The ancient prophet Jonah was sent to the doomed city of Nineveh to announce God's impending wrath. Surprisingly, the entire city repented of its evil and turned to God with fasting. The anger of the Eternal was abated - but Jonah's anger was kindled!
Nineveh was the ancient capital of the Assyrians, one of the great peoples of biblical times. By the standards of the day it was a "great city." But the conduct of the people of Nineveh had aroused the divine wrath - "for their wickedness has come up before [God] " (Jonah 1:2). Jonah, the son of Amittai, was commissioned by God to warn the inhabitants of the city to turn from their evil or they would suffer the punishment of the Eternal. Jonah balked at the commission. He attempted to flee to Tarshish but ended up inside the belly of "a great fish" (not a whale) especially prepared by God for the occasion (verses 3-17). From this frightening vantage point, Jonah then reevaluated his position and decided to cease resisting the Lord (Jonah 2). God then induced the fish to "vomit" Jonah out on the dry land (verse 10). This time Jonah didn't balk at God's commission. He went obediently to Nineveh and proclaimed the message God had given him (3:1-3). He cried, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown"! (Verse 4.) Forty days! Jonah's message struck fear into the hearts of the people of the city. Immediately they reacted by proclaiming a city-wide fast. Everyone from the "city fathers" to the "average Joe" fasted and wore sackcloth, a traditional sign of mourning (verse 5). The king of Nineveh himself joined in and made a decree. Even the animals of the city were to fast! Everyone was to turn from the evil of which they were guilty and "cry mightily to God" in repentance (verses 6-8).
All did so and God heard. The great city of Nineveh was spared. "... God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it" (verse 10). Now you'd think Jonah would have rejoiced at this overwhelming positive response to his preaching. After all, the lives of more than 120,000 people had been saved! But not Jonah. Instead of rejoicing he sulked and raged. "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry" (4:1). Incredible! Jonah was angry at the repentance of the people! He was actually displeased because they turned to God and repented! What kind of an attitude was this? Jonah then went outside of the city and sat in a heap and wished destruction on Nineveh (verse 5). Jonah was typical of many religious people in all ages. He believed he had the inside track to God (1:9). He was a devout person and that made him feel "one up" on those who were not. So long as he could preach death and destruction upon these Gentile peoples, Jonah could feel superior. But like all similar prophecies, this prophecy was conditional. When the people of Nineveh repented, the prophecy "failed" (see I Corinthians 13:8). Now Jonah had lost his "one-up" position in relation to the people of this Gentile city. That's why he sat down and sulked.
Jonah Gets a Lesson
God questioned Jonah's attitude (4:4) and then taught him a lesson by means of a plant. While Jonah was sitting stewing and fretting in the heat of the day God produced a plant ("gourd") which grew up overnight and provided shade for the sullen prophet. Then God made a worm to destroy the plant and thus take away the cool shade. Jonah sweated it out, still angry - in fact, even angrier over the plant! God asked Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" Jonah replied that he was "angry enough to die." Then God 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. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (Verses 10-11.)
"I'm OK, You're Not"
God Himself was the ultimate source of the people of Nineveh. They, like all humans, were created in His very image (Genesis 1:27). They, as much as the Israelites, were "His people." God cared for these Assyrian Gentiles too. His mercy was extended to them as much as to anyone, including the haughty Israelites - God's "chosen people." Even the popular Jewish Soncino commentary acknowledges this: "The essential teaching is that the Gentiles should not be grudged God's love, care and forgiveness" (Soncino commentary on The Twelve Prophets, by A. Cohen, p. 137).
"God is not a respecter of persons. God delights in and rewards the repentance of all peoples who turn to him."
God is not a respecter of persons. The gospel is to be preached to "all the world" (Mark 16:15). The message of God is universal in its appeal and application. God is unchanging in His mercy (Malachi 3:6-7). He will always extend mercy to those who repent and turn to Him, no matter whether they be "Jew or Greek" (Romans 1:16). Jonah apparently didn't realize this. Like many modern self-righteous Christians, he wanted to retain his one-up position in relation to these Gentile "sinners," He was in the position of "I'm okay, you're not." There is a very important lesson in all of this for today's Christian. In fact, there are several lessons.
