When we speak of mission labors in the old dispensation, or the spread of the Gospel beyond the pale of Israel, we quite naturally think of Jonah and his message to Nineveh, upon which Nineveh repented. Therefore we pause a moment to consider this unique missionary venture of the Old Testament.
Let us just briefly call to mind some of the detail of Jonah’s preaching and Nineveh’s repentance upon that preaching.
Nineveh was a large city of about sixty miles in circumference with a total population of six or seven thousand people. Jonah 1:2; Jonah 3:3; Jonah 4:11. This was the capital of Assyria, the arch-enemy of the Kingdom of Israel at that time. It was the world power of that day, only to be compared to Babylon, the Medo-Persian kingdom, the Macedonian empire, and the Roman empire. It was, so to speak, the world that threatened to overthrow the church.
Jonah was called to be a prophet among the people of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. (II Kings 14:25). This was, therefore, the time of Israel’s decline, when idolatry and all its accompanying evils were prevalent in Israel. The Lord was angry with the ten tribes and was about to give them over into the hands of Assyria, their arch-enemy, to be scattered among the nations of the world.
At this particular time the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness is come up before me.” This call to go to Nineveh struck Jonah with all its implications. Jonah realized at once that what the Lord said was true; Nineveh was a very wicked city. In chapter 3:8 even the king of Nineveh speaks of the fact that every one is guilty of “an evil way,” and that “violence is in their hands.” This can only mean that Nineveh was guilty of base idolatry, lawlessness, oppression, and bloodshed. Stealing and plunder, whoredoms and witchcrafts, cunning deceit and treachery were among their sins, as is mentioned in Nahum 3:1. Yet the Lord sends Jonah to preach to that wicked city, whose wickedness arose before Him even to heaven. It is true that the prophet must preach against the wickedness there and announce the judgments of the living God from heaven against them. He is told to say: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Nothing more. But even Jonah realizes that it is not God’s purpose merely to announce that God’s judgment will soon fall upon that city. Jehovah has a positive purpose in sending His word of judgment to them, because His mercy will be revealed even there. (Jonah 4:2) The Lord intended that there should be repentance and salvation as fruit upon the preaching of the prophet of Israel.
And the Lord did bring repentance to Nineveh. We read in Jonah 3:5: “So the people believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” This can only mean that there was a genuine repentance in this heathen capital. Many of the inhabitants from the mighty princes down to the lowly servants became aware of their sins as guilt before the living God, were deeply sorry for their sins, and turned to the Lord in heart-felt repentance. They believed that God was just in destroying them and pleaded for His mercy. 3:10. Jesus confirms this in Matthew 12:41, where He warns the Jews of His day, “The men of Nineveh shall rise up in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonas.” Surely the men of Nineveh would never sit with Christ and His saints to judge the world if their repentance were not sincere.
The result was that Nineveh was not destroyed after forty days. The Lord gathered His elect remnant out of that city and gave them time to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. Later Nahum once more announces the judgment of God upon this bloody city, which gives us reason to believe that the entire city did not repent and that the people once more became corrupted, so that not long after it was destroyed. We can also mention that during that time Assyria turned against the Kingdom of Israel and scattered them to the ends of the earth. II Kings 17:5, 6.
Jesus tells the evil and adulterous generation of His day, which demands of Him a sign to prove that He is indeed the Christ, that no sign will be given them but the sign of the prophet Jonah. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12:39, 40. From this we may conclude that Nineveh was a picture of the ingathering of the Gentiles in the new dispensation. After Christ’s rejection by the Jews, which resulted in His death and resurrection, Israel as a nation would be destroyed, but God would turn to the Gentiles to gather His own unto Himself. This is entirely in harmony with the prophecies of the Old Testament and of Jesus Himself. Therefore Nineveh with its little children and much cattle (see chapter 4) is a sign of the complete renewal of all things by the ingathering of the church. When God brings His elect into glory all things are made new. Theworld is saved; only the reprobate chaff is cast out. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
What can hardly pass unnoticed in this prophecy of Jonah is the message which the Lord gives him to proclaim to the Ninevites. Jonah is told only to proclaim to them that in forty days the city will be destroyed. He is not told to call the people to repentance. He is not instructed to warn them that unless they repent they will be destroyed. He is merely told to announce the impending judgment of God upon them. No, he is not even instructed to inform them of Israel’s God as the only true and living God Who has the power to destroy. He must come in the name of his God to this heathen people and tell them that in forty days his God will bring His judgment upon them. And we can be sure that Jonah in his state of mind added nothing more to his proclamation than the simple and concise statement: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And yet “the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonas.” If what we read in the Book of Jonah is not sufficient to convince us that this was a genuine repentance, we do have the words of Jesus to confirm it. The objection would certainly be raised in our day that Jonah was a very poor missionary, entirely devoid of real missionary zeal. But the objection would also be raised that his message was certainly a poor psychological approach, upon which no one could expect any positive fruit. Nothing whatever was said about God’s love, much less about a love of God for all men. No effort was made to try to show that God indeed wants all men to be saved and extends His invitation to all. Here was no “altar-call,” no plea for a decision for Christ. Simply nothing that is considered so essential for proper mission work upon which we may expect fruits of repentance and salvation.
