Did God forgive the Ninevites...or did he just grant them temporary respite before destroying them?

This article argues the latter https://www.bsw.org/biblica/vol-87-2006/the-end-of-jonah-is-the-beginning-of-wisdom/103/ and says that the true message of Jonah is: no matter how much and how perfectly you repent, God will destroy you if he wants to, and no matter how much and how completely you rebel, God will save you if he wants to.

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    The real message I take to be similar but without undermining the redemption given to them in the book. It's a message for Jonah, for Israel, and for us: God chooses those to whom he will give mercy. We have no business fighting his plan because of our personal feelings about whether or not this or that person deserves mercy. Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 20:00
  • Related Question Why did Jonah run away ....
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 23:14
  • @Tomislav Ostojich This will answer your question in detail: jw.org/en/publications/videos/#en/mediaitems/AllVideos/… - The Story of Jonah—A Lesson in Courage and Mercy. Let me know what you think?
    – user26950
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 12:44

4 Answers 4


Short answer:

Yes, God forgave the Ninevites. He relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them (3:10), which was that the city would be destroyed in forty days (3:4) whereas God destroyed it 50 years later (https://www.gotquestions.org/Nineveh-destroyed.html)

Long answer:

The claim that the book makes is that the final verse is not a rhetorical question, but a statement. As I do not know Hebrew, I couldn't really follow the argument, but I think it basically says that the last verse can legitimately be either a question or a statement. Next, it addresses the previous rhetorical questions to see if the similar constructions imply that the final verse is a rhetorical question. Of course, whether the previous verses contain rhetorical questions have nothing to do with whether the last verse does. Only the context of the book can.

But the book claims that there are four supposedly rhetorical questions in chapter four (vs 2, 4, 9, and 11 respectively) and that none of them are really rhetorical.

The first question is by Jonah:

Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing hard."

Now, the book claims that Jonah was wrong to think that God was too merciful to spare Nineveh, so this verse isn't as senseless as it might at first appear in their interpretation. The book says that the question appears to be rhetorical because it doesn't have a direct answer. However, the book goes on to say, there is no obvious answer to the question as required by a rhetorical question.

The book says this:

Jonah's question is rhetorical if its answer is obvious, but this is not the case. Since Jon 1 is silent on Jonah's motivations, the reader has no way to know what Jonah thought at the time. Hence readers of John 4,2 are likely to side with the sailors (John 1,10) and disown Jonah: disobedience to any God-given mission is surely wrong. If the answer to the question in 4,2 is not obvious, the rhetorical process breaks down.

It is true that Jonah chapter 1 doesn't say what Jonah said, but Jonah 4 does. That's what makes that question rhetorical, because the answer is implied in the question.

Isn't this what I said when I was still in my country?

"No, Jonah, you said that Nineveh has too many rotten fish. That's why you didn't go. Good question. Ask me another."

Jonah isn't asking God to remind him whether or not "this" is what he said. The answer to the rhetorical question is "Yes, that is what you said."

As for what "this" is, the answer is given in the context and in the verse. The context (2:10) 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

(I assume that the book has some explanation for this verse too, by the way. I haven't gotten to that part yet)

Thus, the context is that Jonah was angry at God for not destroying Nineveh. Verse one says, "But it displeased Jonah..." The "it" clearly refers to God's relenting from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them. Verse three says, "...was not this what I said..." where "this" clearly refers to the same thing as "it" -- that God had spared the city.

Then the verse also explains what Jonah had said. Jonah says in verse 3 (paraphrased)

Didn't I say this before? That's why I ran away. For...

Thus, the reason he gives is what he asks if he had said, "I know that You are a gravious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm."

Therefore, the first question which the book claims is not rhetorical is indeed rhetorical.

The second question is by God: "Is it right for you to be angry?" It sounds rhetorical, but it isn't (according to the book) because it is answered. That is, Jonah at first doesn't answer God. However, God asks the question again in verse 9 (only referring to the plant now instead of God's mercy). Since Jonah answers, the question can't be rhetorical. Since the two questions are similar (and thus the same), neither question is rhetorical.

"Don't you want to see the movie?" asked John.

"Of course I do," answered Peter.

See, rhetorical questions can't have answers... or can they? Look again at verse 9

Then God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "It is right for me to be angry, even to death!"

The answer to the rhetorical question that God asks is, "No, it is not right." But Jonah, in his anger says, "Yes", and says it rather strongly. God isn't asking Jonah the question to get an answer. It is a rhetorical question. Jonah says, "Yes," and God says, "Wrong answer."

"Don't you think you should say sorry?" asked John.

"No, I have a right to be mad!" insisted Peter.

"But you are the one in the wrong, Peter," replied John.

The final question in the chapter is the question in question (pun intended):

You have had pity on the plant... and should I not pity Nineveh...?

Their claim that it is not a rhetorical question is based upon the fact that none of the other so-called rhetorical questions are rhetorical. However, that is a false claim.

The interpretation of Jonah given in the book is:

Repentance is important but is not everything. God is merciful and just. "From this perspective, Jonah was absolutely wrong in imagining JHWH as a deity who cannot be expected to carry out a massive destruction of human (and animal) life".

However, Jonah should have known well of how God destroyed the first born of every child in Egypt, wiped out cities in the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and even destroyed many Israelites in the rebellion of Korah, when the fiery serpents came, and in the book of Judges when the Israelites continuously rebelled.

It's interesting how the book goes on to say

Nineveh was indeed destroyed, as were Sodom [and] Gomorrah.

It's funny how the author seems to forget that God himself said in Genesis 18:32

...I will not destroy [Sodom and Gomorrah] for the sake of ten [righteous people in it].

