The Message of Jonah – Part 3

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Winnie-the-Pooh once remarked, “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when you have developed concern and love for the people to whom you are saying goodbye.

The Apostle Paul lamented the parting of paths with a church he loved. He was burdened with the reality that this assembly of believers would never see his face again (Acts 20:25).

As Paul spoke to the elders of the Ephesian church, he was convinced that God was leading him from his friends for the remainder of his earthly days. Paul was aware from his Damascus Road experience that God sovereignly determines the life direction of His people. Saying goodbye is essential to attaining Christian maturity, and is necessary in relationships with others.

Everyone must say goodbye in various ways and circumstances. College graduation, marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the loss of employment, or retirement are events that result in the end of one aspect of life and the beginning of another. Saying goodbye is the recognition that something valued—something essential to the present—is ending.

Jonah needed to say goodbye to many things. The first and most obvious—the fish—would be easy, yet that would result in other changes. He was a prophet of God in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kgs 14:25), but would now minister for the Lord in Nineveh. Jonah also needed to say goodbye to his attitude of anger, hatred, and prejudice.

(Jonah 3:1-10) The final two chapters of Jonah record the prophet’s obedience to the Lord subsequent to his initial disobedience (chs. 1—2). However, Jonah was obedient in action, yet his attitude was still defiant. In chapter 2, Jonah prayed that he would offer sacrifices to the Lord in Jerusalem in thankfulness for God sparing his life. God did not want sacrifices from Jonah. He wanted obedience, and reminded the prophet that an uncompleted task remained for him to accomplish.

The lesson Jonah needed to learn is important because, frequently, obedience to God’s will is contrary to one’s own desires. Spiritual maturity can never be attained by neglecting the revealed will of the Lord. Many believers want to be used by God, yet they are not willing to accomplish the plain and simple tasks that God has revealed in His Word. God reminded Jonah that he would make no progress until he did what God asked him to do.

“Second time” are the crucial words that begin Jonah 3. Jonah would be given a second chance, which is not something everyone in the Bible receives. Lot’s wife did not (Gen 19:26). King Saul was permanently removed from his office because of his sinful rebellion (1 Sam 13:9, 13-14). God judged Ananias and Sapphira immediately for their deceit (Acts 5:1-11).

God is not obliged to provide a second chance; thus, never presume upon the Lord’s grace. Nevertheless, God does welcome prodigals (Luke 15:11-32), and He did forgive and restore Peter (John 21:15-25). The encouraging truth in Jonah 3 is that the prophet’s initial disobedience did not negate the Lord’s calling upon his life. This likely proves that God cares more for the worker than the work to be done. If the Lord were only concerned for Nineveh, it would have been possible to send another prophet. God wanted Jonah to confront his sinful attitude, and thereby learn something of the great love that the Lord has for the world.

Just as He sovereignly sent “a great storm on the sea” (Jon 1:4) and “appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah” (v. 17), so did God sovereignly choose Jonah for His mission. Another indication of God’s sovereignty is the command to Jonah that he proclaim the Lord’s precise word. Even today, God’s ambassadors are to convey the Lord’s words, not their own ideas. Divine grace is always sufficient—wherever the will of the Lord may lead—because God will empower His servant.

As a foremost city of one of the most powerful nations in the world at that time, Nineveh was “great” indeed (3:2-3; 4:11), having been established by Nimrod in the time of the Patriarchs (Gen 10:10-12). Nineveh was the oldest and most populous city of the Assyrian Empire, the rival of Israel. Located east of the Tigris River, Nineveh was the royal residence of the Assyrian kings. The national history of Assyria has been preserved with inscriptions and pictures of military battles and campaigns. Nineveh was legendary for its savagery in plundering cities.

The history is bloodcurdling and gory. The Assyrians were proficient in torturing conquered nations. Captives were often skinned alive. The Assyrians gouged the eyes of many troops. They would burn their captives, take a sword to body parts, and were even known to burn adolescent boys and girls. The methods by which the Assyrians punished their captives would frighten most not to resist.

