The Book of Jonah – A Most Unexpected Deliverance (part 3)

If you’re anything like me, you have one primary question on your mind at the end of Jonah 3. Where is the justice? How can God relent His punishment? Like we already said, no amount of personal suffering can undo all the evil Nineveh has done; their enemies are still dead, raped, and homeless. How can all of that go unpunished? It can’t. And it doesn’t.

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Jonah Preaches to Ninevites by Gustave Doré, 1866. From bibleodyssey.org

This is part three in a four-part series on the spectacular book of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the general narrative, but it’s easy to assume we know the whole story because we heard it in Sunday school as young children. Truth be told, this is no little kid’s fable. Jonah teaches us about defying God, resenting His calling, hating His people, and yet still receiving His mercy. Jonah is a man of extremes. His radical emotions and knee-jerk responses startle me awake to realize the absurd extremity in myself: my own running from God, my own resistance to His will for my life, and how much greater God’s love for me is than my own shortcomings. 

These posts are based off of Bible study lessons. They’re meant to be worked through with a Bible, a notebook, and a few friends. You’re more than welcome to read through these on your own, but I encourage you to invite a friend to work through each post with you. Ask each other the questions I pose, share your thoughts and feelings and questions with one another. These posts are long, so don’t feel pressured to work through a whole part in one sitting. And of course, I’d love for you to leave your own thoughts, insights, and questions in the comments below! 

Recap

Last lesson we were in Jonah 2. If you worked through our last lesson, what was the passage about? Be careful how you answer this…(hint, its not the fish). Jonah 2 is about God’s mercy. This whole book is all about God’s mercy. Jonah was as good as dead, he was accepting the death he deserved, and even in that accepted fate, he prayed “Nevertheless I will look again to Your holy temple” (Jonah 2:4). That’s when God delivered him. 

We also looked into what it means to run from God. We looked to 1 Thessalonians 5 as a sample of the things God calls us to do. What Paul lists isn’t so much specific things like “Pick that major” or “Take that job” or “Date that person.” Rather, God’s will consists of admonishing the unruly, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, being patient with people, not repaying evil with evil, always seeking after others’ wellbeing, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in everything. Our main takeaway was that God’s will is God’s Law. The things listed in Exodus and Deuteronomy; everything Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 and everywhere else in the gospels; the things Paul exhorts us to do in Ephesians 5, Galatians 5, Romans 12-15, etc.; it culminates in a perfect harmony between you, God, and everything He’s created. 

It’s all summarized in this: Love God and love people. In real, tangible, practical, uncomfortable, messy ways. When framed like this, we realized that we’ve all run from God exactly like Jonah…okay, not exactly like him in the sense that we’ve never taken a boat to Spain to avoid our God-given responsibility. But we’re exactly the same in that we too have run from the face of God; we were called to rise and go and we’ve descended as deep as the roots of the mountains. We concluded with this: If you are in Christ, if you are a Christian, no matter how far you’ve run and how deep you’ve descended, God can and will deliver you. He has appointed a “fish” for you—an unexpected deliverance—in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I asked you and a friend to write your own Jonah prayers, either from a place of turning from your running or persisting in it.  I asked you and a friend to write your own Jonah prayers, either from a place of turning from your running or persisting in it. If you haven’t had an opportunity to share that prayer with another person, go ahead and do that now if you’d like to. Again, your prayer is between you and God. You don’t have to share with anyone, but it could be a great way to grow in vulnerability and bless others. 

Introduction

Today, we’re diving into Jonah 3. We’re going to see a whole bunch of parallels with what we’ve read so far, especially with Jonah 1, so if you haven’t worked through the first two parts of this series, it’d behoove you to check those out first. If you have gone through Jonah 1 and 2, keep a lookout for similarities. Remember some of the significant language we’ve seen in the book so far, too. Jonah is written in this style so we can compare and contrast him with Nineveh. 

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” (Jonah 3:1-2, NASB) 

Just like Jonah 1:1-2, we see a command “Arise, go to Nineveh.” What do we expect the response to be? Take a minute to think and discuss with your friends. That might not be such an easy question to answer. On the one hand, Jonah is a prophet of the Lord. When prophets are told to go and speak, they leave without hesitation to fulfill the Lord’s command. On the other hand, Jonah is also Jonah. The first time Jonah was called to rise and go, he ended up in a fish. He seems to have undergone a profound change inside that fish, but will it last? 

