II Kings 14:23-27, though it gives us the only other information we have of Jonah, does not mention his commission to Nineveh. We do not know, therefore, when in his prophetic career Jonah was told to go and preach in Nineveh, but his reluctance would seem to indicate that it was later rather than sooner, that is, after he had preached in Israel with little fruit.
Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh must be explained in part by the apostasy of the northern kingdom. Afraid that God would be merciful to Nineveh, he must have wondered why God did not do in Israel what He did do in Nineveh. Having preached in Israel, Jonah was well aware of Israel’s lack of response to the Word of God. His attempts to avoid God’s commission are not the response of a young man new to his calling, but of an older man frustrated in bringing God’s Word to people who would not listen.
Only the book of Jonah records God’s word of commission, the word that Jonah deliberately disobeyed: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.” Never before had God sent any of His prophets to preach outside Israel, but God’s word to Jonah could not be mistaken. It was Jonah’s obligation to go where God sent him, just as the church must go preaching God’s Word in the New Testament. God would make sure, too, that Jonah fulfilled his commission.
Jonah’s commission is the first illustration in the book of God’s sovereignty in salvation, the theme of the book. The gospel is the means of salvation and in His sovereignty God has the right to send preachers and the gospel they preach where He wills and by whom He wills. Though in the Old Testament “salvation was of the Jews” (John 4:22), God sent Jonah outside Jewry to the heathen. He had never before commanded of anyone what He commanded Jonah, but God’s will and purpose and call were supreme.
As though to underline the difficulty of Jonah’s calling and His own sovereignty in sending Jonah, God mentions both the greatness of the city and its wickedness. Surely when Jonah thought of the greatness of Nineveh, he thought not only of Nineveh’s vast extent (it was so large that it was three days’ journey to cross it). Jonah would also have remembered that Nineveh was great at Israel’s expense. Though Israel was at the height of its power, Nineveh was already rising and threatening Israel’s dominance. He would have thought of Nineveh’s unparalleled reputation for cruelty and wickedness, that too at Israel’s expense. The book of Nahum is a commentary on Nineveh’s wickedness at a later date. It was a city great in size, in ferocity and in wickedness, and all to the detriment of Jonah’s own nation and people.
There were few cities as renowned for evil, even in those days, as Nineveh. The city had been established by Nimrod in his great rebellion against God (Gen. 10:8-12) and had continued to live up to that evil beginning. Worse, for Jonah, its wickedness and idolatry and cruelty were often imitated in Israel. He was, in Israel, preaching to people who worshiped Nineveh’s gods in the foolish belief that those gods were responsible for Nineveh’s greatness—that by worshiping them those gods would do for Israel what they had supposedly done for Nineveh. The people of Israel in those days were no different from the Jews to whom Jesus compared the Ninevites. If anything, they were worse, for these Ninevites repented and Israel did not (Matt. 12:41).
God told Jonah to go preach there because the city’s wickedness had come up before Him. What a reminder that is of God’s sovereignty in causing the gospel to be preached! It is not a universal love of God or a universal cross that are the reason for preaching the gospel, but the lostness of those to whom the gospel is preached. The gospel is the only hope of salvation for lost sinners, Israelites or Ninevites. God, in sending Jonah to Nineveh, was reminding Israel of its obligation to hear the preaching of the prophets and repent. Not Jeroboam’s military might, but the still, small voice of the gospel was Israel’s only hope of salvation. That reminder is for us also, who are often slow of heart to hear, believe, and obey the gospel when it is preached.
The wickedness of Nineveh is also a reminder that the wickedness of others and of our society is a reason to witness to others and to preach the gospel wherever God gives opportunity. Gross immorality, abortion, homosexuality, gender confusion, an end of marriage as an institution, broken homes, rebellion, violence, blasphemy and lies are not reasons for us to keep our heads down in hope that we will not be noticed. They are the reason why others need the gospel and need our witness. Those who promote such evil are militant and threatening, as was Nineveh, but we may not be silent.
God shows His sovereignty, too, in sending Jonah to Nineveh and not to any other heathen city, and in making Nineveh the only exception to the great privileges that belonged exclusively to Israel in the Old Testament. His eternal purpose is truly unconditional and that is evident in this Old Testament setting. Israel was at the heart of God’s purpose in the Old Testament, but not because they were more deserving than others or ever would be. God, who does all things according to the counsel of His own will, was free in His eternal purpose and in the working out of that purpose to save Nineveh.
