God’s mercy shines through in this passage. He mercifully gives his word a second time to his prophet, Jonah, despite his track record (3:1). Post-fish, Jonah is obedient and brings God’s message to the people of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4).
Maybe the reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh was that he didn’t want to be one of those “fire and brimstone” prophets. If Nineveh was anything like New York or San Francisco—large, important cities with plenty of commerce and visible immorality—it no doubt already had its share of doom and gloom-sayers. Maybe Jonah didn’t want to be that guy, one of the crazies. Who takes those guys seriously, anyway?
Now, picture that everyone who passes by Jonah the Street Preacher on Market hears his message… and they believe him! People start fasting and calling for a fast in the whole city. Everyone dresses in funeral clothes and tells others to do the same. God is angry with us, everyone tells you. Jonah the Street Preacher said so.
Word gets all the way to Mayor Ed Lee (though it’d be a better story if it were Gavin Newsome), and he puts on funeral clothes and tells everyone in the whole city to fast, saying, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (3:8). What is his justification for declaring such a dramatic thing? “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (3:9). Not your every day message from the mayor.
And can you imagine the Lord mercifully accepting this pagan repentance? If everyone in SF started praying tomorrow, asking God not to judge the city, would it be the sort of repentance you and I would expect of real faith? Or would it be a put on thing to keep from dying? I imagine that the city calls off Pride for a year, but then picks it right back up the next one. Yet, in the case of Nineveh, “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (3:10).
Why did God relent? Nineveh was a terrible place—it would make even San Franciscans blush. If I were God, I would have rained down fire anyway; their repentance wouldn’t be good enough for me.
I’m not God. God is. And he reveals himself to be compassionate and tender-hearted, even toward people who hate him. After all, God reconciled you and I “while we were enemies” of God (Rom. 5:10). And he reconciled us “by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). God’s mercy is baffling.