1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”
3 But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
As in the days of Abraham, when the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah had reached up to God (Genesis 18:20), so God Himself heard the outcry against Nineveh. Nineveh was a great city, the capital of Assyria located near the head of the Tigris River. It was far outside of Israel, and certainly no friend of the Israelites, and yet God became concerned about its evil ways. So the Lord sent word to Jonah the son of Amittai, a prophet from Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14:25), which is in the inheritance of Zebulun west of the Sea of Galilee. (Joshua 19:13) Jonah did not react well.
Perhaps Jonah was a little disheartened by this prophecy that came to him. After all, he had once prophesied that part of Israel would be restored (2 Kings 14:25), and yet the king of Israel who won those lands back–Jeroboam the son of Joash of Israel–“did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin.” (2 Kings 14:24) Predicting that such a king would restore the lands of Israel was not exactly a portentous way to begin his career as a prophet. Nonetheless, the Lord told this same Jonah to make his way to far Nineveh, the enemy of Israel, to warn them to repent.
And Jonah fled from the Lord so he wouldn’t have to deliver the message.
We all remember what happened to Jonah after that: God pursued him as he fled, and Jonah’s flight nearly cost the lives of a ship full of sailors. Jonah’s resistance not only threatened Nineveh–since they would not receive the warning to repent–but also the lives of those around Jonah. Had Jonah simply done as he was told, the sailors would have kept on doing their daily work and never had to face God’s direct wrath. And yet…
The Lord KNEW Jonah would flee. And He knew that a boat full of sailors would need to witness the mercy of God in sparing their lives. Does that sound familiar? It should. Read chapter 27 of the book of Acts, and there you’ll see how God was glorified in sparing the lives of the men taking the apostle Paul to Rome. The sailors taking Jonah to Tarshish eventually appealed directly to God, and after they had thrown Jonah overboard to face his own fate, the tempest calmed and the boat sailed safely away.
Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD and took vows.
God took Jonah’s flight as an opportunity to show His mercy and prove His sovereignty, and so He won men to Himself. In the meantime, Jonah himself asked for forgiveness and mercy, and he received it. He spent three days in the belly of the fish and then ended up on dry land near Nineveh, the place where God truly wanted him to be.
It is true that the job of a prophet and evangelist is not easy. Sharing the gospel, warning people to repent, even taking the Word of God to your lifelong enemies is hard work, and it takes a lot of courage and a certain stomach for rejection–and it takes a great deal of trust in God. But because of His mercy, God wants us to warn people, to call them to repentance and faith. If we flee from His call, God will use us wherever we may go, but in the end He will put us where He needs us to be. Whether or not WE believe someone deserves mercy doesn’t matter. We are not called to judge, nor are we called to preach only to a few. The commission from Jesus was to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), and if we flee from that, then God will put us through trials and still be glorified–and then He’ll drop us next to Nineveh to get to what He really wants us to do.
No one wants to hear that those who don’t heed the gospel will be condemned, but that is what God has told us–multiple times, in fact. And since we are all called to preach that same gospel, we may feel like we’re doing people a disservice to “threaten” them that way. But we must remember that the threat of destruction is only for those who refuse to repent and believe. The condemnation is for those who refuse Jesus as Lord and as Savior. And while we may like to see our enemies ground down into dust, we are nonetheless called to share the message of God’s mercy with them.
Jonah finally did as he was told, and yet he still fought against the Lord’s mercy, never realizing that he himself had also received God’s mercy. We who know we are saved by the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, we ought to understand just how great and wonderful is God’s mercy. And that same mercy is extended to all men who repent and believe in Christ. Yes, some may refuse to believe, and some will even blaspheme the name of the One who brings God’s mercy to men, but we cannot refuse the summons to share the gospel with every living thing.
Sometime, God will call us all to preach in our own Nineveh–perhaps a rough part of town, perhaps a mission in a place known for persecution, perhaps reaching out to our own family members, perhaps speaking the truth in love to a prisoner or a widow or an orphan. We can try to flee like Jonah did, and God will use us for His glory even as He puts us through the wringer, but in the end God will have His way with us. The road to Nineveh is not easy, but we know that it can be very rewarding, because not only will God be merciful to those who hear and accept the gospel, He also will share His mercy with us. God is pointing toward Nineveh. It is time to go.
Our Father in heaven, Your ways are unsearchable, and the ways of Your mercy beyond our understanding. I cannot even fathom why You would love me so much to share Your mercy with me, a lowly sinner. And yet even in my sin, Christ died for me to make me right with You, my Father. So point me the way to Nineveh, Lord God, and use me as You will. I will not knowingly resist You, and I pray that if I stray from Your command, then use my rebellion to Your glory and set my feet back on the right path again. Amen.