JONAH AND THE PAGAN NINEVITES
Jonah 3:1-10 NET
1 The LORD said to Jonah a second time, 2 “Go immediately to Nineveh, that large city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”3 So Jonah went immediately to Nineveh, as the LORD had said. (Now Nineveh was an enormous city – it required three days to walk through it!) 4 When Jonah began to enter the city one day’s walk, he announced, “At the end of forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!”5 The people of Nineveh believed in God, and they declared a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat on ashes. 7 He issued a proclamation and said, “In Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles: No human or animal, cattle or sheep, is to taste anything; they must not eat and they must not drink water. 8 Every person and animal must put on sackcloth and must cry earnestly to God, and everyone must turn from their evil way of living and from the violence that they do. 9 Who knows? Perhaps God might be willing to change his mind and relent and turn from his fierce anger so that we might not die.” 10 When God saw their actions – they turned from their evil way of living! – God relented concerning the judgment he had threatened them with and he did not destroy them.
I am enjoying our look into this ancient book about Jonah and what he experienced. Jonah appeals to me on several levels. As a former missionary, I like the way God seeks out the lost and uses his people to encourage them to repent. I also like the way God uses all the details in Jonah’s life to accomplish his will – often in spite of Jonah’s reluctance. God uses a ship, sailors, a storm – even a fish.
I can relate to this because so much of my life has involved drastic changes of location and even vocation – yet God has used all of those events and circumstances to accomplish His will in my life and the lives of my family members.
Jonah’s details are all over the map. That’s literally true. Geographically, he probably started out in Zebulun territory, which if I am reading my map correctly – means that he would have to travel about 500 miles by land to get there. So, Jonah decided to take a boat. You can’t get there by boat. The Mediterranean Sea is in the other direction.
All we really know about Tarshish is that it is a long way away from where Jonah was told to go. So, even when Jonah got burped up on the beach, he still had a long hike to get to Nineveh. I like to think about things when I’m hiking. Jonah probably thought about his experiences as he hiked to Nineveh.
Jonah had learned some of the lessons that God was teaching him (1-3a).
He probably thought about his initial decision to try to run away from God’s commission and call. Yeah, that was a bad idea. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again. He did not dawdle. He went immediately to Nineveh, as the LORD had said.
But he couldn’t get in a jet plane, so his going immediately to Nineveh would take him several weeks. So, he had time to think about other lessons the LORD was teaching him. He had probably thought about his arrogance in assuming that God was going to take care of him on that trip to Tarshish. He had fallen asleep in the storm that threatened to wreck the ship he was on. Maybe he thought that because he was an Israelite that he was safe. But he was in blatant disobedience to God’s call. There’s no safety net there.
And what about those pagan sailors. He thought they were just heathens – that they would never amount to anything. But those heathens turned out to be more spiritually sensitive than he was. In fact, when they were confronted with God’s power, they turned to God. Jonah knew all about God’s power and was trying to turn away from him.
So, Jonah winds up in the sea, sinking down to the belly of Sheol, and he cries out to God. Just when he is about to breathe in a lung full of seawater, God rescues him – with a fish. You can’t make this stuff up. God shows Jonah that he will go to extravagant ends to rescue those who cry out to him.
When Jonah finally gets to the end of the trail, he is ready to preach.
Jonah warned the Ninevites of God’s coming judgment (3b-4).
He had one message. He told them that at the end of forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown. He didn’t beg them to repent. He didn’t lay out a master plan for their renewal. He didn’t tell them that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives. No, he just told them that the end was coming.
I wonder sometimes if our gospel preaching sounds like that. We try to talk about God’s love and God’s grace, but I think all the lost people around us hear is “y’all are sinners and you’re gonna burn.”
Oh, Jonah knew all about the Ninevites. He knew that the city was the capital city of the great Assyrian empire – and these people do not play nice. The prophet Nahum said this about Nineveh:
“Woe to the city guilty of bloodshed! She is full of lies; she is filled with plunder; she has hoarded her spoil! (Nahum 3:1 NET).
The whole superpower of Assyria was known for its brutality, violence and terror. Nineveh deserved to be destroyed.
In football, we have a two-minute warning. It means the game is essentially over because there is very little chance of any team doing anything to change the score in those last two minutes. Mostly it is just to make sure both teams know that the game is ending.
Jonah probably thought of his own ministry like that. we know from his angry prayer in the next chapter that Jonah wanted to be the last prophet to speak to Nineveh. He wanted to be the one to say “last two minutes” to the losers at Nineveh.
He wasn’t prepared for what actually happened.
Jonah was not prepared for his warning to actually be effective (5-9).
From the lowest to the highest, the people believed in God this time. They declared a fast and put on sackcloth. My uncle once asked me if sackcloth was like burlap. It wasn’t. Sackcloth was worse than burlap. It’s made of hair. It’s uncomfortable and itchy. Add to that the bizarre act of sitting in a dirty pile of ashes. That’s not a fashion statement, but it is a statement. It says we’re all in trouble and we need to get someone’s attention.
That grass-roots social demonstration got the attention of the king and his nobles. The king took off his royal robe and put on his hair coat as well. He found an ash pile to sit in. He made it official by issuing a proclamation. In addition to a forced fast, the king commanded that everyone “must put on sackcloth and must cry earnestly to God, and everyone must turn from their evil way of living and from the violence that they do.” “Who knows?” He said. “Perhaps God might be willing to change his mind and relent and turn from his fierce anger so that we might not die.” There was no guarantee, but Jonah’s preaching had gotten their attention.
Jonah was not prepared for his warning to actually work. I wonder sometimes, what would we do if all those people we keep inviting to church actually showed up one day.
Jonah needed to learn that God does not want to punish sinners – he wants them to repent (10).
“When God saw their actions – they turned from their evil way of living! — God relented concerning the judgment he had threatened them with and he did not destroy them.”
God did not want to destroy Nineveh. He wanted to rescue them. He wanted to avoid the punishment Jonah warned them about.
God does not want to destroy Delco either. We owe it to our neighbors to let them know that God will punish those who rebel against him. But we also need to tell them that it doesn’t have to be that way.
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:17 NET).
The purpose of God is not revenge, it’s rescue. If people refuse to repent, they will be destroyed. Make no mistake about that. But for thousands of years, our commission has been to declare the good news to the nations. The good news is that we can avoid Gehenna.
There is a lake of fire in the future of this universe. But the lake of fire is a destiny that can be avoided. God does not want to send anybody to hell.
“The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NET).
God was patient with the Ninevites, and he sent his prophet when their time had almost run out. His patience paid off because they repented.
Jonah learned that God does not want to punish sinners — he wants them to repent. We need to keep that in mind as we go about our daily work of telling people about God. We have to tell them about God’s coming wrath, but we should never forget to tell them that God’s wrath is not inevitable.
It is not necessary. Jesus has already taken God’s wrath upon himself at his crucifixion. Nobody needs to die for their personal sins because Jesus has already taken that punishment upon himself and nailed it to the cross. We have to die the first death because of Adam’s sin. But God has made a way for us to escape the second death that we have earned with our own sins. Jesus is that Way.
Repentance and faith changed the fate of the Ninevites. Repentance and faith can change anyone’s fate. We all begin as sinners — lost and condemned. But the gospel tells us that we can rewrite our destiny. By repenting of our sins and putting our faith in God’s rescue through Christ, we can change not only our relationship with God now but our permanent destiny in the future.
The prophet Jonah was surprised when his preaching worked. He shouldn’t have been. God sends us to the nations not because he wants to condemn them, but because he has a way to save them. His heart is not to destroy the lost, but to save the lost.