Prophet To Pagans: A Story of Repentance

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My name is Jonah, son of Amittai, prophet of God to the nation of Israel, and this is my story.

You may wonder what it is like having a front row seat to watch the revival of a nation; especially a nation like Assyria. In the years that followed, people would say things to me like, “That is shocking,” or “I still can’t believe the Assyrians repented.” Believe me, I am as amazed as you are. I can still remember the day I arrived in Nineveh. As I approached the city, I was horrified to see bones scattered everywhere clearly placed to intimidate any nation that was foolish enough to attack the city.

I hope that this was nothing but a “cruel welcome mat” and that the city would be more welcoming once I stepped through the gate — God wouldn’t really send me to a city this bad. Would He? The moment as a whole is somewhat of a blur. More than anything there are images seared into my memory. My eyes flashed rapidly from pyramids of skulls to walls overlain with skin. Parts of the city were lit with torches and based on the carnage I had already witness, I refused to let my mind linger long on this detail. It was as if every element of the city was designed as a warning that said, “Don’t mess with Assyria!” Beyond the blatant brutality of this nation, the idolatry and immorality of this city clear to see. Status of presumed deities where erect throughout the city. It was overwhelming to think that the fear of God could be so far from the minds of a nation whose streets were filled with so many deities. Truly this was a godless nation.

Words are slow. You must not lose sight of the fact that these sights and sounds rushed upon me within five seconds of entering the gate. Up to that point in my life, the stories and evils of the Assyrians were primarily just that — stories. But now that I saw this city with my own eyes it was almost more than I could handle — the sights the sounds made me sick to the stomach. How could men be so bent, so inhuman, so evil?

Then all of the sudden, I was reminded of my purpose for being in that detestable city. I was there to call that vile city to repentance — a thought that also made me sick to my stomach. I knew that God is gracious and merciful slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. After all, I am an Israelite. If any nation had experienced the relentless grace and mercy of God, it was my people. But this! This was more than I could handle.

You must not think less of me when I tell you that anger began to well up inside of me. I was angry at these people for their evil. I was angry at the thought that these were the very ones that God had promised to use to bring about the judgment of my own people. But mostly I was angry at the thought that God was offering these people a second chance. Please understand, I did everything I could to fight back against these thoughts. After all, I had just spent three days in the belly of a fish. I knew what how severe and unrelenting the grace of God could be in a person’s life. I knew what it was like to be conquered by kindness. And I am not being dishonest to say that my repentance in the fish was genuine, but repentance is more complicated than a one and done event. I thought that my mind was settled in the fish, but when my intentions met reality, I found myself to be far weaker than I had hoped or imagined. Things that I confessed in the fish were beginning to sound like empty platitudes.

I had to stop thinking about it, or I would talk myself out of obeying God — this was a mistake I knew I could not afford to make, so I began to preach the words that God had given me. “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” I was thankful that God hadn’t given me a longer sermon. Personally, I don’t think I could have gotten many more words out of my mouth. So, on I went preaching throughout the city, “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” Believe me, I am as aware as you are that my message was anything but profound. Yet, to my surprise and dismay, the people began to listen and then repent.

The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. (Jonah 3:5)

I was devastated. How could this be happening? I thought about taking a ship to Joppa. Not to escape God but to avoid my own people — the Israelites. I had no doubt that when they heard, “Jonah son of Amittai went and preached repentance to the Nineties,” they would kill me for sure — especially if Nineveh repented. However, when I considered the difficulty of convincing those mariners that I was not a ghost, and how unlikely it was that they would ever let me on their ship again, I gave up the idea and continued preaching.

As I preached, I consoled myself with this thought. Religious activity does not guarantee genuine repentance. Again, if there was ever a nation more prone to disingenuous repentance, it was the nation of Israel. More than once my people had repented and turned back to their evil ways, repented and turned back to their evil ways.

Certainly, I wondered if there was still a chance that their repentance was only worldly repentance rather than repentance brought about by God. For my part, I hoped that this was the case but continued preaching as I was told. You can imagine my dismay when the word of the Lord reached the king, and his actions left no doubt that the repentance of this city was genuine. There could be no doubt that the response from the people of Nineveh was a work of God in the hearts of the people.

…he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And 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, but 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. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (Jonah 3:6-10)