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. (Jonah 3:3)

Jonah arises! He does it! This isn’t just character development; Jonah has a changed heart. Is the message Jonah has to carry any different than before? No. The wording varies slightly, but the content is the exact same. Is Assyria any less evil, hostile, and likely to kill him? Not at all. Let’s revisit this question from Jonah 1: what was the source of Jonah’s dread? It was God, not any of these other things. Jonah ran because he didn’t trust God, and not trusting God leads to not obeying God. The inverse of this should sound familiar. Check out John 14:15. 

This whole bit about “an exceedingly great city, a three day’s walk” simply means that Nineveh is massive. This is a figure of speech; it wouldn’t literally take three full days of travel to walk from one end of the city to another, but it was no small village, either. Historically, this is true; Nineveh was one of the biggest cities in all of pre-Roman ancient history. According to some sources, Nineveh was the largest city in the world at the end of the Neo-Assyrian empire (ca. 670 BC).1 Its walls are still standing today just outside of Mosul in northern Iraq.2 

Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) 

And now, the long-dreaded proclamation comes. This was what Jonah was so terrified of saying! What’s your initial reaction to this? What is your impression of this prophesy? To be honest, I found it to be a little…underwhelming. Calling this prophesy short is an understatement. Jonah is a fairly short book in the Old Testament with only four chapters. The shortest book is Obadiah, with only one chapter. Yet, of Obadiah’s 21 verses, every single one of them records the Lord’s prophetic message. Jonah’s prophetic message takes up only half a verse—literally only five words in Hebrew. It’s possible that Jonah actually said a lot more than just “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” but since nothing more is given, we have no reason to believe anything else was spoken. 

What else do you think about this prophecy? I have two more observations. For as short as it is, It’s not pleasant. This isn’t just the sacking of the Assyrian capital by raiding barbarians from the east. The “overturning” of Nineveh would mean the death and enslavement of its inhabitants and the end of the Assyrian empire. However, it’s also not immediate. Jonah isn’t summoning fire from heaven himself as he speaks. He’s given them a countdown. Here’s a parallel we can draw from Jonah 1: in Jonah 1:4, God hurls a storm at Jonah for his disobedience; in 3:4, God is hurling destruction at Nineveh. Judgement has come. 

I want us to stop and reflect for a minute before we move on. What was Jonah’s reaction to judgement in Jonah 1? When faced with the storm from God, what did Jonah do? First, he slept through the storm. Jonah ignored God’s judgement. He pretended it didn’t exist. Next, he was silent. The mariners woke him and told him to call to his God. They’re forced to cast lots to discover who’s brought this calamity upon them because Jonah won’t admit the truth. Even when he was grilled with questions as the ship sinks, he gave half truths. He never answered what is occupation was. Jonah denied, avoided, let others deal with God’s judgement. Finally, he remains passive. When the mariners ask how the storm might be relented, Jonah replied “Throw me in.” Jonah chose to die in his rebellion—he accepted punishment but remained abstinent. Jonah chose death over surrender. 

Nineveh’s Repentance 

Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands.” (Jonah 3:5-8)

…What? Nineveh believed in God? Assyrians repented!? That makes absolutely no sense! Jonah must have gone to the wrong Nineveh! There’s no way Assyria would react like this, right? The Assyrians are evil. They know they are evil. And they are proud of how evil they are. I gave a few examples of this when we were learning about the context of Jonah, but let me give one more radical example. What is the most evil crime you can think of? Murder? Rape? It’s usually one of those two. Maybe slavery—that’s up there, too. 

Assyrian king Ashurbanipal conquered the kingdom of Elam in a nine-year-long war campaign. In 648 BC, Elam’s capital city Susa was razed. After slaughtering and enslaving the Elamites, Ashurbanipal ordered his soldier to retrieve the decapitated head of the enemy king. He took it and the queen of Elam back to his palace in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal hung the Elamite king’s head on a pike in his bedroom so the queen could look into her dead husband’s face as Ashurbanipal raped her. We know this happened because there’s artwork of it cut into stone reliefs in the ruins of Nineveh found in the royal palace.3 It wasn’t enough to commit war-crimes. It wasn’t enough to abandon all sense of humanity in how cruel he could treat his enemies. He, and all of Assyria, deemed these unspeakably evil acts great enough to commemorate in artwork that would last thousands of years. Evil was Assyria’s culture. 

