Jonah belongs to 'the Book of the Twelve', that is, it is one of the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament. Yet, unlike the others, the message of Jonah is communicated through the prophet's experience, rather than prophetic speeches. The truth it conveys is timeless and needs to be made known in every generation. Its enduring message can be stated simply - God is merciful. This does not mean that He overlooks or compromises with sin, certainly not. Instead, His mercy is the reason why He warns sinners of judgment and gives them opportunity to repent. Interestingly, in the story of Jonah, while it is the Ninevites who are the recipients of divine mercy, the message of the book is intended particularly for the people of Israel. Jonah and his people needed to learn that while God hates sin He loves souls and His love is not restricted by race, nationality or culture. Moreover, their theology of ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ was flawed and they needed to learn that while God hates sin He loves souls and His love is not restricted by race, nationality or culture. Moreover, their theology of ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ was flawed and they needed to be taught that repentance was what God wanted from them as much as from any other nation. The Lord Jesus clearly addressed both these issues with the Jews when He came to this world (Matt 5:43; 12: 41). Jonah, as the story shows, knew very well the character of God. However, it was fine for Israel to experience His mercy, but not pagan Gentiles who were in fact enemies of God and His people. Thus Jonah, when he sees God's mercy displayed, doesn't like it and is angry. Addressing the Lord he says:
“O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (4:2 KJV).
In these words Jonah sums up the message of his book and in so doing he is actually quoting from what the Lord proclaimed to Moses centuries before on Mt. Sinai:
“And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).
This is who and what God is - always. The Bible reminds us that God is ‘rich in mercy, because of His great love’ (Ephesians 2:4) and the greatest and fullest expression of His love to the world has been the gift of His Son, the Lord Jesus (John 3:16).
We will consider the story of Jonah under three headings: The Wickedness of Nineveh, The Sign of Jonah and The Mercy of the Lord.
The Wickedness of Nineveh
This is what sets the framework for the story. Nineveh was an exceeding great and wicked city and the Lord sent His prophet to ‘cry against it.’ Jonah was from a place called Gath-hepher near Nazareth in the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). He ministered during the reign of Jeroboam II (781-753 B.C.) in a time of relative national peace and material prosperity, but with the continuing spiritual poverty that marked the northern kingdom. Nonetheless, despite their covenant unfaithfulness, the Lord still had mercy upon them. Through Jonah He prophesied encouragement and brought deliverance to Israel by the hand of king Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25-26). Now Jonah was being sent on a distinct mission to a different people, but with the same objective, that God might show them mercy also.
The Lord's Communication to Jonah - He Speaks
The Bible reminds us in Ecclesiastes 8:11 - 'Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.' That was true in Nineveh and it is true in the world today. Many people think that God is either indifferent or impotent concerning evil. Some because they think they can do what they like without accountability, others because they are genuinely perplexed about the problem of evil. One set presumes, and the other concludes that God's seeming silence and apparent inactivity mean that He does not exist or He does not know or He does not care. All of these are wrong. The Lord's communication to Jonah sending him to preach to the Ninevites demonstrates that He both knows and cares. While God may not speak with a voice like thunder for the entire world to hear or reveal Himself by some visible means for the entire world to see, it does not mean He is silent. He still sends His servants with His word to declare His truth and warn the nations of their sin and need for repentance. The preacher of the gospel is not some irrelevant crackpot; rather he is God's messenger to men. Sadly few listen. To the unrepentant on the Day of Judgment God will declare concerning their sin:
‘These things you have done, and I kept silent; You thought that I was altogether like you; But I will rebuke you, And set them in order before your eyes.’ (Psalm 50:21) The Lord's Commission for Jonah - He Sends
Jonah was to go with the Lord's message to this city located on the banks of the Tigris River some 500 miles away from his home and to a people who he considered his enemies. Going to Nineveh was neither Jonah’s idea nor choice. It was the Lord’s commission to him; He sent him. The Lord Jesus after His resurrection and before returning to heaven commissioned His apostles and through them His church to take His message, the gospel, to the world. He said to them: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20). The great commission given with the absolute authority of the risen Christ is His unchanging directive for His servants in all generations.
The Lord's Condemnation through Jonah - He Sees
The Status of Nineveh
Nineveh was a great city in both size and power. Founded by Nimrod the ‘mighty hunter’ (Gen 10:8-12) it was an Assyrian royal city so large that it is described as being ‘a three-day journey in extent’ (Jonah 3:3). This probably refers to the time it would have taken to walk the streets of its sprawling suburbs and the city proper. It had an inner wall some 50 feet wide and 100 feet high stretching for nearly 8 miles in length with a population in the hundreds of thousands including 120,000 innocents, that is young children who could not 'discern between their right hand and their left' (Jonah 4:11). But Nineveh was wicked.
The Sins of Nineveh
Lord Acton (1834-1902) said: 'Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.' This was true of the king and nobles of Nineveh. A merciless 'city of blood' full of idolatry with a reputation in the ancient Near East for the brutal atrocities it inflicted on its war captives. Evil and violence was the way of life of its inhabitants (Jonah 3:8). Sound familiar?
