Did Jonah Truly Repent?

post date: July 22, 2010


Since Monday I’ve been speaking on the of “Outrageous Grace” from the book of Jonah at Pinebrook Bible Conference. After I finished my final message tonight, it occurred to me that I left one important detail hanging in the air.

Did Jonah ever repent?

We know that when God told him to go to Nineveh (in modern-day Iraq), he boarded a boat headed for Tarshish (probably somewhere in Spain). That means when God said, “Go east,” he went west, trying to get as far away as he could.

Then comes the wind, the storm, the casting of lots, Jonah in the sea, Jonah swallowed by the great fish, Jonah praying inside the great fish, and Jonah vomited up on the shore. Then God calls him a second time to go to Nineveh. This time he goes, preaches a message of coming doom, the whole city repents, and God relents of the punishment he threatened.

Now if we just stop there, it certainly appears that Jonah repented. The Hebrew word means “to turn.” Jonah turned from his running and did what the Lord said. He went to Nineveh and delivered God’s message. So, yes, he repented.

Then comes chapter four with the pouting prophet angry at God because he didn’t destroy the city. To the very end, his attitude is self-centered and really stinky. That’s why the book ends with a question. 

So did Jonah repent? Yes and no. God never said, “Go to Nineveh and preach, and by the way, I want you to have a good attitude about it.” He just said, “Go and preach,” which is what Jonah did. But he never really liked the Ninevites, and he was really ticked at God for showing compassion on them. 

Here’s the scary thing. It’s perfectly possible to obey God with a rotten attitude. And God may even bless our obedience just like he blessed Jonah’s obedience. As Paul pointed out in Philippians 1:15-18, some people preach the gospel out of bad motives, but Paul rejoiced that the gospel was preached even out of selfish ambition.

It’s surprisingly easy to do the right things for the wrong reasons and still be blessed by God. But as Jonah found out, God will not be satisfied with mere outward obedience. He’ll send a storm, a fish, a vine, a worm and a wind if that’s what it takes for our hearts to line up with his. 

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