The Reluctant Prophet
You probably know the story of Jonah and the big fish that swallowed him when he ran away from God because he didn’t want to preach to Nineveh, but have you considered the historical context of what was going on and also how the short book of Jonah applies to us? I have thought of Jonah a lot recently, particularly how like Jonah some Believers are. You see, Jonah, was a reluctant prophet. When God called him to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian world empire at that time, Jonah ran away! The Assyrians were the cruel oppressors of the Israelite people and Jonah did not want to take the message to this wicked and warmongering people. Here are some insights I gleaned from some commentaries that I would like share with you, they help us better understand some of what Jonah must have been feeling:
In this word of the Lord, God called Jonah to a truly God-sized task: preach God’s message in the capital city of the most cruel enemy on earth. Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire, featured the great temple of Ishtar. Nineveh’s ruins are located within modern Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq on the east bank of the Tigris River.
Genesis 10:11-12 credits Nineveh’s founding to the ancient hunter Nimrod, and modern studies show its occupation in prehistoric times. The city’s circumference reached almost eight miles. From about 1363 b.c. Nineveh flourished as a strong city-state until Sennacherib made it the capital of all of Assyria about 700 b.c. It fell to the Medes and Babylonians in 612 b.c. Archaeologists have uncovered many finds from Nineveh, including King Asshurbanipal’s library.
Nineveh was not only great in political power and cultural sophistication; Nineveh had great wickedness. It was this wickedness that came to God’s attention. This should bring comfort to Judah. God cannot just stand before wickedness and sin. God in his holiness must do something about such horrible conditions. And God was doing something. He was calling Jonah to preach against the city.”
-Holman Old Testament Commentary – Holman Old Testament Commentary – Hosea-Micah.
While all sin is abhorrent to God, in some instances a specific group of people had become so wicked that God issued a special call of localized judgment. So it was with Nineveh. Archaeology confirms the biblical witness to the wickedness of the Assyrians. They were well known in the ancient world for brutality and cruelty. Ashurbanipal, the grandson of Sennacherib, was accustomed to tearing off the lips and hands of his victims. Tiglath-Pileser flayed victims alive and made great piles of their skulls. Jonah’s reluctance to travel to Nineveh may have been due to its infamous violence.
Many people in the world today ignore God and assume that he also ignores them. Many believe that God set the world into motion and allows it to continue along unnoticed. This text portraysod as one who notices, as a God who is active, and as a God who takes sin seriously.
1:3 Verse 3 relates a tragic decision by Jonah. God commissioned the prophet to carry a divine message to the people of Nineveh, but Jonah decided differently. Instead of traveling approximately five hundred miles northeast of Palestine to Nineveh, Jonah went to Joppa, the nearest seaport. There he took a ship for Tarshish, probably a Phoenician port in Spain, some two thousand miles due west.
-New American Commentary – New American Commentary – Volume 19b: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah.
Jonah—meaning in Hebrew, “dove.” Compare Gen 8:8, 9, where the dove in vain seeks rest after flying from Noah and the ark: so Jonah. Grotius not so well explains it, “one sprung from Greece” or Ionia, where there were prophets called Amythaonidæ.
Amittai—Hebrew for “truth,” “truth-telling”; appropriate to a prophet.
Notes for Verse 2
Verse 2. to Nineveh—east of the Tigris, opposite the modern Mosul. The only case of a prophet being sent to the heathen. Jonah, however, is sent to Nineveh, not solely for Nineveh’s good, but also to shame Israel, by the fact of a heathen city repenting at the first preaching of a single stranger, Jonah, whereas God’s people will not repent, though preached to by their many national prophets, late and early. Nineveh means “the residence of Ninus,” that is, Nimrod. Gen 10:11, where the translation ought to be, “He (Nimrod) went forth into Assyria and builded Nineveh.” Modern research into the cuneiform inscriptions confirms the Scripture account that Babylon was founded earlier than Nineveh, and that both cities were built by descendants of Ham, encroaching on the territory assigned to Shem (Gen 10:5, 6, 8, 10, 25).
