Doom and Deliverance Jonah 3
An old Jewish story goes like this:
Men asked Wisdom: “What is the doom of the sinner?” It answered: “Evil pursues sinners.” (Prov. 13:21) They asked Prophecy the same question, and it answered: “The soul that sins shall die.” (Ezek. 18:4) They asked the Law, and it answered: “Let him bring a trespass-offering, and it shall be forgiven him,” as it is said: “And it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” (Lev. 1:4) They asked God, and He answered: “Let him repent, and it shall be forgiven him.” This is the meaning of the text: “Good and righteous is the Lord; therefore will He instruct sinners in the way.” (Ps. 25:8)1
The third chapter of the book of Jonah is an historic demonstration designed to teach, in practical form, Psalm 25:8: “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore will he teach sinners in the way.”
The Mission Field ‘Evil pursues sinners’
“Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee” (Jon. 3:2). Nineveh was founded by Nimrod on the eastern banks of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia (Gen. 10:8–10). It was the Assyrian capital when that empire was at its height. Excavation in the mid-nineteenth century produced significant finds. Many clay tablets; prisms; and steles of huge, embellished bas-reliefs on the palace walls revealed that Nineveh was “an exceedingly great city” (3:3) before it was destroyed in 612 B.C.
The city was so impressive that one author described it this way:
Dotted with majestic palaces, temples, canals, and gardens, its walls rose 200 feet above the West Asian plain. Fortified by 1,500 watchtowers, the walls were so thick, it was said, that three chariots easily drove abreast upon them. Like the kernel of a nut protected by outer husks, Nineveh was defended by five walls and three moats. Each of the city’s fifteen gates was guarded by castellated ramparts. And within its perimeter were more than thirty temples, “each shining with silver and gold.”2
Yet, as grand as it was, the city had an extremely dark side:
Nineveh was a wicked city, its rulers coarse, lustful, and sadistic. Young women, including the wives of Assyrian nobles, danced naked before royal guests; human sacrifice was practiced; the emperor was unimpeachable, his word, law; the palaces were guarded by eunuchs, young men stripped of their virility; temple prostitutes, so designated, practiced their trade openly before idols, half-man, half-beast. Among the gods, Ashur (from which the Greeks derived the word “Assyria”) was first, above all. Justifiably, perhaps, the Assyrian kings bragged that they had built Nineveh “for all times” and “for lordly pleasure.”3
Nineveh was bad. God demonstrated His goodness by sending a prophet to warn the Ninevites of impending judgment. It would seem strange for God to send an unworthy prophet like Jonah, but Jonah’s severe discipline had prepared him for the task. When God commanded him a second time to go and preach to the city, Jonah obeyed (vv. 1–3). Such is the great God who can restore and transform spiritually weak, clay vessels into vessels of honor for His glory. And He still does so today by commissioning and sending out workmen around the world to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Message ‘The soul that sins shall die’
“And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). Jonah not only denounced the city’s wickedness but announced its doom. It was a simple cry, convincing in its explicitness.
Sin indeed solicits judgment. Human beings, by virtue of their sin natures, are theologically repulsive in God’s eyes and are under judgment: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13; cf. Isa. 1:4, 11–15). The world stands condemned, for God is holy. The fact that God sent a messenger to the Assyrians instead of destroying them without warning gave them a gleam of hope. The Ninevites repented and were spared.
When the Law was asked, according to Jewish tradition, “What is the doom of the sinner?” it answered, ‘“Let him bring a trespass-offering, and it shall be forgiven him,’ as it is said: ‘And it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him’ (Lev. 1:4).” The Old Testament’s sacrificial system was God’s temporary provision for dealing with the sin problem. Sin requires the shedding of blood (Lev. 17:11). Yet Jonah’s message of doom accompanied the message that the people could turn from their sins and live.
The penalty of sin is spiritual death in this life and the next (Eph. 2:1–3; Rev. 20:11–15). Today a message of doom still cries out to a sinful world: “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine; the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). But the Good News is that God has provided a remedy through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Mourning ‘Let him repent, and it shall be forgiven him’
The Ninevites were shaken by Jonah’s message. The national emergency was so urgent that people “from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (v. 5) repented. Their faith was an action of the heart. Then followed their outward sign of inward mourning—the wearing of sackcloth and ashes.
