As a child, every Sunday I sat in Sunday school absorbing the lessons of the Bible with practiced regularity. Each story was a duplicate of the previous year, with the same characters, the same circumstances and the same messages. I could repeat the stories back to the teacher verbatim and anticipate nearly every question.
Case in point was the story of Jonah: God gives Jonah a message to deliver. Jonah runs from his commitment. Running away doesn’t mean you get away from your problems. No matter how badly they feel about it, the people around you will throw you into the sea. There are some really big fish in the sea. You can beg and plead but fish vomit is nasty. God tells you to do something, you better do it!
And the lesson? If God wants you to do something, you’d best ‘get on board’ with the idea. Easy! What are we doing next week?
The story of Jonah is probably the most maligned of the Bible stories. Many doubt the existence of a fish big enough to swallow a man and allow him to live, however, poorly swimming in sea water and digesting fish, for three days. As it is not something that happens every day, and as even the National Enquirer hasn’t covered a similar story, the inclination is to say “that didn’t happen!”
Oh, how I missed the point of it all!
Jonah is unusual as compared to all of the other prophets of the Old Testament as it is not a record of prophecies, but the events in the life of the prophet. Little attention is given to what he actually said. And while the Lord sent most of the prophets to Israel and Judah, Jonah’s task was to go to Nineveh and prophesy to the Assyrians.
The Lord commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, tell them of their sinfulness and call them to repentance. One might consider the events unique in the Old Testament as Jonah is commanded go to a nation outside of Israel. God’s Covenant with Abraham mentioned that through Abraham’s descendants God would bless the nations, but no Israelite is ever commanded to go to other nations and tell them about the Lord. The People of Israel were intended to promote their beliefs as passive witnesses. Others would recognize the difference between their society and Israel’s and be attracted to it.
Historians record that the Assyrian Empire existed in its many forms from 2400 BCE evolving from the Akkadian kingdom in the mountains of northeastern Iraq. Reported to be a tough and ruthless people, civil laws record harsh punishments such as beatings, mutilation, and death. More severe offenses allowed prosecutors to torture the accused during the trial to insure ‘truthful’ answers.
All free male citizens were obligated to service in the military. The Assyrians are celebrated as one of the first nations to support a standing combined arms army. Many of the rudiments of siege warfare are traced back to Assyrian Army doctrine as well as the use of supply trains and technological improvements in equipment
The barbarousness of the society was punctuated by the reputation of the army. Masters of Psychological warfare, captured enemies were burned alive before a city for all the populous to see or blinded so they could wander ahead of the army instilling fear in the invaded. Those who resisted could be promised horrible death, slavery or conscription in the army.
3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah(A) a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
It is clear from the Book of Jonah that the prophet hated the Assyrians with great passion. And if the Lord was to visit punishment on the Assyrians, Jonah thought, why should I stand in the way?
Despite Jonah’s refusal and his avoidance of his assignment, the Lord in his grace repeats his command to go to Nineveh following his experience with the great fish. This time Jonah obeys the Lord and delivers his message to the king of the most ruthless conquerors of the known world. The message is a simple one – “In forty days Ninevah will be destroyed!” Jonah didn’t try to put it nicely. There wasn’t any attempt at persuasion. I can imagine Jonah expecting to leave the city and console himself with something like, “Well, I told them. It’s their own fault now when God destroys them.”
5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil way and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
What does this 2,800 year old story mean for believers today? We know that through our Lord ‘all things are possible’. In our country where the news each day centers on depressingly high debt, terrorism at home and abroad and potential violations of our basic rights as citizens, we have cause for hope.
Jonah is not the tale of a big fish. It is the tale of one man, backed by God, who brought a message of repentance to the greatest nation of the time and they listened. In the coming year as you think of what needs to be changed in our country and the priorities we need to set, remember, that it takes only one, backed by God, to change the course of a nation.