JONAH AND THE PROMISES (IDB Volumes I, II, III)
Jesus gave us the reason why the prophet Jonah was important to all of us, both Jews and Gentiles. God sent many prophets to Samaria and Jerusalem but only one to Nineveh. When man meets His condition and repents, God withholds judgment as He promised. Jesus made two crucial statements regarding God’s promises and He did not exactly use kind words, almost unbecoming to his gentle nature. “A wicket and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign; but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:3; 39-42; Luke 11:29-32).
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth; all this will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'” (Matthew 23:27-39).
Nineveh capital of Assyria was just as sinful as Samaria capital of Israel. Jonah son of Amittai of the tribe of Zebulun was told, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against them, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:1-2). It is puzzling why such a great city would listen to a Hebrew? Also, why would God want Nineveh well when He had ordered others to be removed by Joshua’s march into Canaan? With regard to the first question, Jonah’s life and experience circulated orally right after the Exodus from Egypt, the formation of Israel’s tribes into a nation and no later than the time of the Judges. The news of mighty Egypt’s fall to Moses and his God, not doubt had reached Nineveh. When Jonah arrived and identified himself as a Hebrew and told the people that in forty days, the God that humbled Pharaoh would destroy them, they did more than listen. “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth and sat down in the dust” (Jonah 3:5-6). Then the king and his nobles endorsed Jonah’s message with a proclamation. “Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:7-9).
It was the largest single moral conversion of people in the Bible. One hundred twenty thousand people turned to God and changed their lives. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had intended” (Jonah 3:10). The Ninevites set an example for the world in contrast to the Egyptians and the Hebrews themselves that repentance does warm the heart of God and gives humans a second chance. All God’s prophets, especially Jonah, were sent to preach repentance. Those that did not preach repentance were not sent of God (Ezekiel 3:16-27). Repentance granted new life to Nineveh and Assyria and later on God used them to dissolve Israel and Samaria because they were not willing to repent. During the fourth year of Hezekiah king of Judah and Hoshea king of Israel, “Shalmaneser king of Assyria marched against Samaria and laid siege to it. At the end of three years the Assyrians took it. The king of Assyria deported Israel to Assyria and settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes. This happened because they had not obeyed the Lord their God, but had violated his covenant -– all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened to the commands nor carried them out” (II Kings 18:9-12). Shalmaneser replaced the Israelis with his people to be known as Samaritans that believed Moses and his Laws. Assyria was taken over by the Babylonians in 612 B.C. (Nahum 2-3; Zephaniah 2:13-15).
Jonah did not celebrate his success. Now, before his eyes, a large potential enemy city had turned to his God, that according to Moses might harm his people in some distant future (Deuteronomy 28:64-68; 32:26). He also knew that his own people had not fully committed to God (Joshua 24). He complained to the Lord, “Oh Lord, is this not what I was afraid of when I was still at home? That is why I tried to escape to Tarshish. I knew that you God would be gracious and compassionate with Nineveh, you do not stay angry and abound in love and you are not eager to hand out punishments. You spared my enemies. Please, Lord, let me die. I cannot face these people who were to be punished but were blessed instead” (Jonah 4:2-3). Bear with me for my own understanding of Jonah. It is not easy to be happy when our enemies are blessed and we are not. It was a miracle how Jonah’s life was spared by a whale; but it is a far greater miracle that God allows people to repent and be forgiven for their sins against Him and each other. God’s promise has always been that if a people repent and return to his laws, they will be saved (Isaiah 45:22-23). In fact, God made this arrangement with his Son and for us before He created the world (John 17:24; Ephesians 1:4; I Peter 1:20).
Jonah went outside Nineveh, made a shelter to shade himself, sat down and waited for Nineveh’s demise. When it did not happen, he became angry. The Lord improved his comfort by growing a plant with a large leave. Then, He let a worm chew on the plant and it withered. The sun and the hot wind made it very uncomfortable for Jonah. Things were not going his way and again he was angry enough to die. He felt badly about losing a plant, but not about seeing the population of Nineveh wiped out. The Lord used a little logic to wake up Jonah. “You have been concerned about this plant, even though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Jonah’s message is timeless and so are God’s promises. Tradition holds that Jonah’s message existed in writing after the dispersion of Israel and before the exile of Judah. Only Nineveh took Jonah serious.