Imagine with me for a moment. You are minding your own business when suddenly the word of the Lord comes to you and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has called you to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan, to Taliban headquarters. God has called you to go and preach against it because God has taken note of its wickedness. How would you feel about the assignment God has handed you? Would you be scared? Would you be ecstatic knowing that our enemy, the Taliban, is going to be destroyed by God? Would you accept the assignment with enthusiasm or would you run for the hills? I don’t mean to stress you out. You probably don’t need to get too worked up wondering if God is calling you to do such a thing, but history shows that God did call a man named Jonah to do just what I’ve described for you. He didn’t call Jonah to make a trip to Taliban headquarters, but he called him to go to the most brutal and wicked city on the planet.
Before we get into Jonah’s story let’s talk about the background of the book. Jonah prophesied in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-758 B.C.) That means that Jonah, Hosea, and Amos all prophesied about the same time.
The very first verse of Jonah gives us a little information about Jonah. In Jonah 1:1 we read, 1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: (Jonah 1:1 NIV) Jonah’s father’s name was Amittai, in Hebrew, “Amittai” means, “My truth.” Jonah, in Hebrew, means, “Dove.” We can find out more background information on Jonah by taking a look at 2 Kings 14:23-25. Read along with me.
23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. 25 He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher. (2 Kings 14:23-25 NIV)
Jeroboam II expanded the borders of Israel “according to the word of the Lord… spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” Jonah was from Gath Hepher which was near Nazareth, not too far from the Sea of Galilee. He prophesied that God was going to enlarge Israel’s borders and that is exactly what happened under Jeroboam’s watch.
God’s next assignment was quite different than delivering the wonderful news of the expansion of the national borders. God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was an ancient city located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. If you were to go to Mosul, Iraq today you would be right across the river from the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh.
As I’ve mentioned, Nineveh was an ancient city, but it had not always been the capital of Assyria. We first read about Nineveh in Genesis 10:8-10. We are told that it was Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, who founded the city. Nineveh many years later would become the capital city of Assyria. We learn from reading Jonah that Nineveh had 120,000 inhabitants. It was one of the great and most influential cities of the ancient world. Historical records tell us that there was a huge wall forty to fifty feet tall and almost eight miles long that encircled the inner-city. It was said that three chariots could be driven side-by-side on top of the wall. There were also outlying areas, like our suburbs, that were counted as part of the population. Many believe that the metropolitan area of Nineveh covered about sixty miles.
The Assyrians were known for their brutality towards their enemies. Historical records excavated in Nineveh attest to the inhumane brutality of the Assyrians. They would decapitate their victims and then hang the heads throughout the conquered city. Artwork discovered in archeological digs shows their victims impaled on tall poles, body parts dismembered, and men actually skinned alive. You didn’t want to mess with the Assyrians.
The Israelites were more than familiar with the Assyrians. They had a long history of trying to push back the Assyrian’s expanding conquests. King Ahab had joined forces with the Syrians and Phoenicians to fight Assyrian King Shalmaneser III in the Battle of Qarqar in 853 B.C. It was said that Ahab contributed 2,000 chariots and 10,000 men.
Later, King Jehu, who reigned as King of Israel from 841-814 B.C. paid tribute to Shalmaneser III, the King of Assyria as protection against King Hazael of Damascus. 2 Kings 10:32 tells us,
32 In those days the LORD began to reduce the size of Israel. Hazael overpowered the Israelites throughout their territory… (2 Kings 10:32 NIV)
There are many people who doubt that the stories of the Bible are true, that the characters described throughout the Old Testament ever existed, and that instead of being historically accurate, these stories are the stuff of legend and myth. For many years people doubted that Nineveh ever existed. Then, in the 1800’s excavations began in what was thought to be the ancient site of Nineveh. A young British archeologist named Sir Austen Henry Layard discovered the lost palace of Sennacherib across the Tigris River from Mosul in northern Iraq. He also unearthed the palace and now famous library of Ashurbanipal which included over 22,000 inscribed clay tablets.
One of the other finds was an obelisk, six feet tall, which we know today as The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser The obelisk was erected as a public monument in 825 B.C. while Assyria was in the midst of a civil war. The various sides of the obelisk have pictures of the military conquests of Shalmaneser III. The king thought that the obelisk would unify his people. Of great importance to us is the second row of pictures on the obelisk that shows a picture of King Jehu paying tribute to Shalmaneser III. The inscription underneath reads, “The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king and spears.” This isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but it is the earliest depiction of anyone in the Bible done by someone who lived at the same time. For those who still disbelieve the accuracy and reliability of God’s Word, well I don’t know what it would take to convince you.
Now we know a little about the background to Jonah, the people of the Assyrian Empire, and the city of Nineveh. Let’s see what we can learn from the book of Jonah. If you ask people today what comes to mind when they hear the word “Jonah,” most people will say “Jonah and the whale.” As I have read through this little four chapter book time and time again this summer I have recognized that Jonah is not a story about Jonah and the whale as much as it is a story about Jonah and God. All throughout Jonah we find God acting, moving, and exercising His Sovereignty in nature, in the life of His prophet Jonah, in the lives of pagan sailors, and in the lives of His enemies, the Ninevites.
