A true example of repentance is found in the narrative of Nineveh. The people to whom Jonah was sent to preach reacted to his message. Jesus says, “they repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Luke 11:32). Although it was a godless, heathen city, their humility was manifested by the fact that they repented upon hearing a one-time sermon delivered by a foreign prophet of God. Maybe they had heard about his experience with the great fish. If so, his message would have been all the more pertinent and more willing to be accepted.
They “believed God” (Jonah 3:5). They are praised for believing. They realized that they were accountable to God and needed to submit to His judgment. They understood the message and what God demanded of them. They brought word to the king. Then the king and all his subjects humbled themselves.
The king put aside his crown and exchanged his royal garments for sackcloth and sat in dirt and ashes. In this manner, he showed his unworthiness before a righteous God who could dethrone him. The king called for a fast that all people and animals were to undertake. They cried out to God. They turned from their evil ways, from their crimes, briberies, and godless living. That is what God desired and why Jonah was sent to them.
As far as we know, they were given no promises but only the threat of destruction, which was to take place within forty days. But they believed that God would be merciful. That is why they said: “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:9) They could only hope for mercy, in a similar manner to the prodigal son, who came back to the Father with the intent to plead for mercy.
God spared them. He had mercy on them. Why? Was it because He saw their tears or because He heard their cries? No, the Bible says: “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
No doubt, God saw their tears and heard their cries. But that could have been superficial and only due to the fear of destruction. However, when God saw that they turned from their evil way, that they had genuine godly sorrow, He was merciful.
Jesus called this repentance. It includes a turning away from all evil ways. Repentance means to believe God’s Word, humble oneself, confess one’s sins, turn from them, and clear up the wrong one has done as far as is possible. Clearing up past wrongs makes way for a pure life in the future. Whoever repents in this manner will experience God’s mercy and will never regret having repented.