Sunday, July 24, 2022


It had been a long walk – over seven hundred miles to get here. Utterly exhausting, brutally punishing, even if that last stretch along the eastern bank of the Tigris was refreshing. Save now the Euphrates, he'd never seen such a broad, bountiful river in all his days. The scenery would, under any other circumstances, have been soothing; the trees by the riverside were almost Eden-like. But now, undeniably, he was at his destination. It loomed over him like the serpentine face of Leviathan, hungry to devour. He stood in the dust of the cursed earth and glared up in disgust and awe east of his taste of Eden, for his aching feet had come to a stop at the massive gates of a walled city, stretching out beyond sight in each direction. He knew where he was.  This... was Nineveh.

Jonah didn't want to be here. He'd tried his hardest not to be here. Then had come storm and sea, a great fish, a coerced prayer, and he'd been vomited up onto the beach in shame and disgrace (Jonah 1:3—2:10). He was yet stewing in fish muck when he'd heard the dreadfully familiar voice of the LORD again. It was the command as before; it was a second chance (Jonah 3:1).1 “Up!” God had said. “Go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the proclamation that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). So Jonah had gotten up, dusted himself off, washed (or so I hope!), and – inwardly fuming – hiked the first of many miles through the nations. But he had to admit: doing something “according to the word of the LORD for a change made him feel more like a prophet again (Jonah 3:3).2

Yet Jonah trembled at his visions. All around him, he glimpsed dark futures in which Nineveh survived the year. If it did, then in a couple generations, Assyria's kings would make it their capital and expand it into the largest city on the face of the earth, able to gobble up twelve Samarias in its gullet. And from this monster city, they'd rain terror down on all around them, crushing the known world beneath their heel. Israel would be wiped from the map. Judah would be menaced and laid low. It was too much darkness for Jonah to bear to dwell on.

But even now... even as just a major city and provincial capital... Nineveh was big (Jonah 3:3). Bigger, for sure, than Jerusalem. Bigger even than Samaria! And not merely bigger, but two, three, almost four times bigger.3 It wasn't yet the capital of the empire, but was such an important city to them that, even centuries ago, their so-called “kings of the universe” had already been building palaces there. And not only the palaces, but the horrid temples. Even from outside the city, he'd seen the greatest from far away: Emashmash, temple of Ishtar of Nineveh, which he'd instantly hated. It had been standing there since before Abraham was born, and by now it was so large that the LORD's temple, built in golden splendor by King Solomon, could've fit in it several times over.4 “How dare these fools mock God by giving a bloodthirsty demon a greater house, by lavishing such beauty on the darkness?” thought Jonah.

For isn't it dedicated, in their own hateful words, to “the goddess Ishtar, mistress of war and battle, whose game is fighting”?5 And in her service, didn't the king's great-great-grandfather Ashurnasirpal made a custom of burning boys and girls?6 And didn't he capture one opposing king and brag about skinning him and hanging the skin right over there on Nineveh's walls?7 Wasn't it his son, the king's great-grandfather Shalmaneser, who – six years before battling Israel's king Ahabboasted of his battles in words like: “I felled their fighting men with the sword..., piled up their bodies in ditches, filled the extensive plain with the corpses of their warriors, and with their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool..., erected a tower of heads in front of his city, and razed, destroyed, and burned his cities”?8 And wasn't he the same king who forced Israel's king Jehu into submission and subservience?9 Oh, and didn't the king's grandfather Shamshi-Adad, who quashed Nineveh's rebellion some sixty-odd years ago, boast then of bringing captured Babylonian troops there, brutalizing them in these very streets, and “stripping off their skin”?10 Hadn't the king's father Adad-nirari continued the tradition by subduing Jonah's own nation of Israel, imposing taxes and tributes on King Joash forty years ago in exchange for 'saving' them from the armies of Damascus?11 Was Jonah now here to spare and serve these butchers and tyrants from the bloodguilt of generations of the LORD's chosen people?

Standing at the gate, Jonah could see so many good reasons not to pass through it. He was shaking in his sandals, scared the Ninevites might follow tradition and skin him alive. Isn't such fear a rational reason to turn back? And with so many temples and rituals, this very religious people was spiritually a million miles away from all Jonah knew. How was he to build bridges with them? They were mentally a million miles away, too – what did they know of Abraham and the promises, or Moses and the deliverance, or David and the anointing, or the prophets? There was hardly any shared context to preach from. And their traditions were so old, older than Abraham's call – can you get more set in your ways than that? Besides, if anyone wasn't worth the effort, it's them. Why come to rescue the worst people on earth, who'd inherited such guilt? Some of the old men of the city had once polluted the promised land with the blood of Israel's martyrs (perhaps even members of Jonah's family). And saving them would come at an unthinkable cost – Jonah could see that, if he succeeded here, he'd only be signing Israel's death warrant. How could the LORD ask it of him? This was unfair! And if that weren't enough, Jonah thought, I'm just one man in a city bigger than I thought cities could be. Even if I wanted to – and I don't! – I couldn't reach them all.

