Greater Repentance Than Jonah

Do you remember hosting a party or event, or made a presentation (before Covid)? You knew every detail for the menu, environment, guest list, and program. You were the one most familiar with those providing services, solving problems, and knowing the essential questions to ask. Preparing to teach a book of the Bible by thorough study beforehand allows us to have a similar kind of familiarity. I am preparing to teach the Book of Jonah for the first time and finding a new, rich depth to Jonah’s story. Jonah knew about Nineveh and Assyria personally—better than any historian can describe. Jonah was a loyal Israelite who was tremendously nationalistic and hated God’s enemies, Assyria among them. The last thing he would want to do as a nationalist is to be compassionate to those trying to destroy his people. “Jonah must have enjoyed great popular respect as a true prophet when Syrian border raids against his native Galilee came to an end. This may explain his reluctance to accept a less popular commission, which might fail and cause him to lose substantial face.” (1) 

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish…the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up…the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them…they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” (Jonah 1:1-3a, 4, 10, 15-16)

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord…And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And 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. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and 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.’ 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 3:1-10) When Jonah confessed his disobedience, the sailors repented and worshipped God. When Jonah repented of his disobedience, he proceeded to Nineveh and the people repented. 

Nineveh’s Repentance Dependent Upon Jonah’s

There is great wisdom and depth of theology in Jonah’s account, and I can recommend its study using two excellent commentaries, which were recommended to me by my pastor. (2) One of the most controversial aspects of Jonah’s trip to Nineveh is whether the Ninevites truly repented. Coming a close second is Jonah’s repentance, a main theme of the book. Was it for his rebellious heart (wanting to run away from God’s calling), his disobedience (getting on a ship carrying him in the opposite direction), his pride and superiority resulting in his lack of compassion for Gentiles (the nation of Nineveh), or distrust of God’s plan for both Israel and Nineveh? Jonah is only a man, with his sins and faults, but was used powerfully of God. God’s grace to and through him is remarkable, through his partial repentance and obedience, in spite of his cold heart toward Ninevites. 

Jonah, a Jesus figure

In what way did the Ninevites understand repentance? We know that a ruler cannot legislate spiritual repentance; the king proclaimed repentance for social injustice and evils. Only God can work true spiritual repentance. “Jonah is the only minor prophet referred to specifically by Jesus, and the only prophet with whom He compares Himself. Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was significant in pointing to salvation for other sheep outside the house of Israel…The teaching of Jesus implies Jonah’s historicity (Mt. 12:38–42; 16:4; Lk. 11:29–32). He considered the repentance of the people of Nineveh to have been accomplished through the preaching of Jonah. The reference to three days and three nights  suggests that Jesus Himself gives His authority to the typical view of Jonah as pointing not only to Israel, but ultimately to Himself.” (3) “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:40-41) We must conclude that there was heartfelt repentance on the part of some, given Jesus’s comparison of his crucifixion for salvation with Jonah’s experience on behalf of Nineveh. (See Note 4 for the other side of the argument.) Of course, we should pray for, talk about, and urge people, nations, and the world to repent of both unbelief and injustice. 

Jonah’s Repentance

Rather than stay in the comfortable territory of analyzing Nineveh’s repentance, let’s consider Jonah’s, which is more relevant to sanctifying repentance for us believers. “It is easier to repent of open sin as the Ninevites have done, than to repent of a grudge in the heart as Jonah must. Jonah’s attitude here is surely a picture of Israel’s attitude to the Gentiles…the essential teaching is that the Gentiles should not be grudged God’s love, care and forgiveness. The knowledge that God was infinitely gracious haunted their pride: there arose a jealous fear that He would show His grace to others…In which case, what was the use of their uniqueness and privilege? (Let the Lord’s elect in every age ponder that!) Everything [storm, sailors, fish, Ninevites, vine, worm, hot wind, creatures] but Jonah has obeyed God’s direct command, even an insect pest…[When] the elect fail God will chasten and purify the elect.” (5) It seems that Jonah repented of his rebelliousness to God when he told the sailors to throw him into the sea, understanding that he deserved the consequence, but the sailors did not. “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” (1:12) He repented of his disobedience to God’s call when he prayed in the belly of the fish, praising God. “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (2:9) He went to Nineveh and proclaimed God’s message. But did he ever repent of his pride and superiority resulting in his lack of compassion for Gentiles (the nation of Nineveh) and distrust of God’s plan for both Israel and Nineveh? I think not, given that he was angry about God’s mercy to Nineveh (4:1-5).

“Jesus is truly greater than Jonah in his willingness to lose face and to be misunderstood.” (6) If we are followers of Jesus, we must do the same. “We must be permeated by the conviction that if grace is being conferred on us, it is primarily for others. The Christian is not just the man who is saved by Christ, he is the man whom God uses for the salvation of others by Christ.” (7) Let’s devote ourselves to knowing how to confess our reluctance to repent fully. With the Holy Spirit’s indwelling help we can be of even greater use on Christ’s behalf. “…Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15)

Related Scripture: 2 Kings 19:36; Psalm 31:22 42; 88:6-7; 115:3; Nahum 1-3; Zephaniah 2:13; Matthew 12:38-41; Luke 29:30.


  1. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Introduction to Jonah, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition.
  2. Much of my thinking is based on these two excellent commentaries: Keller, Timothy, “The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy,” Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2018; and Ferguson, Sinclair, “Man Overboard,” Banner of Truth, May 31, 2008.
  3. Zondervan, Ibid, Ch. 2.
  4. “In the days of Moses, Joshua, and the Judges, the people of Israel repeatedly turned their backs upon Jehovah, and after experiencing the displeasure of God, repented of their sin and returned unto the Lord; there was a national conversion in the kingdom of Judah in the days of Hezekiah and again in the days of Josiah. Upon the preaching of Jonah the Ninevites repented of their sins and were spared by the Lord. These national conversions were merely of the nature of moral reformation. They may have been accompanied with some real religious conversions of individuals, but fell far short of the true conversion of all those that belonged to the nation. As a rule they were very superficial. They made their appearance under the leadership of pious rulers, and when these were succeeded by wicked men, the people at once fell back into their old habits.” (Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, pp. 482-3, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993.)
  5. Zondervan, Ibid, Ch 4.
  6. Zondervan, Ibid.
  7. Zondervan, Ibid.

April 15, 2021

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