The Book of Jonah is far more than a story about a big fish and a wayward prophet. It contains God’s sovereignty, his grace, his lovingkindness, and his transforming power. As I preached through Jonah last year, two questions piqued in my curiosity and I mulled over them for the full ~40 hours or so that I spent in study. Finally I was able to answer both. These two questions were
1. Why was Ninevah so open to Jonah’s terrible sermon in chapter 3 verse 4?
2. Why does the book end the way it does, with a seemingly unanswered question?
I can answer question two quite succinctly and accurately: the entire Book of Jonah is the answer to Jonah 4:10-11. Jonah, through writing this book, answers God’s question and demonstrates the fullness of his repentance for his uncompassionate response to God’s mercy and Ninevah’s salvation. Jonah beautifully bears witness to God’s goodness and kindness to both himself and Nineveh, showing his alignment to God's character.
The first question is not so easily answered, though I have formulated an answer, and this article will seek to expand a bit on why I believe Ninevah responded so fully to a sermon that didn’t even call for a response. I will take certain liberties, but will do my best to stay true to the text. Many of the details in this note are fictional, and I am not saying this is definitely how it happened, though I am quite certain it happened something like this:
Our crippled craft transitioned into the calm waters of Joppa Harbor. Riding high in the water our ship looked ready to sink at any moment. She had endured winds and waves more than twice what any ship in the Mittelmeer could be expected to endure, but by some miracle we had made landfall.
Emotions on board were mixed. We were relieved to be alive, we were saddened to have lost a friend in the voyage, we were anxious for the fate of our captain and ourselves for having jettisoned our precious cargo. But under it all was an amazing sense of joy, a peace that none of us had ever known before.
Let me introduce myself, my name is Amarna, the son of an Egyptian mother and Assyrian father. My father was a soldier who was stationed in Joppa in order to secure this vital military access to Southern Judea. I grew up on the sea, fishing from an early age, then transitioned to cargo vessels, taking my first voyage to the Balkans at the age of 9. Over the years, I have become an accomplished sailor. My preferred deity was my namesake, Aten, the Sun God, the God of Egypt and my forefathers; but in my travels (as far West as Tarshish and as far East as Colchis) I have encountered and worshipped many foreign gods. Some of these have seemed quite trite, gods for property, gods for catching fish, gods for curing ulcers and the like, but none seemed so powerful as Aten, who by his (or her/it) power was said to have created the world and was sustaining all life. Could Aten have been an attempt by the Egyptians to worship the True God who delivered Moses and the Jews from Egypt? I cannot say for sure, but this is my belief (at the time of this writing, not when I was an Aten follower, for Aten, though similar to Yahveh, is certainly not the same).
The strangest God I have ever encountered was just a few days ago. A Hebrew prophet by the name of Jonah had boarded our vessel bound for Tarshish. He had paid dearly for passage and we were glad to have a religious person on board who could teach us more ways to be blessed by the deities. That is, until he told us who his God was. Our captain, a polytheist if ever there was one and exceptionally superstitious, was especially insulted when Jonah told him that "Yahveh eloheinu Yahveh ehad." or translated "The Lord is God, the Lord is One." They finally broke company when Jonah declared without compromise, "Yahveh is THE God (Jonah 1:6), besides him there is no other."
This Jonah, who possessed great knowledge of the Words of his God (cf. Jonah 2), was rather strange, for he was fleeing from this God (Jonah 1:10). When we asked him why, he told us that his God was gracious and merciful and a forgiver of sins (none of us had even considered whether our gods could just forgive sins, and we regularly sacrificed all manner of things to them to earn their favor), and had commissioned him to go to Nineveh to declare God's anger with that city. Jonah was certain without any doubt that God intended to forgive the entire city, and he was not at all pleased about this (Jonah 4:2). After Jonah retired below deck we joked amongst ourselves that even if we wanted to, we couldn't sail him to Nineveh, since a sea-fairing boat was the last way you'd get to that desert city.
Then our troubles began, a storm hit us with such ferocity that it had to have been supernatural (Jonah 1:4). We called General Quarters and took our positions to keep the boat leeward and afloat. The captain called out for prayers of intercession to be made to every deity who could possibly help us (Jonah 1:5). I prayed fervently to Aten, but the darkness of the clouds gave me little hope of his help. Several times during the gale I thought we were done for, the ship rocked violently and tipped dangerously, and the call was made to throw overboard our cargo of valuable Arabian, Assyrian, and Egyptian wares. About this time we noticed that Jonah was nowhere to be found. After a brief search the captain came back on deck with Jonah in tow. We feared for our lives, and saw no end to the storm.
I was not the only one who felt this storm was not natural, for the crew called for lots to be cast to determine which deity should be prayed to. The lot fell on Jonah, and a hush fell across the deck, for none of us had thought to pray to Yahveh. Jonah's words pierced my heart, he declared that Yahveh, not Aten, was the creator of earth and sea. He commanded us to cast him overboard to appease his God, but we could not, for as strange as our gods were, we all abhorred human sacrifice, especially when the sacrifice appeared to be innocent of anything deserving of death. After rowing hard for land, but making no headway, we recognized that no other option presented itself. The storm grew worse; one moment we were at the summit of a mountainous wave, and the next we were in danger of being swallowed up in the valley. We prayed a prayer to Yahveh and cast his prophet into the sea.
Instantly the storm subsided, the sun came out, and our tattered sails on broken masts fluttered in a gentle breeze. We rushed to the stern and looked helplessly at the foundering prophet, wondering if we should drag him back aboard. Before we could finish the thought, the largest fish that any of us had ever seen engulfed Jonah; and then both ixthys and preacher were gone.
