The story of Jonah is a fantastic example of what I call "conditional prophecy." Some prophecy is absolute and will happen exactly as it is proclaimed, no matter what. Nothing we can do will change the major or minor details of those prophecies. However, a lot of prophecy is conditional and our repentance or behavior can determine whether or not the prophecy happens or the degree to which it happens.
Jonah and Nineveh
This story teaches us of God’s desire to refrain from inflicting devastating punishments on his children. I think we can often be like Jonah, slow to forgive and quick to inflict "righteous indignation." Pay attention to how Jonah responds to the repentance of the city of Nineveh:
2 Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.
3 So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.
4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:
8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
9 Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
Continuing in chapter 4:
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
2 And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
3 Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
4 Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry?
5 So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
6 And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
7 But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
8 And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
9 And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
10 Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
11 And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
I believe God wants to forgive. I believe he always prefers mercy over condemnation, and will inspire people to lead nations and communities to repent so they don’t have to suffer devastating calamities.