Why did Nineveh Obey?
Jonah 1:1-3; Matthew 12:38-41
The story of Jonah in the Bible…what a crazy story. Some guy gets swallowed up by a giant fish, and then, after three days and nights, he gets burped up on a beach, and then, like Jack and the Beanstalk, a huge plant grows up to shade him, and finally it all ends with a giant worm. Sounds like Hollywood was involved with this one.
But, this is a true story! No, really! First, it is written in a literal, historical style, not as poetry, and not as allegory. Most importantly, Jesus Himself even referred to it (Matt. 12:38-41). The story of Jonah took place around the Mediterranean Sea, between Spain (west), Israel, and Assyria (east). Nineveh, which was part of the old Babylonian Empire (Iraq), was now part of the newer Assyrian Empire at the time of this event with Jonah. Nineveh was east of Israel. This event took place in the eighth century before Jesus, while Israel was still a nation with power. The Assyrian Empire was the enemy of Israel, and Nineveh was its capital–a huge city. Jonah was told by God to go to this enemy of Israel, and share the love, forgiveness, and salvation of God with them–to hopefully save them. What did Jonah do? He went in exactly the opposite direction. Who, after all, wants to save their enemy? He headed toward Tarshish. Tarshish was located in Spain (in the west), about as far in the opposite direction as a person could go to get away from Nineveh (in the east). How many of us head in the opposite direction when led by God to act in a certain way?
Jonah was supposed to be a man of God, yet, he turned his back on God. In this case, God was not done with Jonah. If a person becomes a Christian (a follower of God), often we will find ourselves faced with following God’s instructions, or not. Many times, we, as Christians, go in the opposite direction. Christians know the ways of God, and yet often, we see Christians doing the very things that offend God. Like Jonah, many of us must be dragged into His will. Pray that God is not done with us when we don’t do His will, and that God will drag us into doing what He wants, as opposed to just abandoning us.
Jonah 1:3 – Jonah went “down” to Joppa to get a ship going west. “Down.” When we go against God, we are, in effect, going “down.” (Ever ask, where is America going?). Then, Jonah went “down” into the ship. Jonah was on the ship headed west toward Tarshish. Jonah 1:4 – God was not pleased with Jonah’s decision to disobey Him, so God sent a great wind against the ship. Jonah 1:5 – Notice that the sailors, who were not followers of God, were scared. The sailors were crying out for a God to save them–even though they did not know the one true God. Yet, Jonah stayed “below,” even though he knew of the one true God who could help these unbelievers. Today, in our world, there is a great storm raging all over the planet. And, people who do not know Jesus are crying out to be saved. Now, I know many Christians who are trying to spread the “Good News” of Jesus, but often, many Christians are doing their own thing, and, like Jonah, hiding below the surface—they don’t want to get involved.
The crew of the ship tried throwing stuff overboard, to try and save the ship. In our world, we all try to fix things as our world is falling apart. We believe we can make a difference, if somehow, we can fix it all up…somehow. Of course, those of us who have been around the block a few times, can report that our efforts at fixing things up are pretty weak (Isa. 64:6). We soon learn that there truly is only one answer for a lost world. I cannot save myself. I cannot live forever on this planet. No doctor or hospital can save me. No government can save me. Only God has the power over death. Only Jesus (John14:6; Acts 4:12). The ship’s crew needed God… just as we all do.
Jonah 1:8-9 – The crew of the ship asked Jonah some questions. We, who claim to be Christian, need to be able to answer these same questions.
1) Who is causing this storm? God was dealing with disobedient Jonah. Often, our troubles are of our own making. Example: Teenage girls may want an abortion because they were involved in fornication, and got pregnant. Adultery and fornication are not discouraged in America today. Sin is commonplace. The result…a perceived need for another sin–abortion, as a choice. Men, in this example, are not obeying God either, and men also are not honoring women. We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10-12, 23). Thankfully, God forgives those who will surrender to Him and change.
2) What is your occupation? In other words…what is your purpose in life…why are you here? If we are supposed to put God as number one in our lives (Mark 12:30), then the sharing of God’s love and forgiveness should be of paramount importance to us—is it (Isa. 1:10-17)?
3 & 4) Where do you come from, and what is your country? Where do we come from? In the context of the ship sinking, and judgment, and our world falling apart, and people going to hell, our answer, as Christians, should be “from above.” We are aliens here…this is not our home (John 18:36). If you are truly a Christian, then you have been “born again,” meaning that now we have a place in God’s kingdom, prepared for us for all eternity. Soon this life will end…but the new life begins for those who are “born again” (Matt. 25:34; John 3:1-7).
5) From what people are we? For Jonah, of course, he was a Hebrew. For us as Christians…well…we are supposed to be identified as followers of Jesus. That is supposed to be our first allegiance (Mark 12:30)…is it?
