Recently I had the opportunity to teach on Jonah and Nahum, two minor prophets with powerful messages about God’s character. When we think of Jonah, the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is “Jonah and the whale.” While Jonah’s time in the “great fish” may be the most famous part of the book of Jonah, there’s a lot more we can learn from this prophet. We can learn from his account of his attitude and actions in response to God’s call for him to go to Nineveh.
Nineveh was a major city in Assyria, the world power of both Jonah and Nahum’s day. Jonah prophesied in the mid-700s BC, a time when Assyria was not as powerful as they had been in recent years. Israel on the other hand, was in a “silver age.” Under King Jeroboam II, the nation expanded its borders and enjoyed an age of splendour that hadn’t been seen since the days of King Solomon. Jeroboam II however, was a wicked king. It was God’s mercy that allowed Israel to prosper, not the behaviour or devotion of His people. Jeroboam II led the people of Israel to commit idolatry, just as all the kings before him had, and all the kings after him would continue to do. While Judah had a handful of godly kings, Israel had one terrible king after another.
Assyria was a wicked nation that committed terrible atrocities against the people it defeated and/or controlled. Captives were led into exile with fish-hooks through their jaws. City leaders were impaled alive on poles, and some were beheaded. There are records of the Assyrians keeping track of how many they had killed by counting the heads of those they beheaded. Believing that “gods” of the cities they attacked lived in unborn children, the Assyrians would rip open pregnant women and kill their babies. This historical background really helps us to understand why Jonah was so reluctant to go to Nineveh!
Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes. Your nation has finally begun to prosper; evil Assyria seems to be experiencing a period of weakness. Surely they are getting their comeuppance, and God is blessing Israel! But…God has told you to go to Nineveh – to one of the most important cities in Assyria – and to warn them of His coming wrath against them.
It’s definitely possible that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid – afraid of what the Ninevites would do to him. Who could blame him for that? But Jonah 4 reveals the primary reason Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. After the Ninevites repented and God was merciful towards them, Jonah tells God, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah then asks God to take his life from him, saying “it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). In other words, if God is going to forgive wicked Nineveh, Jonah would rather be dead. He sees his hatred for the Assyrians as superior to God’s love for them. He sees a nation that deserves judgement, whereas God sees a people who are in spiritual darkness, and who desperately need Him.
The book of Jonah communicates a beautiful aspect of God’s character: His mercy. The fact that God would forgive the Ninevites of all the atrocities they had committed, tells us that He is willing to forgive us of every sin in our life. Jonah had a problem with this because the recipients of God’s mercy were the people his nation hated. It’s easy to thank God for His mercy when it is being showered upon us, but what about when we are reminded of His forgiveness towards anyone who turns to Him? Are we willing to thank God for His mercy, and love His character when that mercy is being afforded to a serial killer who has come to know Jesus? To someone involved in human trafficking? To a criminal who has preyed upon the most vulnerable members of society?
Fast forward a hundred years later, and we find ourselves in the time of Nahum. Nahum was a prophet to the Southern Kingdom – to Judah – but prophesied concerning Assyria. By this time, Israel (the Northern Kingdom) had been taken into exile by Assyria. In 701 BC, Sennacherib, one of Assyria’s most evil kings, had taken 46 of Judah’s cities. The people of Judah would be well-acquainted with Assyria’s wickedness. Many likely had a parent or a grandparent who had a friend or a family member who had been killed by the Assyrians. Though Nahum also prophesied concerning Nineveh, his message is different; his message is about the coming judgement on this city. The book of Nahum is filled with images of Nineveh falling by water, fire and sword (Nahum 2:6,13), and in 612 BC, that is exactly what happened, as an alliance of Babylonians and Medes destroyed the city by those means.
As we read the book of Nahum, we may feel uncomfortable. We don’t like to picture God as wrathful, as hating sin, or as bringing judgement against those who do not know Him. The important thing to remember however, is that God is always the same. The God we read of in Jonah is the same God we read of in Nahum. God has not changed – the Ninevites have. In Jonah they repent (Jonah 3:5-10). In Nahum, God is responding to centuries of unrepentant cruelty. God is both altogether merciful, and the Just Judge. He loves all people, and His heart is for the Ninevites to turn to Him (Jonah 4:11), but He is perfect in justice, and when the Ninevites do not repent, His response is judgement (Nahum 1:12-13).
What does that mean for us today? Hopefully it means that we can understand that we are living in days of mercy. The Bible tells us that when Christ returns, it will be to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5). We are living in “Jonah” days – days when God longs for us to repent, and is giving us the opportunity to do so. I’ve heard it said that pain is a powerful megaphone, and sometimes God uses the pain we experience to capture our attention – to show us our need for Him, and to help us to turn to Him. These Jonah days won’t go on forever, however. The Bible tells us that the Lord will return (1 Thessalonians 4:16), and if we have not turned to Him by that time, we will not find ourselves as recipients of God’s mercy (2 Peter 3:9). Rather, we will find ourselves separated from Christ – the very epitome of destruction (Revelation 14). Hopefully this urges us on to share the Gospel with our family and friends who do not know Him.
Jonah and Nahum give us a picture of the character of God – He is both merciful and perfectly just. We do not get to pick and choose the aspects of God’s character we like the most, and create our own personal picture of who He is – that is making up our own God. To quote Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love,
A lot of people say that whatever you believe about God is fine, so long as you are sincere. But that is comparable to describing your friend in one instance as a three-hundred-pound sumo wrestler and in another as a five-foot-two, ninety-pound gymnast. No matter how sincere you are in your explanations, both descriptions of your friend simply cannot be true. The preposterous part about our doing this to God is that He already has a name, an identity. We don’t get to decide who God is. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’” (Exodus 3:14). We don’t change that.
We don’t get to pick and choose who God is, and while we may not be able to fully comprehend Jonah’s message of God’s mercy and Nahum’s message of God’s justice in the same thought, when we begin to pick and choose who God is “to us,” we are describing a figment of our imagination, not the God who has revealed Himself…through His Word. To quote Chan once again, “If my mind is the size of a soda can and God is the size of all the oceans, it would be stupid for me to say He is only the small amount of water I can scoop into my little can. God is so much bigger, so far beyond our time-encased, air/food/sleep-dependent lives.”
I come away from Jonah and Nahum appreciating that God fiercely loves all people, but does not tolerate evil. Let us pray for understanding and deeper love for the character of our God, while communicating that character to those who desperately need to fall into His mercy.