Now it must be granted at once that Jonah certainly did not say all that might have been said. The Gospel is more than a mere announcement of impending judgment or of God’s wrath against the guilty sinner. The Gospel is also a call to repentance with the assurance that God receives contrite sinners and forgives their sins, bestowing on them all the blessings of salvation. Jesus, for example, says: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
But before we criticize the message of Jonah let us beware lest we criticize God. God, after all, laid the words on Jonah’s lips. And even Jonah realized when he went to Nineveh that these words were to be proclaimed because God is a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repents of evil. (Jonah 4:2). But also the people of Nineveh realized that this message might well have come as a word of warning and a call to repentance. GOD, after all, was working in the hearts of His elect in that great world city. GOD had His own in that city and was calling them out before the city itself would be destroyed. And God knows the best approach, knows also how to use His own word to serve His eternal purpose. So that the conversion of the men of Nineveh is a strong evidence of the fact that salvation is always only of the Lord. There is nothing of man in it. We are saved by grace alone.
But what impresses most of all in this prophecy is the attitude of the unwilling prophet toward his calling to preach the Gospel to the Ninevites. He is not at all pleased with his commission to go out as missionary to this heathen land. He even struggles to get away, and when he preaches he does so with the hope that the people will not repent. He waits to see whether they will be destroyed, and is angry when the Lord shows them mercy. It is only after a bitter struggle that he finally is silent. The book of Jonah ends with the word of the Lord on which Jonah makes no further comment. He bows before the sovereign will and purpose of the Most High.
But it took quite a bit to bring Jonah to that point. At first he ran away, as if he could run away from God. He meets God in the storm and realizes that the Lord is indeed following him. He experiences divine mercy when God miraculously prepares a fish that swallows him up. He is rescued from the depths of hell to go to Nineveh and fulfill His calling. Even then He cannot understand the ways of the Lord. We may well consider him a prophet with a serious problem. He had hoped for Nineveh’s overthrow and he sees their repentance.
For all this Jonah had been severely maligned and criticized. Nor may we ignore the fact that he was such an unwilling instrument in God’s hand. Much less may we condone his actions and complaints. But we must remember that the Almighty was angry with Jonah and yet showed amazing patience with him. We also must certainly attempt to understand his problem as best we can.
And then we must immediately consider that Jonah did love God and did love God’s cause upon the earth. He was not impelled by a mere patriotism for Israel as a nation, but was motivated by His love for the people of God. It is especially for that reason that Jonah could not understand why he should be drawn away from the Kingdom of Israel to preach to Israel’s arch-enemy Assyria. He sees Nineveh spared only to destroy the Kingdom of Israel. Even though the prophet should grant that Israel deserved God’s righteous judgment because they had forsaken the living God, how could the Christ be born if the “church” perishes. And although he might grant that God could very well have his elect in Nineveh, which must be saved, how could God’s promise to Abraham be realized as long as the Christ had not yet come. For Christ must be born of Abraham.
We must certainly consider Jonah in the light of his times. For many centuries God had gathered His church from the natural descendants of Abraham, that is, the Jews. God’s covenant had been confined within the narrow limits of national Israel. The few who were gathered from without, such as Rahab and Ruth, were engrafted into Israel. But now the Lord shows His promise of future things to come; the ingathering of the Gentiles after Israel as nation has become fully apostate by rejecting the Christ. But Jonah was born, as it were, before his time. He could not understand his own prophecy. But then we must also remember that Peter could not understand the vision of the unclean beasts until it was interpreted for him. And that was after Pentecost and the cross and the outpouring of the Spirit. Let us not be too severe in criticizing Jonah. But above all, let us see the wonder of God’s grace. For salvation is of the Lord. That is evident from the Book of Jonah. And it is by that same wonder of grace that we also are brought into the covenant.
When the Lord shall count the nations,
Sons and daughters He shall see.
Born to endless life in Zion,
And their joyful song shall be,
“Blessed Zion, all our fountains are in thee.”