Jonah and the Spirit of Repentance

(I wrote a little while ago a short summary of the Book of Jonah and I copied that at the end of this missive.)

If most Christians were asked to name a prophet, I think they likely would mention men like Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Elijah. Some of the Old Testament prophets, like Moses, were leaders of Israel in their own right. Others, like Isaiah, were advisors to the secular leaders of Israel. The great majority of the Old Testament prophets prophesied to the Hebrews and, at the time, for the benefit of the Hebrews. The circumstances surrounding their prophetic missions are varied but all seem to have been prophets as their vocation, or at least as a major avocation. Except Jonah.

The Books of Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Malachi are about as short if not shorter than the Book of Jonah, but Jonah recorded words of prophecy are the shortest. Jonah’s words to reluctantly fulfill his prophetic mission to the people of the great city of Nineveh were very short indeed. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

I think even saying Jonah cried unto the people of Nineveh to repent is hard to do. The Lord told Jonah to go to Nineveh “to cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.” Later, after Jonah failed to heed the Lord the first time the Lord told Jonah again to “go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” But if the Lord wanted Nineveh to repent of their wickedness, what was the specific wickedness to be repented of? The record is silent.

Even though we don’t know what the people of Nineveh needed to repent of, from the King and nobles down “to the least of them,” the people of Nineveh did in fact repent. They all put on sackcloth, fasted, and “sat in ashes.” And what was the result? “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.” The people repented and were saved.  

But what possibly could be the benefit to us if we have no idea what was the “evil way” that the people of Nineveh turned from and repented of? When Jonah repented for not going to do the Lord’s mission the first time Jonah said, “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I vowed. Salvation if of the Lord.” So we have an idea what Jonah needed to repent of, but again, what did Nineveh need to repent of?

Perhaps the message of the Book of Jonah is not that we need to repent of this or that specific misdeed, or conform ourselves to this or that specific standard. The Lord is trying to convey to all of us, from the greatest of us even to the least of us, that we need the spirit of repentance in our hearts to be saved. Didn’t even the prophet called of the Lord, Jonah, need to repent? Perhaps the lesson is that what “evil way” each of us personally needs to repent of and turn away from is known only to the Lord and we can only uncover for ourselves what we need to repent of through the repentance process.

We all are in need of the spirit of repentance.


The travails of the Hebrew Prophet Jonah, albeit very reluctantly and at times by a negative example, teaches us more. The Lord commanded Jonah to go to preach repentance to the people of the city of Nineveh. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh, which was not a Hebrew city, so Jonah fled on a ship.

As Jonah fled on board the ship the Lord caused a great storm on the water. All the other men on the ship, who were not Hebrews, determined that Jonah was the reason that the Lord was angry and had raised up the storm, in part because Jonah told them he was fleeing the Lord. And they asked Jonah, “Why has thou done this?”

Jonah, seemingly sorrowful for what he had done, that he had put the lives of the other men on the boat at risk, told the other men on the boat to throw him overboard to pacify the Lord. These men then tried to spare Jonah his fate and rowed hard to bring the boat to land through the storm but could not. Reluctantly, the men threw Jonah into the sea “and the sea ceased from her raging.”

Once in the water the Lord had a whale swallow Jonah and hold him in the whale’s belly for three days. While in the belly of the whale Jonah sank into the depths of despair and prayed to the Lord to save him. Jonah pleaded, “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.” With those words of Jonah, the Lord had the whale spit out Jonah onto the shore.

Once again, the Lord commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance, and this time Jonah obeyed. Jonah, a Hebrew, told the people of the great city of Nineveh, which was not a Hebrew city, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And the people of Nineveh believed, “from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” even the King of Nineveh and all his nobles, and the whole city put on sackcloth and began a fast. The Lord saw that the people of Nineveh “turned from their evil way,” and the city of Nineveh was saved.

Jonah, though, was quite angry, perhaps because the Lord spared Nineveh but did not spare Jerusalem, the great city of the Hebrews. The Lord asked Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry?… And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”