A Reluctant Messenger
Two men walked together along the water’s edge just south of Tarsus, on the outer rim of the massive Assyrian empire. As they walked, one of them spotted a large sea creature that had beached itself on the shore. Thinking that if the creature was not long dead, it would provide much food for their families. As they drew closer to the massive creature it began to convulse with powerful heaves. They stood with curious amazement as waves of water, partially digested fish, and seaweed were vomited upon the sand. They realized they couldn’t harvest the flesh from this great fish to eat as he was clearly very sick with some disease. The stench of his regurgitation was growing more unbearable when suddenly they heard a groan that did not come from the sea creature. Slowly, out of the tangle of fish carcass and seaweed, something stirred and then, with great labor stood to its feet. It was a man.
He stood there, covered in nasty, putrefied seaweed, staggering as if barely able to stand. His clothing, what was left of it, was in tatters having been soaked for days in the digestive juices of the great sea creature. The hair on his head was gone, save for a few wispy strands. He had no body hair, no eyebrows, eyelashes, or beard. His skin was pasty white and the outer layers were beginning to peel away. Slowly he pulled great gobs of sopping seaweed from his head and face and strained as his eyes grew accustomed to the bright sunlight after having been in total darkness. He saw the two men standing a few yards away, slack-jawed and in terror at the sight they beheld and he spoke, or at least tried to speak. It was more guttural than actual language.
He cleared his throat violently and vomited up a mixture of salt water and blood. As he bent over, hands on his knees, trying to breath, trying to speak, he finally spoke, “Nineveh – which way?”
One of the men pointed a trembling finger eastward. He could not speak for his terror at what he had just witnessed had paralyzed his vocal chords. He just pointed. The man nodded his head, raised himself up and turned eastward, toward Nineveh.
When Jonah was sent to the work of the Lord,
The outlook was not very bright;
He never had done such a hard thing before,
So he backed and ran off from the fight.
But God sent a big fish to swallow him up,
The story I’m sure you all know;
He did not compel him to go ‘gainst his will,
But He just made him willing to go.
(From The Hornets Song, Author Unknown)
So, Jonah trudged across the hot desert sands to Nineveh. Huge city that it was, it was a three day walk from one side to the other. God had given Jonah a simple message to deliver. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Only eight words. No introduction, no sermon, no altar call, no apology, no subtlety, no permission asked and none granted. It was a cold, direct pronouncement of impending judgment; the response of a holy God to their wickedness. Jonah traversed the broad expanse of the city, one side to the other, whereupon he left the city and retired to a hillside overlooking Nineveh where he could bear witness to the wrath of God. His hatred for the inhabitants of Nineveh swelled up in his heart almost to the point of glee as he sat in anticipation of the apocalyptic wrath that would soon befall them. He waited and waited……………………..and waited……………..but the fire did not come. Judgment did not come because something remarkable had happened in Nineveh.
“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” . (Jonah 3:5-9 ESV)
Nineveh was a vile, cruel, bloodthirsty city known and feared throughout the region. The Assyrians had troubled Israel for centuries, surely establishing itself as not only an enemy of Israel, but the God of Israel. It is understandable that Jonah would have reveled in witnessing the overthrow of Nineveh. Yet, in response to a plain, direct warning from the prophet’s lips the city turned toward God, repented of their sin, and cried out to God for mercy. Nineveh was spared.
Jonah walked through a gate on one side of the city, and what a sight he must have been to the Ninevites; a hairless, bleached out, partially digested ghoul who walked a straight line through the city over and over again, repeating the same eight words, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah did not debate. He did not cajole or plead. He did not present himself as a “friend” of the people of Nineveh. He did not try to fit in, or become relevant to their culture. Jonah was on a mission from God. He had a word to deliver. He had a warning to give; a raw and uncooked meal with no niceties or accoutrements. There was no effort to make the people feel better about themselves, to affirm them, or to minimize their condition or jeopardy
The United States of America is living in the shadow of the judgment of God and we need a Jonah.