It is comforting to know that we worship a God who is merciful and who allows His children many chances to learn His ways and be obedient to them. Who among us would be saved without a second chance—more than one opportunity to prove ourselves in the sight of God? The story of the people of the city of Nineveh and the prophet Jonah shows that the test of life is a multipart exam and reminds us to be more long-suffering with those who slip and fall.
The people of the city of Nineveh (see Bible Map 9 [1999 ed.]) were distant relatives of the children of Israel. Their common ancestor was the prophet Noah who, about 1,200 years before the time of Jonah, had three sons. For centuries these peoples seem to have had little contact with each other. The Ninevites, also known as Assyrians (see Bible Dictionary, “Assyria,” 615–16), worshiped the false god Ashur, while the children of Israel worshiped Jehovah, or Jesus Christ.
About 780 B.C. the Lord spoke to the Israelite prophet Jonah, saying “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Although Jonah was a good man (see 2 Kgs. 14:25) and a likely associate of the prophet Amos, he was not happy with this assignment and “fled from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:10). Why might Jonah have reacted this way? “Warfare was a science to the leaders of Assyria [and it was their] effectiveness in warfare that struck terror to the hearts of the Near Eastern world. They were savage and brutal as well.”1 So Jonah’s refusal to go to Nineveh, a mortal weakness in response to fear, is somewhat understandable.
Jonah quickly fled in the opposite direction from Nineveh, toward the seaport of Joppa, where he boarded a ship headed for what is probably present-day Spain (see Bible Dictionary, “Tarshish,” 780). But the Lord gave Jonah a second chance. He first sent a storm to halt the ship’s progress at sea (see Jonah 1:4). As the ship’s crew began to fear for their lives, the captain became convinced that God’s wrath toward someone on board was the cause of the storm. The crew and passengers cast lots (see Bible Dictionary, “Lots, Casting of,” 726), and when it became clear that Jonah was the guilty one, the crew asked Jonah, “What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us?” (Jonah 1:11). Jonah now realized that his efforts to hide from the Lord were futile and replied, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you” (Jonah 1:12). Resigned to his certain death, the men threw Jonah overboard. As Jonah sank into the water, the storm immediately ceased, and a “great fish” sent by the Lord suddenly appeared and swallowed Jonah, thus preserving his life (see Jonah 1:17). How merciful is the Lord to the children of men!
For three days and three nights Jonah was in the belly of the fish. He humbled himself and acknowledged his sin. Jonah knew that he deserved to die but was grateful God had shown him such extraordinary mercy. With strengthened faith in God he resolved: “I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Therefore, “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).
“And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time” (Jonah 3:1; emphasis added). This time Jonah was determined to put aside his fears and obey the Lord. After all, he probably thought, if he fulfilled his duty in Nineveh, the Lord would destroy one of Israel’s most brutal enemies! This would be a great blessing to his people. Jonah entered Nineveh and, according to the scriptures, prophesied, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). As the 40 days came to a close, Jonah left the city and built himself a shelter from which he hoped to watch a grand show of destruction (see Jonah 4:5).
But to Jonah’s surprise and disappointment, no destruction came. The people believed and began to repent! When news of Jonah’s words reached the king of Nineveh, the king and his nobles turned to the Lord. They sent out a decree commanding that a period of fasting, humility, repentance, and prayer be observed throughout the city. Oh, how they wanted an opportunity to repent! And in a plea strikingly similar to Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish, the proclamation said, “Who can tell, if we will repent, and turn unto God, but he will turn away from us his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (JST, Jonah 3:9). The Lord was pleased with the Ninevites’ change of heart and spared them. How merciful is the Lord to the children of men!
When the anticipated calamity did not come to pass, Jonah complained to the Lord, saying that he knew the Lord was merciful and that He would never destroy those people. Jonah also claimed he had fled originally because he knew his preaching to these people would do no good. He then asked the Lord to take his life, for he felt it was not worth living anymore (see Jonah 4:2–3). How sad that Jonah could not rejoice in the success of his missionary labors!
The Lord, in His infinite mercy, then prepared another lesson for Jonah, giving him yet another chance to see the situation from the Lord’s point of view.
One morning as Jonah sat in his shelter, frustrated and confused, the Lord caused a gourd, or bean plant whose vines have large, broad leaves, to grow up over Jonah, giving him shade from the heat of the sun. This pleased Jonah and lifted his spirits. However, at dawn the next day the Lord sent a worm to chew upon the plant. As the sun rose in the sky, the Lord also sent a scorching east wind off of the desert, which caused the plant to wither and die. Soon the hot sun burned upon Jonah’s head, and he became angry again and wished to die. His distemper over the dead vine showed that, again in his mortal weakness, he was more concerned about his own comfort than the possible destruction of an entire city full of people.
The Lord chastised Jonah for his selfishness and asked him a question: “Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand [120,000] persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand?” (Jonah 4:11).
One Bible commentator has explained Jonah 4:11 by paraphrasing the Lord’s response to Jonah as follows: “How much is the city better than the shrub? … And shall I destroy them, rather than thy shade should be withered or thy word apparently fail? And besides, these persons are young, and have not offended, (for they know not the difference between their right hand and their left,) and should not I feel more pity for those innocents than thou dost for the fine flowering plant?”2
Throughout the story of Jonah we can see the very personal manner in which the Lord mercifully relates to His children. “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). His influence in our lives also testifies of that same mercy. We must not, however, mistake His mercy for a license to endlessly repeat our sins. President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, has said: “Many of us backslide, many stumble, and I believe firmly in the gospel of the second chance. But the gospel of the second chance means that having once been found weak, … thereafter we become steadfast.”3
In our family, Church, and community relationships, we should exercise patience and mercy by extending the same chance for loving forgiveness to others that the Lord gave to the prophet Jonah and to the people of Nineveh.
More on this topic: See Keith W. Perkins, “Thou Art Still Chosen,”Ensign, Jan. 1993, 14–19; James M. Perry, with Robert J. Woolley, “‘Lord, Is It I?’: What I Learned from Martin Harris and Jonah,”Ensign, July 1989, 32–33; John A. Tvedtnes, “Jonah,”Ensign, June 1974, 26–27.