Jonah's excuses piled higher and higher as he lingered outside the gate. But sitting on the other side of the scale was just one thing, one gut-wrenching fact: that “Nineveh was a city great to God” (Jonah 3:3). So large was it, so full of life, that the LORD God had been keeping an eye on it.12 God had woven it inextricably into his plans for human history, had assigned it a role to play in his hands.13 More than that, God laid claim to it – it didn't belong to the governor or the king or even to Ishtar, but the city had been built up to its greatness by the hand of the LORD at his pleasure.14 Out of that, God had commanded. And Jonah had resigned himself to obedience, however begrudging.

So Jonah stepped through the gate into the lower city, the northern part, and began his southerly walk just a little way into the city (Jonah 3:4), steering clear of the great citadel looming over the town. He had no business at the mighty brick palace the king's father had finished,15 nor in any of the filthy temples, nor in the city arsenal.16 He was content to speak amidst the common men on the streets. Our book records the sum total of Jonah's message in just five Hebrew words, the “shortest prophetic utterance in the Old Testament.”17 Either it's just a summary, or – more likely – Jonah was so eager to get out of there that he preached the bare minimum and skedaddled.18 What we have of Jonah's message doesn't mention God at all. It doesn't single out the Ninevites' sins, so that they could realize what they'd done. It doesn't paint a picture of the peace and harmony they could have instead. It doesn't give any instruction. It doesn't offer any hope. It doesn't seem designed to do much!

What does Jonah say? “Yet forty days,” he begins – that's three words right there, he's already halfway through. Jonah probably mused that it was forty days like in the days of Noah, when rain fell for forty days and forty nights to flood the earth in judgment (Genesis 7:12), or forty days like in the days of Moses, when Moses fasted on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights in the wake of Israel's sin of the golden calf (Exodus 34:28). One set of forty days fulfilled judgment; the other, by prayer and fasting, turned judgment away. The next word Jonah said would perhaps make clear whether these days would be with Noah or with Moses. “Yet forty days,” said Jonah, “and Nineveh shall be turned!” (Jonah 3:4). The verb Jonah uses is the word always used in the Bible for “an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah..., which the LORD overthrew in his anger and wrath” (Deuteronomy 29:23). But the author changes the way the verb is conjugated, opening another possible way to read it: that in forty days, Nineveh will turn itself around!19 Now, that's not what Jonah himself means or hopes. But the prophecy is ambiguous: it can go either way, judgment or repentance. It's up to the Ninevites to unfold the prophecy and its outcome in their lives.20

As we'll find, the whole population of Nineveh in that generation responded to Jonah's message: “the men of Nineveh believed in God” (Jonah 3:5), almost as Abraham had believed (Genesis 15:6). In spite of all Jonah's obstructionist foot-dragging, the word of God went forth and bore fruit all out of proportion to its messenger. God's grace filled in the gaps left by Jonah's efforts to sabotage his own ministry. “Jonah's minimal effort,” it's been said, “achieves maximum results.”21 I mean, so far as results are concerned, this is the greatest success story in the Bible! Think of Noah, preaching untold years, yet reaching no one but his immediate family. Or think of Jeremiah, perpetually unheeded by the people of Judah, told up front by God that “you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you” (Jeremiah 7:27). In between, here comes Jonah, who with five words saves 120,000 lives. It's the unpredictable flowering of grace. And so judgment was staved off for a time – although Nineveh would at last be overturned, destroyed, nearly a century and a half later.

Over six centuries after Nineveh was overturned, the Lord Jesus Christ came down from Jonah's neck of the woods, and he began his public ministry only after a Ninevite fast in the desert for forty days – not to turn himself around, but to turn the world (Matthew 4:2).22 But during his ministry, he censured those who heard him: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment against this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32). And then how did Jesus close his public ministry? By handing it off to his Body remaining on earth: “It is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). So “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15-16). “Having gone, therefore, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

So Jesus said to his apostles, the first leaders of his Church. And into that mission, the Church was led by one particular disciple whom Jesus pointedly called “the son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17) – one to whom, just as God had given Jonah a second chance after running away, Jesus gave a second chance after denying him (John 21:15-19). And, in the exact same port-town of Joppa where Jonah fled to the sea, this apostle obeyed God's vision to open the gate to the Gentiles, learning not to disdain them as unclean (Acts 10:1-16). That disciple, that 'son of Jonah,' was Peter.23 And we are called to cooperate with and follow Peter and his co-apostles as they lead us, generation by generation, in responding to the call. For no less than to Jonah, the Word of the LORD has come to the Church, saying: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and proclaim to it the proclamation that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2).

