The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:1-2 NIV)
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a nation which, in the days of Jonah, was not only the major power in the Middle East, but also an enemy of Israel. So, when God told Jonah that He wanted him to go to Nineveh and preach against it, you would think that Jonah would have said, “On my way, Lord!” After all, because of the wickedness that God saw in that city, He was ready to cast judgment on it and to destroy it. But instead, Jonah got up and hightailed it in the opposite direction (Jonah 1:3). He went to Joppa and took the next boat out of town, heading for Tarshish, which was as far in the opposite direction from Nineveh as Jonah could possibly go at that time. Jonah was a reluctant prophet.
But God was not letting Jonah off that easily. God sent a raging storm that threatened not only Jonah’s life, but also the lives of the sailors on the ship headed to Tarshish. To stop the storm from destroying the ship and everyone on it, the sailors threw Jonah overboard. The storm was quieted and God gave Jonah a “time out” by sending a great fish to swallow Jonah and give him time to think. Jonah sat in the belly of that fish for three days and when he prayed and gave praise to God, God ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach. God gave Jonah a second chance. Once again, he told Jonah to get up and deliver His message to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-2). This time, Jonah did what God told him to do (Jonah 3:3-4).
What was the reason for Jonah’s reluctance the first time God told him to preach against Nineveh? Perhaps he was afraid of what the Ninevites might do to him. After all, they were known for their violence. Perhaps it was because, as an Israelite, Jonah felt he would be betraying his own country by warning the Ninevites of God’s impending judgment. But, if you read through the book of Jonah, you’ll discover that what was really behind Jonah’s reluctance, what really sent him on a journey to try to flee from God’s presence and God’s plan for him was because Jonah knew God. Jonah knew that the God he served was merciful and compassionate. He knew that his God was slow to anger and filled with a love that never fails. And that means that Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented, they would not face the judgment and destruction that they deserved.
Nineveh did repent. As a result, they were spared the judgment and destruction that Jonah had told them they were facing (Jonah 3:5-10). And Jonah? Was he happy that, as a result of his preaching God’s word, the Ninevites repented and were spared the consequences of their wickedness? Nope! Jonah was upset and became angry with God (Jonah 4:1-3). Basically, he said, “God, I knew this was going to happen! I knew that because You are merciful, loving, and compassionate, You would spare these people! That’s why I didn’t want to do this to begin with! Kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than to see this.”
God responded to Jonah’s tantrum by saying, “Is it right for you to be so angry about this?” And Jonah went off and sulked (Jonah 4:4-5). It’s easy for us to read this and say, “Right, God! You tell him! What right does he have to be so angry that his enemy was spared?” But, if we’re really honest about it, although we may not have ever said it, we probably would feel the same way Jonah felt if God were to spare those whom we dislike, those whom we consider enemies, those who, in our eyes, don’t deserve God’s mercy and compassion. The book of Jonah ends with a question, asked by God: “But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:11 NLT)
God created all people. He created us. He created our enemies. He created those who live in ways that deserve His judgment. Truth is, we are all sinners. But when you read Jonah 4:11, when you read Matthew 18:12-14, and when you read 2 Peter 3:9, it is very clear that God desires that all people should be saved, that all people should be given the chance to receive eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV) says that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God loves the world. Not the planet, but the people who live on it. And, if God loves them, so should we. We have a mission, given to us by Jesus (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8). We are to preach the good news of salvation through Jesus to all people, not just to those we love, not to our neighbors and friends, but even to those whom we do not like, even to our enemies. We are to preach the good news to Nineveh.
Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.