Assyria Through Jonah’s Eyes When Jonah responded improperly to the call of God, he became a prototype for all those who do not respond in obedience when God calls them to special service. For this reason, Jonah has become one of the most maligned prophets in the Old Testament.
Although I believe that Jonah did not respond properly, I also believe that only as we understand the historical, religious, and military background of the book, can we totally comprehend the reasons why he did not want to go.
Jonah was a man of like passions just as we are. By looking at his failure as another human being, with the same feelings and emotions that we have, let us try to discover why he did not want to go to Nineveh.
First, I believe that Jonah did not want to go because the
Assyrians were the most wicked, violent people in the entire
world. History books are filled with graphic descriptions regarding
their battle tactics. After a military encounter, they forced the subdued
people to kneel down, then they came from behind and either clubbed them in the head or decapitated them. Usually they decapitated them so the soldiers would have evidence of the number they killed. The Assyrians paid their soldiers based on the number of dead. They took pride in their cruelty and not only cut off heads, but also the hands of those they conquered. They would tear out their tongues, and often flayed the leaders of a city while they were alive. They usually made giant mounds of corpses, heads, and hands, and left them behind as macabre evidence of Assyrian superiority.
It was the Assyrians who invented the torture of impalation. They
might spare a captive long enough to take him back to one of their cities where outside the city wall, he would be impaled lengthwise on a long stick put through his mouth and down through the stomach. Because of their ingenuity, the victim might live for a day or two as he slowly slid down the stake. It is known that the Ninevites surrounded the city with stakes holding both captives and criminals, so that as a visitor approached the city, he was sickened and terrified by the sight of dead bodies impaled on hundreds of such stakes.
I do not believe we can be too shocked at this since we know that
even in Elizabethan England, during Shakespeare’s time (late 1500s and early 1600s), this was the primary purpose for the guard rails on London Bridge. As one walked across it, he would see the heads of malefactors stuck on the pikes. The Saturday entertainment in London, at that time, was to go to the inner part of the city to see the criminals being hanged until they were stunned, then drawn, quartered, and beheaded, and their heads placed on London Bridge.
Since the Assyrians were more violent and cruel than any nation
on earth, Jonah also knew this. When God told him to go to Nineveh,
his immediate response was one of fear. He reacted just as we probably would have if we knew what could happen if we went to such a city as Nineveh.
Their religion Second, I believe that Jonah did not want to go because he knew the Assyrians were henotheistic. In the past, the Assyrians had subjugated Israel, especially in the time of Jehu, an ancestor of Jeroboam II, some fifty years earlier. Because of their victories over Israel, and because they were henotheistic, they believed their gods were stronger than the Israelite God. Jonah must have thought to himself, “How can I go up to this powerful nation and tell people who believe their gods are stronger than Yahweh, that our God is going to destroy their city in forty days?” Jonah must have thought, “They will never, ever, believe me!”
Many books on Old Testament archaeology contain pictures taken
from inside the ancient palace walls showing the Assyrians carrying
back the gods of other lands on their shoulders to their own cities,
where they placed them in their temples as part of their worship sys-tem. Jonah knew that this was their policy and he knew that because of the past history and involvement of the Assyrians and Israelites, they would be reluctant to believe that the Israelite God could overpower them or their gods.
Jonah’s Other Problems
Third, Jonah knew that since his people had special spiritual knowledge, they had added responsibility. They were given responsibility for the oracles of God; they had in their hands the truth of God in written form. God had said many times over, “You only have Me.” We will see that this is to be a theme later in the minor prophets. In numerous ways, God pointed out that He had chosen them and that they were unique. Jonah knew that with such knowledge and insight about the worship and truth of Jehovah, that if he went to the Assyrians, who had no light or knowledge of the true God, and they repented, there would be judgment on his own people who had not repented at his preaching.
This was true because centuries later, our Lord Jesus Christ said
in Matthew 12, that because Nineveh had repented at the preaching of Jonah and “a greater than Jonah is here” (Himself, but they did not repent, their judgment would be the greater. We must keep in mind that Jonah’s message did not contain a provision for repentance, but from his later statements in regard to his knowledge about God, we know that Jonah believed that the possibility for repentance existed, and that the possibility for God to relent existed because of God’s very nature.
Assyria threat Finally, he knew that if for some unknown reason, illogical as it may have seemed, Assyria did repent, and if, because
of God’s love and grace and long-suffering, He did not destroy them,
then their most powerful enemy would be spared and would continue
to be a threat to the security of Israel.
