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The entire key to Jonah 3 is verse 10: "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would them" (3.10). The question is, what does one make of a God who seemingly, at whim, arbitrarily, changes His mind? Beyond this complicated theological question, one other pattern in this chapter is very important: "the people of Nineveh believed God" (3.5), and as a result of this mass common belief, news reaches the king of Nineveh, who petitions that his people turn from their evil and violent ways.
The reader should recall Jeremiah's potterer:
1: The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,
God speaks at once of a nation and a kingdom: 7: At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
Justice must be meted out in the scheme of history only because "My people have forsaken me" (15). Given people's choice, in history, they can expect that God will sometimes show them "the back and not the face" 17).
Jonah reluctantly and grudgingly finally preaches to the common Ninevites the message that God's justice for their wickedness is close at hand: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (4). Israel in its prosperity under Jeroboam has apparently forgotten much of what they must be reminded of by Amos, who follows Jonah. Just as Jonah preaches that God will hold the Assyrians to a strict account for doing wrong, Judah and Israel should both have known that as a people committed to Yahweh, they would be held to an even higher standard: after all, they had the law and the prophets to help guide them in their social and moral lives. Amos will call them into account with these words: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities" (3.2). What Amos hears in his soul is God's righteous wrath against Israel. "Justice will roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream" (5.16).
The Ninevites heard Jonah and repented. A wave of repentance swept from the common population into the leadership. Just as God relents in relation to Ninevites, showing mercy, just as surely, He will hold Israel to justice. Such is the prophecy of Jeremiah: "At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or kingdom that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind... and at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sights, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it" (18.7-10).
The Oxford Handbook to the Bible says the following concerning justice:
Jonah was very much accustomed to this formula for justice internally, but he was apparently very much unprepared for God's righteousness manifest in mercy for Israel's enemy. It should not be difficult to see, however, that short-sighted human beings will often mistake eternal patterns in their temporal clothes: for the Assyrians, mercy in the present must yield to justice in its long-term manifestation: they are defeated by the Babylonians and Medes. Israel, too, make no mistake, is equally subject to God's righteousness: they are utterly run over and defeated by the Assyrian rod of God's anger.
Inextricably, mercy and justice must play themselves out in a creation of imperfection readying itself for transformation into the kingdom of God. In Revelation, "the sea [is] no more;" this symbol of turbulence and unrest must yield to a new heaven and a new earth where the "home of God is among mortals" 21.3). Death will exist no longer (21.4). The waters which have symbolized death ironically reverse themselves just as they did in the flood, in the Red Sea, and in baptism; they become the "river of the water of life, " and from the depths, from the belly of Sheol, Jonah's are returned from self-willed courses according to the mercy of God.