“The Power of Repentance”

Jonah 3:1-10

We are reading through the book of Jonah, son of Amittai. Remember his name means, “dove, son of faithfulness.” Turns out he is the least faithful person in the book, which is supposed to make you laugh. Because the format of this book is made up of satire and comical extremes. Everything in the book is upside down. Up to this point Jonah has tried to run away from God only to put everyone around him in peril. Last week we read how Jonah actually had an encounter with death, or the sea monster, which turned out to be God’s severe mercy. It works to bring Jonah to the end of himself where he is forced to look to God for salvation. The sea monster vomited Jonah out and we find God telling him again in chapter three, to go to Nineveh. Not only go, but proclaim the message He had given him.  

What was the message God had given him? Well, we have to go back to chapter one and read, verse 2,

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

So basically, the premise of this story is that God had been looking over the world He had created and heard the cries of those being oppressed by the Ninevites and He decided to do something about it. He has seen the wickedness of the Ninevites and He called his prophet to confront the Ninevites and preach against what they were doing. 

How does that make us all feel? 

Isn’t this one of the reasons we have a difficult time reading the Old Testament? 

Here we read about God being angry with how people are behaving and proclaiming judgment. 

But if we were to take this from Jonah and the Israelites point of view, it may look different. Let’s step back into time and contextualize. 

Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. Turns out at this time in history the Assyrian Empire was the biggest and most evil empire that had ever existed, for a number of different reasons. In fact, historians today still study the generals of the Assyrian army because they were brilliant at figuring out how to decimate the cities and towns that didn’t belong to them by creating tactics that were extreme but effective. Along with being brilliant they were severely brutal. Archaeologists have been excavating the city of Nineveh for centuries. It is currently Mosul, in Iraq. 

They have unearthed the walls of the city encompassing seven miles, which at that time would have been extremely large. They have also discovered the palace where the kings of Assyria lived. Inside the palace on the walls of the halls were etched the pictures of various battles they had fought. You can actually go to the British Museum today and see the sculptured battles. One of them was a battle with an Israelite city that appears in 2 Kings 18. So from the Israelite point of view, God was not being a jerk. He was confronting a nation that had been a bully to everyone around it. So the Israelites would have applauded Jonah for going to Nineveh and letting them have it for all the evil they had done. 

Jonah actually obeyed the word of Yahweh and went to Nineveh. We then read that Nineveh was a very large city which took three days to go through it. 

Jonah decided to go one day into the city, so a third of the way through, and proclaim the message God had given him. 

Check out what he said, 

“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 

In English, it comes out as an eight word message, when read in Hebrew it is only five words. 

Doesn’t that seem odd to you? 

What a strange message. 

All Jonah had to say to the Ninevites was in forty days they would be overthrown? Really? Why? By whom?

Okay, when we looked back at chapter one where God told Jonah what to say, there was something about God and about their wickedness, and how it was wrong and they should stop. 

What happened? 

According to what Jonah proclaimed, 

Can the Ninevites do anything about their situation? Jonah didn’t say anything about repenting? 

How are we supposed to understand this? 

Commentators have come up with two ways to view this. 

One is this is a strange comic part of the story where no one behaves according to their stereotype. There are the most notorious people in history who are going to repent and turn to God after one day of bad preaching on Jonah’s part. How crazy! 

What did it take to get God’s prophet Jonah to repent? Going to the bottom of the sea and being swallowed up by a sea monster! 

But the worst people on earth, they were ready to repent, just like the pagan sailors. 

So it could be another crazy turn of events or part of the comic elements. 

Or it could be something completely different. Perhaps Jonah was exhibiting a bit of prophetic sabotage. 

Think about it. 

Does Jonah want the Ninevites to find the repentance that leads to life? 

Why did he run from God in the first place? 

It wasn’t because he was afraid. 

He hated the Ninevites and didn’t want them to even have an opportunity to receive God’s grace. 

Jonah thinks the world would be much better off if the Ninevites didn’t exist at all. 

So could it be that, yes, Jonah goes to Nineveh and physically does what is required of him. 

But verbally he offers as little as possible to insure the Ninevites don’t repent and find forgiveness? 

Would this be consistent with Jonah’s character? 

You bet. 

Actually the author doesn’t make it clear. 

Does he mean this or does he mean that? 

We are left to wonder and are drawn into the story, having to contemplate his motives. 

Regardless of what Jonah said, we read in the verse 5, 

“The Ninevites believed God.”