In Jonah we find two primary names for God. First of all, in nineteen verses we find the most sacred and personal name for God used, “YHWH.” Let me give you just a few examples. In the opening verses of Jonah we read,
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:1-2 NIV)
I’ve thought about Jonah’s call this past week. Not one of God’s prophets were given a cushy job by God. Each of them were called to hardships, to delivering a message that would not be appreciated or approved, and yet they went and did what God had called them to do. When the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, we read in Isaiah 6:8,
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8 NIV)
When the word of the Lord came to Jonah he didn’t say a thing. We have no idea what was going through Jonah’s mind until we get to chapter 4. Jonah simply headed in the opposite direction and boarded a ship to Tarshish. Jonah was running from God like some of us are running from God this very morning. You say, “How am I running from God? I’m here at church aren’t I?” Sure you are here, but are you living out God’s call on your life? Are you allowing Him to use you to do what He wants to do through your life? Are you going to church on Sunday and then just going through the motions the rest of the week? You can’t run from God anymore than Jonah was able to escape His presence. Jonah could have spared himself a lot of wasted time and heartache if he would have read Psalm 139 before he made his decision to run from God.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7-12 NIV)
Don’t waste your life running from God. Don’t waste your time trying to avoid what it is that God desires for you to do. Get with it and trust Him. You will never regret it.
The second occurrence of “YHWH” that I want to show you happened onboard the ship that Jonah had taken to get to Tarshish. The sailors on board the ship were not Jews; they were pagan Gentiles who worshipped all kinds of gods. We read that the Lord sent a great wind that rocked the seas and scared the sailors to death. In Jonah 1:5 we read, 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. (Jonah 1:5 NIV)
They find out that Jonah is the reason for their misfortune. Jonah tells them that he is running from the Lord, and then he tells them how to calm the seas: throw him overboard. The sailors throw their cargo overboard reluctant to throw Jonah to a certain death. When they had thrown as much of the cargo overboard as they could, and the seas were still threatening to kill them all, they prepared to hurl Jonah into the sea. Before they did so, they cried out to the LORD. In Jonah 1:14, we read.
14 Then they cried to the LORD, “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.” (Jonah 1:14 NIV)
Now, if you have ever watched Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel then you know that sailors can be some rough, foul mouthed, tough guys. I can imagine that the guys I’ve seen on Deadliest Catch are descendents of the sailors that were on Jonah’s ship. Yet, did you hear their prayer? “They cried to the LORD…”
You know what happened next. Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish. We don’t know what kind of fish it was that swallowed Jonah, but from inside the fish Jonah cried out to YHWH. Jonah 2:2 says,
2 He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. (Jonah 2:2 NIV)
At the end of Jonah 2 we read that God commanded the fish to spit Jonah out on the shore and that is exactly what happened. If you have been around here any amount of time you are familiar with the Sovereignty of God, which means that God is absolutely in control of it all. We are not living in a random Universe. We are not trusting and hoping in chance. Neither do we rely upon “coincidences” to work in our favor. We trust in the Sovereign Providence of God for every moment of our lives.
There is another name for God that is used over and over again throughout Jonah and it is the name, “אֱלֹהִים” (Elohiym). The word appears about 2500 times throughout the Old Testament, but about 14 times in Jonah. The first instance I want to show you is a verse we’ve already looked at, Jonah 2:1-2. Read along with me.
1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. 2 He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. (Jonah 2:1-2 NIV)
“Jonah prayed to the LORD his God.” In this once sentence we find both “YHWH” and “Elohim.” The next instance is found in Jonah 3:7-9. Jonah, after have been spit upon the shore decided he couldn’t run from God any longer so he made his way to Nineveh. As he walked the streets he preached the shortest sermon I’ve ever heard. You can read it in Jonah 3:4.
4 On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4 NIV)
The people living in Nineveh believed God and they repented. Then, when the king of Nineveh heard the message, he issued a decree. In Jonah 3:7-9 we read,
7 Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:7-9 NIV)
The Assyrians were notorious for their pagan gods, yet when Jonah preached they heard the word of God, they believed the word of God, they repented of their sins, and they called “urgently” on God, on Elohim. Not Baal, not Adad, or Ashtar, or Shamash, but Elohim—the one, true God.
You need to know something that is very important at this point. It wasn’t the passion of Jonah that persuaded the Ninevites. It wasn’t Jonah’s brokenness over the sins of the people of Nineveh. It wasn’t the way that Jonah crafted his sermon or the multimedia presentation that he had put together while in the belly of the big fish. Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to repent; he wanted to see them destroyed. Yet, look what happened. The reason I bring this up is because there are many of us who think to ourselves, “I don’t know enough for the Lord to use me. I’m not a good enough person for the Lord to use me. I’m not a speaker. I don’t have charisma. I don’t know the Bible well enough to be more vocal about my faith.” It is not what we have to offer that determines the effectiveness of God. We need to share His Word with those He has placed in our lives. Share it when you feel like it and share it when you don’t. Share it with those you love and with those you don’t. Share it when it is convenient, when the opportunity is staring you in the face, and share it when you think nobody would care anyway. Share God’s Word. This is what God says about His Word. Turn with me to Isaiah 55:10-11.
