God’s Reaction to Repentance

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Last week we saw Jonah taking advantage of the second chance he was given. He diligently preached God’s message to Nineveh and as a result, the most miraculous transformation in history took place. Everyone from the king down to the most common of people came to recognize the truth of God. The truth resulted in people turning from wickedness to God. The king did what was right and if God wanted to relent and withdraw His judgment, that would be cool. Let’s see what happens next.

Our story continues in Jonah 3:10-4:3 that says, When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”

God’s mercy is revealed in Nineveh. Ever vigilant, ever seeing, v. 10 tells us, When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.True repentance leads to mercy, but God is not obligated to give us mercy. It wasn’t the prayers and fasting that led to God relenting although that was good. God relented only after, “They turned from their wicked way.” True repentance always leads to a change of heart, a change of attitude, a change in direction. You cannot say you’re sorry for your actions and continue engaging in the same actions. You cannot say you have a relationship with God and continue to hate your brother, to practice immorality, to continue to lie, cheat, and steal. Actions speak way louder than words. This is really brought home in 1 Jo. 2:1-6. John says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” I don’t know how you can get any clearer than that.

Nineveh turned from their wickedness and God did as the king hoped – He relented. No fire, no brimstone as had occurred in Sodom and Gomorrah. Nobody struck dead where they stood. Are you asking yourself, “But wait a minute, then Jonah’s prophecy didn’t come true and he is a false prophet that should be stoned to death.” In order to understand what just happened, we need to know what the word relent means. It’s also translated as repent or to change your mind. God changing His mind is a hard concept for us. At Nineveh’s repentance, God changed His mind about overthrowing the city. This is consistent with His justice, His mercy, and His righteousness. I often say God can do anything because He is God. I think everyone understands fundamentally what I’m saying, but God can’t really do anything. He can’t break a promise; He can’t lie; He cannot do anything against His inherent character. Ja. 1:17 reminds us that, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”  Heb. 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God always does what He says He’s going to do, but if a condition is met that was previously established, God can change the course of action to suit His purpose. Moses frequently prayed that Israel wouldn’t be destroyed because of their sinful behavior. In fact, the O.T. is full of examples where God responds to His people.

Nineveh recognized the truth that Jonah told them and they turned from sin to God. It must have been genuine repentance or else God wouldn’t have changed the plan. God’s desire is that people turn to Him. 2 Pet. 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God loves you with an incredible love and wants to spend eternity with you. He will do whatever it takes to get your attention. God’s goal for Nineveh was not destruction, but for repentance and reconciliation between Him and the sinners in that city.

And now for something completely different. We see God’s mercy poured out on Nineveh. For a preacher of God’s Word, this is an incredible response. Peter preached his first message and 3000 people were saved. That’s huge, right? Not compared to Jonah’s message. The response in Nineveh was overwhelming. Everyone responded to the truth of God’s messenger. Oh what a feeling! Jonah has got to be over the moon. Here’s the contrast: Nineveh repented, God relented. Joy all around. Verse 1 says, “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.” This is not a normal response when people are radically and totally transformed by the Gospel. Why was Jonah so angry? The Scripture is not clear, but there are several possibilities. Remember Assyria was led by wicked leaders that wanted to rule the world. Assyria threatened Israel’s existence and was a likely target. Some say that Jonah was embarrassed that his prediction for destruction did not come true and as a result he lost credibility as a prophet. Others suggest Jonah believed Israel’s devotion to God was declining and this judgment would cause Israel to wake up and serve as a reminder to the Hebrew people that God is God. While the exact reason for Jonah’s anger is not known, this is what we do know. Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s salvation is not a godly one. That’s really an understatement. How much do you have to hate someone to be angry because they responded to what you told them to do? If Jonah’s initial disobedience was not an indication, then his response to Nineveh’s repentance clearly leads you to the conclusion that his heart is not right with God. How quickly Jonah forgot his responsibility to God and the great privilege to be a part of God’s plan.

Jonah’s lame explanation. Verse 2 gives us some insight into Jonah’s heart. He knew exactly what would happen in Nineveh and confesses to the Lord. It’s good that Jonah prayed, but his prayer is a prayer of selfishness, a prayer of complaint – the pronoun “I” occurs four times in this verse. This is way different than his prayer back in 2:2-9. What happened to Jonah’s confession that, “salvation is from the Lord?” Isn’t that the possibility for everyone? People just need to hear the truth of the Messiah? At some point after God told Jonah to go the first time, there was some discussion between the two. In v. 2 Jonah says, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country.” What Jonah anticipated God doing happened and Jonah was the tool God chose to achieve His goal. Jonah was thinking of himself, not the kingdom. Instead of showering Nineveh with the same kind of grace God had granted to Israel, Jonah wanted Nineveh destroyed without the opportunity to repent. Will we join Paul by saying, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31) It’s easy for us to think that God loves us more than our enemies or the enemies of God. We wrongly conclude that God could never love those people that are bent on our destruction, that desire to hurt us, that desire to cripple our country, and our faith. See that’s what happened to Jonah. He was focused on himself. He lacked the wisdom to keep his mouth shut and essentially tells God, “I told you so.” That was his excuse for running to Tarshish. In Jonah’s mind, if he could just delay his trip to Nineveh, maybe God would destroy the place before he got there. Don’t think that Jonah doesn’t know who God is or has a skewed view of Him. He tells on himself in the second part of v. 2. I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” Talk about hypocrisy.

Let’s recap. The Word of God comes to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh. Jonah jumps on a boat to flee from the presence of the Lord. God throws a storm at the boat. It was determined that Jonah was the cause. The sailors throw him overboard. Jonah hits the water, a fish swallows him and the storm stops. Jonah recognizes his rebellion and begs God for a second chance. God grants a second chance and the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches what God tells him to preach. All the people in Nineveh recognize their sin and repent. God changes the course for Nineveh because they repented. Jonah gets mad because God is loving and kind. What Jonah tells God is really a quote from Ex. 34:6, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.” These people didn’t deserve God’s lovingkindness. At least that’s what Jonah thinks. Since Nineveh repented, Jonah told God, “Please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” How much hatred must be in a person’s heart that he’d rather be dead than see people converted? No joy that God used Jonah in a mighty way. No eager anticipation to see how God would miraculously change these people’s hearts and lives. No thought of how many other people could be reached with the Good News because these people turned from wickedness to God. That’s the problem; Jonah cared about Nineveh getting what he thought they deserved. Jonah forgot all about the grace he was shown and the salvation God provided to him. What’s even more offensive is that Jonah begged God to save him back in chapter 2 and now he would rather be dead.

We cannot forget the love of God that applies unconditionally to humanity. John 3:16 is always applicable. Salvation is not based on our goodness or badness. It’s not based on what we do or have done; it’s all based on what God did through Jesus Christ. Just because we are saved by grace, that is no excuse or justification to live outside of God’s will. Each of us has a mission.

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