And, to be sure, Nineveh is all around us. It's the world. And for us, it's what many Christian thinkers these days – I don't like it, I think it's too simplistic, but it'll do for now – but it's what many Christian thinkers these days are calling our “post-Christian culture.” And, to one degree or another, even our neighborhood, as resistant to our nationwide apostasy as we seem (or, at least, choose to see ourselves!) to be, is a part of that Nineveh. So what does Nineveh look like today?

In our neighborhood, surely we've got plenty of people who will tell you they're Christians, and yet something in their life doesn't follow through. Maybe they accept Jesus as an idea, as a theoretical truth, but they won't treat him as their way and their life (cf. John 14:6). Or maybe they've got a cozy devotional life in the comfort of their homes, but they don't want to hear or consider whether Jesus might want anything more from them. They steer clear of the church, not out of a thwarted desire to be among God's people, but out of a fulfilled desire to not be. They starve themselves of what Jesus wants to feed them (himself!), deny themselves his healing touch, shun his presence. Or they show up from time to time, so long as it's on their terms – and this, already, is a taste of Nineveh.

Or, how about this? Surely there are many others around us who once were stamped with Christ's mark, who were once-and-for-all baptized into him, and yet they've killed the life of grace within them. It's been a long time since they allowed (if they ever did allow) the grace of God to be active and living in them. The Lord's love falls on deaf ears; they hold back the faith they owe. And there are others, too, who, under waves of worldly appeals and in the name of virtues gone astray and run amok, compromise the faith, refusing to believe it could possibly say yes to this or no to that; they offer their pinches of incense to trendy idols and carve out the guts of the gospel to make more room for the world. This, too, is the encroachment of Nineveh.

Then there are plenty who, from a church's failure or just their own, don't understand the message half as well as they think they do. Perhaps they stopped learning it in grade school, and now think they know it well enough to judge it for all time, thinking their brilliant objections have never come up in the past two thousand years. And there are others who, swept away by rising cultural tides of anti-religious venom, simply hate the distorted vision of Christianity that demons puppeteer before their eyes – and they, too, are Ninevite, in desperate need of love and prayer. And we now have some neighbors who are so 'post-Christian' that they might as well be 'pre-Christian' – people who've maybe have never heard. It doesn't get more quintessentially Ninevite than that.

And just as Jonah could have rattled off a thousand excuses to not set foot in Nineveh, so can – and often do – we find excuses not to set foot out into the world and open up our mouths. The world's so big, and each of us is so small. People might yell at us. People might reject us. We might get caught by a question we weren't ready for. We might not know what to say. We don't know where to begin. They're so set in their ways. Or we're so set in our ways, and fear that letting new people into the church would risk changing it from how we like it. And maybe, temperamentally, we'd just rather keep to ourselves. What difference could we really make? We despair of success. All familiar reasons not to proclaim the proclamation we've been told. But over against it all is that this Nineveh all around us is a city great to God. And whatever anybody in this country has done to us, or will do to us, it's a lot less than Jonah could fairly accuse his Ninevites of. Still he was sent. So are we.

But what he did perfunctorily and quickly and in great resentment, we're to do well and slowly and in great love. Afraid of rejection? “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7), of “boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). Afraid of their anger? “If you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed: have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14), but “do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless” (1 Peter 3:9). Think they're too set in their ways to hear you? “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Cowed by the cultural forces looming over you like a giant temple of Ishtar? “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Don't know what to say? We practice every Sunday as we burn our faith from the backs of our bulletins [i.e., where we print the text of the Creed] onto the tips of our tongues. Go from there. Don't know how to say it? “Be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Worried the world is too big and you're too small? You don't go alone; the whole Church is sent, and each member is sent in accordance with that sending, each according to his or her station and order. Work with all of us to do what's collectively in our reach.

Despairing of success anyway? Be yours a Jeremiah story or a Jonah story, all God asks of you is faithfulness. What matters is that you say it, what you say, and how you say it. That they hear it, what they hear, and how they hear it – that's between God and them. But to go into Nineveh and proclaim in the hallways and the highways that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35); that “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30); that “he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by... satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17); that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31); that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43); that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17); that, if we only endure in this grace to the end, we have the hope of eternally beholding God as our fullness of life and our perfect joy always and forever? To go, to tell, to show – that's on us; that's in itself success. May we go with more gusto than Jonah gave! And may God grant us to see as abundant fruit as Jonah saw. Amen.

1  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 126.

2  Philip Peter Jenson, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: A Theological Commentary (T&T Clark, 2008), 71.

