The Book of Jonah provides intriguing insight into the heart of God and His patience and ultimate judgment on those who would reject and deny Him. ◊
Everyone knows the story in the Bible of Jonah and the big fish or whale that swallows him whole and spits him out after 3 days. For many it is a fairy tale – even for some Christians it’s a slightly embarrassing story they’ll try to recast as perhaps a metaphor or mere Old Testament folklore.
Don’t be deceived.
It’s a historic story set in what is today the city of Mosul, Iraq. It involves rebellion, judgment, prejudice, forgiveness, and prophecy. With Jesus making a strong reference to the prophet and the ancient great city of Nineveh when confronting his detractors, one cannot easily disregard the Book of Jonah while upholding Christ, his teachings and deity.
No, it’s a packaged deal wrapped with the unsurpassed love of God for all mankind, both good and evil, both pagan and religious. It provides intriguing insight into the heart of God and His patience and ultimate judgment on those who would reject and deny Him.
Yes, we all should confront the Book of Jonah – so judgmental and so true.
In the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus connects the Hebrew prophet Jonah with a prophetic word that flies over the heads of his audience:
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a 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. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:38-41, Luke 11:29-32)
Jesus was speaking of himself, the Son of Man, who would resurrect after 3 days. If the God of the Bible, Creator of the world, land, sea, and sky, can supernaturally raise up Christ, the atonement Lamb from the dead, then why not Jonah, a human tool for God’s long-suffering reach-out to the epitome of human wickedness, those in that debased capital city of the Assyrians, Nineveh?
That Christ then takes an overt slap at the debased Pharisees by comparing them unfavorably to the converted people of Nineveh, who responded to the Word of God when presented with something less, highlights the historic reference and puts a stamp of truth to it.
Nineveh Rising and Falling
Jonah, a Hebrew prophet, lived during the latter half of the 8th century during the reign of Israel’s King Jeroboam II, an evil king of the Northern Kingdom (786–746 BC). Jonah is sent by God on a direct mission to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, an ancient city first mentioned in Genesis as being built by Nimrod, son of Cush, the son of Ham, one of the 3 sons of Noah, survivors of the Flood:
From that land he (Nimrod) went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh. (Genesis 8:11)
Nineveh is not mentioned again in the Bible until 2 King 19:36 and Isaiah 37:37 when in Jonah’s time it is described as a great and flourishing capital city of the Assyrian empire. Long an enemy of Israel, the Assyrian empire crushed the disobedient Northern Kingdom in 722 BC and was itself decimated, with Nineveh leveled, by the Medes and Babylonians in 612 BC.
The dates are important when considering God working with Hebrew and Gentile nations to achieve His purposes and proclaim His message for all mankind.
At the height of Assyria’s power and might, Jonah is told by God:
“Arise, to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it, for its wickedness has come up before me. (Jonah 1:2)
After Jonah’s brief rebellion:
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (Jonah 3:1-5)
In fact, with great irony, the evil city of Nineveh was saved from destruction through the preaching of the initially disobedient Hebrew prophet Jonah. They survived more than 40 days; actually another almost 150 years during which they destroyed Jonah’s homeland in 722 BC until their own utter destruction in 612 BC. By then they had reverted to their evil ways, as prophesied by Nahum in their final days: “Wasted is Nineveh, who will bemoan her?” (Nahum 3:7)
Jonah didn’t want to save the hated city of Nineveh. He judged her and fled God. God used him to save the pagan sailors in Chapter 1. God answered Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish in Chapter 2 and Jonah repented and delivered God’s message to the people of Nineveh. Convicted by God, the pagan king of Nineveh in Chapter 3 led the repentant people in revival and belief in the God of the Bible – at least for several generations. In Chapter 4 God schooled Jonah in His great love and mercy for 120,000 lost people living in a pagan city.
Incidentally, the Ninevites converted to Jonah’s message pretty quickly. History reveals the Assyrians in Nineveh worshiped Dagon, the fish god and his female counterpart, the fish goddess Nanshe. Jonah’s deposit upon the shores of Assyria after 3 days in a great fish would have been full of meaning for the people of Nineveh. No wonder they listened well and converted after a brief but powerful word.
Jonah wouldn’t necessarily have known this. He just had to eventually succumb to God’s direction and away from his own agenda and prejudice. Like us today, it is not for us to judge, but rather for God to work His will, not ours.
Do you believe the Book of Jonah?
“The Lord is slow to anger and of great might, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.“ – Nahum 1:3