Jonah himself was God’s sign to the people of Nineveh (Lk. 11:30–32). The Ninevites possibly heard about Jonah’s experience, how he was literally entombed in the belly of a great fish and presumed dead—then emerged alive. To someone in the Assyrian culture, Jonah would have been a walking miracle.
It is also conceivable the Ninevites associated Jonah’s experience with their belief in a water god called Enki and a strange, leviathan god called Kur. However, they quickly turned from these false gods to the true God whom Jonah preached. Scripture says the Ninevites “turned from their evil way (v. 10).” The word turned is the word shoovin Hebrew. It is a verb that expresses a total reversal of formally held religious notions, including a repudiation of all sin.
It is amazing that these people went beyond contrition and sorrow to a conscious decision to believe Jehovah, followed by outward mourning. If their prayers had been faint, they would not have reached beyond the clouds. But because the king himself urged his people to “cry mightily unto God,” their penitent prayers prevailed (v. 8). Their repentance averted judgment. “Great is Repentance!” say the Talmudic rabbis, “for it reaches the Throne of Glory and brings about redemption” (Talmud Yoma 86b).
The Mercy of God ‘Good and righteous is the Lord’
Jonah was living proof of two important doctrines: Judgment is certain, but God can be merciful. Jonah was swallowed by a fish because he disobeyed God. But God spared Jonah because he repented. Perhaps the Ninevites thought, Did He not deliver His servant after he repented? Maybe if we repent, God might be merciful to turn away His judgment and spare us from doom also (cf. 3:9). They were not disappointed (v. 10).
The Assyrian gods were not noted for mercy. Rather, they were viewed as strict and unflinching dispensers of punishment for even minor infractions. The Ninevites must have known that Jonah suffered much and was delivered—delivered, in fact, in order to go to their city and warn them. This realization must have encouraged them to petition for God’s compassion. By their remarkable act of faith in the mere possibility of a pardon, the Ninevites received mercy. They learned firsthand that the God of Jonah was merciful and gracious, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth—a God who keeps mercy for thousands and forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin (cf. Ex. 34:6–7).
One of the most popular religious refrains in the Old Testament is “for his mercy endureth forever” (cf. Ps. 136). The ancient scholars were accustomed to referring to God as rachmana, which meant “the merciful.” In seeking to understand the spiritual balance between God’s justice and mercy, the Jewish sages decided that God always remembers mercy and compassion (Talmud Pesach 87b). The same hope and confidence that God will grant pardon and peace to all who truly seek them are the best incentives to trust Christ.
Jonah’s unfortunate experience in running from the Lord had a positive effect. It sent a strong message that God means what He says. The Ninevites were doomed. The appearance that God changes is only a human perspective (v. 10). God never changes (Ps. 102:24–27; Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17). For example, the sun can melt wax while simultaneously hardening clay. But the sun does not change. The change is in the object it shines on. That God can regard an individual or nation as reprehensible and then love that person or nation is consistent with His absolute, moral immutability. Only with the God of the Bible can this situation be true. The Ninevites responded to the light shown them; and, as a result, God showed mercy and forgave their sins.
Judgment for the Assyrians was turned aside about a hundred years. God’s forgiveness was a testimony to all nations and individuals. From that moment and for all eternity, the Ninevites’ remorsefulness condemned to judgment all who had the privilege to believe but did not.
Jonah chapter 3 shows how God teaches sinners about true repentance. First, we must realize that everyone has a sin nature. Second, God’s judgment is imminent for all. Third, now is the time to change your mind (repent) about God and His salvation. Finally, it is possible to know, experientially, that God is truly merciful.
During the modern-day observance of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the book of Jonah is read in the afternoon to inspire the nation of Israel to repent, as the people of Nineveh did. The ancient rabbis taught, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged by grace” (Mishnah Aboth III.16).
One of the highest tributes to the Ninevites of this period was that, hundreds of years later, Jesus Christ cited their faith and repentance as a testimony to His generation, which was under condemnation for failing to repent and accept Him (Mt. 12:41).
As God was gracious to the Ninevites, so is He still gracious today to all who truly repent and come to Him by faith: “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
- Buber (ed.), Pesikta, Lyck, 1868; cited in The Talmudic Anthology, Louis J. Newman (ed.), Behrman House, Inc., New York, 1947, p. 379.
- Arnold C. Brackman, The Luck of Nineveh, McGrawHill Book Company, New York, 1978, p. 2.
- Ibid., pp. 3–4.