Religious and non-religious people alike have heard the story of “Jonah and the Fish.” But has this fairy tale fame distracted us from the deeper meaning and purpose of this powerful little book?”
Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city located in Upper Mesopotamia. Its archeological ruins are situated on the east bank of the Tigris River, opposite the modern-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq. Nineveh is counted among the oldest and greatest cities of antiquity. At one point in its long and often sordid history, it was briefly the largest municipality in the world. Founded by Nimrod, the Bible first mentions Nineveh in the Older Testament book of Genesis chapter 10, verse 11:
11 “From that land Nimrod went to Assyria, and built Nineveh, and Rehoboth-Ir, and Calah”. (Gen 10:11)
Nineveh would go on to prosper for thousands of years and eventually become the flourishing capital of the sprawling Assyrian empire (2 Kings 19:36). It was home to the likes of King Sennacherib who reigned during the time when Hezekiah was the King of Israel and the prophet Isaiah was alive on the earth. In fact, Sennacherib is credited with making Nineveh a truly splendid city complete with the famed “palace without a rival” (c. 700 BC).
Several books of the Bible’s Older Testament reference Nineveh including much of the writings of the Prophet Nahum and the books of Zephaniah and Jonah. But in spite of the splendor ascribed to this once great metropolis, the scriptures declare it to have been a wicked, extremely cruel and perverse city. Numerous prophecies predicted that the Almighty would ultimately see that it was laid to waste. And In time, it was. But not before the Ninevites were offered a window of opportunity to change their evil ways.
And that brings me to the Biblical book of Jonah; a diminutive Older Testament manuscript (just 48 verses) unique in that it focuses more on the life and times of the messenger (Jonah) than it does on the message he was to deliver. It is a fascinating story.
Thought to be one of the earliest Older Testament prophetic voices, Jonah was a Galilean from Gath-hepher in Zebulun. When the Divine Spirit of the Almighty came to Jonah and told him to go and warn the violent and decadent Ninevites of their impending doom, he rose up in stubborn disobedience.
You see, Jonah was a zealous Jewish nationalist. The Assyrians were the sworn enemies of Israel and he hated them. Jonah did not want Nineveh to repent; He wanted the Ninevites dead. To him, these Assyrians were a major threat to the national security of Israel and the worst kind of human trash. Offer them hope through repentance? Forget about it!
When God told Jonah to go and prophesy against Nineveh, Johana fled to Joppa and then hopped on a ship sailing for Tarshish (which was in the opposite direction of Nineveh). In essence, Jonah tried to escape his responsibility to obey God by attempting to run from his presence. Can anyone say futile? Think about it, how does one hide from a God who is all seeing and all knowing? I think the Psalmist put it best when he wrote:
7-12 “Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit, to be out of your sight? If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there! If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, you’d find me in a minute” you’re already there waiting! Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark! At night I’m immersed in the light!” It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.” (Psalm 139:7-12 MSG)
Nonetheless, Jonah set out to evade his Divine calling by hiding from the Divine being who had called him. Sometimes, I wonder how many of us are just like this wayward prophet – trying to escape our accountability to the Creator simply because we don’t like our assignment. Sure you can run – but you can’t hide. God still holds us answerable to Himself, regardless of how hard we try to ignore or deny Him.
At any rate, Jonah ends up on a ship, thinking he can now just calmly sail off into the sunset. Not gonna happen. The Spirit of God causes a great storm to batter and buffet the ship (1:4). Everyone on board now faced disaster. The crew tried throwing their cargo overboard to lighten the load. That didn’t work. Finally, being superstitious pagans, they decided to cast lots to see why they were at the mercy of this raging storm. Guess who got the short straw. Yup, the lot fell to Jonah.
When we run from God, His response is more likely to be stormy and upsetting than quiet and subtle. He knows how to make us miserable. And it makes those around us miserable as well.” – Tullian Tchividjian
So, the prophet comes clean. He had already told the captain and crew that he was hiding from his God (1:10). He said they would now have to toss him into the sea if they wanted to be saved. At first that seemed like a bad idea to the sailors – even pagans can have morals. Instead they tried in vain to navigate their ship to dry land. In the end, the seafarers reluctantly threw him overboard, but not before they shouted out to Jehovah (Jonah’s God) saying, “don’t hold us responsible for his death, for it is not our fault – you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons” (1:14).
Once Jonah was tossed into to the briny deep, Jehovah the Almighty calmed the stormy seas (1:15). The good ship and crew were now safe (and they quickly decided to follow Jonah’s God from now on). “Fine, fine, you say, but what about Jonah?” Calm yourself, I’m getting there.