Throughout the previous century, Assyria had been a constant
threat. Even now, during the reign of Jeroboam II, they were a growing threat. This was the ideal opportunity, in terms of the mentality and thought processes of a national zealot such as Jonah probably was, to see the possibility of the elimination of the natural enemy of Israel. Why then should he go preach to them and risk the possibility that they would repent?
Although we may rebuke Jonah for his unwillingness to go, I
think as we examine these four possibilities, we can understand that,
being a zealous Jew, he experienced all of these reactions. Therefore, we cannot rebuke him too harshly. I would ask you, and ask you to ask your congregation, How many in World War II prayed for Adolph Hitler to be saved? How many in our lifetime have prayed for Khrushchev or his successors? Or Yasha Arafat? Or Khomini? Has anyone prayed for their salvation? Before we hasten to judge Jonah too harshly, we need to be careful regarding who casts the first stone.
LXIX A RUNAWAY PROPHET
More on Jonah
Jonah 1:3 tells us that “Jonah rose up to flee ... from the Presence of the
Lord.” We need to remember that in the eighth century B.C. he did not have the complete revelation of God as we have. He should, however, have known Psalm 139, which David had written over two hundred years earlier, where he might have read:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall If lee from
thy presence? (v s. 7) If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy fight
hand shall hold me. (vss. 9-10)
Jonah should have known this, yet it was to the uttermost part of the
sea that he was headed. When I read of him as a prophet of God, trying to flee from the presence of God, I see just a hint of henotheism in the theology of Jonah; believing that somehow by leaving Israel, he could escape the influence and call of God.
His Preparation Jonah left Israel and went south to Joppa, a city on the Mediterranean seacoast and located a ship which was going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and boarded the ship bound for Tarshish, fleeing from the presence of the Lord. The seriousness of this sin is in the fact that it was so well planned. We can ask God’s forgiveness for our sins of ignorance, but those of a high hand, those we commit after lengthy and strategic planning, are the ones for which we will be judged most severely.
We can see this type of sin in Jonah. He did not run blindly away.
He had to stop and think: “Where can I go to get far away from God? I
know, I will go to Tarshish! How do I get there? There is a commercial
port at Joppa. What will I need? Money to buy a ticket.” And so his
thought processes would go.
When he got there, he had to find a ship that would take him on
as a passenger. Then after finding the right ship, in the crowded harbor, he paid the required fare and boarded the vessel.
A Storm at Sea No sooner was the ship out into the Mediterranean Sea than the Lord, not nature, hurled a great wind onto the sea and there was such a storm that the ship was in danger of breaking up. This threat was a real source of fear to the mariners. We know from underwater photographs and movies, that the sea bottoms are covered with the hulls of thousands of ships wrecked many centuries ago. They too were victims of storms such as the one which threatened Jonah and the crew.
Along with hundreds, possibly thousands of others, the ship on
which he had taken passage was about to sink to the bottom of the
Mediterranean Sea. The frightened sailors, who were polytheists and
henotheists, began to call on their gods. At the same time, they began to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. I might point out here that because of Jonah’s disobedience, innocent merchants were suffering great financial loss. A man, or group of men, would have had a sizable capital investment in that merchandise. They lost it because Jonah chose that ship for his flight from God. When a Christian is out of the will of God, others, whether believers or not, often suffer because of his sin.
While these men were praying to their gods, Jonah was asleep in
the hold of the ship. I believe it was a sleep of depression. He was guilt ridden and sleeping the sleep of escape. The captain went below and awakened him, saying, “Get up! How can you sleep? Call on your god! We are calling on ours. Perhaps yours can save us from perishing!” He used the name god in its pagan sense. He was not at this point talking about Jehovah.
As superstitious pagans, the crew began to realize that something,
possibly an omen, had happened to bring the storm upon them. They
discerned that someone on board had brought this evil upon them. So, they began to cast lots to discover who it could be, From Proverbs 16:33 we know that “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord. “ Because the Lord was active in this affair, the lot fell upon Jonah. When the lot fell, they turned and demanded from Jonah a reason for the storm. Notice in verse 8 how they directed the questions at him. “For whose cause is this evil upon us? What is thine occupation? Whence comest thou? What is thy country? Of what people art thou?” Their questions struck Jonah like rapid hammer blows.
Jonah’s answer is in verse 9. “I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the
God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. “ Notice he confessed his creationist theology. He had already told them that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, so now the frightened seamen asked, “How could you do this?”