This will happen 100 years after the time of Jonah, but it’s the same empire with the same policies and the same worldview that Jonah found himself preaching to.4 When Jonah comes to Nineveh and tells Assyrians they’re wicked, there’s no debate. There’s no making excuses—no one tried to retort Jonah with saying “Oh we’re not that bad.” There’s no ignoring the judgement. No one speculates what Jonah “really” means when he says “overturned.” They know what they’ve done and they know they deserve to be destroyed. 

What is Nineveh’s response? Immediate, genuine, unanimous repentance. I don’t know how well this kind of repentance translates to a modern audience, so let’s draw out what this means. Sackcloths were basically what they sound like—makeshift clothes made from sacks. Think a potato sack made out of coarse hair. Ashes represented the destruction the wearer was destined to imminently face. Esther 4 gives us imagery and context for what we mean when we talk about sackcloth and ashes. Mordecai and Jews across Persia will wear sackcloth and ashes when they hear that the Persian king’s highest official has been given permission to exterminate the Jewish people, as if Hitler had won world war II. That is how dire the circumstances are for sackcloth and ashes: total, inevitable annihilation. 

Nineveh subjects this to itself voluntarily and unilaterally.  Even the king participates in this. The haughty, powerful king of Nineveh who’d rape and murder without hesitation now admits his wickedness and humbles himself before God, demanding his people do the same. He knows exactly why this judgement has come and demands that he and his people “turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands” (Jonah 3:8). Again, it takes five words for the entire city to be undone. They are accepting death: my pastor says this: “Nineveh sits in ashes waiting to become ashes, they adorn sackcloths because that’s how black their hearts are.”5

Does any of this sound familiar? Can you find what this parallels with? Look to Jonah 2:2-4a, 5-6a. Nineveh’s confession is Jonah’s confession. These wicked pagans exemplify the same kind of humble repentance as God’s own prophet. If this isn’t insane enough, consider this: Israel hasn’t shown this kind of repentance or belief or faith in 150 years.6

Repentance versus Penance 

What we see in Nineveh is repentance, not penance—a critical distinction. The Assyrians here are not trying to suffer enough to earn God’s mercy. That’s what penance is: a human effort to save yourself by your own suffering. At its most extreme, penance looks like whipping and cutting oneself; the monks who beat their heads with wooden planks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” are based on a real practice called self-flagellation. For most of us, penance looks like making sure we feel miserable enough before we come crawling back to God. We have to make sure we really feel terrible when we confess our sins. Whether cutting or guilt-tripping oneself, penance is always the same at its core: self-focused and emotion-focused. The underlying belief is that by setting some arbitrary level of personal misery and forcing ourselves to reach it, we can curb God’s wrath against us for sinning. 

Do you see how utterly ridiculous that is? Penance is altogether unfounded, foolish, and evil. The first fundamental flaw in penance is that it assumes one can do anything to quench the wrath of God against sin. Paul refutes this in a single sentence: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Justice demands that the punishment fit the crime. Anything short of death for sin is unjust. Penance underestimates how wicked sin is. 

God created this world (and humanity) as perfect. His plan for your life and purpose was nothing but good. His promise for you was full, abundant life and fellowship with Him forever. All He could ever desire for you is the best possible good for your life. Remember, God’s will and Law culminate in a perfect harmony between you, God, and the rest of creation. To want or to do anything outside of God’s will is to derail perfection and ruin God’s perfect world. That’s what sin is. Any deviation from the will of God is a departure from what is good and right. Sin is like a cancer; it’s a corruption of what was good, it destroys and kills, and the only treatment for it is to kill the cancer. Death is not only justified for ruining God’s perfect order, death is necessary to restore order.

As fallen creatures, there is nothing in us that could possibly recommend us to God.7 Left to ourselves we are unable and unwilling to justify ourselves before God. No amount of self-inflicted suffering could ever undo the treason a sinner has committed against the Lord. Nothing short of death will suffice. 

Repentance is categorically different. Suffering is an essential part of repentance, but it’s not the whole. True repentance is a total surrender to a sovereign Lord. There are at least three key descriptions of holy repentance. First, repentance is deep-seated. No fake feelings, no facade, and no acting are present. A repentant person is fully aware of how evil they are and is deeply troubled by their rebellion against God. Second, repentance is specific. It’s not just a general sense of “Oh, well I haven’t loved people and I don’t always put God first.” One can cite clear examples of ways one has defied God’s law. Third, genuine repentance is regular. It’s not a one-time confession, a quick and easy journal entry. One must feel persistent conviction of sin. 

