How Did the People of Nineveh Repent and Gain God’s Mercy?

August 16, 2020

by Wang Rong

In the past, I saw the story of Nineveh in the Bible: The people of Nineveh never worshiped the true God, resulting in their drifting further and further away from God and becoming ever more corrupt and evil. As a result, their evil deeds reached the eyes of God, and God decided to destroy the city of Nineveh. However, prior to His destruction of it, He sent Jonah to tell all the people there, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). When hearing Jonah preach God’s will, those people, from the supreme king to his subjects, all wore sackcloth and ashes, neither ate nor drank, and cried mightily to God and repented to Him. Eventually, Jehovah God was touched by them, and then turned and repented. The fate of the Ninevites was thus changed, and they were spared from being destroyed. Though this thing was recorded in a brief way in the Bible, it involved the fate of the whole great Nineveh. I believed that there was deep meaning in it, but I knew no more than that the Ninevites received mercy from God on account of their fasting and repenting. In this regard, I often pondered: Why could the Ninevites receive such great mercy from God? Is there any unknown secret in it?

I did not gain a deeper understanding of God’s mercy on the Ninevites until later I saw a spiritual book when visiting at my friend’s. The book says, “Once the people of Nineveh, from the supreme king to his subjects, learned that Jehovah God was angry with them, every single one of their actions, the entirety of their behavior, as well as every one of their decisions and choices were clear and plain in the sight of God. … The reason why God’s decision—to spare the Ninevites from the catastrophe—was so swift is that God observed the heart of every person of Nineveh. He saw what they held in the depths of their hearts: their sincere confession and repentance for their sins, their sincere belief in Him, their deep sense of how their wicked acts had enraged His disposition, and the resulting fear of Jehovah God’s impending punishment. At the same time, Jehovah God also heard the prayers from the depths of their hearts entreating Him to cease His anger against them so that they might avoid this catastrophe. When God observed all these facts, little by little His anger disappeared. Regardless of how great His anger had previously been, when He saw the sincere repentance in the depths of these people’s hearts His heart was touched by this, and so He could not bear to bring the catastrophe upon them, and He ceased to be angry at them. Instead He continued to extend His mercy and tolerance toward them and continued to guide and supply them” (“God Himself, the Unique II”).

This passage showed that the people of Nineveh believed God and could understand His voice. When hearing Jonah say, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” they felt fear and trembling, realizing that these words were from God, because only God possesses such great authority and power to overthrow a great city. They were clearly aware that their own evil behavior had already offended Jehovah God and God would surely punish them. Yet, they did not escape this, nor did they oppose God; instead they completely accepted and obeyed Him. The people of Nineveh, from the supreme king to his subjects, all fasted, wore sackcloth, forsook the violence in their hands, and strived together in their repentance and confession before Jehovah God. At that time, God’s having mercy on these people was not just because of their behavior of wearing sackcloth and ashes and not eating or drinking anything, but because their repentance was not superficial nor temporary. In it, there was not the slightest disguise, much less any purpose. It came from the depths of their hearts, sincere and thorough. God observed the bottom of the Ninevites’ hearts and saw their true repentance. Their sincerity moved God so that He showed them mercy. From this, I found that what God looks at is our man’s heart instead of our external behaviors. God looks deep into man’s heart, and moreover, His mercy for us has principle. Regardless of how much we do outwardly to show our regret, if we cannot genuinely repent to God, then it will be impossible for us to gain His mercy.
In retrospect, I always committed sins and then repented for them. But many times, I was merely satisfied with saying them to God in exchange for peace and ease in the heart. As such, I thought that I had truly repented to Him. Sometimes for my own evil deeds, I fasted and prayed to God, thinking that I would certainly receive His pity in this way. Also, oftentimes when I did something that was not in accordance with the truth, I thought as long as I could refrain from doing so when faced with things the next time, I then had true repentance. Only when I read these words today did I come to understand that these superficial behaviors actually did not represent sincere repentance, and for this reason, I often failed to gain God’s mercy.

And then, I saw more words in the book, “This ‘evil way’ does not refer to a handful of evil acts, but to the evil source behind people’s behavior. ‘Turning away from his evil way’ means that those in question will never commit these actions again. In other words, they will never behave in this evil way again; the method, source, purpose, intent and principle of their actions have all changed; they will never again use those methods and principles to bring enjoyment and happiness to their hearts. The ‘abandon’ in ‘abandon the violence in their hands’ means to lay down or to cast aside, to fully break with the past and to never turn back. When the people of Nineveh abandoned the violence in their hands, this proved as well as represented their true repentance. God observes people’s exteriors as well as their hearts. When God observed the true repentance in the hearts of the Ninevites without question and also observed that they had left their evil ways and abandoned the violence in their hands, He changed His heart. This is to say that these people’s conduct and behavior and various ways of doing things, as well as the true confession and repentance of sins in their heart, caused God to change His heart, to change His intentions, to retract His decision and not to punish or destroy them. Thus, the people of Nineveh achieved a different end. They redeemed their own lives and at the same time won God’s mercy and tolerance, at which point God also retracted His wrath” (“God Himself, the Unique II”). Now, my understanding of the Ninevites’ sincere repentance to God had again deepened: True repentance does not only refer to a repentance showed in words, nor to some behavior that is outwardly pious. Neither does it mean to refrain ourselves from a certain evil act. Rather, it means that we can reflect on the root cause of our evil acts—our intents and purposes of doing things as well as the principles of our actions, and after knowing these, we can thoroughly abandon them. Only then have we truly repented. For instance, when we repent to God after committing sins, we can figure out what has caused us to commit evil, and once knowing that it is due to our wrong intents, purposes of doing things, and principles of action, we can turn them around quickly, cease to do things by these methods any longer, and act in everything according to God’s demands. Only such is the true repentance and God will observe that. And people like this will also receive God’s mercy, and will be accepted and blessed by Him, just like the people of Nineveh.