"When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He had compassion . . ." (Jonah 3:10a)
Read Jonah 3:5-10.
"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." Jonah spoke 8 graceless words to the people of Nineveh. What would you think if some foreigner came into your city and spoke those words in the city's downtown area? If you're anything like me, I would be hard pressed to think the person speaking to be anything but a nut. But, before you develop an answer to that question you need to put yourself in the shoes of a Ninevite. Because when they heard Jonah's less than compassionate, completely unremarkable message, "The Ninevites believed God." (vs. 5) Let's bring the Bible to life by looking at this place and time for a moment.
Regarding the place, Nineveh was a fierce city. It might be like you or me going to Iran or Burma and telling them that the God of universe was going to overthrow them. I can't imagine it setting well with the powers that be. Nineveh was notorious for their torture techniques. You might say they had it down to a fine art. This was a place that was feared by everyone. Regarding the time, prophets were common and accepted in the ancient world, and Ninevah would have had its own prophets running around. Because there were so many prophets, believing the right prophet was tricky business. Also commonplace was the use of omens. Omens were observations made in the natural world that were believed to be related to what the gods were doing in the spiritual world. One of the most common ways to observe omens was by examining the entrails of animals that had been sacrificed. (Gross! I know!) They had other ways of observing omens, this was just one of them. To a modern day Christian that sounds a little scary, something that's associated with the dark underworld. But, again, remove yourself from this present time. Back then using omens to predict the future was similar to the sailors aboard the ship casting lots to make a decision. Neither one represents time spent praying to God for an answer; nonetheless, we find that God used both to accomplish His will. All of that to say, that if the omens were unfavorable (meaning something bad was on the horizon) for a few days or weeks prior to Jonah's message then the people would have readily accepted the truth of his message. The omens would have supported what Jonah was telling them. If sacrifices were offered and the entrails verified an impending doom then Jonah's word would be taken very seriously. This was how Jonah, an Israelite, could bring a message to Ninevah, one of Israel's most feared enemies, without facing Nineveh's wrath and torture. Nineveh was more afraid of Jonah's message and his God than Jonah was of them. God had them ready.
Questions for reflection:
Think about a time when God used natural things to work in supernatural ways in your life. (Take a few moments to write it out because that helps you remember it as an important moment of grace in your walk with God.)
Prophets are not typically known for their own acts of mercy. Although not always as cold as Jonah was when delivering his message, they do tend to be rather harsh and unyielding about how others live their lives. Would it have been easy for you to add a measure of mercy and grace into that message? Would you have tried to soften the blow somehow?
Jonah's message could be accepted in spite of the fact that he was a foreigner. In a polytheistic society such as Nineveh, there could literally be hundred of gods, any of whom could impact their lives. If the Ninevites' omens supported Jonah's message, then they would have no reason to disbelieve it. In fact, that he was a foreigner only gave weight to the message. Why would someone have traveled such a great distance if not impelled by a god? Besides, it's not like Jonah's message threatened their beliefs. Hearing from prophets was common and accepted and sacrificial systems were practiced allowing for easy access to entrails and other body parts. It was a different time, a different place. The one constant in our history is the nature of mankind. In that sense we can always find commonality with the characters of the Bible.
Apparently, when this message reached the King's ears, even he believed. He rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. He officially declared a fast and commanded his people to call upon God, to give up their evil ways and their violence. Since the Ninevites did not know Jonah's God personally, they reacted to the message as best they could in an effort to appease this most powerful God. They acted the way an Israelite would act (after all it was Israel's God). They wore sackcloth and fasted. Even the animals wore sackcloth and fasted. (That must have been a funny sight!) The Ninevites undoubtedly heard many of the stories of the miracles that God had performed on Israel's behalf. Still, in their minds, because of how they were brought up and taught, and, although Israel's God was to be feared, Yahweh was still just one of many gods to be feared. There is no indication that the Ninevites turned from their false gods to worship the One true living God. In fact, the introduction of another "god" did not preclude the worship of the gods with which they were already familiar. By inquiring about the God of the Israelites, they could easily learn that He was a God of justice and so they acted accordingly. They cleaned up their act and, for a time, responded with some reforms. It's no different for you and me. When someone is introduced to Jesus Christ, it's unlikely that he or she would give up all of their current vices and bad habits (other "gods") because of it. It usually takes time for changes like these to occur. I struggle to live up to my own convictions every day. I am always missing the mark. The Ninevites recognized God's power and responded and God extended His mercy to them -- the very thing He wanted to do. You can be assured that the other gods they worshiped were not merciful -- not like the God of Israel! "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you." (Psalm 89:14, NIV) Maybe this was the only message necessary for now. Maybe this was enough. We don't know how many Ninevites gave serious attention to God's mercy that day -- whose lives were not just changed for that day, but forever.
Questions for reflection:
Have you ever responded to God in a purely outward way (like the Ninevites putting on sackcloth and fasting because they thought this was what God required)? Did it remain purely outward, or did a change of heart eventually follow?
What do you think the ramifications were for Jonah upon returning to Israel and announcing that God did not bring judgment upon their enemies, but mercy?
The final chapter brings me to the following conclusion about Jonah: Jonah is a big baby. At least that's how he acts. Seriously, what a pouter! We'll discuss Jonah's behavior in my final installment on the Book of Jonah.