Well that’s weird, Jonah didn’t say anything about God. 

If you take it as written you would think that the Ninevites would have believed, “Jonah.” 

The whole city, from the greatest to the least proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth. They stopped eating food and drinking liquid and they went so far as to put burlap, itchy material on their bodies. 

This was a way to rid your life of all distractions and show God you meant business, that you were serious. 

Think about it, we have “sin city” stopping all that they were doing, including eating and drinking and wearing itchy clothing? This is crazy!

We are not only told they believe, but we read how they demonstrated their belief. Notice they are filling in some gaps that Jonah may or may not have intentionally left out. They believed that God was rendering a judgment upon them. Up to this point it had been just fine to be part of an empire that grows by its brutality, but now they were being confronted with this judgment. They were forced to think about what they thought was good was actually wrong. So we see that in the Bible, when there is belief there is an active response to your life. 

This is significant for us westerners to hear. Because we have this sense that if we believe in Jesus, that is enough. That intellectually we can make a decision, and all is well. You know, I said that magic prayer, may have said it a few times actually, but I’m covered. 

So you’ve checked that box, 


but in reality there may not be a shred of evidence 

in your life at all. 

So much for the areas in your life that may not fit with Jesus, 

you’re forgiven. 

There are many people who think they are Christians because they have made a mental decision about who Christ is, but were you to look at their lives? 

You wouldn’t have a clue. 

Unfortunately we hear about it all the time. 

How many of you have heard the statement? 

“I don’t want to go to church, it’s full of hypocrites.”

Sadly I think it is true. Sometimes I see how “Christians” act and it makes me wonder. When we believe, we should be like the Ninevites and show by our actions that there is something going on in our heart. 

In verse 6 we read that Jonah’s five word sermon made it all the way to the palace and the king heard it. Look at what he does, we read,

“…he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.”

Talk about turn around? 

The king of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, takes off his royal garb, the very items that only he can wear, and puts on sackcloth and sits in the dust!

 A symbol of humility and remorse. Wow!

Then we read that the king put out a decree that everyone and every animal in his kingdom was to do the same. 

This is where you are supposed to laugh!

Can you see cows and sheep walking around in sackcloth not eating or drinking?

Then the king tells them to: 

> call urgently on God

> give up their evil ways and violence

The Hebrew word used here is significant. 

It has a direct correlation to our Christian belief. 

The Hebrew word used is “shuv.” (shoov)

Literally it’s an image from walking. You are going one way and then someone points out to you that it’s the wrong way. So you turn and go another way. 

The prophets took this word and made it into a metaphor. You’ve all heard it. We are all on a journey and we are going down particular roads in our life and the prophets job is to speak God’s word to His people and tell them when they are going the wrong way. “The way you are going doesn’t lead to life, it leads to ruin and destruction for you and others so you need to shuv.” 

The correct response to the prophet’s judgment is to think about it and realize the prophet is right and turn or shuv. 

The Ninevites believed and then they turned, demonstrating a change in their lives because of their belief. This all sounds good for this story. 

But what about in our day to day lives. I suspect if I were to inspect the refrigerator magnets of all the professing Christians, verse 9 would not be one of them. 

Thinking about the idea that God may be fiercely angry with you and that you might perish is probably not one of your favorite verses. It sounds like something a fire and brimstone preacher may have said. But have you noticed, fire and brimstone preachers aren’t around anymore? 

Our culture today wrestles with this language about God. The idea that He has wrath, anger and judgment seems to be prevalent in the Old Testament, that is why we often find ourselves reading mostly the New Testament. 

When we read this passage, that’s what it is all about. God’s judgment on human behavior and declaring it is wrong and people need to shuv, or turn around. In today’s culture this is definitely not a popular topic. 

If you were to go to your neighbor’s party and take your drink and go to the center of the living room and start talking about divine judgment and repentance, no one would want to talk with you. I get why this is not popular in our culture at large. But even many Christians have difficulty putting the judge-like character of God together with the loving character of Jesus. They seem to think of them as opposite characters and conflicting to us. 

Check in time. Let’s think about this for a bit. 

Right now we are reading a book of the prophets. And during the time of the Old Testament the Israelites had made a covenant with God. They weren’t doing a very good job with their side of the covenant. So God sent prophets to judge them and tell them to shuv and turn from their wicked ways. 

This happens to us today. We find ourselves doing things that seem to work for us and we think are okay. 

