For being only four chapters long, the Book of Jonah packs quite a punch. Jonah was called by God to take a message to Nineveh (modern Mosul in Iraq) but ran away instead. He thought he could escape on a boat bound for Tarshish, which was about a thousand miles in the wrong direction. Of course the Lord watched him do this and created a great storm in the Mediterranean Sea as Jonah was trying to cross. Jonah quickly realized Who had sent the storm and why. When the waves threatened to overwhelm the small ship, he convinced the sailors their only hope was to throw him over the side and when they did the storm subsided. Then the Lord summoned a great fish to rescue Jonah and He spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish while contemplating the folly of his ways. When Jonah repented, the Lord had the fish vomit him out on dry land and the next time the Lord asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, he obeyed immediately.
It’s a great lesson on the folly of trying to avoid the Lord’s call on your life, but the lessons we can learn from Jonah don’t end there.
Nineveh was a Gentile city, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and had no covenant with God. They had made no agreement to obey Him like the Israelites had (Exodus 24:3), and God had no obligation to save them. At one time their ancestors had known the Lord but over time the people had drifted away and taken a different path, one of paganism. But in a demonstration of His love for them in spite of their rejection of Him, God saw fit to warn them of impending judgment, and when Jonah finally arrived with God’s warning the response was remarkable to say the least.
The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast 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 3:5-9)
The Pharaoh of Egypt had arrogantly asked Moses, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2) But unlike him, the King of Nineveh remembered God and knew He had no desire to judge them, but that their behavior had made it necessary. If they changed their behavior maybe He would be merciful.
They changed their behavior, God showed compassion, and judgment was averted.
Now this was no small feat. Nineveh was a large and important city. According to Jonah 3:3 a visit to Nineveh required 3 days just to see it all. Jonah 4:11tells us 120,000 people lived there. Some scholars say the fact that God said they didn’t know their right hand from their left means He was only counting the children under the age of reason. If so, that would have made the total population more like half a million. And everyone of them from the greatest to the least obeyed the King’s directive.
Besides fasting, praying and donning sack cloth we’re not told just what the Ninevites did to postpone their time of judgment. The King’s decree called on the people to give up their evil ways and their violent behavior, but there’s no indication that they ever converted to Judaism or offered sacrifices for their sins, or even began to worship the God who had threatened them. We don’t know of any who were saved through faith in the coming Redeemer. They just tried to behave in a manner they thought would be more acceptable to Him.
It was external, physical, national behavior and to some extent it worked. One generation of Ninevites was spared a terrible judgment and allowed to die in peace, but as far as we can tell they all went to Hell anyway. And the next generation behaved as badly as ever. They conquered the Northern Kingdom and scattered its people to the four winds leading them away into slavery. The one after that came within one day of conquering the South before God put an end to their evil ways. The night before the battle when they were camped on Mt. Scopus looking down over the Temple Mount God sent an angel into their camp with devastating results.
Then the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there. (Isaiah 37:36-37)
Of course God knew all this would happen when He sent Jonah to Nineveh. He knew He was going to empower the Babylonians to conquer the so-called known world and that Nineveh and the entire Assyrian Empire would soon be no more. So what was His point?
I think this lesson from Jonah was intended as a message to the Israelites. The Northern Kingdom was over 100 years into it’s flirtation with idolatry and Jonah was a prophet from the land of Zebulon who was known to the King (2 Kings 14:25). Later, the southern Kingdom would fall into idolatry as well and over a 23 year period God would offer them a deal even better than the one Jonah carried to Nineveh (Jeremiah 25:3-6).
In an effort to turn his people back to Him, God was using Nineveh to give them a demonstration of His Promise to Israel in 2 Chronicles 7:14; “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
The Ninevites were not God’s people and they weren’t called by His name, but when they humbled themselves and turned from their wicked ways the scheduled judgment was postponed. Tragically, the Israelites of both kingdoms, who were God’s people, missed the lesson of Jonah, ignored His promise, and suffered the consequences. Their lesson was wasted.
700 years later Jesus said He would prove Himself to Israel’s leaders using Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish as a sign. It would be another lesson from Jonah.
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:38-40)
He was speaking of the resurrection, an unmistakable sign that He was who He claimed to be. It was the definitive proof they had asked for, and should have removed all doubt that He was their Messiah. After all, how many other times had someone made such a prediction and then fulfilled it? And just as Jonah had given Nineveh 40 days notice, Jesus waited 40 days after His crucifixion for Israel to recognize Him before finally departing for Heaven (Acts 1:3,9). That lesson was wasted, too.
In Romans 15:4 Paul said that everything that was written in the past was written to teach us. That being the case there’s a lesson from Jonah for us, too. But remember, things that were external, physical and national in the Old Testament often become internal, spiritual, and personal in the New. (Read Something Old, Something New.)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
When Jesus came into the world we began receiving clues that God’s focus was widening to include all His creation, not just Israel. Henceforth the emphasis would shift from external, physical, national behavior to internal, spiritual, personal belief. It’s not how we behave that saves us, but what we believe.
The Ninevites responded to Jonah’s warning with external, physical, national behavior and their generation escaped the coming judgment. So if God sent a prophet like Jonah with a similar warning to us today, what would be the proper response? Is there a New Testament equivalent to 2 Chron. 7:14? The answer is yes and it’s John 6:28-29.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
It’s becoming more and more obvious that the world is under judgment. No nation is exempt. Escape from judgment has become a personal matter, and can only be found by joining a people of no nation, but of a Kingdom that’s in the world but not of the world. The Kingdom of God. And our King, who cannot lie, has promised to protect us from it.
They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thes. 1:9-10).
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes 5:9).
Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth (Rev. 3:10).
No matter what country you live in, trying to appropriate Old Testament promises made to a different people under a different set of rules won’t do any good. You can’t save your country but you can save yourself by believing in the one God sent to save you. And then by the power of the Holy Spirit you can show others how to save themselves the same way. Remember, it’s internal, spiritual and personal.
If you know for sure you belong to the Lord, then you have nothing to worry about. Your challenge now is to live in such a way that your life serves as an example that attracts others to Him. If you’re not sure you’re His, you should hurry to make yourself so. Everyone who asks receives, all who seek will find, and to whoever knocks the door will be opened (Matt. 7:7-8). No one is refused, no one is excluded. All you have to to is to admit you’re a sinner, and ask Him to be your Savior and forgive your sins. He will send His Holy Spirit to show you what to do from there (Ephes. 1:13-14). The Church could disappear any day now, without a prior sign or warning, and those who are left behind will soon be living in a much less friendly world.
When the people of Nineveh heard the voice of Jonah they responded immediately and although Nineveh’s destruction was foreordained, their generation was spared. The same is true today, but the appropriate response is different. Instead of being external, physical and national it’s internal, spiritual, and personal. The destruction of the world is foreordained. If you hear the voice of the Lord, respond immediately and you’ll be spared. It’s our lesson from Jonah. Don’t let it be wasted.