6) Then in Jonah 1:10, the ship’s crew asked Jonah “How could you do this?” They knew that Jonah was fleeing from God, and they feared God as a result of the storm. The world is asking the Christian community today: “How can you do things which are opposed to God, and still call yourselves a follower of God?” Today, some Christians vote “yes” on abortion when selecting government office holders. Some Christians misuse drugs and alcohol. Some Christians live together out of wedlock, and the list goes on and on. The world is asking “How can you do this?” In 1 Corinthians 3:1-23, Paul wrote the followers of Jesus who were still living in the flesh. We must ask ourselves whether we are truly Christian. Do we actually place God first, and obey Him? Each person must answer that for themselves (John 15:6). Granted, becoming more and more Christ-like is a process, but we are supposed to be on the road toward Jesus, not getting off the road at every whim. Today, because of the poor image many Christians show, many in the world are turning to other ways to try and solve the world’s troubles. They are not seeking God, because many Christians have given a poor example of the faith…being more into the world, than into God. The Bible tells us that it will be in times like these, that the world will accept the “Anti-Christ (2 Thess. 2:1-4), and that will usher in the end of the world. Many times, the Bible tells us that God brings tribulation upon the person, or nation, to get their attention. Soon, God will judge this world.
Jonah 1:11-15 – When the sailors aboard ship figured out that it was Jonah that had brought the stormy seas on them because of his fleeing God, they cast Jonah overboard, and the sea became calm. Then, God sent a great fish to swallow Jonah (this ends Jonah, chapter one). Now, about the “great fish.” This was not a whale. The Greek word used in Jonah means “fish.” Today, we know that whales are actually mammals, and not part of the “fish” family. God supernaturally created a fish for the purpose of dealing with this disobedient Jonah. People seem to forget that this entire universe of creation is God’s doing, and He can create a unique fish if He wants. No problem. Interestingly, there are historical cases of men being swallowed by either a whale, or even a shark, and being spit out later…still alive. In 1758, in the Mediterranean Sea, a sailor fell overboard and was swallowed by a great white shark. The captain of the ship ordered the ships cannon to fire upon the shark, and soon the shark vomited up the sailor…still alive, and unharmed. And in 1771, Marshall Jenkins, while hunting sperm whales in the South Seas, was swallowed by a whale, while it was under attack. The whale broke the harpoon boat apart, swallowed him, and then the whale even submerged. Later on, the whale surfaced again, and spit up parts of the boat, and Mr. Jenkins, still alive, and basically unharmed. But, even though history records these real events, God did not have to use a whale or shark. God is fully capable of creating a special “fish” to do the job, if He wants to.
Jonah 2:1-6 – So, Jonah finds himself in a fish. The fish goes “down” into the sea. Note, that in Jonah 2:2, that Jonah felt like he was in hell (Hebrew is sheol–grave). Again, in verse six, Jonah refers to his condition as a pit (of corruption) with bars–another reference to hell. The image here is of death. Death is being without God (Jesus), and this means being isolated, separated, alone…being tormented–the exact description of hell! Jesus, in Matthew 12:40, tells us that He will be in the tomb for three days and three nights, just like Jonah was in the big fish. Jonah will get out…and, likewise, Jesus rose from death. Jonah, in chapter two is repenting (changing), and seeking forgiveness. Note in verse nine, that salvation is from the Lord. God heard Jonah’s cry for salvation. The great fish vomited Jonah up onto dry land.
Jonah 3:3-4 – Here we see that God is patient with Jonah (just as He is with us). God came to Jonah a second time. In Jonah 3:3 we see that Nineveh was a great city–it took an entire day to walk across the city. In verse four, Jonah tells the people of the city that in forty days their city will be destroyed. Then, in verse five, they believed him. Just like that, they believed him. Why? Why would people believe a foreigner, who was an enemy of theirs, with a message like this? Jonah 3:6-9 – When the king of Nineveh heard the warning, he also was convinced, and called for fasting and prayer. Just like that, the king believed Jonah, and required the entire city to be humble before the God of Jonah. Why?
Well, God uses even the pagan beliefs, and evil people on occasion, to accomplish His purposes. God used the pharaoh of Egypt (hardened his heart–Ex. 10:1-2), to deliver Israel with Moses and the Exodus. God used Rome (the nation that killed Jesus), as the vehicle to deliver the Word of God to the world. Rome was the nation that built all the roads that connected it to the world, which made it very easy to spread the Word of God after the death, and resurrection, of Jesus. “In Acts 17:22-31, Paul used the pagan “statue to and unknown god” to demonstrate that that “unknown god” they were looking for, was, in reality, Jesus. In this case of Jonah and Nineveh, here in Assyria, God used the pagan beliefs of the people of Nineveh to convict them to repent, and worship Him.
