Jonah and the People of Nineveh

February 17, 2013 at 12:34 PM 6 comments

Jonah is an interesting character from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). He was one of two prophets who actually dealt with people outside of the nation of Israel.  The other person was Moses.  While numerous prophets spoke about or even warned Gentile nations of judgment, only Jonah and Moses had what we would call face-to-face meetings with rulers of Gentile empires.

In the case of Jonah, we understand that he is remembered for having been swallowed by a large fish.  People get hung up on what kind of fish it was and whether that was even possible.  I take my cue from Jesus Himself who referred to Jonah in one of His sermons recorded in Matthew 12:40 when He said, “for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  Jesus understood the events of Jonah’s life to have actually happened as recorded in Scripture, so that is good enough for me.

But in truth, those who get caught up in the discussion of the fish miss the point of Jonah entirely.  Jonah is not about a fish that was big enough to swallow Jonah without killing him, keeping him alive for three days before that fish literally threw up Jonah onto the shore.  The point of Jonah is actually very simple and it is something that every authentic Christian will have to deal with in his/her life; sometimes many times.

Jonah was considered a prophet of God.  As such, he was seen as a bondslave, or simply slave of Jehovah.  This meant (and was understood to mean) that Jonah took his orders from God.  When those orders were given, Jonah was to comply without hesitation or question.

God had seen the constant wickedness of the folks in Nineveh.  Their sin had literally “come up before” God (v. 2b).  The people of Nineveh were severely idolatrous and God had gotten to a point where He had enough of it.  It was time to act, so He chose to send Jonah to them.  Why?  To warn them of their impending doom (judgment).  Why would God do this?  The same reason He does this with everyone.  He is a God of mercy and love and because of that, wants no one to perish.  He wants all to come to repentance.  However, it is clear from Scripture in too many places to note here that most people will not come to a point of true repentance.  They will never receive salvation because of the hardness of their hearts and their unwillingness to bend the knee before God.  Still, God holds out the answer to them for all who will come to Him.

God gave Jonah a three-fold directive:

  1. Get up
  2. Go (to Nineveh)
  3. Preach (against their wickedness)

As we may know, Jonah had no problem doing the first one.  He got up, but he chose not to go to Nineveh.  In fact, he went the opposite direction.  While Nineveh lay about 500 miles to the west of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Nineveh took off from the port city of Joppa.  He was heading for Tarshish.  We don’t know which Tarshish he was heading toward, but it is clear that he wanted to flee from the Lord’s presence.

Jonah apparently believed (unlike King David) that he could hide from God.  He ran down to Joppa and boarded a boat toward Tarshish.  Once he got on board, Jonah went down into the ship’s hold where he figured he would be out of God’s sight.

Of course, God allowed Jonah to run, but he was never out of God’s sight.  God knew exactly where Jonah was and the text tells us that “The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up,” (Jonah 1:4).  I like the word “hurled” because it signifies something done with great force.

God was not kidding around.  He had a job for Jonah and He expected it to be done, whether Jonah wanted to do it or not.

The sailors realized that something was drastically wrong and being a superstitious lot, they believed that some deity was upset.  They then cast lots to determine who on the ship was the cause of the problem.  We know from Proverbs 16:33, that God controls decisions and even in this case, providentially controlled the outcome of the lots.  The lots fell to Jonah, so immediately, the sailors began peppering him with questions.  They were actually trying to find out which God Jonah worshiped.

When Jonah told them that he worshiped the God of the Hebrews, who was the Creator of the universe, they became even more afraid and incredulous with Jonah.  How could Jonah do whatever it is he had done?  What was wrong with him?  Like parents chastising their child, this is exactly what the sailors did with Jonah.

Their final question – what should we do? – was met with an interesting response.  Jonah essentially told the sailors to toss him overboard.  Far from being a self-sacrificial response to their query, Jonah was basically telling the sailors that they should kill him by tossing him into the ocean.

Jonah still didn’t get it.  He thought he could hide from God in death, but God had other plans.  Finally, the sailors threw him overboard and into the mouth of the fish God prepared to catch Jonah.

Jonah wasn’t going to die.  He would be carried around in the belly of a great fish for three days.  Later on, Jonah would liken this fish’s belly to that of Sheol (cf. Jonah 2:2), or the grave.

It was at this point that Jonah finally began to see the light, even though he was sequestered in complete darkness inside a fish.  He turned to God and repented, determined to do what God had asked of him.  So Jonah went to preach to the people of Nineveh and guess what? They repented, from the king to every person in the city.  A bunch of Gentiles heard God’s Word from the mouth of a prophet who originally wanted no part of them.

So the big question for us – authentic Christians – is what is the point to Jonah?  Well, as I mentioned, it has nothing to do with a great fish and arguing over what type of fish and whether or not it’s possible.  With God, all things are possible.

The point we need to focus on is why did Jonah run the other way when God asked him to preach to people who were not part of the nation of Israel?  I believe it is because Jonah hated the people of Nineveh.  Nineveh was very possibly the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  If you don’t know anything about the Assyrians, do some research.  You will be enlightened.

The Assyrians were not only very wicked people – with all of their idolatrous worship as well as their orgies and such – but they were excessively brutal to their enemies.  It is said that entire towns, when learning of the approach of the Assyrians preferred mass suicide rather than remain alive to be at their mercy.

I won’t go into detail here, but know that they appeared to love brutality.  They seemed to get off on it.  They loved what their reputation instilled within others.  They liked that people were deathly afraid of them and for good reason.

It is very possible that Jonah had witnessed a good amount of brutality toward the people of Israel.  He may have even seen relatives – close or distant – slaughtered after being tortured by the Assyrians.  He had grown to hate them with every fiber of his being.

But now God was asking him to take His message of salvation to those living in Nineveh and because of his (Jonah’s) hatred, he simply did not want to go.  So, he fled as far away from Nineveh as possible.

God had purposed to use Jonah and He would not take no for an answer.  Not only did God want to save the people of Nineveh, but He also wanted to do a work within Jonah.  It was because of that, God chose to use Jonah.

Eventually, Jonah saw things God’s way.  It always works out like that because we are not strong enough to ward off God’s will, even though we might think we are and we even refer to our “free will” as if that is the line that God will not cross.

People who think like this seem not to understand that our free will – such as it is – is corrupt.  Ever since the sin nature developed within humanity, our free will has never been what it was when it existed in Adam and Eve (before the fall) or in the life of Jesus.  Ours is corrupted and we really do not have control over it.  It has control over us and we are sin’s servants because of it.  It is only through Christ that God begins to make the separation from the desire to sin so that we can use our free will to follow and submit to God.  We will never do that perfectly in this life though.

So Jonah hated the people of Nineveh because, for him, they represented the Assyrian Empire and he had seen their atrocities on numerous occasions.  He had been disheartened by it and hatred toward them had grown within his heart.  By this point in his life, his hatred had become firmly cemented.  It would take direct intervention by God to break apart that hatred and replace it with a heart of love.

As we look at Jonah, it is easy to see that Jonah was wrong.  We would never do that we think.  We would never not go to a people that God wanted to present the gospel of grace to, through us.  Really?

As I was studying Jonah, I had to confess that I do harbor hatred toward certain individuals who belong to the religion of Islam.  I hate what they do and I hate what they have allowed themselves to become.  The way they can create misery as easily as many of them do is enough to make me want to beat them into submission.

Unfortunately, this is not what God wants me to feel toward anyone.  He wants me to love them as He loves me.  I’m a sinner, saved by grace.  My sin put me at odds with God.  In fact, at one point in my life, I was on the receiving end of His wrath because I had not received His salvation.  His love conquered me and one day, I received the salvation that He held out to me.  I am no better than anyone else and my sin was enough to make me an enemy of God even though I never physically harmed anyone, or raped anyone, or murdered anyone, or took out my hatred on innocent animals.  Still, I sinned and that made me a sinner.

Can I really say that I was “better” than many Muslims who seem to delight to create such misery in life today?  God’s answer to that is a resounding no.  I am no better.  My sin separated me from God.  Their sin separates them from God.  Does it really matter if there are any “degrees” by which our sin separates us from Him?

