Throughout the history of Israel God used prophets to call his people back to him from idolatry. Sadly, the people generally did not listen. We are introduced to the prophet Jonah in the reign of Jeroboam, son of Jehoash.
“Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned for forty-one years…He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” (2 Kings 14:23-25 NIV)
Although we know Jonah best from the book that is named after him, he is mentioned in connection with the northern kingdom and a prophecy about the restoration of the boundaries of Israel.
God sent him to Nineveh to speak against that great city (Jonah 1:1). Nineveh was one of the capitals of Assyria and one of the greatest cities during this time. Jonah did everything he could to not have to go, to the point of embarking on a ship going the opposite direction. We may wonder why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh.
We need to realise that Assyria was not only the world power at this time, they were also quite ruthless. They conquered nations, moved those conquered to different areas, and executed many. If we think about how many felt about Saddam Hussein or Osama Ben Laden, particularly after 9/11, we will understand how most people in Jonah’s day felt about Assyria. Yet God wanted Jonah to go and preach to them.
After God had the great fish expel Jonah back on the land, he once again directed Jonah to go to Nineveh to “proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 3:1). This time Jonah went. It was a large city and Jonah spent several days preaching there. The message God gave Jonah was this: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Perhaps we can begin to see why Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh with such an unpopular message, especially knowing how cruel they could be.
Jonah turned out to be one of the most successful preachers of all time. “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5). I am sure that Jonah was shocked by the reaction to his message: they believed him! And they changed, showing their desire to turn from their sin. Even the king dressed in sackcloth, sat in the dust and ordered everyone else to do the same.
“This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals 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)
Isn’t it amazing that the king knew that YHVH, the only true God, was known to be compassionate? Jonah also knew this, which was why he became angry with God when Nineveh wasn’t destroyed. He said to God: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
This is quite different from the picture so many even today have of God. Yet this is the God we serve, who showed his ultimate compassion in sending Jesus to die so that we can have eternal life. We are thankful that God is “gracious and compassionate … slow to anger and abounding in love.” If God wasn’t like this, what hope could we have?
Photo: relief of Assyria’s conquest of Egypt, British Museum, London, by Jon Galloway.
Readings for next week: Psalm 89; 2 Kings 13-14; 2 Chronicles 25-26; Jonah 1-4