-A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments.
The name Nineveh is thought to derive from “ninus,” i.e., Nimrod, and means the residence of Nimrod or “nunu” (Akkadian for “fish”). The people worshiped the fish goddess Nanshe (the daughter of Ea, the goddess of fresh water) and Dagon the fish god who was represented as half man and half fish. that great city. Nineveh was great, both in size (3:3) and in power, exerting significant influence over the Middle East until her destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 612 b.c. It was possibly the largest city in the world at this time. According to historians, magnificent walls almost eight miles long enveloped the inner city, with the rest of the city/district occupying an area with a circumference of some sixty miles. Its population could have approached 600,000 (cf. 4:11). their wickedness has come up before Me. Nineveh was the center of idolatrous worship of Assur and Ishtar. A century later, Nahum pronounced doom upon Assyria for her evil ways and cruelty (Nah. 3), which was carried out by Nebuchadnezzar in 612 b.c.
-The MacArthur Bible Commentary.
Jonah didn’t want to go, but after he ran and was disciplined in the belly of a fish, which many scholars believe was a whale shark (look up a picture of one – they are really cool!), he did go preach the message but was still hoping to see the fire fall. Before jumping to being critical, how much like Jonah are you and I? The disciples were like him…
In context, Jesus is dealing with a lot of negative attitudes among the disciples: who’s the greatest, being opposed to preachers not “in their circle,” desiring to call down fire on opposition to the Gospel, and excuses for discipleship.
46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.
47 But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side
48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.”
50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” 51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:46-62 (ESV)
Praise God that in Jonah’s case, the people responded to God and the whole city turned from their sin to God!
4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. Jonah 3:4-10 (ESV)
The sad fact, and the reality for more than a few Believers is that when God does a miracle but it was not to who we wanted it to be done, we complain, sometimes even despair of life and wish we didn’t have to “endure” seeing it!
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6 Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
10 And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Jonah 4:1-11 (ESV)
And the story ends there. We do not know how Jonah responded next. But, we do clearly see the error of his ways.
The book of Jonah is more than just a story about a preacher being swallowed by a fish, barfed up and then going to obey the Lord. There is a story after he preached. There are lessons that hit closer to home than we would like.
Lessons we learn from Jonah
Interpretation – the Old Testament saints are not merely moral examples of what to do and what not to do. Often, I grew up here the Bible taught that way – here is a Bible story….be like this and don’t be like that, but there is far more to the story than that: moralism misses the Gospel! We are not called to legalism of morality but of redemption from our sin. It is true, “The Gospel does not make bad people good but brings dead people to life!”
Even in the Old Testament, the mercy of God is present, Christ’s coming foreshadowed and spiritual lessons revealed. The Old Testament does not display a different God—to teach and believe that is heresy.
Powerful lessons in the Book of Jonah
- People, even God’s people, flee God’s presence because of conviction.
- God will break you when you persist in sin. The root sIn is the I. It is pride…the root of all sin from the Garden and Satan’s fall to today. All sin is selfish and unreasonable.
- You can still be in the dumps and reluctantly obedient. Example a little child, is told firmly to pick up their room after trying to flee, and they do it but with moans and groans.
- People respond to God that you don’t like.
- Praise God that He is Sovereign despite our failures and backsliding.
- God uses even the disobedient for His Glory.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Psalms 51:17 ESV
If you have been running from God, if you are feeling convicted today, it is not because of me. I can make you mad but I cannot convict you. Conviction is the Holy Spirit of God speaking to you. He is standing at your heart’s door calling you to come to Him to turn from your sin and return to Him. The relationship severed in The Garden is restored at The Cross. Come.
Failed and don’t feel you can be accepted after what you’ve done? Come.
Like the father who waited for his prodigal son that spend his inheritance in wild parties and prostitutes, God is waiting for the very worst sinner you can think of to come home. Christ will not turn you away. NO ONE who comes to Christ will be shown the door. EVERY ONE who comes to Christ will be received.