“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent” (Jonah 3:1-3 NKJV).
If you ask the average person about the book of Jonah, they might respond, “Isn’t that the story about the man who was swallowed by a whale?” It is likely that that is the only feature of the book which they know.
Though that part of the book certainly catches our attention, the fact is that it is by no means the most important part of the story. Jonah includes the miracle by which God turns Jonah’s focus back to his mission, but it is not really about that miracle.
Read seriously, Jonah is a message about God’s mercy and compassion, particularly in contrast to the prophet’s lack of those qualities. Nineveh was the capital of the ancient empire of Assyria, which at that time was the greatest threat to Israel’s existence and featured one of the cruelest, most savage conquering armies the world has ever seen.
God’s decision to destroy Nineveh (and by extension Assyria) was good news to Jonah and to all of Israel. It would have been viewed as justice against Assyria’s exceeding sinfulness, and also as proof of God’s providential oversight of his people. Jonah’s likely response was probably something on the order of “well it is about time?” His attempt to avoid the mission of preaching to Nineveh was not from fear, but from his reluctance to give them any opportunity to repent and avoid God’s wrath (Jonah 4:2).
God’s eventual answer to the prophet was to chasten him for his lack of compassion. “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left?” (Jonah 4:11). Whether this verse refers to small children only, or as some modern commentators believe, to the entire population of Nineveh, it was beyond doubt a major metropolis in those ancient times.
God’s question to Jonah serves to contrast the value of the human population with the small plant the prophet had used for shade and for whose loss he grieved. Jonah mourned a worthless vine; God pointed him towards a great city filled with lost souls.
I continue to be amazed at the number of truly immense cities in the world today. I grew up in awe of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles with their populations of 5 to 8 million (at that time). It was only much later that I began to hear of cities of ten, twelve, or fifteen million or more. Now I have had the privilege of visiting several of those. I am still amazed and overwhelmed.
Not only does the sheer size of Cairo, Kolkata, Chennai, London, Dhaka, et al, stun me, but even more it is the challenge of reaching such cities with the message of the Cross. Jonah walked through Nineveh (apparently just one time) proclaiming God’s verdict and they repented. We look at the size and complexity of modern urban areas and throw up our hands in despair.
Yet we serve the same loving, compassionate and powerful God as did Jonah. Let us, too, accept our mission and reach out to the lost all over the world – especially where there are so many helpless and hopeless ones whom God loves.