The Old Testament book of Jonah is of interest for several reasons. The story of Jonah and the whale is a popular Sunday School story. It is the story of a reluctant missionary who has to get straightened out by God. It is also a story that has messianic overtones, as Jesus’ time in the grave is compared to Jonah’s time in the whale. But there is one element, often overlooked, in the story of Jonah that is important for us living in the twenty-first century.
Jonah’s preaching was successful and the people living in the Assyrian capital of
repented. As a result the city was spared,
much to Jonah’s consternation. But as
Jeremiah and Nahum point out in their prophecies one hundred plus years later, Assyria
was to be judged for their evil ways.
Approximately one hundred fifty years after Jonah, Nineveh
Some scholars believe that Jonah came to
shortly after there had been three events the people would have considered as
omens of impending divine wrath. Within
a six year span Nineveh had experienced two major plagues and a total eclipse
of the sun. When Jonah appeared, they
were willing to listen to his message and repent.
How long their repentance lasted is uncertain. The prophecy of Nahum, one hundred years later, pictures
Nineveh as being
exceedingly morally corrupt and wicked. He
calls it a contemptible, bloody city full of lies and pillage.
There are two lessons to be learned from
Nineveh’s demise: Their
conversion and repentance appear to be only skin deep. From Jeremiah and Nahum it appears the city
returned to its evil ways. They may have
changed their ways for a time, but their repentant lifestyle had little impact
on future generations. Within one
hundred years they were the same or worse than they had been in Jonah’s day.
Much is spoken today of a need in our country to return to biblical principles. But just as with
return, without full-scale repentance, will have no lasting effect. It will merely put salve on the moral iniquity
of our times. We will get through the
immediate crisis only to fall back into the same old patterns of behavior.
Before we judge
or the Ninevites too quickly, it is wise to look at ourselves. What attitude do we take towards the sin in
our lives? What is the character of our
repentance? Are we doing any better than
they did in inculcating the faith into our children? Do they see us actively living out the faith
we claim to follow?
How easy is it for us, like the Ninevites, to repent when things are rough, and go back to normal once the crisis has been resolved. It happened time and again in the book of Judges. We see it today in accounts of battered spouses, where the abuser repents of his or her abuse, only to repeat the abuse shortly after being forgiven. It occurs in the vows we make: “God, I will do such and such if You will only get me through this crisis”, only to soon forget we ever said them. In effect, each is a lie spoken only to get us out of trouble, quickly forgotten when things settle down. When we do so, we are effectively standing up and lying to the face of the Creator of the universe. We can not get away with it anymore than
Nineveh did. What characterizes our relationship with God? Do our children see us as godly men and
women, and desire to follow our faith walk?