Today we take a lesson from the prophet Jonah. Now, children in Sunday school can tell you that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale, but far fewer Christians could explain in any depth how and why Jonah got there.
From the book of Jonah itself, we know that God called the prophet to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jon 1:2), and that he tried to run away from his assignment. Jonah did not want to see the people of Nineveh repent and be saved; he wanted them to die (4:1–3). Which begs the question: Why such hatred?
The Bible records that Jonah was active as a prophet in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (2 Kgs 14:25), and that within a few years of Jeroboam’s death (thus likely still within Jonah’s lifetime) Israel was assaulted by two successive Assyrian kings. The first accepted money and left, and the second captured a significant portion of the land and carried its people away captive (15:19, 29). Nineveh was Assyria’s capital city.
We also know that God allowed Israel to suffer at the hands of its neighbors because its people and kings were guilty of idolatry, and they remained unrepentant from Jonah’s day until God allowed the Assyrians to conquer the whole kingdom (that is, the ten northern tribes) and scatter its people in exile soon thereafter (2 Kgs 17). While his own people were being justly disciplined for their sins, it’s little wonder that Jonah was less than eager to see the Assyrians receive mercy.
Thank God that He is both more just and more compassionate than His would-be runaway servant. It is written of every king in Israel from Jeroboam to the exile that “He did what was evil in Yahweh’s eyes.” But when Jonah finally did sound God’s warning in Nineveh that the city would be overthrown in forty days,
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.” (Jon 3:6–9)
The Ninevites, bringers of violence against Israel, turned from their evil way and from their violence in humble acknowledgment of God’s judgment. While Jonah was too embittered against his enemies to celebrate this, the book of Jonah concludes with a poignant question from God: “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?” (4:11).
Nineveh’s repentance was, sadly, short-lived. Another generation arose, and the Assyrians under king Sennacherib invaded Judah while the godly king Hezekiah reigned in Jerusalem (2 Kgs 18). Less than a century later, as prophesied by Nahum, Nineveh was razed, and its empire was divided among the Medes and Babylonians.
Today, the people of Israel are again under attack from people of violence. Hamas, Hezbollah, and others make no secret of the fact that they wish to wipe the nation off the map, and even in American cities, protesters vow that “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” of its “occupation” by the Jews.
As in Jonah’s day, Israel itself needs to repent—if not for serving foreign gods, then for the majority of the people rejecting Jesus as their God and King—and until sufficient numbers turn and accept Him, we cannot expect peace in the land. So let us pray for Jews in Israel and around the world, that they would come to know their glorious Messiah and find true life in Him.
Let us also pray for the Muslims, and their allies, who hate Israel and seek its demise. Should God not pity them, as He pitied the Ninevites who did not “know their right hand from their left”? Pray that, like Nineveh at Jonah’s coming, they would hear God’s call to repentance and forsake violence. Pray that, unlike Nineveh, their change of heart would endure through generations, as they respond not merely to the threat of destruction but to the invitation of the gospel, that God in Christ Jesus has made a way for all who are alienated from Him and “hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,” to be reconciled to Himself and to one another through the blood of His cross (Col 1:20–23).
Writer & Ministry Fellow, CU Lux (Yale University)
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