3  On the circumference of Nineveh prior to its expansion, see Sennacherib, text 17 vii.58-59, in RINAP [= Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period] 3/1: 142. On the area of Samaria (= 60 hectares), see Gilad Itach, “The Kingdom of Israel in the Eighth Century: From a Regional Power to Assyrian Provinces,” in Zev I. Farber and Jacob L. Wright, eds., Archaeology and History of Eighth-Century Judah (SBL Press, 2018), 60.

4  On Ishtar of Nineveh, see Barbara N. Porter, Demons, Deities, and Religion, in Lucas P. Petit and Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, eds., Nineveh, the Great City: Symbol of Beauty and Power (Sidestone Press, 2017), 213, and John MacGinnis, Ištar of Nineveh, in ibid., 217-218.  On her temple and its age and size, see Aline Tenu, “Nineveh in the Second Millennium BC: The Birth of an Assyrian City, in ibid., 118.

5  Shalmaneser III, text A.0.102.2 i.3, in RIMA [= Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Assyrian] 3:13. 

6  Ashurnasirpal II, text A.0.101.1 i.116ii.1, in RIMA 2:201: I burnt many captives from them.  I captured many troops alive.  From some I cut off their arms and hands; from others I cut off their noses, ears, and extremities.  I gouged out the eyes of many troops.  I made one pile of the living and one of heads.  I hung their heads on trees around the city.  I burnt their adolescent boys and girls.

7  Ashurnasirpal II, text A.0.101.1 i.93, in RIMA 2:199. The victim was Ahi-iababa, ruler of Suru in the Aramean polity Bit-Halupe (in modern-day Syria).  Ashurnasirpal II records there: I brought Ahi-iababa to Nineveh, flayed him, and draped his skin over the wall of Nineveh.

8  Shalmaneser III, text A.0.102.1 58ˊ-62ˊ, in RIMA 3:9-10.  The battle in question was around 859 BC in what is today southern Turkey.  Six years later, at the Battle of Qarqar in 854/853 BC, Shalmaneser III's troops faced and defeated a coalition that included, according to Shalmaneser, 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers belonging to Ahab the Israelite – see Shalmaneser III, text A.0.102.2 (the Kurkh Monolith), ii.91-92, in RIMA 3:23.  Shalmaneser boasts that with the supreme forces which Assur my lord had given to me and with the mighty weapons which the divine standard (which goes before me) had granted me..., I felled with the sword 14,000 troops, their fighting men, and rained down upon them flood as the god Adad would.  I spread out corpses and felled their extensive troops with the sword.  I made their blood flow in the wadis. ... I dammed up the Orontes River with their bodies like a bridge.

9  Shalmaneser III, text A.0.102.88, in RIMA 3:149, is a list of tribute the Assyrian king took from Israel's king Jehu: I received from Jehu of the House-of-Omri [i.e., Israel]: silver, gold, a gold bowl, a gold tureen, gold vessels, gold pails, tin, the staffs of the king's hand, and spears.  He also mentions elsewhere that, during his war against Hazael of Damascus in 842 BC, at that time I received tribute from the people of Tyre and Sidon and from Jehu of the House of Omri see Shalmaneser III, text A.0.102.8 24ˊˊ-27ˊˊ, in RIMA 3:48.

10  Shamshi-Adad V, text A.0.103.2 iv.1ˊ-10ˊ, in RIMA 3:191: I captured alive [Marduk-balatsi-iqbi (king of Babylon)], together with the criminal troops who were with them.  I [...] them in Nineveh, my faithful city; I [...] them alive, and stripped off their skin....  This was around 813 BC.

11  Adad-nirari III, texts A.0.104.7 8 and A.0.104.8 10-14, in RIMA 3:211, 213. See also 2 Kings 13:5.

12  Daniel C. Timmer, A Gracious and Compassion God: Mission, Salvation, and Spirituality in the Book of Jonah (InterVarsity Press, 2011), 95.

13  JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, EEC (Lexham Press, 2019), 477.

14  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 135.

15  Adad-nirari III, text A.0.104.13, in RIMA 3:219, is an inscription attested on four bricks from that very palace: At that time, this palace, which Shamshi-Adad king of Assyria had built but not completed, I myself, Adad-nirari king of Assyria, his son, completed.

16  Aline Tenu, “Nineveh in the Second Millennium BC: The Birth of An Assyrian City, in Lucas P. Petit and Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, eds., Nineveh, the Great City: Symbol of Beauty and Power (Sidestone Press, 2017), 121.

17  Thomas M. Bolin, Freedom Beyond Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah Re-examined (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 124.

18  JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, EEC (Lexham Press, 2019), 478.

19  JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, EEC (Lexham Press, 2019), 478-479.

20  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 140.

21  Eugene F. Roop, Ruth, Jonah, Esther, BCBC (Herald Press, 2002), 141.

22  Jerome of Stridon, Commentary on Jonah 3:4b, in Jerome: Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets, ACT (IVP Academic, 2016), 1:265

23  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, ZECOT (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 131-132.

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