Study Notes

Grace to Nineveh

I am doing a terrible job of blogging my reading.  The biggest thing that struck me this week, though, was as I was reading through the book of Jonah: God is gracious.

The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look–something greater than Jonah is here!

Matthew 12:41

Jonah is one of those stories many of us know from childhood.  Our four-year-old could probably give you the bare sketch; there’s a Veggie Tales of it, after all!  And yet as I read it this time, I found myself struck by many things I’d never really thought about before!  I love how the Spirit makes even old stories have fresh applications. 🙂

First: God sent a messenger to Nineveh rather than just annihilating them.

We are talking about a wicked people, so wicked that their wickedness was said to have “confronted” God (1:2).  God would have been just to have rained fire on them like on Sodom and Gomorrah, or any of the other many pagan kings.  And yet God—who knew they would repent—sent a messenger.

Second: Jonah’s disobedience indirectly led to the eternal salvation of the sailors in the boat.

Here, again, God could have picked an obedient prophet!  But Jonah disobeyed and tried running off to Tarshish.  When the seas grow stormy (another act of God!) the sailors demand of Jonah, who are you? What is your country?  And Jonah answers with a great little piece of evangelism: “I’m a Hebrew.  I worship Yahweh, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9 hcsb)

So, they’re in the middle of the storm, and Jonah tells them there’s this God named Yahweh who made the sea.  Important piece of information, there, because in Jonah 1:14, these very same men—who apparently couldn’t even recognize an Israelite beforehand—are praying to Yahweh.  They are affirming His sovereignty, and appealing to Him for mercy.  Jonah 1:16 says they “feared the LORD” and they offered a sacrifice and made vows.

God used even Jonah’s disobedience to bring new sheep into His fold—Gentiles, no less!

Third: Jonah’s message was not one of hope.

Jonah 3:4 tells us the very bleak message Jonah gave Nineveh from God: “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!” Nothing about “unless you repent,” and in fact not even anything about “because you are so wicked.”  These people are so evil that their evilness has come up against God, and Jonah foretells their destruction.

Fourth: Despite this, the people repented.

The message was not one of hope, and they weren’t sure hope was in the offering (“Who knows? God may turn and relent,” they ponder in Jonah 3:9), and yet they saw their evil, named it as evil (Jonah 3:8), and stopped doing it!  Jonah 3:5 says every single man fasted and dressed in sackcloth, even the king.  They even made their animals fast.  They even fasted from water.  They repented, very thoroughly.

And God relented.  And these same Ninevites will rise up on the last day as witnesses for Him.

Fifth: Jonah knew there was hope.

This was the most significant thing to me.  It’s so easy for me to read the Old Testament and see that “smiting” God that athiests poke fun of—many, many wicked people are indeed punished, and often without a lot of extra chances, at least that we see.  And even here, Jonah’s message didn’t seem to offer an extra chance—and yet, Jonah, who was surely aware of Israel’s own history and the history of the way God had dealt with lawless people throughout it… Jonah says, “I knew You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster!” (Jonah 4:2, hcsb)  He’s complaining, but that these words of God’s mercy come so quickly to his lips—that he is so confident that God is merciful that he fled to Tarshish from the beginning—this is so insightful and wonderful that someone sent to preach destruction to a city was still so sure that God relents from destruction!  He preaches a message of punishment while cradling in his heart (even if he wasn’t happy about it) the certainty that God is merciful.  His conviction of God’s mercy had to be so incredibly strong.

Sixth: God cared about Nineveh.

He compares Nineveh to the plant that grew over Jonah (Jonah 4:10), and asks Jonah, if you cared about this plant, even though you weren’t even the one who labored for it, how much more should I care for Nineveh (which was, of course, His own creation)?

This, again, is an amazing testimony of the mercy of God. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” God asks in Ezekiel 18:23.  “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives?”  Nineveh is a beautiful illustration of this verse.  This incredibly wicked city—Jonah himself is revolted—and yet God “cares” (Jonah 4:11).  It tells us He even cares about their animals!  And so He sends a prophet, and rejoices over their repentance, and keeps them till the last day.

So much mercy and encouragement in this little book!

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