As henotheists, they could understand his thinking that he could
flee from God’s presence. But now that he admitted to believing in a
Creator-God, who must therefore be mightier than all gods, those pagan sailors asked, “How could you do this?” Christians today need to take this to heart. Many of us involve ourselves in things which, if unbelievers knew it, they would ask, “How could you?”
Following Jonah’s testimony that he worshiped Yahweh, who created
the earth and the sea, they asked what they should do with him in
order that the sea might become calm. Verse 11 says it was becoming increasingly stormy with waves crashing over the bow of the ship. Jonah’s reply was to offer himself as a sacrifice. He said, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you. “ What a sobering thought for Jonah to realize that his disobedience might cost the life of every man aboard as well as the cargo and perhaps the reputation and total life savings of the merchant who was shipping it to Tarshish.
The men were not yet willing to throw Jonah overboard. They
dug in their oars and rowed desperately to get back to land, but could
not. The storm only became worse but still they did not want to harm
God’s prophet. Verse 14 says, “They cried unto Yahweh. “ The pagan sailors now used the sacred tetragrammaton, the four consonant name of Jehovah. They had evidently become believers in the Lord God of
heaven. “O Yahweh, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, 0 Yahweh, hast done as it pleased thee.” They have acknowledged the sovereignty of Yahweh and their own unwillingness to harm His prophet. After asking God’s forgiveness, they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea which immediately “ceased from her raging.” Verse 16 says, “The men feared Yahweh exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto Yahweh, and made vows.“ I wonder if those vows and sacrifices were evidence of a conversion experience. It is just possible.
Jonah’s Judgment and Deliverance Verse 17, which should really be verse 1 of chapter 2, reads: “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Unfortunately, Bible students often see the fish as a punishment on Jonah. We should realize, however, that had it not been for the great fish, Jonah would have drowned when he was cast into the raging sea. God sent the fish to save him. It is often true that the immediate discomfort, the immediate trial and tribulation that appears so overwhelming, is ultimately the means of salvation and blessing. I am sure that when the jaws of the huge fish closed around Jonah, and he slid into the darkness of the whale’s belly, he thought, “This is it! There can be no more terrible experience than this.” Yet, this terrible experience was the means of his salvation. When you read the book of Hosea, you will see that he called the valley of troubling (Achor) a door of hope.
In addition to being the means of preservation, Jonah’s experience
in the whale allowed him to become a type of Christ. Had Jonah
known, as the fish swallowed him, that because of his experience, the
Lord Jesus, almost eight hundred years later, would refer to this event as typifying His death, burial, and resurrection, Jonah would have considered himself greatly blessed to be a pedagogy in biography.
While in the belly of the fish, Jonah began to pray. In his prayer,
he quoted from Psalms 42 and 69. Evidently, he had studied those portions of God’s Word and now claimed them as his own.
Verse 4 reveals that Jonah gained confidence that God was going
to rescue him because he said, “I will look again toward thy holy temple.“ This is interesting because Jonah lived in the north; but as God’s prophet, he must have made occasional trips to Jerusalem. Now, from the belly of the whale, he expressed confidence that he would once again look on `God’s holy temple.
Verse 10 says, “The Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah
upon the dry land.“ God appointed the fish to swallow Jonah, then He
commanded the fish to vomit him up. As I look at this I realize anew
how everything in creation except man always obeys God.
Some Attested Fish Stories The following comes from the Independent Baptist Missionary Messenger and was written by J. Sidlow Baxter. I quote:
In the Daily Mail, a newspaper of December 14, 1928, Mr. G. H.
Han, a resident of Birmingham, gave the following testimony. “My
own experience was in Birmingham, England, about twenty-five
years ago when the carcass of a whale was displayed for a week. I
was one of twelve men who went into its mouth, passed through its
throat, and moved about in what was equivalent to a fair sized
room. Its throat was large enough to serve as a door. Obviously, it
would be quite easy for a whale of this kind to swallow a man.
In the late Sir Francis Fox’s book, Sixty-three Years of Engineering,
the manager of a whaling station informs us that the
sperm whale swallows lumps of food eight feet in diameter and that
in one of these whales they actually found a skeleton of a shark
sixteen feet in length. There is an incident related by Fox which, he
assures us, was carefully investigated by two scientists, one of
whom was M. de Parville, the scientific editor of Journal d’Dubois,
of Paris, well known as a man of sound judgment and a careful
writer. The incident is as follows:
In February, 1891, the whale ship “Star of the East, “ was in the
vicinity of the Falkland Islands when the lookout spotted a large
sperm whale three miles away. Two boats were lowered, and in a
short time one of the harpooners was enabled to spear the fish. The
second boat attacked the whale but was upset by a lash of its tail
and the men thrown into the sea, one being drowned and another,
James Bartley, having disappeared, could not be found. The whale
was killed and in a few hours the great body was lying in the ship’s
side and the crew busy with axes and spades removing the blubber.
