This little gem of a book is more than a story about a man eaten by a great fish, it is another perfectly cut diamond revealing to us once more the willingness of the Lord to restore to Himself a disobedient individual and a wicked city. In this article I would like to set a little historical background and context to the book of Jonah while touching upon the nature of God towards His creation.
Date, author and brief outline of the book
Bible scholars are unsure of the actual date of when this book was written, it is said to have been penned between 450 –300BC and there are many disagreements to the author/s. There are a wide variety of opinions if the story of Jonah is actually history, or an allegory, or a parable. Personally, I read the book of Jonah as a literal historical account that is a parable and an allegory which contains the message of God’s dealings with a disobedient prophet and a wicked nation. However, the content is more than God’s judgement as it reveals His wisdom, kindness, mercy, compassion and love through the Lord’s dealings with the heart of Jonah and the warning to Nineveh of their upcoming judgement.
A brief history of Nineveh
The first Biblical reference of Nineveh is found in Genesis 10 v 12 and the founder of this ancient city was a man called Nimrod and some people believe that his name translates into, “the rebellious tyrant”. Over thousands of years Nineveh became the city of Assyria located on the river Tigris. Due to its location Nineveh flourished with riches through trade because it united the east and west through the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. The city at its peak was said to have over 600,000 inhabitants and was 30 miles in length, 10 miles wide and surrounded by a solid wall to protect it from invasion. The city of Nineveh began to show weakness and was attacked by the Medes in 633 BC and subsequently were joined by the Babylonians and Susianians in 625 BC who again attacked and conquered Nineveh dividing the city’s wealth and spoils amongst themselves. After the destruction of Nineveh the tyrannical reign of the Assyrian empire came to an end and the memory of this city passed like a dream until its palaces were accidently found in the 20th Century.
What does the Bible say about Nineveh?
There is so much more to be said in regards to the history of Nineveh, its influence on the ancient world and its rise to power and its eventual destruction. However, in the book of Jonah we see a part of God’s manifold character that before He brings judgment upon Nineveh he firstly shows his compassion, patience and mercy by sending a prophet to warn of their destruction if they refuse to repent of their wickedness, but we also see from other Biblical books the reasons for God’s up-coming judgement upon Nineveh. Nineveh in the ancient world was known as “The bloody city”, it is described in various Biblical books as; great, rich, strong, commercial, vile, violent, wicked, idolatrous, full of joy and carelessness, full of lies and robbery and full of witchcraft.
God’s mercy towards a wicked city
This book is unclear in regards to the method that God was going to use to judge Nineveh, but we quickly discover the reason for God’s up-coming judgement in Jonah 1 v 2 when He says, “For their evil has come up against me”. The sins of Nineveh were piling high in God’s sight and in His own timing and wisdom the Lord decided that Nineveh was to be judged but not before they are warned and given the opportunity to repent of their wickedness. Even though the corporate sins of Nineveh must have been grievous to God’s heart He is not rash to judge them and desires to show His patience, kindness and mercy to the people of this great city through the warning that was to come through the lips of Jonah.
God’s calling to a disobedient prophet
God out of His own choice in the first chapter decides to appoint Jonah to proclaim to Nineveh the warning of their up-coming judgement, the message was simple as we see in Jonah 3 v 4 as Jonah boldly declares in the city, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people repented of their sins that led to God holding back His judgement that was previously upon Nineveh. Jonah’s mission had been successful, he witnessed an entire city turn to the Lord but he was still angry with God’s choice to save the city from destruction.
Why was Jonah reluctant to obey God?
We get a glimpse into Jonah’s heart in chapter 4 as it describes his anger towards God for His grace, mercy, loving kindness and the Lord’s reluctance to bring disaster upon Nineveh. It is apparent that Jonah desired Nineveh to be destroyed, but, why? During the time of Jonah’s life Nineveh was the power house of the ancient world and Israel were vulnerable to the might of Nineveh who could have destroyed or ruled Israel any time they desired. It is believed by scholars that Jonah’s fear was deeper than Israel being overthrown by Nineveh, he was worried that the favour and blessings promised by God would be transferred from Israel over to the gentile city of Nineveh. The thought of this would have grieved the heart of Jonah and thus he tried to escape the Sovereign will of God by running in the opposite direction.
The mission field of Jonah’s heart
The Lord had 2 missionary fields; the field of Nineveh’s repentance through Jonah, but also. The Lord’s missionary field was the transformation of Jonah’s heart. I have to ask myself, why did the Lord bring havoc upon Jonah’s life as surely another man could have been given the mission to preach in Nineveh? If we believe scholars opinions that Jonah’s concerns were that through his preaching Nineveh would repent and the blessing of Israel transferred from Israel to Nineveh then for me God’s dealings with Jonah make perfect sense. The Lord, jealous for transformation of hearts, pursued Jonah in a number of ways to change the fear and anger that dwelt within him. From the belly of the great fish Jonah acknowledge the Lord’s sovereignty and mercy that led to Jonah repenting of his disobedience and thus the process of the softening of Jonah’s heart towards God’s grace began. Jonah eventually turned and went to Nineveh to fulfil the Lord’s will, even after Nineveh’s repentance Jonah was still angry and sat outside the city walls wanting to die. At this point the Lord came and ministered to Jonah in a very different way. While Jonah was sitting outside the city walls of Nineveh, the Lord commanded a plant to grow and protect him from the searing heat and then destroyed the plant the following day to leave Jonah vulnerable to the sun’s rays. The Lord said to Jonah, “You pity the plant for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a day, and should I not pity Nineveh.” Jonah 4 v10 – 11
The Lord through this book is still teaching us a profound lesson today that we should reflect on and ask for help if needed. What is the lesson? Our hearts should be guarded from anger, anger leads to bitterness, and from there bitterness produces fear that eventually leads to disobedience which is the opposite of functioning in faith. The Lord desires for us to know His grace, mercy, patience, kindness and love that He has for His creation and He desires that these elements of His glorious nature be displayed through those who follow after Christ.