All these qualities are exemplified in Nineveh’s repentance. Nineveh doesn’t feel bad as an attempt to prevent coming judgement, they feel bad because judgement is coming and they can do nothing about it. It’s an acceptance that destruction is what they’ve earned. 

God’s Mercy

Repentance is miserable, but it’s a misery that leads to life.

“Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:9)

Where have we seen this before? In Jonah 1:6, the mariners throw everything off the ship, eventually tossing Jonah in the water. Remember what we observed in our first lesson: begging God for mercy wasn’t guaranteed to work; if anything, it was a long shot but was the only chance they had. Nothing else they could have possibly done mattered. No amount of feeling bad or cleaning up their act or promising to do better could stop the storm. Only God could save them.

What do we expect to happen? Think about it for a second and ask your friends. I hope you feel the same tension you felt moving from Jonah 3:1-2 to verse 3. On the one hand, God said He’d destroy them, so….Sodom 2.0? Notice in Jonah’s five-word declaration that there’s no mention of God possibly relenting. God will destroy them in forty days. They’re on the clock. Think of the dread all of Nineveh feels as they sit in dust and ashes wearing sackcloth waiting to die. On the other hand, we saw the mariners spared from the storm in Jonah 1 and in Jonah 2 we saw Jonah saved from certain death. So what’s next?

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)

God relents. Why? Why would God do this? Their deeds didn’t earn them deliverance; it was to late to earn anything but wrath. Turning from their wickedness is visible evidence of a changed heart. Again, remember John 14:15. “If you love Me, you will keep My commands.”  

If you’re anything like me, you have one primary question on your mind at the end of Jonah 3. Where is the justice? How can God relent His punishment? Like we already said, no amount of personal suffering can undo all the evil Nineveh has done; their enemies are still dead, raped, and homeless. How can all of that go unpunished? It can’t. And it doesn’t. Remember last week how God appointed Jonah a fish? A most unexpected delivery? What was the closing line of Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2? “Salvation is from the LORD” (emphasis mine). Justice for Nineveh’s evil was paid for in full on the cross at Jesus’ death. Nineveh’s wickedness is so great it reaches heaven, but Christ’s death is so powerful it covers even that. 

Friends, when we look at sin in our own lives, we tend to have either one of two reactions. One reaction is “I am not that bad, I don’t need Christ’s death.” If this is your reaction, you underestimate the evil of your own sin. Your sin is so great that God deemed it necessary for He Himself to die to pay it. Like we said, sin is a defiance of God’s law—and what is God’s law but perfect, glorious harmony between you, God, and everything in all of existence? By breaking God’s law, you break the entire order of harmony between God, you, and everything else; no sin is “no big deal.” 

The other reaction is “I am so wretched, God could never forgive me.” If this is your reaction, you underestimate the mercy and power of Jesus Christ. Christ did not die for nothing; from the moment sin entered the world, God promised that His death would make all things right.8 The damage you have done to God’s intended perfect harmony is being undone; Jesus has already declared “I am making all things new.” Yes, you deserve destruction. Christ offers to put Himself in your place. Don’t think that your evil is greater than the Assyrian Empire’s. Be humble, be reasonable, run to Christ. 

Application

Take some time this week to read 2 Samuel 11-12, and Psalm 51. Answer these questions and discuss them with your friends. 

  • How is David’s repentance deep-seated? How is it specific? How is it regular?
  • Repentance leads to gratitude and a new beginning. Do you see that in Psalm 51? If so, where?
  • When have you repented like Nineveh? If you’ve never, I implore you. Start now. If you have, remember that repentance is regular. Do not neglect it. 

I also have a challenge for you. Write a Jonah prayer of repentance every single day for a week. Don’t rewrite the same prayer seven times, write a new prayer with new confessions and new assurances every day. I assume these will be shorter and won’t take as long as your Jonah prayer from last week; take your time, be honest and genuine. I promise you, your faith with not be the same. You will not be the same. 