They worked all day and part of the night. The next day they
attached some tackle to the stomach which was hoisted on deck. The
sailors were startled by spasmodic signs of life and inside the
stomach was found the missing sailor doubled up and unconscious.
He was laid on deck and treated to a bath of sea water which soon
revived him, but his mind was not clear and he was placed in the
captain’s quarters where he remained for two weeks, a raving lunatic.
He was kindly and carefully treated by the captain and by the
officers of the ship and gradually gained possession of his senses.
At the end of the third week he had entirely recovered from the
shock and resumed his duties. During his sojourn in the whale’s
stomach, Bartley’s skin, where exposed to the action of the gastric
juice underwent a striking change. His face, neck and hands were
bleached to a deadly whiteness and took on the appearance of
parchment. Bartley affirmed that he would probably have lived
inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses
through fright and not for lack of air. Bartley is also said to have
explained that after being hurled into the sea, the foam rushed
about him, evidently from the lashings of the whale’s tail, and he
was drawn along into the darkness and found himself in a great
place where the heat was intense. In the dark he felt around for an
exit and found only slimy walls around him. Then the awful truth
rushed into his mind and he became unconscious until the sea
water bath revived him on the ship’s deck.
And now where are the critics who have declared the swallowing
up of Jonah to be an impossible feat? Of course, we should not require such stories, be they authentic or otherwise, in order to trust in the truthfulness of the Scripture. We need not perfectly understand every mystery of God’s ways.
LXX JONAH’S SECOND CHANCE
In chapter 3, we read that “the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the
second time.“ The fish had vomited Jonah on the Mediterranean sea-shore some distance from Nineveh. It is possible that he was bleached white like the sailor we just read about. If so, he certainly must have been a striking sight to the superstitious Assyrians in Nineveh. He certainly was “a sign.”
His Obedience Jonah traveled to Nineveh, which, the Scripture says, was “an exceeding great city-a three days walk.“ I am always amazed at the remarks of the critics who look for excuses not to believe the Word of God. Many have said that Jonah could not be the author of the book because he used the past tense “was” in verse 3. This was simply literary style as Jonah was looking back on the event after it had occurred. We have a similar occasion of this style in Luke 24:13: “And behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.“ This does not mean that Emmaus was not there any more, but it is a way of referring to something that had previously happened.
His Message The three days probably referred to the length of time necessary to go through the city and see everything. Jonah entered the distance of about one day’s walk and began to preach. His message was simply, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. “ In the original language, he would have used only six words. If you are a student of numerology you would find this an appropriate number for the message because it is the number of man. I wonder if Jonah preached in Assyrian or in Hebrew? In either case, the inhabitants of the city understood it. So it just may be that God gave him that brief six word message in Assyrian and he memorized it, because it appears that he had nothing
else to say except these six words.
Its Results There was no provision for repentance in his message. But, surprisingly enough, verse 5 tells us, the people believed Yahweh. They ordered a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When word reached the king, he arose from his throne, laid aside his royal robe and covered himself with sackcloth.
The skeptics have also pounced upon this verse because, they
say, “We know that Ashurbanipal II, was king of Assyria in the time of
Jonah. How could he use the term “king of Nineveh “? There was no king of Nineveh. “ Again, this is literary style. If we look at I Kings 21:1, we will see that Ahab was referred to as king of Samaria, although we know he was king of Israel. Going to II Chronicles 24:23, we read that when the Syrians came up against the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, they sent the spoil, which they took, to the king of Damascus. There was no king of Damascus; there was a king of Syria, of which Damascus was the capital just as Samaria was the capital of Israel and Nineveh was the capital of Assyria.
The king issued a proclamation calling for a fast and commanded
that both man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and that all men
should call on Yahweh, turning from their wicked ways and their violence. This was certainly a good prescription for reform, and we know that through this admission of violence, they were well on their way to the kind of repentance God wanted to hear. We know that no deliverance was promised, because the statement in verse 9 says, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” These Assyrians were not stiff-necked. They did not rebel, but they humbled themselves before God, not even knowing what the outcome would be.
Verse 10 says, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil
way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. “ This is the verse that Jesus referred to in Matthew 12:41, when He said that the inhabitants of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, a real historical person!