Repentance – Nineveh Style


In the book of Jonah, everything is upside-down. Hard-nosed sailors are soft and pliable. Wicked people are repentant. A violent and brutal king leads his city of 500,000 people in humble worship of God. And God’s prophet is a hateful, spiteful, self-absorbed, pitiless, griping, sulking, do-the-least-I-have-to-do-to-get-God-off-my-back man. But this is to be expected because the genre picked for this book is satire (the use of humor, irony,

exaggeration, and ridicule to expose & criticize people’s stupidity or vices). For a modern day use of satire that is constructive (and hilarious!), check out Babylon Bee.

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Today I want to point out one of these upside-down actions: the humble repentance of the Ninevites. These people should never have been in the eye of God. They were a ruthless people that history and the Bible never speak well of. Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were worshippers of the fish god and goddess, Nanshe and Dagon. They used brutal and vile tactics in warfare, such as stacking their enemies heads like a pillar then lighting it on fire, as well as flaying their defeated foe’s skins like fish and then covering their city walls with those skins. They were also incredibly arrogant. One Ninevite king, Esarhaddon, once exclaimed: “I am powerful, I am all powerful, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal, I am honored, I am magnified, I am without equal among all kings, the chosen one of [the gods].”

So, like I said, there should have been no possible way that these people would ever be on God’s radar to offer salvation.

Furthermore, their repentance should never have happened because of the message. Jonah spoke one sentence: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” In Hebrew, this is a five-word sermon. Call me wrong, but this looks like prophetic sabotage, because there are some basic pieces of information missing, like mention of what Nineveh’s sin was, why it was to be judged, how they are to respond, and (most importantly) WHO was going to do the overthrowing. Yet, despite the seeming sabotage on Jonah’s part (we find turning-from-sinout in ch 4 why he did this), the Ninevites repent.

Now, I want to frame the rest of this post under two questions: (1) was the Ninevites repentance a true repentance that led to salvation? And (2) what are the marks of their repentance?

True Repentance or False

I think this answer is pretty simple: yes, it was true repentance. How do we know this? First, look at the context in 3:10, “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.” Pretty straightforward. The Ninevites “turned for their wicked way” (i.e., repentance) and God did not bring down judgment. But if this does not convince you, then consider Jesus’ words: “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:41). Jesus, in speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, tells them that the Ninevites of Jonah’s day heard Jonah’s message (yes, that pathetic 5-word sermon) and repented and THEY will be called as witnesses against the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day because they repented. For a moment, consider what Jesus is saying here. Jonah’s message, as worthless as it seemed, was absorbed and embraced and caused repentance with idol-worshipping, violent people, whereas Jesus’s message, clear and gospel-centered, was rejected by religious leaders. No wonder the scribes and Pharisees will be condemned! Calvin-RepentanceJonah’s message was missing everything except judgment. Jesus’ message included everything and more to be justified by God.

Now back to my point: the Ninevites will stand up at the judgment of Christ because they repented. Jesus gives his stamp of approval on their repentance, which is a stamp of approval on their salvation. So, yes, the Ninevites in the book of Jonah truly repented.

The Marks of True Repentance

As you read Jonah’s account in 3:5-7, you see 5 marks of Nineveh’s true repentance:

  • They believed in God’s Judgment,
  • They expressed sorrow (fasting and putting on sackcloth),
  • They called on God earnestly (same as the sailors in 1:6,14),
  • They turned away from their wicked way and, specifically, from violence,
  • They trusted in God’s grace.

I find this to be immensely helpful, both in evaluating another person’s repentance as well as my own. And these 5 marks can be found in the New Testament as well.

  • Belief in God’s Judgment = acknowledgement of sin. In Jesus Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, this is a person who is “poor in spirit.” The Apostle Paul points to this when he states “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). This is where repentance must start; a recognition of sin and its deserved judgment.
  • Expressed sorrow = Again, Jesus says this person is one who “mourns” for their sin and they “hunger and thirst for righteousness” that is not found in themselves (Matt 5:4, 6). Paul also agrees: “For the sorrow that is according tothe will ofGod produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Cor 7:10).
  • Calling on God earnestly = these are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5:6). Paul, again, agrees: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for whoever calls on the name of the LORD will be saved” (Rom 10:12-13).
  • Turning away from the wicked way & Trust in God’s grace = both of these can be summed up in a transfer of allegiance. No longer does the repentant sinner follow his own standard, own desire, and own way, but turns away from sin to Christ. This transfer is all over the New Testament (cf. Matt 19:16-26; Luke 13:3,5; John 10:26-28; Acts 3:19-21; 17:30-31; 1 Cor 16:22; Phil 3:7), so to ignore it is to misunderstand the gospel and its effects.

So if these are the marks of true repentance, both in the story of Jonah and in the whole of the Bible, is this true of you? Have you truly repented of your sin, both at salvation and regularly? When you evangelize, are you explaining repentance correctly? Do your children and those you teach or counsel know God’s steps of repentance?

If God will show compassion and grace to the Ninevites by their genuine repentance, He will to you also and those you minister to.

Necessary repentance

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About Greg Peterson

Greg received his B.A. from Moody Bible Institute in Bible & Theology and his M. Div and Th. M. from The Master's Seminary. Greg has served in various areas of the church, including youth (10+ years), senior adults, events, and choir. Greg currently serves as the co-pastor at Anchor Bible Church in Nw Arkansas -- a church plant as of July 2020. AR. Greg also is the co-host of the "Local Church Matters" podcast. Greg is married to Michelle.