10 “The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. 11 It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it. (Isaiah 55:10-11 NLT)
God’s Word went out to the people of Nineveh, and from the King to the lowliest cow in the fields, things began to change. The people repented and we read in Jonah 3:10 that God relented. Read along with me.
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10 NIV)
“God had compassion.” I thought that kind of talk was descriptive of the God of the New Testament? I hope you have been noticing God’s compassion as we’ve been spending time with the Minor Prophets these past few weeks.
The compassion of God is so evident in this little book of Jonah. God showed compassion for the sailors, He showed compassion for Jonah, and now He has shown compassion for the people of Nineveh as they have turned from their sin and cried out to God. The Hebrew word in Jonah 3:10 which is translated “compassion” is the word, “נָחַם” (nacham) and the word means, “to be sorry, to repent, to comfort, to have compassion, or to be moved to pity.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says about this word: “The origin of the root seems to reflect the idea of ‘breathing deeply,’ hence the physical display of one’s feelings, usually sorrow, compassion, or comfort.” Now I can relate to that. Have you ever been so moved by an experience in life that it took your breath away? Have you ever been touched so deeply by someone else that you “felt” it? Maybe it was their tenacity in the face of suffering, their resolve to see change happen in their lives, or their brokenness in turning to the Lord after defiantly rejecting from Him in times past. You know what I’m talking about.
This is what is described to us about God at seeing the people of Nineveh turn from their sin and cry out to Him. While God was moved to compassion Jonah was seething with anger. In Jonah 1, when Jonah fled from God’s call, he gave us no indication why he was running away. Was he scared? Was he feeling incompetent and insecure? What was it? Well, he doesn’t say, not until we get to Jonah 4 and God shows the people of Nineveh compassion. Turn to Jonah 4:2 with me and let’s read what Jonah says.
2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. (Jonah 4:2 NIV)
Are you kidding me!? Jonah ran as far away from Nineveh as he could because he knew that God was “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven, he wanted to see them suffer, he wanted to see them destroyed because of what they had done. I’ll get back to that, but let me show you something that just blew me away when I learned it this week.
Remember that I told you that God is called, “YHWH” and “Elohim” throughout Jonah? Well, there is one other name for God that is found here in Jonah 4. In Jonah 4:2 he calls God, “אֵל” (El). I was puzzled by that because it is the only place in all of Jonah, among tons of references to “YHWH” and “Elohim,” that you find God called, “El.” I called David Darnell and asked him about it. David said, “Well, Jonah is quoting Exodus 34. Turn to Exodus 34:6 with me. Listen to this.
6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness… (Exodus 34:6 NIV)
This Scripture is foundational for the Jewish people—God is compassionate and gracious, He is slow to anger, and He is abounding in love and faithfulness. If God were not all of these things where would we be? Most of the people I know are certain that if it weren’t for God’s mercy they would be as lost as lost can be. It is God’s grace that has given us the assurance that we are forgiven for the things we have done as well as the things we have failed to do in the past. While the world says, “I hope that I will have lived a good enough life that I will get to heaven when I die.” We say, “Grace, God’s sweet grace and mercy, has saved me and will keep me till He takes me home.” We love God’s grace, we marvel at God’s grace, but we tend to lose our enthusiasm when we learn that God’s grace is even for “them.” We would never say it, but in the depths of our hearts we have somehow convinced ourselves we deserve God’s grace. We know that we aren’t “perfect,” but we sure aren’t as bad as them.
I was thinking this past week about Jonah and all of the people that he encountered from the time he heard God’s call until we get to the end of the book. Do you realize that everywhere Jonah went people were converted? When we first met the sailors they were just a bunch of pagan Gentiles who feared the storm, but by the time Jonah leaves them they were crying out to God and their fear of the storm was turned into a reverence for God. When we first met the folks of Nineveh they were brutal, pagan Gentiles, but once the word of God was uttered by Jonah they turned from their wicked ways, ceased doing violence, and turned in repentance to God. The only person in Jonah who wasn’t “converted” was Jonah. At the end of the book he is still angry at God for showing compassion to the Ninevites.
Sad to say, I think there are many of us in the same boat. Some Ninevite has done you wrong in the past. You’ve been hurt. You are angry. You have deep seated resentment because you want to see God obliterate them. The last thing you want for your own personal Ninevite is for the grace of God to change their life. My friend, give it up this very morning and realize that God’s grace is for those who least deserve it. God’s grace is even for people like me and you.
Britton Christian Church
September 5, 2010