Text: Jonah 3:5-10, 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Nineveh was the worst.
A chief city in the already brutal and wicked Assyrian empire, Nineveh removed the noses and ears of their prisoners to mark and maim them for life. And like most of Mesopotamian civilizations, their culture was immoral and generally terrifying–temple prostitution, child sacrifice and infanticide.
I love my ears and nose, and I understand why Jonah didn’t want to go.
These are the people who heard God’s call to repentance. These brutal eye-gougers! They listened to Jonah and to God. And they repented. They stopped, stripped off their clothes, rubbed their faces in the fireplace, and gave up eating. They were desperate to get God’s attention.
And God had mercy on even these most wicked people. They didn’t know they were that wicked until God arrested them in their sin. This is a story only marginally about about the repentant Ninevite hearts, but centrally about God’s mercy and forgiveness.
God calls them to repent. And they respond by fasting.
Fasting hurts. It’s tangible and practical repentance, and repentance must change how we live our lives. We turn from the things that give us false comfort, and only have God.
For the Ninevites, fasting meant giving up their means of power and energy, and depending only on God for power in a very real way. They humbled themselves publicly and didn’t hold back for pride or fear of what others would think. Even the king—who held an almost god-like status in the culture and had everything to lose—humbled himself, bowing before the one true God. It was a culture-wide repentance, extending from the greatest to the least.
Their repentance was not chiefly about their emotions, how sorry they felt, but about casting themselves wholly upon God’s mercy. It wasn’t about what they could bring to the table. Rather, they said, “who knows? God may turn and relent.” (verse 9) They recognized that repentance is about what God is doing, not what we can do to gain any kind of merit. Mercy is not a matter of merit; it is God’s gift.
Genuine repentance is tangible. You make a 180 degree turn in the other direction.
Even though Nineveh was awful by any standard (seriously, stop gouging eyes out!), God had mercy on them. I would’ve stubbornly agreed with Jonah that they were just too far gone. But God’s grace and mercy reach even the blackest hearts. And I’m with Paul when he said he was the foremost of sinners. I don’t gouge eyes, yet pride, envy, and wrath are always within arm’s length for me. “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16, ESV)
The story of Nineveh’s repentance is about God’s perfect patience, his deep mercy, and his profound forgiveness. Thanks be to God.
Guest writer Rebecca Faires teaches German and theatre, raises four sweet children, and kisses her husband. Hallelujah.