Jonah, are you listening? God had to get Jonah’s attention. In Jonah 3:1-5,10, Nineveh was a large pagan city that symbolized enmity with God. Jonah, a narrow-minded, nationalistic prophet, wanted nothing to do with such foreigners. Nevertheless, he obeyed the second call and preached among them. “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown! (v. 4). The city repented. “And the people of Nineveh believed God” (v.5). Many people are familiar with the basic plot of Jonah. God calls a prophet by that name to go to Nineveh, which happens to be the capital of Assyrian empire — Assyrians being the most hated and feared enemies of Israel in the eighth century B.C.
The reluctant Jonah arrives in the city by way of a Big Fish, and cheerfully spreads his message of gloom and doom that God is going to destroy the city. In response to his message, the city repents, from the greatest to the least. Now that’s a miracle! What happens next is more remarkable still: God pardons the city, in verse 10. The punch line for the entire book of Jonah: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would be being upon them; and he did not do it.”
This is unexpected, and here we find a word for us. It surprises everyone because no one familiar with the Assyrian empire would expect God to let Nineveh off so easily. Ancient empires, not entirely unlike empires of our day, were cruel and dehumanizing. Assyria, the worst off the worst, had a reputation for evil rarely matched in the annals of history. Naturally the people of Nineveh, especially the royal court, lived the good life by exploiting and oppressing other people. Their armies would march to cities, and if the inhabitants did not submit quietly, the Assyrians would commit acts of butchery not to be described in the presence of children. No wonder Nahum calls Nineveh a “city of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, and full of booty” (3:1). No wonder he celebrates its fall. Why would God let such people off the hook? Genuine repentance. God forgives. Certainly this forgiveness is a gracious gift.
This story is bad news for those who, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, seek to justify themselves. But it is good news for those who like the tax collector cry, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!” Reading Jonah, we marvel at the love and mercy of God and hopefully we reach for that ourselves.
Can you believe? So do not ask if Jonah could have survived in a fish, or what kind of fish it was. We need to be ready to believe the fish story if anything were at stake. However, some remain skeptical about the wholesale repentance in today’s scriptures. Yet even that is only important if you happen to be a citizen of ancient Nineveh. What we are asked to believe is that God forgives those who repent. Through its story our tradition of faith makes a claim. And if we listen, then behind the witness of scripture we might hear the word of God saying, “I will forgive” if you are ready.
What is your answer? Are you listening? Will you allow God into your life? Will you surrender all to the Lord? He is listening for your answer! Will it be “Here I am Lord, Take Me”?