvation. We read:
6The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7And 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, 8but 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. 9Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
10When 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.
In utter humility, this king thinks nothing of his own regal glory and splendor. He leaves his throne, removes his kingly robe, replaces his robe with rags, and descends into ashes that symbolize the death that his own people face. He is king, but he does what he can to take upon himself the wrath of God against his people. After all this, he then issues a call for universal repentance from people and animals alike.
Phillip Cary writes, “This is a great king indeed. Only the one who wears a crown of thorns rules in greater humility” (Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008], p. 114).
In actuality, this king’s actions were not sufficiently meritorious to dam the flood of God’s wrath against the wickedness of the Ninevites. A moment’s humility, a change of clothes, and a seat in the dirt is not enough to wipe clean the slate of a monster like an Assyrian king. God’s did not relent because of this king.
God relented because of the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of his divine glory in order to clothe himself in humanity, who descended deeper than mere ashes into the grave itself, and who did this in order to secure beyond question the salvation of all who repent and believe for all eternity.
So who is it that knows whether God will relent from his wrath against us for our own wickedness? Jesus knows, because he drank that cup in full already. At the cross, Jesus freed his Father from the obligation to punish us for our sin in order that God might deal with us according to his mercy, not his justice. This is what it means when the text says that God “relents”: he is moved by compassion to lay aside the claims of his righteousness against us.
So in fact, as we look deeper into this story, we realize that the Father has been the advocate, not the enemy, of the Ninevites this entire time. Yes, his wrath was real, and not an empty threat, but he is the one who sent Jonah, and would not allow Jonah to abandon his prophetic call. He is the one who relented from destroying Nineveh after one of the most wicked nations in human history took the smallest baby steps toward righteousness possible.
And he is the one who sent his Son Jesus Christ because of his great love for the world. If the Father’s compassion for his creation will not keep him from sending his Son to die, then Jonah’s stubbornness stands no chance of persuading him to abandon his mission to save the Ninevites.
Post Series on Jonah 3:
- God’s Stubborn Missionary (Jonah 3:1-5)
- God’s Stubborn Mission (Jonah 3:6-10)