Then God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.Jonah 3:10 (HCSB)
After Jonah had proclaimed destruction for the people of Nineveh because of their evil ways, the people repented. They covered themselves in ashes and wore sackcloth whilst turning away from the wicked lives they had led. When God looked down upon them, He had compassion and relented of the disaster He had threatened. Nineveh would not go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah.
What is interesting is that God looks down and sees their actions, not just their thoughts. True repentance is evidenced by changed behaviour, not words and intentions. Certainly, we all have what are called ‘besetting sins’—addictive sins which we seem unable to shake. These are the sins we find ourselves repenting of time and time and time and time again, seeing little in the way of victory. But each time we repent, we truly turn from our sins, and we set off, not only in our minds, but in actions to purge our lives of these sins. We often fail and fall. We often falter and forget. But for some time at least, we change our behaviour, and if one were to look at the whole span of our lives they would see improvement—perhaps only a little, but improvement nonetheless.
God looked down and saw that the Ninevites had changed their ways, and He forgave them. Another interesting point is that God does not seem to notice or care about their covering themselves in ashes and itchy sackcloth. These outward and pious demonstrations of repentance were not what swayed the Lord. It is all too easy to put up an appearance of sorrow and regret, of mourning and lament, whilst our hearts are completely unchanged. Jesus called out the religious people of His day for how they fasted and publicly repented with ashes so that all the world could see but in their hearts were stinking tombs and rotten corpses.
When we repent of our sins, let it not be with great trumpet and applause from either ourselves or those around, but let it be as it should be—between us and God. Let the world know of our repentance, not through what we wear and how we look. Let the world know of our repentance through the fact we stop doing what we ought not do and instead do what we ought!