As cities went it was a fairly large one. To date it had enjoyed a fairly influential existence in its particular geographic region. And for the most part the city fathers had no reason to suspect anything but continued prosperity for the future. But then it happened. It was just one man who came crying in their streets with a chilling message that their great metropolis would be overthrown in 40 days. They could have laughed, scoffed and written him off as a visionary crackpot. But a funny thing happened. They took him seriously. The king responded by dressing in sackcloth, calling a city-wide fast, and ordering everyone to clean up their individual lives. By now you've probably surmised that the city was ancient Nineveh and the bearer of the bad tidings was Jonah. The most significant part of this story isn't Jonah's three-day stay inside a specially prepared fish, but the fact that the people of Nineveh, from the king right on down, actually took his message to heart and embarked on a program to clean up the crime-laden streets of their city (Jonah 3:7-8). And God honored their righteous action by sparing Nineveh from impending calamity. But as far as Jonah was concerned this was bad news! Being a good Israelite with rather strong nationalistic and perhaps even racist feelings, he had wanted to see the Ninevites "get theirs." In fact that was the reason he tried to avoid going there in the first place (Jonah 4:1-2).
The "Write-Off" Syndrome
Most of us might say that the action the Ninevites took was a giant historical fluke — especially in view of the overall track record of the human race. Subjectively we might feel that most men in the world are on the whole unrepentant, hard-hearted sinners who are going to deserve everything they get. With this approach we could easily assume that collective repentance as it occurred in Nineveh "can't happen here." Like Jonah we might reason, "Why bother? We've got ours now; you'll get yours later. In the meantime enjoy the Great Tribulation." Fortunately, Jesus Christ took an entirely different approach to this problem during His brief ministry on this earth some 1900 years ago. Unlike Jonah, He was not about to write off His contemporaries. He and His disciples actively went out preaching the gospel of the Kingdom. And not just for reasons of form. Christ was concerned about the present welfare of those people. On one occasion He even used the repentance of Nineveh as an example of what some of the more recalcitrant "religious" types of His day should have been doing (Luke 11:32). But no matter what approach was used these Israelites weren't about to change. And it wasn't until after He sensed that His message was going to be rejected that Christ began speaking in parables. By that time the need to do so had become readily apparent. As He explained to His disciples: "This is why I speak to them in parables... for this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed" (Matt. 13:13-15). It would have been somewhat presumptuous of Christ to have made these statements before that particular generation had been liberally exposed to His gospel. Their rejection of it meant that He would henceforth center His particular efforts during His earthly ministry on the Church, not the nation of Israel. Hence the parables. As He explained it to some of the scribes and Pharisees: " 'The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner'... Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it" (Matt. 21:42-43).
Fulfilling A Basic Humanitarian Need
The apostle Paul showed the same burning desire in his own time for the welfare of his countrymen. In the 10th chapter of Romans, he wrote: "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved." And Paul was thinking about the here and now. That's why he could be "all things to all men, that [he] might by all means save some" (I Cor. 9:22). If God was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of only ten righteous men, who's to say He wouldn't do the same again? Now maybe you figure that none of this matters because the world has been automatically preprogrammed to follow the worst possible course of prophetic events. But isn't it just possible that much of humanity might not have to experience every last grisly plague written in the book of Revelation before it comes to its senses? If prophecy can fail as it did with Jonah's dire prediction for Nineveh, who's to say it can't happen again? Maybe, just maybe, there are a few Ninevehs out there waiting to hear from some modern-day Jonahs. And even if it turns out there aren't, for humanity's sake, can we afford to assume otherwise?