Jonah and Nineveh

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. [Matthew 5:4 SV]

Another example from the Old Testament of mourning over sin is the experience of Jonah as he goes to Nineveh.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. [Jonah 1:1-3 ESV]

God sent Jonah to Nineveh because of its “great evil.” Historical documents and discoveries have revealed the evil which the kings and soldiers and peoples of Nineveh practiced. Was their evil any different than that of the people before the flood? The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”  [Genesis 6:5 ESV]. Nineveh, an old city, was the Assyrian capital and had conquered the land of many of the nations around Israel.  They were ruthless, not allowing any to fight or rebel against them. One of the hallmarks of Assyrian domination was the exile of the people conquered and the land resettled by another conquered people. Many of the captives were taken back to Assyrian, Nineveh, and tortured to death. Yet, God exercised compassion toward these people.

In the early eighth century BC, somewhere between 810 and 760 BC, Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh. Scripture contains many prophecies against non-Hebrew cities throughout the known world. These prophecies fill books in the Old Testament. Only once do we find God showing compassion to a whole city that is not a Hebrew city.

Jonah was a well known Prophet of God in Israel. He carried the characteristics of a prophet as discussed earlier in this series.  Prophets love truth and hate the lie, especially in themselves. He recognized sin and the utter horror of sin. He knew God intimately and saw himself truthfully. One of the critical concerns facing every prophet, men still corrupted by sin, is pride. Jonah rebelled against God by going in the opposite direction, away from Nineveh.

Jonah’s disobedient  reaction to the command of God to go to Nineveh does not fit that of a prophet of God. Are there other examples of true Prophets not doing what God has commanded? Moses balked at being sent to Pharaoh but became the strongest leader in Israel’s history. Are there other examples?

Some have concluded Jonah must not have known God well because he tried to flee from God by going to Tarshish. A critical reading of the rest of the book will show Jonah does know God and knows Him well. He probably decided to go to Tarshish because that was the first ship he could find going anywhere in the opposite direction of Nineveh. He went over the sea to a distant land instead of going over the land, into the hands of the enemies of God.

The questions remains: why would God want to send Jonah to Nineveh? I think there is an answer which may be obvious to us but hidden from Jonah.

Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh. But not until after his disobedient actions bring him into horrendous circumstances and threatened the lives of uninvolved people. His ship is threatened by a storm. How tortuous the threat of dying a sea as the ship is destroyed, breaking apart around them in a raging storm. Knowing God was after him he tells his shipmates to cast him into the sea. At first, they refused, valuing Jonah’s life more than their own safety. Finally, they relent, begging God’s forgiveness as they put Jonah in the rolling waters.

Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and probably dies within its gut. Chapter two of Jonah is a precursor to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. God miraculously saves Jonah from rebelling completely against Him by having him die, or at least come close to death, in the belly of a big fish. Inside of the fish Jonah repents of his sin and agrees to go to Nineveh. And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land”  [Jonah 2:10 ESV].

Nineveh was a huge city in comparisons to the other cities of the world at that time. It took three days to walk through the city. Jonah walked into Nineveh a day’s journey and delivered God’s message to the people. “And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”  [Jonah 3:4 (ESV)]!  A surprising thing happens. “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them”  [Jonah 3:5 ESV]. They believed Jonah who was speaking for God. How many gods did they have? Hundreds! No one knows the political setting in which Jonah preached. It is obvious God had been preparing these people for Jonah’s message. We are given only the information we need to know. These people, with their heads and their hearts, believe God, the God of the Hebrews, was going to destroy them, and they repented. They mourned over their sin and rebellion against God.

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”  [Jonah 3:6-9 ESV]

God knew they would repent, saw their hearts and did not bring upon them the disaster He had planned. Look at the characteristics of repentance in their reaction to Jonah’s message. They fasted, a sign of deep grief and mourning over sin. They covered themselves with sackcloth. They did not dress as if nothing was wrong. When a people in the Old Testament mourned they did so with their complete person. They changed what they had been doing, turning away from violence, from lying and stealing and committing adultery.  They changed their demeanor and the way they lived because they recognized sin and realized the consequences of sin.

Now look at Jonah and his reaction to the true repentance of the people of Nineveh.  In the entire last chapter of the book Jonah throws a juvenile temper-tantrum.  He is angry at God and tells us why he did not want to go to the wicked city of Nineveh. “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster”  [Jonah 4:3 ESV]. Those who think Jonah did not know God do not understand the ramifications of this intimately knowledgeable understanding of God.

Jonah was angry with God because He spared wicked people Jonah wanted to die and believed deserved the full wrath of God. Perhaps Jonah knew the Northern Kingdom, against whom he delivered the prophecies of God because of their rebellion, was sooner or later going to be taken over by Assyria or the next big power from the East. He didn’t want this to happen. He wanted God to destroy Israel’s enemies. Nineveh was a true enemy of Israel. God decided to not destroy Nineveh so Jonah went outside the city to pout.

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” [Jonah 4:11].

Jonah, the prophet of God, did not mourn for the people of Nineveh who were not, by his standard, God’s people. He grieved God did not destroy these people.  Yet, the people of Nineveh mourned and grieved God was going to punish them and repented. God saw their hearts and relented. God is gracious and we, none who recognize sin and realize the consequences of sin have a right to complain against Him.

In 722 BC, within a lifetime, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and carried its people off to exile forever, replacing them with another conquered people who did not know God. God did this because of the continuing sin of the people of the Northern Kingdom after warning them over and over to return to Him. He sent Prophets, including Jonah, to the people and leaders of the Northern Kingdom.  These Prophets were ignored by the people and leaders. Where the people of Nineveh turned with one word from Jonah the people of the Northern Kingdom refused centuries of warnings.

Perhaps, God was preparing Assyria to receive those who were His, sending Jonah ahead of the soon to be exiles. God’s compassion toward those who repent is prevalent. Jonah’s story is filled with God’s grace toward all and a prominent notice, over 700 hundred years before the fact, of what He has decided to accomplish in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

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