Jonah, Nineveh and the Power of Repentance

Last week’s article described the prayer of Moses during his second forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai, during which he prayed for the forgiveness of his people after had worshipped the golden calf. This article will discuss another dramatic forty-day prayer for forgiveness, the repentance of Nineveh at the words of Jonah.

During the mid-700s B.C., God sent Jonah to proclaim His word to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Israelites and most of the neighboring countries looked upon Nineveh and Assyria as the very epitome of an evil empire, having dominated and even destroyed nations around it. Most people, like Jonah, would have been happy to see it destroyed. And God did in fact send Jonah to Nineveh to warn it of impending destruction in in 40 days, a commission he finally accepted after trying desperately to evade it. And then the totally unexpected happened. Nineveh took the short time left and repented like no nation has before or since.

The people acknowledged their sins, fasted and wore sackcloth, imposing this penance even on their livestock. Recognizing this repentance, God spared Nineveh and enabled the city to prosper once again, at least until later arrogant generations led it to demise of Nineveh and the empire in 616-612 B.C. Jesus described this repentance of Nineveh as a prefigurement of the repentance of people and nations that would be a central sign of His divine commission. See Matt. 12:39-41, 16:4, Luke 11:29-32.

That sign continues to this day for us, for our neighbors and for each nation. On the one hand, the repentance and restoration of Nineveh demonstrates that we should never let sin have the last word; God, often through us, speaks to all people and can bring anyone to repentance. We ourselves can be fully free from sin and we are called to share that message with each person we meet. At any time, we may, like Jonah, bring anyone from sin to repentance. But also, as with Nineveh, conversion is not once for all time; it is an ongoing process.

When Nineveh turned from repentance back to sin in generations after Jonah, it sank and was destroyed. Nineveh thus stands as both a sign of hope and a lesson. We must ever hope and strive for conversion for ourselves, for others and for every nation. This conversion does not end during this life, but is a continual journey towards the gathering of all nations in the eternal Jerusalem.