The people of Nineveh worshiped a pagan god. The name of this god was Dagon. Dagon was a Babylonian man-fish god. The God of the Bible (Israel’s God, our God), used this belief in a Babylonian man-fish god by the people of Nineveh to convince them of who truly had the power. We know, of course, that Jesus is the true God…the only person ever to show power over life and death (the resurrection–Acts 1:1-8; 1 Corin. 15:1-8). This pagan god was part man, and part fish. In Assyrian art of that time period, archeologists have discovered carvings of Dagon–a man with a fish head above its human head. Often, the representations have the fish head with its mouth open. Later religions even adopted this image of a fish head with its’ mouth open as the headdress of the high priest, and this head piece is still used today (the puzzle for today is to draw what this famous head covering looks like, and see if you can identify which great world religion wears it—answer in next “Virtual Chapel”). The feet of the man would extend below the tail of the fish. This image was a very common one in not only the city of Nineveh, around its palace and temples, but also all over the old Babylonian empire. The historical records indicate that the people worshiped this figure, part man and part fish, as a divine being who rose from the sea, and created the empire in Babylon. Today, many in America, worship evolutionary science, which tells us we evolved from fish. According to evolutionary scientific theory, our ancestor was a fish (read the book on “Science, Origins, & Ancient Civilizations–Scientific Evidence Withheld from School Textbooks”- Target Truth Ministries.com). One interesting thing in history is that the Assyrian name of this fish god is “Oannes.” And, the old Greek Septuagint translated the name of Jonah (translated 300 years before Jesus), as “Joannes,” adding a “J” before the name “oannes.” So, it would seem that not only did God prepare a fish to convince the people of Nineveh of His being God, but God also sent a man who was named the same as this fish god to further convince them that Jonah (“oannes”), actually represented the one and only true God. No wonder they immediately repented and humbled themselves before God as “Joannes” pops up on the beach out of a great fish, warning them of impending doom. And, they did just as God required, and changed from their evil ways (Jonah 3:8-10).
In chapter four of Jonah, note that Jonah is very upset that Nineveh repented and was saved. This is because Nineveh is the enemy of Israel, and Jonah did not really want his enemy to be saved. Sound familiar? Often, when our family, friends, or others are in sin, instead of sharing the “good news” with them, (that Jesus offers peace of mind in this life, and eternal life in His kingdom to come–if we will repent; change), we hide from confronting them with their sin, essentially allowing them to continue on a path “down” to hell–they seem unrepentant…they seem unworthy. God calls us as Christians to share His way, of love for sinners, of forgiveness for all who seek it. Actually, we are all sinners, forgiven by our Creator, God/Jesus–Col. 1:16-20). God’s way is the only way to true peace of mind, and heaven to come. Here, Jonah did reluctantly share God’s way with the people of Nineveh, and they did change. The enemy of his people Israel was spared…(however, they would still be a threat to his homeland later).
Next, we see, in Jonah 4:5-6, that Jonah went to rest…to wait and to see what would happen next in the city. While Jonah was sitting there, God caused a giant plant to grow for the purpose of providing shade for Jonah…a gift of shade in the heat of the day…a gift from God to comfort Jonah, who was distraught over his enemy being spared. Jonah was “happy” now…he was comforted. Then, in Jonah 4:7-8, we see that God sent a giant worm to eat the plant the very next day…and then God sent an “east wind” and heat from the sun to make it miserable for Jonah. God asks Jonah, in Jonah 4:9: “Are you angry?” What a question to ask. Of course Jonah was angry. He went from shade and comfort…to hot and dry. Here, God answers with a great comparison. Jonah did not make the plant to shade him. Yet, when it was removed, he was angry. The same was true of God giving salvation to the people of Nineveh. They did nothing to earn salvation–it is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). They were spared tragedy, and yet, later on they would attack God’s people Israel. The same is true for Jonah, and for us today…we all need the grace of God…His free gift of salvation. Without it, we will perish. And, if life after receiving the gift of salvation seems unduly hard, hot, and windy…we need to focus on the free gift of eternal life, and not on the hot wind. Remember, God sometimes needs to get our attention, and He prunes those He loves, so that they will be even more productive (John 15:1-6). The point is that God wants none to perish, and all (even our enemies), to come into a saving relationship with God. We, as Christians, just like Jonah, are called to spread the word…to everyone…even the worst of sinners, and not complain just because it may not be easy, or desirable.
The irony is, that a hundred years after this took place, in 722 B.C., God used the nation of Assyria to punish Israel for not staying true to God’s ways. God used their enemy (Assyria), to punish Israel. I believe America is approaching punishment, if we continue to abandon God’s ways, and follow the world’s ways (adultery, homosexual activity, fornication, abortion, drug and alcohol abuse, euthanasia, etc.—note that these are actions that God abhors. God loves people, but it is our actions which cause us trouble). Israel was blessed by God, until they wandered away from Him, and so, also, America has been blessed by God, through history, only now to wander away from His ways. Next time you’re considering God’s ways and the world’s ways, think of Jonah, and ask yourself: “Which way am I going?…Do I look like fish bait?” And, if you feel comfortable in God’s shade…keep an eye out for that worm. We will be tested! (John 16:33)