Lessons for Today
First, God has never smiled benignly upon self-righteousness. It was for the sin of self-righteousness that Christ excoriated the Pharisees (see Matthew 23 and other passages in the four Gospels). In Christ's own teaching it was a self-righteous Pharisee who failed to receive justification from God because he trusted in his own works instead of in God's mercy. But it was the despised publican, (tax collector) who received justification from God because he claimed no works of righteousness, only the need for mercy. He acknowledged his sinfulness as did the people of Nineveh (Luke 18:9-14; Jonah 3:10). A second lesson we may derive from the book of Jonah is that God's true people should delight in the repentance of others, no matter who they may be. We are told that when one sinner repents there is "joy in heaven" (Luke 15:7). But there may be sorrow - and even anger - on earth over the repentance of one sinner if those who see themselves as righteous lose their "superior" position when others repent!. A third lesson we can learn is the one earlier mentioned - that God is not a respecter of persons. God delights in and rewards the repentance of any and all peoples who turn to Him. God is not a "racist." The apostle Paul clearly stated and taught: "There is neither Jew nor Greek... for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Galatians 3:28-29).
All who turn to God, no matter what their racial or ethnic heritage, can be considered "spiritual Israelites." God loves all nations equally, even though Israel was once called "the apple of God's eye." We are told in that oftquoted passage, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). We are told further that "God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (verse 17). Of course, God is not trying to save the entire world at this time - but that is the ultimate and final purpose for which Christ came into the world. You will notice that God and Christ do not have a condemnatory attitude toward human society! God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Jonah was willing that the whole city of Nineveh should perish. And some modern Christians would like nothing better than to see the fulfillment of some of the most dire of biblical prophecies. If such prophecies came to pass, this would place these people, like the ancient prophet, in the position of being one up on those about to perish. Longtime readers of The Plain Truth magazine, and especially those who have read Mr. Herbert Armstrong's material on The United States and Britain in Prophecy, are aware, for instance, that the Church of God has always taught the following: There are certain prophecies found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 which apply to the peoples of modern Britain and the United States, and these prophecies have a "dual" application - that is, an original fulfillment in historical times, and a modern fulfillment in contemporary times. The peoples of modern America and Britain are the descendants of ancient Israel's northern house which went captive to the Assyrians in 721-718 B.C. It has long been central to the message of this Church that God will soon step in to punish the peoples of modern Britain and America unless they repent and turn to God. Unfortunately, many have ruled out any possibility of these nations repenting. Like Jonah, they are anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of these prophecies. They want to see literally millions of people "get their just deserts"! But what if these nations "pulled a Nineveh" on us? What if the next few years saw a massive return to God and to biblical values? What if God averted the punishment of our peoples?
The "If" Factor
If you look closely at the prophecies under discussion you will note that there are qualifying words in them. Like so much of Bible prophecy, these predictions are conditional. The key to this understanding is the biggest little word in the English language - "if" (Hebrew 'im). Notice Leviticus 26:3, for example: "If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." Now notice a converse prophecy; "But if you will not hearken to me, and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my ordinances, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, I will do this to you: I will appoint over you sudden terror, consumption, and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it" (verses 14-16). Read the entire prophecy and notice how often the word "if' appears. This shows clearly that the whole prophecy is conditional. If the people turn to God in worshipful obedience, God will bless them in every aspect of life. Conversely, if the people insist on turning away from God, ignoring His standards, trampling over His laws, He will punish them. The prophetic message of the Church must include hope. It must be presented in the spirit of optimism and faith that God's words will not "return unto [him] void" (Isaiah 55:11). True Christians should sincerely hope and pray for the repentance of all peoples. God has made us free moral agents. He has given us the opportunity to help make these dire prophecies fail as did the prophecy on Nineveh. Can any truly converted person wish illness, plagues, crop diseases, hordes of insects, droughts, floods, earthquakes, famines, pestilences and hideous destructive wars on anyone? Is it Christian to wallow in the potential misery and death of millions? Surely not. The spirit of Jonah has no place in modern prophetic Christianity. It has no place in the Church of God. Even the prophetic book of Amos warns us: "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:18-20.) Many who desire the destruction of our modern Western civilization don't, in fact, realize what they are asking. Can any of us really conceive of how catastrophic it would be if all of these prophecies were literally fulfilled? Let us instead wish and pray for the national, and international, repentance of all peoples everywhere. Let us desire a massive, global turning to the living Creator God in deep and sincere worship. Let us rejoice in the possibility that man can repent and that a new era of peace and plenty could burst upon the world if only men will adopt the spirit of Nineveh.