Jonah was sent to 'cry against' Nineveh and when Jonah finally arrived in the city after his detour God's message through him was "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:3). The Lord was expressing His displeasure at the 'wickedness' of its inhabitants and yet, by this warning He was giving them the opportunity to repent and avoid judgment. All sin is against God and calls for His judgment. When the Lord said to Jonah "their wickedness is come up before me" (Jonah 1:2) He had seen, He had heard and He knew their sins. The Bible reminds us: 'There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account' (Heb 4:13).
The Sign of Jonah
The Folly of Running
Jonah wasn't for going to Nineveh. Instead he heads for the seaport of Joppa on the Mediterranean Sea and joins a ship sailing west for Tarshish, the very opposite direction of where he was meant to be going. He was fleeing from the presence of the Lord – an impossible and futile endeavour. Nobody can hide from God. People think they enjoy anonymity as far as God is concerned. They live their own lives, do their own thing, and believe whatever appeals to them. ‘What does God know?' is the question on their lips. God is not only all-powerful; He also is all-knowing as well as all-present. The Psalmist wrote of the inescapable presence of God:
‘Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.’ (Psalm 139:7-12)
The Lord was in pursuit of Jonah. When you try to run away from God, you only end up running into Him. Caught in a storm, cast into the sea and swallowed by a great fish were things Jonah didn’t have in mind when he started to flee. It was the great fish that saved Jonah from drowning and in its belly he spent three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). There he had plenty of time to pray and that’s just what he did (Jonah 2:1). Eventually vomited out unto dry land, the Lord speaks to Jonah a second time with the same message: “Arise go unto Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1-2). Jonah should never have fled from the Lord and yet God used the experience of his failure as a sign to the Ninevites and as an illustration of something immensely greater.
A Greater than Jonah
When the Lord Jesus was scornfully challenged by unbelieving Jews for a sign to prove that He was who He said He was - the one sent from God, He answered like this:
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:39-40).
And in Luke’s gospel the recorded words of Jesus are: This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation (Luke 11:29-30).
The sign of Jonah refers to what happened him and because of this event of three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, he became a sign to the Ninevites. When he came among them he came as a man sent from God who had come back from the realm of death. His experience resembled death and resurrection and it therefore authenticated his message proving that he and it were sent from God. As a result 'the people of Nineveh believed God' (Jonah 3:5). This of course assumes something that the story in Jonah doesn’t say, namely that the Ninevites knew what had happened to Jonah. The inference from the Lord’s words in Luke is that they did. Similarly in the story, the message Jonah announced didn’t mention God by name, but clearly the people of Nineveh were well aware of its origin.
The Lord Jesus makes the comparison between Himself and Jonah. As Jonah was a sign to that generation of the Ninevites so the Lord Jesus would be to that generation of Jews among whom He came. Therefore the sign of Jonah illustrated a far greater reality concerning a far greater person. What authenticates the message of the gospel? What proves that Jesus was truly the sent Son of God and is the only Saviour of sinners? It is His death, burial and resurrection. The Lord was referring to the same when He said: “So will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The heart of the earth refers to the grave. His body was placed in the sepulchre because He died. His time in the realm of death was limited to a period of 72 hours. It was on, not after, the third day He arose again. He did what no other has ever, could ever, or will ever do. The gospel is how that 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen...' (1 Cor 15:3-5). The sign of Jonah pointed to the sign of the Son of Man. This is why we should not hesitate to believe God's record concerning His Son and this is why we should believe in the Lord Jesus unto salvation and eternal life.
The Mercy of the Lord
A Second Time
God is the God of the second chance for a servant who failed and He is the God of rich mercy to undeserving sinners. Thus, ‘the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time’ (Jonah 3:1).
A Simple Message
The Shortness of the Message
Jonah's message was simple, short and solemn. "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It was God's message. No embellishment and no spin; just the plain and piercing truth. The message was a warning of two parts - the time remaining before judgment and the extent of the judgment coming. It was a message of mercy for while it warned of the certainty of judgment it also gave opportunity for repentance. The gospel of God doesn't change. It is 'repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 20:21). Men are still commanded to repent in light of coming judgment and are given the opportunity to do so (Acts 17:30-31).
The Effectiveness of the Message The preaching of the word of God worked. The Ninevites believed God, repented from sin and experienced His mercy (Jonah 3:5-10). God relented when He saw the real evidence of repentance and the Ninevites were spared His wrath (Jonah 4:11). The Lord Jesus again made the comparison between the people who heard Jonah and those who heard Him:
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here (Matt 12:41).
Is it possible that someone reading this will also stand in that same judgment to be condemned by the Ninevites because they too won’t repent and believe in the Lord Jesus?
A Sore Prophet
Jonah was angry with God and bitter in heart toward the Ninevites. He had no compassion for the people, not even the innocent. Jonah was a slow learner. He had learnt in the fish among other things that ‘salvation is of the Lord’ (Jonah 2:10), now he must learn another lesson - compassion is of the Lord also. The object for his lesson this time was a plant prepared by the Lord that had sheltered him through the night, but which God destroyed in the morning with a worm leaving Jonah exposed to the sun and a divinely appointed east wind. An angry man just got angrier. The Lord’s lesson was:
“You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 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—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:10-11). Narrow minded, moralistic and uncompassionate religiosity is as far removed from the gospel as heaven is from hell. True Christianity lives and breathes the gospel of grace and reaches out in compassion to a world in need to share the good news of mercy and forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ.