1 The LORD’s word came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” 3 And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)
4 Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.
6 When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! 8 Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” 9 He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.
10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.
After Jonah’s undignified escape (the fish “vomited Jonah onto the dry land”—2:10), the prophet went, however unwillingly, to Nineveh. He preached a minimal message (in Hebrew, only five words). “There is no suggestion in this text that Jonah offered indictment (e.g., of their idolatry), instruction (e.g., in the law), encouragement or hope (e.g., for deliverance).” * Jonah didn’t seem to want the city to respond, and wasn’t happy about it. But God’s outlook and response were very different.
Lord Jesus, when I have a chance to share you with someone else, give me more energy for the task than Jonah seemed to show. But let me rejoice when your Spirit leads anyone else to respond to your love and grace. Amen.
* NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, eBook (Kindle Locations 206908-206910). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
** John Goldingay, Daniel and The Twelve Prophets for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, p. 158. *** James D. Nogalski and Anna E. Sieges, study note on Jonah 3:3 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 1479 OT.
(Pray for Jennifer Creagar, our regular blogger, who has been ill this week. When Pastor Steven Blair, who now pastors elsewhere, wrote this Insights blog in 2014, he was a valued member of Resurrection's pastoral care staff.)
Like other stories we tell children, the Bible Story of Jonah has even more to say to adults. You may remember the story: Jonah was a prophet who didn’t like the people of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had a reputation of being cruel and filled with religions that seemed to intentionally break as many of God’s Commandments as possible. God did not give up hope on Nineveh. God sent Jonah to give Nineveh a chance to turn to God. Jonah said no and ran away. God sent a whale. Jonah reconsidered and went to Nineveh. Well, Jonah’s body went to Nineveh but his heart didn’t make the trip.
Jonah’s big sermon to the Ninevites is one verse long. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” No sermon illustration. No heartfelt desire to persuade them back to God. Jonah simply preached one of the worst sermons ever, dropped the microphone, and apparently waited for the destruction to take place. But something happened. Even though the sermon was poor, God still spoke to the hearts of all the people. (A sermon’s power is in God’s Spirit not the preacher’s talent.) After the Ninevites turn to God, Jonah is upset. He wanted to see fire and brimstone and instead saw changed hearts. Very disappointing. The final image the story offers us is Jonah pouting that these sinners received mercy.
It is similar to the story of the Prodigal Sons. The youngest Prodigal Son returns to the Father after years of rampant sinning. The oldest son is angry that the Father is so merciful with his wandering brother. The parable ends with the younger son’s heart reunited with his Father. A big celebration takes place and the last image we see in Luke 15 is an image of the older son pouting about a sinner who receives mercy.
These Scriptures pose difficult questions.
Do we want God to hate the people that we hate? Would we celebrate our enemies receiving mercy, or do we wish pain on them?
The Book of Jonah challenges all us religious folks with the pervasive, and often annoying, message: our God is a merciful God. We can either join in the fun of seeing hearts change, or we can sit outside the city pouting.
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