The incredible and familiar story of Jonah has always fascinated me. Only recently, after my son watched a children’s movie about Jonah, did I decide to do some further reading and research into this story.
1) Ninevah was “once the largest city in the known world.” It was also the capital city of the Assyrians, the bitter enemies of the Israelites.
2) Among their many deities they worshipped, they also worshipped Dagon–a half man-half fish god. It was a prideful city that practiced religious prostitution and ritual sacrifices to idols, among other evils.
We can empathize with Jonah’s decision to run away from witnessing to such an evil and dangerous city. He would be signing his own death sentence to go there. Or worse, be captured and enslaved. Why would anyone want people such as this to be saved? Who wouldn’t want their tormentors/murderers to be punished–or get their just deserts?
Thankfully, God is “not willing that any should perish”. (II Peter 3:9)
After Jonah is cast overboard into a raging sea, while running from God, he is swallowed up by a “great fish.” He is next recorded as praying to God on the third day and finally admitting that “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” (not to whom we wish it, or perhaps he is saying his life is in God’s hands) God then “speaks to the fish and it vomits him on to dry land”. Jonah then enters Ninevah and preaches saying Ninevah will be “destroyed in forty days.” Miraculously, the entire city believes and repents. God turns from destroying them and the city is saved. But the story does not end there. Perhaps no one is more surprised at Ninevah’s change of heart than Jonah. Jonah is not pleased. He tells God, “See, I knew that You wouldn’t do it! (That’s why I ran from You in the first place!) Basically, Jonah is saying that there was no need for him to go through all that discipline/discomfort to arrive at Ninevah. (Or perhaps he meant that he was punished-but they were not) God answers with His beautiful one sentence answers: “Do you do well to be angry?”
Jonah stalks away and goes outside the city to wait and watch and to see what will happen to it. Perhaps he is still hoping that God will change His mind. God causes a tall weed to grow and it shades Jonah’s head in the blistering heat. God sends a worm and it devours the weed overnight. The next day, Jonah almost faints from the scorching wind and heat and he is even angrier. He tells God that “he wants to die.” God answers him: “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” Jonah answers “Yes, I do well to be angry for the plant and it is better for me to die.” I can almost hear God sighing at this point as He says “You didn’t make the plant or work for it, yet you loved it. How much more can I love a city of 120,000 + people,who do not know right from wrong, and “much cattle?”‘And then the story ends.
Here are some thoughts from this story:
- Isn’t it ironic- and certainly would grab my attention- if I saw a giant fish (resembling a deity I worshiped) spit a man out onto dry land. I would be riveted to hear what he had to say.
- God loves even our enemies or even people we think “there’s no hope left for.” He has mercy on everyone who turns to Him.
- God had even more mercy for Jonah. Even after God rescues Jonah from the belly of a fish-and a slow, painful death-Jonah still shows as having a hardened heart. God teaches Jonah another lesson with just a weed. God could have thrown up His hands and said “Forget it-this man just doesn’t get it!” But He did not. He patiently showed Jonah again His mercy and compassion for us all. Are we not all like Jonah? Do we not privately think sometimes that “it’s too late for him?” Or, when our comfort level is threatened-we respond with anger that our Eden is not as comfortable as it should be?
We never know if Jonah’s heart changes. But thankfully, God’s heart never does.
“Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.”
Unfortunately, Ninevah’s repentance lasts about as long as Jonah’s relief to be free of the whale. Ninevah was completely destroyed around 612 B.C. and not much remains of this once feared city today. It’s ruins are in present day Iraq.
Further reading: Jonah 1-4; Matthew 12:41, Zephaniah 2:13-15; Isaiah 44:6-22