So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.Jonah 3:3-5
When God gives a prophet a message to deliver, the heart of the Father is always a heart calling for repentance, even if we selfishly desire the destruction of those the message is intended for. The message of the prophet in nearly every case in the Old and New Testament is almost always a call to repentance. Yet the message that Jonah delivers is curiously different. It doesn’t include a call for repentance, but taken at face value, it is a declaration of impending and inescapable doom.
A Great City
As we have previously discussed, at the time of the events of Jonah, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and was likely the largest city in the world at the time. So large, that the writer of Jonah states that the breadth of the city was a three day’s journey. The best estimates of distance at that time put that between 60-75 miles across. For a city in this time period, that was huge.
The distance that Jonah would have had to travel on foot to reach Nineveh at the closest point on the Mediterranean Sea would be approximately 350 miles, which would have taken Jonah at a similar rate of travel approximately 2 weeks. Contrast that with the distance that Jonah could have gone direct to Nineveh (approximately 725 miles from the Southern Kingdom of Judah if he came from Jerusalem) and the fact that he intended to travel 3000 miles the opposite direction to Tarshish in Spain, beyond the Rock of Gibraltar and almost as far as you can get on the European continent from Nineveh.
The Assyrian Empire covered approximately 75,000 square miles of mostly desert land at the tail end of what is known as the Fertile Crescent (see figure above). Contrast that with the Roman Empire that reached its peak at over 5 million square miles and then the Mongol Empire that extended over 9.25 million square miles, you can see that Assyria did not ultimate reach elite empire status.
However, the Assyrians did offer up a reputation of cruelty that was unmatched throughout history as they invented some of the most gruesome methods of torture and execution that mankind has ever devised, include live flayings, impalement, and earliest forms of crucifixion – all of which the military students of the Roman Empire would later study and perfect to horrific measures. And Nineveh was at the heart of it all.
The Assyrian Empire was a known thorn in the side of Israel and Judah for decades and ultimately led to the first deportation of Israelite captives under Tilgath-Pileser III in 740 BC and a second deportation of 27,290 captives from Samaria under Sargon II in 721 BC, and a final deportation from Judah under Salmaneser V a year later. In 612 BC, the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Assyrian Empire at Nineveh and deported the dispersed Hebrews to Babylon in modern day Baghdad, Iraq.
A Great Repentance
Interestingly, the events of the book of Jonah occur some time during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC). It is likely that the events occur somewhere in the middle of Jeroboam’s 40-year reign over Israel as a contemporary of Kings Amaziah and Uzziah over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The message from the prophet was a simple declaration of impending doom. The term that is translated “overthrow” is often interpreted as “destroyed”, but the actual Hebrew translation of the word means “to change or transform”. Typically this would be a reference to being overthrown by a foreign power. Which you can see, actually happened in 612 BC at the hands of the Babylonians.
There was no call for repentance in the message delivered by Jonah: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) Considering Jonah’s distaste for delivering the message to Nineveh in the first place, I often wonder if Jonah edited the message from God to leave out the element of hope through repentance. Even in Jonah 1:2, there is no indication that God intends to provide any hope of deliverance.
The whole episode almost mirrors the events around the history of Sodom and Gamorrah as the same term is used to described what happened there in Genesis 19. However, the same word is used in Exodus 7:15, 17, 20 to describe transformation referencing how God “turned” Moses staff into a serpent and how He “turned” the Nile into blood. The same word is also used to described how Pharaoh “changed his mind toward the people” who were questioning why he let the Israelites go. Over and over again there is this idea of transformation and change, and typically in response to a challenge to the authority of an earthly ruler. And this instance was no different.
Yet, the people of Nineveh got the message loud and clear. Having tormented Israel for years with raids and skirmishes, the Assyrians were familiar with the God of Israel. They knew of the history of those who dared to defy Him, including the Philistines and the Hittites. They also knew of His mercy and grace, because the people immediately believed God and repented of their sinfulness, from the lowest of the low all the way up to the king of Nineveh.
The message of God when faithfully delivered is always intended to inspire repentance. See the word of God through one of Jonah’s contemporaries, the prophet Isaiah:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heavenIsaiah 55:10, 11
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
What God intends for His word to fulfill will be accomplished in spite of any attempts we may selfishly impose to suppress His message. He is the Sovereign King of the Universe. He is faithful and true. And if God intends to see repentance in the hearts of those who receive His message, then that will come to pass, even if we try to stifle that message with our own selfish means of delivery.
A Great God
If Almighty God desires for a people to repent, He will make a way for that repentance. However, He will not force repentance and will allow the consequences of sin and selfishness to take its own natural course. Clearly it wasn’t long before the repentant Ninevites forgot their vow and returned to their wickedness. Ultimately change did come as the Assyrian Empire was eventually overthrown by the Babylonians, who then became a crucible for the people of Israel and gave rise the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel. Later the events of Esther under the reign of the Persian Empire would come to pass and eventually the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah would lead the people back to Israel and restore the walls of the fallen Kingdom and restore the worship to Almighty God.
However, even the repentance of God’s chosen people of Israel was short-lived. The last book of the Old Testament issues a warning to the people of Israel from the prophet Malachi: “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5,6)
The Word of God demands obedience for the people of God and calls all people to surrender to His authority as King of the Universe. Those who do not recognize His authority and submit to Him will ultimately see utter destruction. Either through the natural, temporal consequences of their own sin, or the eternal consequences of separation from a relationship with Him. The choice is yours. Which will it be?