Then we listen to God’s word and realize they are wrong and we need to turn and go another way. All fine and good. But we have been brought up reading and understanding the passages in the New Testament that speak more about God being love. In fact, in 1 John 4 we read, “God is love.” John 3:16, “God so loved the world…”

That feels much better to us, so we struggle to put these two characteristics together. Generally I see people picking one, usually the New Testament idea of love and focusing on that and not paying much attention to the idea of judgment. Or when we think about the two together, one trumps the other in the end, usually love wins out because it makes us feel better. 

One of the main reasons we have difficulty putting these together is because we often think they are opposites to each other. 

We think it’s not loving to judge, and those who judge aren’t very loving. So a loving God wouldn’t judge someone’s behavior and give a judgment. 

I often have discussions with non-believers who argue this and give it as a defense for not choosing to believe in God. 

Let’s think about this – 

What are we saying when we say that a loving God would not judge or condemn human behavior? 

It’s not like anyone can look out over our world and say it is good. You don’t have to be religious to realize that this world is messed up. And the reason we are messed up is because there are 7.8 billion people who are doing things based on what they want to do and what benefits them. 

We have started reading the book, “Culture Shock” by Chip Ingram in our Tuesday night group and the first session talked about relativism and how it has taken over our culture’s thinking. He’s got a point. Relativism is the belief that there’s no absolute truth, only the truth that a particular individual or culture happens to believe. 

So if God exists and He looks out over our world, and He sees all the things that occur based on human decisions and He says, “Oh humans, God love them. What a misguided bunch. They surely are messed up but for now I will overlook it.”

Is that a loving thing to do? 

Would that be what a loving God should do? 

Just overlook what people have done to His world and to people He has made in His image?

I would argue that no, it is not. 

And I would go one step further to state the opposite of judgment is not love, but apathy. It’s when someone chooses to do nothing that we have the opposite of love. 

It’s like this. I am monitoring the playground and I look over and see a bunch of sixth grade boys surrounding a second grader. It looks like the older boys are pushing the younger boy around, calling him names and being mean. Let’s just say I turn my head and say, 

“Oh dear, boys will be boys. They are a misguided bunch, they’ll work it out.” 

Is that the loving or caring thing to do?

No. That’s the apathetic thing to do. 

The caring thing to do is to render a judgment on that behavior. Those boys think that is a good thing to do, but it’s the wrong thing to do. They need to be stopped and held accountable. 

Judgment is not the opposite of love, it is the expression of love. You are loving the victim, the second grader, you are loving the school by not allowing others to feel unsafe, and you are loving the sixth grade boys by letting them know this is not good behavior, they will ruin their lives if they are allowed to keep doing such things. 

So if there is a God who loves us but does not judge us, I would argue that based on his apathy, he is not worth worshiping. That would produce a world where it doesn’t matter how you behave. There is no one you would be accountable to and we would have anarchy. 

Let’s be real. You and I want a world where there is justice. We also want there to be a God who will hold those accountable for human decisions. That means if there is not a God of judgment, who defines what is good or evil then we might as well throw in the towel. There is no hope for our world. 

If God doesn’t care how we treat each other, and it doesn’t matter how we behave, and we are accountable to ourselves and our culture? Think about it, is that what we want our world to be like? How has that been going for human history? We end up with things like the Assyrian Empire, where might makes right. 

The premise of our faith is that all that has been wrong in this world gets made right, because there is a judgment. 

Flip it over for a moment, if there is not a God of judgment then there is no hope for the world or for you or for me. 

How many of you are like me and drive like you are participating in the Olympics when you come to a traffic light? I was the youth pastor of a church in Pasadena, California. I had a large white church van that I would use to drive our youth to various activities. I was quickly convicted by the youth when they would say, “There she goes again, practicing for the Olympics, going for the gold, as I would speed up to make it through a yellow light. 

However, on a daily basis, I am in my van at the end of my driveway, waiting for the light to go green. I don’t know how many of you have noticed the inerrant yellow light on Main Street, but it has many times nearly helped me meet my maker. This is when I start demanding justice. Someone moved the line to stop on a yellow light, from after Church Street to before Church Street. But they didn’t add time to the yellow light. So people driving down Main Street see the yellow light before Church Street and they think they have time to get through before it turns red. Not only the first car, but the second vehicle, directly behind it is determined to go for the gold. Except, if I have triggered the light in my driveway and am waiting, the light will quickly turn red and my light turns green. BUT DON’T GO ON GREEN! 