So in the end, Jonah’s message is that we all have issues with individual people or specific people groups that God wants us to get beyond.  To think that we can hate another is the height of arrogance, isn’t it?  God no longer hates me and in fact, even when I was separate from Him in my sin, He still loved me and wanted me to become part of His family.

It seems to me that God used Jonah for two purposes.  First, God used Jonah to bring His salvation message to a group of people who desperately needed it.  Second, God worked within and through Jonah to eradicate the hatred that resided deep within him.

God has a use for us.  When He wants to move us out in order for His evangelistic purposes to be met, we had better prepared first of all, to say “yes.”  Second, we had better quickly come to realize that His use of us will also likely mean that He is going to refine us and that may be painful.  Ultimately, it is all for good.  As His message of salvation is taken to others by us, they will come to know Him and He will be glorified.  As He refines us, we will become more like the character of His Son and He will be glorified because of that as well.

It is difficult being an authentic Christian because it always comes back to dying to self.  We live to serve, not ourselves, but God.  As such, we understand that just as He will use us to bring others to a saving knowledge of Him, He will also use us as the Potter uses the Potter’s wheel, to shape us into the image of His Son.  At times, it is painful, but it always necessary.

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  • 1. Lester  |  February 18, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    You are so right on the track in seeing the omnipotent sovereignty of our Father! Free will?? No way! In the end Father has His way. We may run and rebel and say it was our way. Ultimately it is always Father’s way. As for the Islamics, they are very much like the people of Nineveh and may just be that nation type for today. Peter cared not for the gentiles and Paul rebuked him for it. Oh ya Nineveh is to the east about 500 miles,LOL! If folks knew what the Roman church did to the Arabic people they would understand some of the animosity toward Christians and the American government politics toward them!
    As for all nations, all are children of God gone astray and God does not hate them! In their time and order they will be changed.


    • 2. modres  |  February 18, 2013 at 9:16 AM

      Yeah, it’s ALL God. I think one of the clearest proofs of this is found in Ezekiel 38 – 39 – The Northern Invasion – where God tells us through Ezekiel that He will put hooks in Gog’s jaws and will turn him about. At the same time, God also points out that the idea will seem to Gog to be his own (a thought will come into his head).

      When we try to explain the ramifications of “free will,” we do a tremendous disservice because I don’t believe we can fully understand it in this life.

      Regarding Islam and the Roman Catholic Church, I agree with what occurred back then – that it was WRONG. At the same time, regardless of the animosity Muslims may have toward Christians (and really anyone who is NOT part of Islam), they are still culpable for the atrocities they commit just as any other group in the name of religion or God is culpable as well. I know you know that. I’m simply reiterating it. 🙂


  • 3. Sherry  |  February 17, 2013 at 8:55 PM

    Maybe when I start to feel bitter towards someone or people for doing what I deem to be horrifying I will take that as a nudge from God to pray for them.

    In a way, I’m glad that when God calls us to do a job that He alone wants us to do that He will make a way where there seems to be no way when we balk. My fear is if He says, OK, you don’t have to do that for Me, I have another who will do it. 😦


    • 4. modres  |  February 17, 2013 at 9:03 PM

      I agree and praying for people we don’t like or – gasp! – even hate is an easy way to begin to allow God to work in and through us on their behalf.


  • 5. Dan Lowell  |  February 17, 2013 at 2:21 PM


    Thought you’d get a kick out of this. i was spending my afternoon picking out a good spot on the hilltop so at sunrise I’d have a clear view of the destruction of the Ninevites, or my personal version thereof. Although your perspective of the story of Jonah is the same as mine, reading this article shifted my paradigm just enough to let me see how much of myself I’d put into the situation. Knowing I was full of myself i now see I must back off and make room for Jesus.

    At least in this small way you’ve done a good thing. thanks.

    chuckling along to heaven,

    Deacon Dan


    • 6. modres  |  February 17, 2013 at 6:23 PM

      Thanks for sharing, Dan. 😉


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