1Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”
Last time, we looked closely at historical backdrop for the book of Jonah, we find in 2 Kings 14:23-27, and then we spent some time discussing the phrase “Now the word of the LORD came to…” Now let’s press forward into Jonah’s prophecy itself…
As we saw last time, Nineveh is first mentioned in Genesis 10:11, where we learned that the city was built by Nimrod – also famous for building Babel. By the time of Jonah it was indeed a great city of about 120,000 (c.f. Jonah 4:11). According to Tertius Chandler’s Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census, it was the largest city on Earth during the time of Jonah until it was destroyed and surpassed by Babylon around 612BC. The city is located within the confines of the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was made the capital of the Assyrian empire by Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:13; 19:37; Isa. 7:17-18) around 705BC. In addition to having the largest population of any city in the world, we also know that the city was vast…
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.
The Bible is silent regarding the specifics of Nineveh’s wickedness, although we do know from Veggie Tales that the reason Jonah fled from his God-appointed mission was that the Ninevites were famous for slapping people with fish. Seriously, though, Nineveh was one of the main centers for worship of the Babylonian fertility goddess – Ishtar.
Reliefs excavated from the ruins of Nineveh indicate that her citizens may also have worshiped the Phonecian fish-god – Dagon – often depicted as having a man’s head, arms, and torso and the tail of a fish. The priests of Dagon depicted in the Nineveh reliefs appear to be wearing a cloak that looks like the body and tail of a fish, with a headdress that looks like the head of a fish, and bears a striking resemblance to modern bishop’s miters. If the people of Nineveh were worshiping Dagon at the time of Jonah’s prophecy, it would make Jonah’s story all the more poignant.
You may recall that Dagon is mentioned in the Bible in relation to the capture of the ark of the covenant by the Philistines…
1 Samuel 5:1-5
1Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon. 3And when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again. 4And when they arose early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. The head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it. 5Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
So, of course, the Ninevites were idolaters just like most people both then and now. God commands…
3You shall have no other gods before Me.
4You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
We don’t know whether it was just the wickedness of their idolatry (which God obviously abhors) which caused God to send Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, or whether there was some additional wickedness among the Ninevites. For the purposes of the story, we must assume that it was pretty bad for several reasons…
- God sent Jonah to testify against the city.
- Jonah was obviously unwilling to go.
- As we’ll find out later, Jonah didn’t expect God’s mercy upon the Ninevites.
But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
Regardless of the actual nature of the wickedness of Nineveh, Jonah decided not to obey the Lord’s direction. Why? Possibly it was fear of the Ninevites. They were notoriously cruel…
2 Chronicles 33:11
Therefore the LORD brought upon them the captains of the army of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze fetters, and carried him off to Babylon.
Indeed, reliefs excavated from the ruins of Nineveh show people being skinned alive, having their eyes gouged out, having their tongues cut out, and being beheaded. Such time-honored Assyrian traditions continue in modern Mosul even today with the “Islamic State” barbarians.
But it wasn’t necessarily fear of Assyrian reprisal that drove Jonah to flee. It’s just possible that Jonah, knowing God to be merciful and longsuffering, didn’t want to help God bring the Ninevites to repentance so He could forgive their iniquities. At least that’s the explanation Jonah gave to God for his rebellion, as we’ll see later. Regardless of his motivations, though, Jonah chose poorly – fleeing from God rather than obeying Him.
This is actually quite encouraging to me. Jonah was a prophet of God, whose prophecy concerning Jeroboam II did come to pass. Yet Jonah was initially unable to trust in God to anoint his mission to Nineveh, or accept God’s purpose in sending him there until he spent some time in “the woodshed.” Oftentimes, we can’t see how God will work in a seemingly impossible situation. We can take a lesson from Jonah’s initial disobedience, remembering Jesus’ words to the father of the demon-possessed boy…
23Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
24Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Remember, also, Paul’s admonition from our study in Philippians…
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
The exact location of Tarshish, to which Jonah fled, is unknown. It is mentioned many times in the Word as a place far from Israel by sea. For example, we know that King Solomon and his ally, Hiram – King of Tyre sent ships there…
2 Chronicles 9:21
For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Hiram. Once every three years the merchant ships came, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys.
It must have been an exotic place where ivory, apes, and monkeys were obtained in trade. Carthage, Spain, and the island of Sardinia have all been proposed as possible locations for Tarshish, but its exact whereabouts remain a mystery. For our purposes, all we really need to understand is that Tarshish was emblematic of a place far from Israel, and more importantly, far from Nineveh – in the opposite direction from that in which God had directed Jonah. As we will see, Jonah eventually remembered what he certainly already knew – that God is everywhere, and it is futile to try to run or hide from Him…
15Woe to those who seek deep to hide their counsel far from the LORD,
And their works are in the dark;
They say, “Who sees us?” and, “Who knows us?”
16Surely you have things turned around!
Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay;
For shall the thing made say of him who made it,
“He did not make me”?
Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
And as we saw last time in…
7Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
8If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
Of course, we know that Jonah himself soon learned this lesson the hard way.
Make no mistake. Jonah’s rebellion came as no surprise to God. He is incapable of being surprised. Our God is the ultimate learning impaired person. He is incapable of learning anything at all, because He already knows everything that ever was, everything that is, and will ever be…
1O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
2You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
3You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
4For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
Before you were born I sanctified you;
I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”
Yet, even knowing beforehand that Jonah would rebel, God called him to prophesy to Nineveh nevertheless. So it is with us. Just as Jonah’s rebellion didn’t surprise or shock God, so God knows about all of our sins – past, present, and future. In fact, God knew mankind would rebel before the creation of the world, and chose to create us anyway.
Even as the universe was created, by God’s Word saying, “Let there be…,” so even then God knew that Jesus – the Word of God – would have to sacrifice His life on the cross in order to reconcile mankind to Himself. Make no mistake. Jesus’ sacrifice for us is not God’s “plan B” to repair a universe broken by sin. It was in His plan all along…
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Just as it was God’s intent from the very beginning to mercifully save mankind from the wrath of His judgment for our sins, so it was His plan all along to show His mercy to Jonah even in his rebellion. God knows our weaknesses, having lived as a man Himself…
14Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Having formed us, God knows the weakness of our nature…
11For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13As a father pities his children,
So the LORD pities those who fear Him.
14For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
Furthermore, as we are about to see, in calling Jonah to Nineveh, God intended more than just ministering to Jonah himself. Since we have the entire story to consider in hindsight, we know that God intended to use Jonah to call the Ninevites to repentance. But we must also consider that God also knew that Jonah would rebel against the calling. God certainly could have called someone else to prophesy against Nineveh, and either allowed Jonah to go on to live out his life in some quiet backwater in Tarshish or allowed him to perish in the storm along with his shipmates. God had bigger and better things planned for Jonah, the mariners, and the Ninevites.
Yet, in the midst of the storm, it is virtually impossible for us to recognize the handiwork of God. We must learn to trust, and remember…
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
God often calls us into discomfort so that He can do a work within us and around us for His own glory. It is left to us to trust and obey.
1 Samuel 15:22-23
22So Samuel said:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
23For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
He also has rejected you from being king.”