God's Response to Repentance
Only one thing is needed before we can stand in righteousness before God, and that is a repentant heart. Jonah entered Nineveh and began to preach, "'Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.' The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth" (Jonah 3:4-5, NIV). In 3:10 we see God's response to their repentance. "When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened." It is important to note that this verse does not read, "God saw their sackcloth and fasting," but that He saw "how they turned from their evil ways."
The difference between putting on sackcloth and actually turning away from an evil life is the difference between the remorse of being caught in a sin and the sorrow for actually having committed the sin. Today, our sackcloth may simply be a trip to the altar to repent of our sins, but there needs to be more to it than that. I believe it was Vance Havner who said, "I am sick and tied of people singing a thousand verses of 'Just as I Am,' coming to the altar just as they are, and leaving just as they were." We need more than the desire to change; we need an actual turning in the opposite direction from the wrong that we have been doing. And we can change, for Peter tells us, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3, NIV).
God is in pursuit of the disobedient. At the beginning of the book, we see that God had the people of Nineveh on His mind. But before Jonah arrived in Nineveh, God saved the sailors on the boat and brought Jonah back into His fold. After seeing the change in the people of Nineveh, God did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened, but eventually used the Assyrians to punish Israel, who finally repented of their own idolatry and turned to God alone. It was into this strictly monotheistic society of Jews that Jesus was born, and it is Jesus who is God's ultimate example of how far God is willing to go to pursue the disobedient. And we are all to be numbered among the disobedient. I said earlier that the real focus in this book is God's sovereign actions toward His creation. This is actually the real focus of the entire Bible. God's actions in all of creation are forever directed toward healing the hurt caused by sin and the separation from His holy presence. God will, until the last possible moment, always be in pursuit of the people He died for. The question remains, "How will we respond to the pursuit of God?"
James D. Thornber