That is another lesson for us who are so often inclined to think that we have some advantage over others—be it birth, nationality, skin color, knowledge, piety, faithfulness, covenant privileges, or whatever. Never can we distinguish ourselves from others in relation to God. Never are the differences between us and others the reason for God’s goodness to us. Never may we think that God chose us because we are different from others.
Nineveh’s wickedness was the expressed reason for Jonah’s call there. But there are other reasons that come out in the story, some of which we have mentioned.
Jonah was sent to Nineveh, first, because God had His elect people there. Only one generation was numbered among those chosen ones, but having been chosen by God and eternally loved by Him, it was necessary that they, like all of us, be saved from the sin and unbelief into which the whole human race had fallen. In showing those Ninevites (some of them at least) to be among His elect, God shows that His purpose in election is sovereign and unconditional. He shows, too, that election is effectual, using the most unusual circumstances and the shortest and poorest of sermons to save those elect Ninevites.
God shows that the gospel is the means by which He saves His elect, and that the gospel is and must be preached by those who are sent (Rom. 10). He does not save the Ninevites by some direct revelation but by the gospel, which was and is and ever shall be the power of God unto salvation. “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom. 10:14, 15).
He shows in the preaching of Jonah that the power of preaching is not in the personality or ability of the preacher but is His own divine power. Never was a sermon preached so ineffectively and poorly as Jonah preached in Nineveh. Seven words in English and, then, only by way of obeying God’s bare command. Never was a sermon preached with so little compassion on the part of the preacher for his audience. Jonah thought more of his vine than of the Ninevites. Never did a sermon have so little of the cross in it, at least expressly, but God used Jonah’s preaching to save a city and a generation.
So too, God was looking ahead to the salvation and gathering of the Gentiles in the New Testament, to a time of wider mercy that would exalt the cross and saving work of His Son. He was showing what would happen from the time of Christ’s coming in the flesh until the end.
This was a warning to Israel that when the Word of God falls on deaf ears, He takes His Word away and gives it to others. In the New Testament He would do that in the evangelizing and salvation of the Gentile nations. That warning is for us also, who may never think that we have some special right to a place in God’s kingdom, to His Word, and to the privileges of the gospel. We, too, can be cut out through unbelief.
But in sending Jonah to Nineveh, God also sends him on Israel’s behalf, though Jonah did not realize that. God was doing what Romans 11:11 describes, sending the gospel to the Gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy: “I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.” He continues to do this in the New Testament, provoking Israel to jealousy and thus bringing the remnant to faith and repentance.
In sending Jonah to Nineveh, God was not turning His back on Israel. He was showing His mercy and faithfulness to His people. This is the real point of II Kings 14:24-27. There was no mercy simply in giving them a king like Jeroboam II, great king that he was. Jeroboam would become the nemesis of the nation by his failure to depart from the sins of his namesake. God in mercy was using Jeroboam to preserve the nation for the sake of the remnant, whom He would provoke by the salvation of Nineveh and to whom He would bring salvation.
That God does not destroy us when we sin and are disobedient is not a reason for complacency and continued indifference, especially when He warns us, as He did Israel, by sending the gospel to those who are in our eyes no people at all. It is a reason to sit up and take notice, to practice self-examination and humility, and to repent.
Did God’s sending of Jonah to Nineveh provoke Israel to jealousy? There is no record of it in Scripture, unless the coming of the remnant to Hezekiah’s Passover is proof that God’s purpose with Israel was accomplished. In any case, we may be sure that the remnant, only seven thousand in the days of Ahab and Elijah, was provoked to shame and repentance, to faith in God’s saving mercy, and to hope in the promises, though the majority were hardened.
Thus the book of Jonah and the story of Jonah, part of the Hebrew Scriptures, became God’s Word to His people, a word of mercy and faithfulness, illustrated not only in the salvation of Nineveh but in God’s dealing with His wayward prophet. It became, in the story of Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish, another promise of Christ. And we may be sure that the remnant did not laugh, as many must have and still do, when they heard Jonah’s story, but humbled themselves as Jonah did and as did Nineveh.
The book remains God’s Word to us, reminding us of our obligations under the gospel, of the sovereignty of God in salvation, and of God’s mercy in Christ to wayward, wandering sinners: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). Jonah is not just an unusual story, but the gospel of grace recorded for all time on the pages of God’s Word.