* * * 

1 https://www.thoughtco.com/largest-cities-throughout-history-4068071 

Nineveh’s walls and gates were still standing as recently as 2016, until ISIS destroyed what was left of the ancient city. Hardly anything is left standing; most of the walls and all of the gates have been dynamited and bulldozed. Steles and statues have been jackhammered to dust. ISIS has a long and continuing history of destroying any remains of ancient “pagan and infidel” civilizations in what was once the cradle of civilization. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160419-Islamic-State-ISIS-ISIL-Nineveh-gates-Iraq-Mosul-destroyed/ 

https://smarthistory.org/assyria-vs-elam-the-battle-of-til-tuba/ Also check out Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast. He has a three part special on the rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire titled “King of Kings.” Part one details the rise and collapse of the Neo-Assyrian empire. 

Yes, the Assyrians return to their former wickedness within a century. Does this mean that their repentance was faux? Absolutely not. That generation of Assyrians living in Nineveh had a genuine conversion. They are still counted among God’s elect (see Luke:29-32). Jonah comes to Nineveh during a low-point in Neo-Assyrian history known as the “period of stagnation” with little expansion, weak leadership, internal unrest, and constant rebellion of conquered people. This also explains why the book of Jonah refers to Nineveh exclusively and not the whole of Assyria. We’re also told that the “King of Nineveh” repents, which helps support the idea that Assyrian kings were weaker and less influential at the time of Jonah. When Tiglath-Pileser III came to power in 745 BC and restored Assyria to a stable expanding empire, the repentant generation in Nineveh was either dead or unable to change the ways of the empire at large. Nahum will bring a final prophecy regarding Nineveh’s destruction, which God will not relent (see Nahum 2-3) See this description of the collapse of Assyria from “Ancient History Encyclopedia”: 

“In 612 BCE Nineveh was sacked and burned by a coalition of Babylonians, Persians, Medes, and Scythians, among others (as was Ashur and the other cities of the Assyrians). The destruction of the palace brought the flaming walls down on the library of Ashurbanipal and, although it was far from the intention, preserved the great library, and the history of the Assyrians, by baking hard and burying the clay tablet books. Kriwaczek writes, “Thus did Assyria’s enemies ultimately fail to achieve their aim when they razed Ashur and Nineveh in 612 BCE, only fifteen years after Ashurbanipal’s death: the wiping out of Assyria’s place in history” (255). Still, the destruction of the great Assyrian cities was so complete that, within two generations of the empire’s fall, no one knew where the cities had been. The ruins of Nineveh were covered by the sands and lay buried for the next 2,000 years.” (https://www.ancient.eu/Neo-Assyrian_Empire/) 

5 http://www.bygrace.cc/wp/resources/sermons?sermon_id=536  

6 My pastor makes this claim in his sermon (note 5 above). Jonah comes in the time of Jeroboam II (roughly 825-773 BC). Up to that point, Israel’s kings had been described almost universally as evil. Jehu was the only exception; in some ways, he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but he continued golden calf worship in Israel. Though he obeyed God in eliminating all remnants of Ahab’s heirs, he maintained cultic worship of golden calves. No king of the northern ten tribes had shown repentance since the United Kingdom. See http://www.vtaide.com/gleanings/Kings-of-Israel/judgment_Jehu.html for a more in-depth look at the kings of the divided kingdom. 

7 Consider this quote from George Whitefield’s sermon The Method of Grace: “before you can speak peace to your heart, you must be brought to see that God may damn you for the best prayer you ever put up; you must be brought to see that all your duties _ all your righteousness _ as the prophet elegantly expresses it _ put them all together, are so far from recommending you to God, are so far from being any motive and inducement to God to have mercy on your poor soul, that he will see them to be filthy rags, a menstruous cloth _ that God hates them, and cannot away with them, if you bring them to him in order to recommend you to his favor. My dear friends, what is there in our performances to recommend us unto God? Our persons are in an unjustified state by nature, we deserve to be damned ten thousand times over; and what must our performances be? We can do no good thing by nature: `They that are in the flesh cannot please God.’ You may do many things materially good, but you cannot do a thing formally and rightly good; because nature cannot act above itself. It is impossible that a man who is unconverted can act for the glory of God; he cannot do anything in faith, and `whatsoever is not of faith is sin.’” (http://www.biblebb.com/files/whitefield/gw058.htm) 

8 See Genesis 3:15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” The “Seed” is Christ. He will come to bring judgement against sin and the serpent, dying in the process. The revelation of Christ coming to die develops throughout the Old Testament, becoming clearer and clearer until Jesus Himself is born in a manger. 

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