There is one big difference between Sodom and Gomorrah and Nineveh. No one was righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, but everyone repented in Nineveh. One could argue that repentance doesn't mean righteousness. But notice how God says in Jonah 4:11, "[The Ninevites] cannot discern between their fight hand and their left," that is, they didn't know right from wrong. When they did learn right from wrong (by Jonah telling them that God would destroy them), they repented and turned from their unrighteousness.

The next argument in the book is that God's sparing Nineveh wouldn't have been just. But what law required that they be killed then? The law of sin and death, which applies to all humans, requires death for the sins of the Ninevites, and they did eventually die. What Justice is not served in the case of the Ninevites. If any of them did not face the second death, then the death of Jesus was the punishment for their sins, as it was for the Israelites (Hebrews 10:4). No Justice is contradicted here.

I didn't finish reading the book, so if you have any more questions about it, please let me know. Sorry for the super long answer :P

  • When God forgives, does he sometimes give temporary forgiveness but then forgets the forgiveness? Look at Shimei in 2 Kings. David said earlier that he forgave him, but then said that he holds a grudge against Shimei and wants Solomon to kill him. Why did David say he was forgiven? Wouldn't it had been more truthful for him to have said "because of your [Shimei's] repentance I grant you respite but not forgiveness"? And when I reread Jonah, God never said he forgave the Ninevites. Just that he would relent...and not necessarily in an indefinite sense.
    – Fomalhaut
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 21:35
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    Good question. David didn't forgive Shimei, he only swore not to kill him. Then he told Solomon to act wisely toward Shimei. Ex 34:7 indicates that God neither forgets sin nor forgiveness. If He forgives, He does it justly. He doesn't clear the guilty, but He punished Jesus for the guilty. Thus, He can have mercy without unjustly clearing the guilty. Duet 4:21 says that God won't forget his covenants. He doesn't forget forgiveness. Nineveh turned from evil, so God turned from harm instead showing mercy that would last as long as Nineveh's repentance lasted. God showed mercy to all who repented Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 21:59
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    Worth noting that in 50 years, most of that generation would be dead. Compare to the rebellious Israelite generation dying off during 40 years in the desert.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 0:45
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    @TomislavOstojich I think David sort of meant it like that, but Solomon didn't take it like that. He did let Shimei live as long as he proved to be faithful and stay in that one city. He wasn't executed until he proved to be unfaithful by leaving that city. Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 14:23
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    @TomislavOstojich Just want to add in - I'd urge slowness in taking David and Solomon's actions as being necessarily representative of God's character. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 5:25

The message of Jonah was; repent or face destruction.

To get destroyed 50 years later the Ninivites must have returned to their sinful ways of living. 50 years is a bit more than a generation, so the new sinners in the big city must have had no memory of Jonah, and/or the fasting edict. They probably had heard stories about it from older people, and were now making fun of it at wild parties. The backward swing of a pendulum is as great as its forward swing.

  • that seems reasonable. I guess then those that heard Jonah's preaching received real redemption.
    – Fomalhaut
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 0:00
  • Yes I think they did. What also is interesting is the question; how was God going to destroy Nineveh in the time of Jonah? I think that the answer to that question probably is that it would have happened in the same manner as it eventually did happen, which is through the Babylonians. Thus, it is highly likely that the Babylonians were on the verge to declare war on Nineveh when Jonah showed up. Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 1:10

God told Jonah to cry to the city of Nineve that fourty days and the city will be destroyed.

The Hebrew word often translated as overthrown is the Niphal form of the verb הָפַךְ, haphak H2015, meaning: to overturn or change. This word can also be translated as a reference to a changed or an altered heart (See also Hosea 11:8), and that is exactly what happened during these forty days in Nineve: the city turned back from their evil ways and turned towards God.


I like the comments thus far. I would suggest we take a different premise to stand on, rather than focus on how one generation repented and another didn’t.

Based on John 5:39, Luke 24:44-45, Revelation 19:10, and Matthew 12:40 among others, the message of Jonah is ultimately a Jesus Picture of bearing the message of death, burial, and resurrection.

In John 5:39, Jesus says the Scriptures bear witness of Him.

In Luke 24:44-45 Jesus repeats this about the Scriptures, and also says it this way …in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms…

In Matthew 12:40, Jesus says He is the “something greater than Jonah”.

In Revelation 19:10, it says the spirit of prophecy is the witness-testimony of Jesus. Jonah was a prophet, therefore he bore witness of Jesus.

In terms of the overall story, men had to cast Jonah into death (the sea), which calmed it.

This death went one-way into and opening (like the tomb).

There was burial in the belly of the big fish, during which Jonah sang some of those “Hey, I’m the innocent sufferer here” type of songs. I really do think that Jonah thought God was punishing Him for no reason. What is interesting about that is the picture it paints of Jesus in burial: He was the innocent sufferer.

Then Jonah abruptly exited death out of the same opening into life. What is interesting about that part of the story is the science. What happens to someone when they sit in fish stomach juices for three days? Is their appearance not changed? Are they not beached? Was he shiny?

Now Jonah has a death, burial, resurrection message to preach in “the type and shadow form” of the story. That is the kind of message that makes the nations repent. Nineveh was the chief city of the nations during Jonah’s time. The spirit of Jonah’s prophecy testifies of Jesus.

The book of Jonah ends with the city of the nation’s repenting by design. I think we go as far as the design and learn the lessons there in. If we go outside that, then we can ask all kinds of wild questions that would take our focus away from seeing Jesus pictured in Jonah and the death, burial, resurrection reality-message (Ecc 12:12-13).

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