Imagine the sermon Jonah could have preached in Ninevah.
He’s received a call from God that he promptly disobeyed, which ended up in him getting a discount ticket to Davy Jones’ locker– only to be rescued (!) by being swallowed by a giant fish. (Given the choice between drowning and digestion, I’m going with drowning any day of the week.) With three days and nights to reconsider, he not surprisingly had a change of heart. So did the fish, which means Jonah found himself back on dry land, albeit reeking of fish vomit.
So in 3:1, when God’s call comes to him a second time, he’s a disobedient prophet who’s been rescued from death at least twice by God’s mercy. Again, imagine the sermon he could have preached when he finally went to Ninevah: “Listen, God is a forgiving God! You are rebelling against him– and so was I. But he forgave me, and he’ll forgive you if you repent and cry out to him.” Pretty compelling stuff.
Instead, he says something like “Forty days and Ninevah will be destroyed.” (He almost certainly said more than this, but that’s an accurate summary.) Then he heads out of town so he can have a front-row seat for the fireworks show he’s certain is coming. You don’t get the sense that his message came from much of a heart of compassion for his hearers.
That’s what makes the response of the Ninevites so amazing. You can almost hear the surprise in the narrator’s voice in 3:5: “And the Ninevites believed God.” Apparently this means that they believe that Jonah really is speaking for God, and that God really will bring the promised disaster. So they respond appropriately, in repentance and faith, with prayer and fasting (even the animals, just in case). And, surprisingly to us but entirely consistent with his character, God relents of the disaster he was going to send. Ninevah is forgiven!
God used the halfhearted preaching of a disobedient prophet who hated the people he was preaching to to bring about a revival in one of the most wicked cities on earth. If he’ll do that, we should believe that he’ll use our witness– whether in preaching, teaching, or informal conversation– even in our sin, even in our timidity, even in our halfheartedness– to bring people to faith and repentance. It depends, as Paul said (Rom 9:16), not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.