God had previously given Jonah the instruction to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Jonah refused that mission and had moved quickly in the opposite direction. That choice led to a storm, a cry to God, a vow, a prayer of praise from within the belly of a fish, and the beginning of a new life for the prophet. Jonah was then commanded to bring God’s message of divine judgment against the city of Nineveh. This time he went in the right direction.
Nineveh was apparently a very large city. It took three days of walking just to get from one end of it to the other. It was also the seat of power for a ruthless people that had demonstrated their ability to conquer other nations, relocating captive peoples in far-off lands, and bringing a substantial amount of territory under their subjection. Surprisingly, Jonah displayed no sign of fear concerning the task before him. His suspicion all along was that God might show mercy to the Assyrians, which disturbed him more than any trouble the Assyrians might bring to him personally.
With a thirst for God to destroy Nineveh that was hoping against God’s compassion, Jonah spoke of the impending destruction of this great city in just forty days. Then the worst happened, at least in the mind of Jonah. The people believed and took appropriate ethical actions. This was unspeakably shocking.
What did the Assyrians do? They fasted, humbling themselves before God at the preaching of Jonah. This movement which Christ calls repentance in Matthew 12:41 seems to have started among the people, though news soon reached the king. Instead of trying to stop this zealous reaction to the words of a foreigner, he joined in promoting Yahweh’s message and issued a proclamation not only for fasting, but for a true changing of their ways, a turning away from evil and violence with the earnest desire that God would relent concerning His just anger.
The Lord heard those pagan Assyrians as they cried out to Him. This was the very thing that Jonah had been afraid of, that God would show kindness to Nineveh. As Jonah had testified at the end of the previous chapter, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9)
There is a coming Day of Judgment that will be more than the Lord’s previous expressions of wrath throughout history for one group of people or another in any one place and time. We do not know when it will happen, but the fact of this future Day is absolutely certain. Jesus is the only way out of that devastation. We should give glory to God when anyone turns to our great Redeemer in faith, and continually seek His generous compassion in our own lives. Nonetheless, some who should tremble at the Lord’s Word will not do so. We are told this by Jesus Christ Himself in Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
Prayer from A Book of Prayers
Lord of Glory, grant us courage to move forward in mission in the most frightening places. Will we have the boldness to cry out, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed?” If we will not speak, we will miss the joy of true repentance in the darkest corners of creation. Angels are ready to rejoice. Teach Your church to call all men everywhere to turn to You, for You have granted life to many. Perhaps they will repent like the king and his subjects in Nineveh in the days of Jonah.