Because two vehicles will speed by not even noticing me. Add summer traffic to the mix and they are stopped right in front of my driveway and there is no way I am getting out on the green. I then have to back up and trigger the light again, and start all over. It’s at this point I am demanding justice. Come on, people! Obey the light! 

Like I’ve never gone for the gold and tried to get through the turning light?

That’s the way we are. I am all for having God define good and evil when someone is against me, but when it turns around and I am the one who doesn’t get to decide what is good and evil, I get angry. Who is God to judge me?

In reality it’s much deeper than this. If there is a God who defines good and evil, then it means I don’t get to excuse my misbehavior. You know that is the core issue when you say, “I believe it’s good to forgive people, I believe it is good to be generous.” 

Meanwhile you spend all your money on yourself, and you have many relational bridges burned from people you will not forgive. Then someone exposes this and you turn around and say, “Don’t judge me. Who are you to judge me?”

So which way do you want it? Really?

Human cultures are so bad at defining good and evil that over time we can begin to slowly accept human behaviors that are not good and that don’t lead us to life. Our whole culture can begin to believe something is good, go for it, if it feels good. It becomes a way of life. Then, God’s judgment comes to us and His judgment is very unwelcome. 

Let’s face it, there are areas of Christianity that are difficult, I’m right there with you. That’s why it’s an act of belief or faith. 

I am choosing to believe that God’s judgment of what is good or not good is superior to my own. Because I know who I am, I am not all knowing, and generally I want my own way most of the time. Come on. 

So what is God’s goal of judgment? Is it to smash us and make us miserable? Are we to roll in the ashes and wonder if God is going to forgive us? 

Look at verse ten, 

“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”

At this point, God’s judgment becomes an expression of God’s love, and He renders a judgment on their behavior, they “shuv” and what do they find? 


This is the goal of God’s judgment. 

Out of God’s love, He renders a judgment of our behavior, we hear that judgment and we “shuv” we turn and the moment we turn, what do we find, 


This means God is not out to destroy us. He loves us enough to tell us we are going the wrong way. He helps us turn and by His grace, we go in the right direction. 

God’s ultimate goal is to restore relationships with His people. 

We read stories like Jonah 3 and realize repentance is a beautiful word. It’s how we get reborn, restored and renewed. When we realize we are not God. 

Like the king of Assyria. He gets off his throne, he realizes there is someone greater than him. He stands up, removes all of the symbols that determine who he is, and his power. He removes his robes, he puts them aside. 

The very things that give him authority to determine good and evil for himself, he discards. He shuvs by going down into the dust, as low as he can go, from the throne to ashes. 

If Jonah were a three chapter book, and this were the ending, would it be a happy ending? 

You do realize that most children’s books end the story here?

Why not? This would be a happy ending. 

However, is there any guarantee that this king is going to stay off his throne? Is there any guarantee that the next king of Nineveh is going to hear this story and stay turned towards God? No. 

What is your record for staying off your throne? 

Truth be told, we want to render a judgment on what is good or evil for ourselves? Is there any hope for us?


God knew we would be judged and we would need a redeemer. Jesus also gets up off His throne and takes off His robes and Jesus took on the very essence of a servant, and on the cross He took on His own judgment unto Himself, on our behalf. 

Because God’s love is stronger than death, stronger than our sins and selfishness, Jesus’s resurrection from the grave presents a new way. For those who grab onto Him in belief, accept His judgment and recognize how screwed up we are and on our own we have no hope, then turn to Jesus, we find grace. 

The cross is where it all comes together. It demonstrates God’s judgment and God’ love for us, then provides an opportunity for grace. 

Let’s face it, you and I will be climbing on and off thrones for the rest of our lives. Lord willing, we will make progress, and any progress we make is truly by His grace. 

Day One of becoming a Christian is hearing of God’s judgment, turning and accepting His grace made possible by His love, on the cross. Day Two is exactly the same process. And as we continue through this process we recognize just how messed up we are and how much we need and we no longer hold on to what we think but lean on the everlasting arms. 

This is the power of Jonah chapter three, which is aimed at restoring us, not smashing us into pieces. Amen?


I have no idea what the thrones are in your lives and I am learning what they are in mine. 

You know the ways you crawl back on the thrones of your choice, where you define what is good and evil, and yet you know that Jesus and the Scriptures are the way to life. 

What are you going to do with that judgment? 

God is inviting you to shuv towards Him. Recognize your sin, seek forgiveness and walk in a better direction. 

Never easy, but always with a reward of grace. 

Let’s pray.