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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Other Big Fish Story


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 Nineveh 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 was destroyed. 
            Some scholars believe that Jonah came to Nineveh 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 Nineveh, a 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 America 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?

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