Not only was Nineveh ferocious, but also the city was exceedingly religious. They had an entire pantheon of gods, many of whom were incorporated from Babylon. The priests of Nineveh were not opposed to war, and were even considered relentless fomenters of war. Much of their support came from the spoils of conquest, and they delighted at the sight of armies departing and returning with plunder. Nineveh was an exceedingly wicked city, which is why God wanted Jonah to preach to them.

Normally, a prophet would be delighted to declare God’s message to a wicked city, since He had demonstrated that a nation would be destroyed for its wickedness. The Assyrians had not yet conquered Israel, but they had come near. The expansion of Israel’s borders, which was the fulfillment of a prophecy from Jonah, was made possible because the Assyrians had already captured or killed surrounding peoples. Jonah would have feared the Assyrians and wanted nothing to do with the bloody, cruel city. God, however, was concerned for the city, meaning it was definitely significant to Him. God cares for the great cities of the world, as should His people.

Jonah learned that he must fulfill the Lord’s commission, so he arose and traveled east to Nineveh (Jon 3:3; cf. 1:3). God’s character is unchanging, so the message remained the same (cf. v. 2). Jonah, however, experienced transformation, and this time he was obedient to the word of the Lord.

Jonah’s message to the Ninevites was quite simple: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4). The message was an announcement of impending doom, yet the forty-day period of grace was intended to provoke repentance, which it did. “Then the people of Nineveh believed in God” (v. 5a). Nineveh had many gods and was known as a religious city with temples to those idols. Yet the people renounced their national and personal gods, and turned to the God who created the heavens and the earth. They recognized the power of God, and believed He could and would do exactly as Jonah proclaimed.

The citizens of Nineveh demonstrated their belief with tangible actions (cf. 2 Sam 3:31, 35; 1 Kgs 21:27; Neh 9:1-2; Isa 15:3; 58:5; Dan 9:3; Joel 1:13-14). “They called a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them” (v. 5b). Both actions involved self-affliction as a demonstration of humility. “When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne [a gesture of grave intent], laid his robe from him [an act of humility], covered himself with sackcloth [an indication of mourning], and sat on the ashes [a demonstration of repentance]” (v. 6). The king then “issued a proclamation,” decreeing a time of fasting and prayer (vv. 7-8). As he said, “‘Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish’” (v. 9; cf. Isa 55:6-7). Obviously, the Ninevites understood the impending doom was in response to their own conduct. The people believed correctly that God might be merciful if they abandoned their wickedness.

An indication of spiritual maturity is responding to God in humility as opposed to arrogance and pride. First Peter 5:5b-6 reads, “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.” Jonah was arrogant and proud toward the Ninevites because he hated them. Yet the king of Assyria did respond in humility, and not only saved himself but also his people.

Humility extends beyond self to one’s sphere of influence. Salvation is by God’s grace through faith, “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9). Being a recipient of God’s grace means being gracious to others. The gift of God’s grace is not for boasting; rather, it is for the benefit of others (cf. Rom 12:6; Eph 3:2, 7; 4:7; 1 Pet 4:10).

God saw the genuineness of the Ninevites’ repentance in their deeds (Jon 3:10). They bore “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8; cf. 2 Cor 7:10). In response, God withheld the judgment that He would have administered if they had not “turned from their wicked way” (Jon 3:10). What is amazing is how an entire city was brought to repentance and faith, through the preaching of a man who did not love the people to whom he ministered.

“God relented,” which means He is free to change. God declared His intentions toward a guilty people, and stated the punishment they would receive because of their culpability. Yet He always intended to demonstrate mercy once the people “turned from their wicked way.” God threatened judgment, which the people certainly deserved, yet would pardon them once they turned to Him.

The most important fact is that no one but God anticipated such prayer and repentance. God was at work in the wicked city prior to Jonah’s preaching. He prepared Nineveh for this moment, and the people of that generation responded. Perhaps our nation is under judgment at this moment, and we do not realize it; or, perhaps we are closer to a revival greater than any could imagine.

Midnight Call - 02/2021

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