To save Jonah from death by drowning, the Lord dispatched some form of monster fish to swallow the rebel (1:17). I know what you’re thinking, “monster fish…really?” Look, we are dealing with the Creator of all things here; do you truly think he would have a hard time doing this?
Anyway, for the next three days and nights, Jonah endured an unscheduled adventure in a very large sea creature’s gut. It was during this ordeal that our defiant rebel had the Older Testament equivalent of a “come to Jesus moment”. He changed his mind (repentance) and asked the almighty, all powerful creator of all things for help (he prayed). God caused the sea creature to swim toward land and there it puked Jonah out onto dry ground somewhere along the shores of ancient Palestine (2:10). I guess even giant sea creatures can’t stomach disobedient prophets. (Teehee)
What happened next is truly remarkable. The now regurgitated Jonah is told by the Almighty once again: “Go to that great city, Nineveh…, and warn them of their doom, as I told you to once before!” (3:2 TLB).
Hmmm…, seems the assignment wasn’t going to change. This time however, Jonah obeyed Jehovah and went to Nineveh. As a result of his warnings, the whole population fasted and sincerely repented. God spared the city as an act of His mercy toward the ignorant and non-discerning people who lived there, and life, as they say, went on. But Nineveh’s day of reckoning was merely deferred for a season. Eventually, their wickedness returned and in the end judgement befell the Assyrians.
Listen to these words from the ancient prophet Jeremiah:
7 Whenever I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be taken up and destroyed, 8 then if that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. 9 And if I announce that I will make a certain nation strong and great, 10 but then that nation changes its mind, turns to evil, and refuses to obey me, then I, too, will change my mind and not bless that nation as I had said I would.” (Jeremiah 18:7-10 TLB)
At this our most desperate hour of wickedness here on spaceship earth, let that also be a warning to the Nations of the world.
A Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble.” – C.S. Lewis
There’s more to our tale of course. Jonah was not pleased at all with Nineveh’s turnaround. He told the great Jehovah,
2 “O Lord, is this not what I said you would do while still in my own country? That is why I ran away to Tarshish. I knew that you are a kind and loving God Who shows pity. I knew that you are slow to anger and are filled with loving-kindness, always ready to change your mind and not punish. 3 So now, O Lord, take my life from me. For death is better to me than life.” (Jonah 4:2-4 NLV)
Poor Jonah, the proud, stubborn, disobedient, unfaithful, grumbling prophet with a bad temper, was now also a very unhappy camper. You know something, if the Almighty is willing to work with this guy – there is hope for all of us.
How did God answer Jonah? He questioned his anger. Read the end of the book and you will discover how Jehovah used a simple object lesson with a giant gourd and a parasitic worm to make a very cogent point:
11 “… should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons not [yet old enough to] know their right hand from their left, and also many cattle [not accountable for sin]?” (Jonah 4:11)
Our Creator is merciful. He wishes no one to perish – especially the innocent. When Jehovah beheld the Ninevites at that point in human history, He saw 120,000 people in utter spiritual darkness (“children who don’t know their right hands from their left.”) His compassionate understanding of the human condition provided them an opportunity to repent and abandon their wickedness.
Jonah’s story is also filled with object lessons for you and me. To begin with, our modern world is filled with Ninevites. This is not the time for people of faith to sport condescending attitudes of superiority toward the spiritually ignorant or immature – grow up – you’re the only Jesus some will ever see.
Perhaps the most import takeaway today is this: trying to hide from our Creator doesn’t discharge us from obedience to His will. If we are called and chosen by the Almighty; we will be pursued by His Divine Spirit. You can refuse Him outright, chase your own self-interests and agendas, and even fill your life with abundant distractions – but you cannot silence His call. God will relentlessly dog your trail. He will disrupt your diversions and frustrate your selfish plans until He has your attention. It seems to me that it would be most prudent to obey Him promptly rather than squander precious time and talent by running away from your destiny.
On the other hand, you can continue to be like Jonah. Maybe life as fish bait isn’t that bad. But, I think not.
Master of this universe; Creator of all that we see, please help keep us from the shallow spirituality and personal pride that can so easily lead us astray. Help us to listen to the voice of your Spirit and the redemptive call of our Liberator Jesus. Help us learn what it really means to surrender to you and say, “not my will, but Yours be done.” Amen
Joseph A. Cerreta, PhD., is a noted author, broadcaster, a popular Bible teacher and a rabbid Coastal Junkie ®
For additional information write to: Coastal Life Ministries, P.O. Box 1283, New Port Richey, Florida 34656