In Joppa I was shocked and pleased that our captain bore such strong witness to the power and sufficiency of the One-God, Yahveh, as he stood accused before our benefactor. I will forever remember him saying, “I count everything as loss in comparison to gaining God, my Saviour.” What will be his fate, I do not know, but his soul is secure in the Anointed One.
The rest of the crew expressed their desire to meet with a Rabbi and learn about the God of Israel, but as for myself, I could not shake a conviction I had. Jonah had been commissioned to warn the city of Nineveh of impending doom, but had not. God had bestowed such grace upon myself that I could think of nothing else but delivering Jonah’s message to Nineveh. Luckily, or probably more providentially, a caravan was leaving for Nineveh in the morning, and I made sure I was in it.
Over the three weeks or so it took to travel to Nineveh, I learned that the animosity between Israel and Assyria was greater than I had ever fathomed. Joppa was firmly held by the Assyrians, and so we never saw any fighting there, but I learned that fighting had been fierce elsewhere. Though we lived in a relative time of peace, a time of tributes paid from Israel to Assyria, we were beset several times by Israelite and Assyrian patrols who harassed us and searched us for spies and weapons. We passed burned out cities in Northern Israel and Syria, and passed unspeakable tributes to the Assyrian war-machine’s violence. It was during this time that I at least could empathize with Jonah’s resistance to offering Assyria forgiveness, for truly their atrocities were heinous and prevalent, but I saw that each person is in great need of forgiveness and would not and could not presume that I was in any less need of forgiveness than anyone in Assyria. I was blessed to be able to bear testimony to my fellow travelers about the God who accepted intercession, who received propitiation and who saved our lives and souls off the coast of Joppa. My Assyrian companions were riveted by the story, and one man, a native of Nineveh, canted his head when he heard of the great fish that swallowed Jonah. I do not know if they will repent towards the True and Faithful God or not, but they have been presented with the truth of the Creator and Judge of the world.
The grandeur of Nineveh was awe-inspiring. As we came upon it on the bank of the Tigris River, I was astonished by the high walls, the beautiful façade, the armada of fishing boats, and the towering palm trees which did not reach anywhere near the top of the walls. As we neared the Quay Gate I could not help but notice a proliferation of bronze and golden fish statues adorning the gate. One especially stood out, the largest, engraved, “City of Nina, Beloved of Ishtar”, and I couldn’t help but think it looked strikingly similar to the fish I had seen less than a month in the past.
Entering Nineveh as a foreigner seeking audience with the city's officials was not an easy task. I pled my case to governors, to sergeants, to priests of Nina, to anyone who would listen, to no avail, and finally, as my welcome in Nineveh was all but worn out as a doomsday prophet, I was invited to speak to the king. I explained to him who I had been, a non-Jew living in Judea, a faithful servant of Assyria, a journeyman fisherman, and a faithful follower of Aten among other gods. Then I explained who I had become, a follower of the God of Israel, a messenger of his grace and a herald of his sovereignty, a sinner saved by grace and one desperately calling all who would listen to turn from dead idols to the Living God. The king’s anger became evident when he heard this, he clawed the armrests of his throne, which I realized were carved into the shape of the idol of the city, a fish.
Sensing that my appointment with the king was quickly nearing its end, I continued, explaining that the wrath of the God of Israel had been kindled against Nineveh for her sins against Heaven, against humanity, and against the Jewish people, that God was prepared to curse the nation which had cursed his chosen people. I recounted the story of Jonah who was the commissioned prophet to warn the city, and told of how he had been swallowed by a fish in his disobedience. I cried out that I had seen the power of Yahveh and against it no man or beast or city could stand, that lest Nineveh repent, she would be in ruins.
The king exploded in anger, calling me a spy and a liar and a false prophet, he thundered that just has Nina had taken care of Jonah, she would take care of me. He called for his guards to seize me immediately, and had me locked in stocks in the central square of the city. In a mocking voice he told me that if my warning were true, that I would perish among the rubble of that great city. My punishment endured for weeks, given only minimal water and occasionally a bit of rotten refuse for sustenance. At first I was not given any chance of respite; then a priest of Nina offered me amnesty if I would only worship the fish goddess, to which I replied in a weak and broken voice, “Yahveh eloheinu Yahveh ehad.”
After weeks and weeks of this torturous captivity, I had become a spectacle, a derision, the scum of the earth, for I would preach to any person who would listen to turn to my God; I was able to bear witness regularly every day from my chains. It was apparent that I was not long for the world, for the authorities had grown tired of me and were setting a date for my execution; all that remained was to find a proper way to make an example of me to any that would preach against the gods of Assyria. I cringed at the thought of being flayed alive and nailed to the wall of Nineveh. My faith began to falter, calls for recantation came more and more frequently, and I considered praying to Aten for help, I considered praying to Nina for reprieve, but in my weakness I found an unexpected strength in Yahveh.
Then a murmur arose in the square, followed by a supernatural silence, and through eyes blurred by dehydration, I made out a figure walking to the stairs overlooking the crowds numbering in the thousands. Struggling to focus, I saw that this disheveled man looked familiar; he was clearly a Hebrew by his dress, though his skin and his clothing were bleached white, as if by acid. I can't tell you why, but I got the distinct impression that he had been inside of a fish; he certainly looked like he had been to death and back. It seemed as though all of Nineveh gave him ear and waited for him to speak. He looked towards Heaven, and then preached that famous short sermon,
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
The rest is history.