God Wants You in Nineveh!
April 3, 1994
Is there a better story in all the Bible than the story of Jonah? Generations of Sunday School children have listened with wide-eyed amazement at the story of the fish that caught a man.
At the very beginning I would like to make two points about the book of Jonah:
1. It is a true story. Contrary to the critics and skeptics, I believe this story is recorded as sober, historical truth. That is, there really was a man named Jonah, who really did flee to Tarshish, who really was swallowed whole by a great fish, who really did survive for three days in the fish’s belly, and who actually was vomited up on dry ground. It’s all true, just the way it was written—not a myth or a legend or a saga or a fable or a parable. Jonah is a true story.
2. It is a funny story. I confess that I find this one of the funniest stories in all the Bible. It is hard to read it without chuckling. I do not doubt for a moment that we are doing exactly what the author intended when he wrote this book. We are supposed to laugh when we read it because our laughter means we’re getting the point.
There’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us.
I’m sure most of us have taken a ship to Tarshish at one time or another. We all know what it means to run the other way. And we know how creative the Lord can be when he wants to bring us back to where we ought to be.
This book is really a story about three different things. One part is about Jonah. One part is about Nineveh. The big part is about God. We learn more about him than about anything else. When you finally get to the end, you discover that that’s why this book was written in the first place—to teach us about God. If this morning we have a few chuckles together, that will be good. If we see ourselves in a new light, that will be better. But if we learn something about God, that will be best of all.
Here’s a little outline that helps me organize the story in my own mind. Jonah falls naturally into four parts, one for each chapter:
Chapter 1: Jonah and the ship
Chapter 2: Jonah and the fish
Chapter 3: Jonah and the city
Chapter 4: Jonah and the Lord
In chapter 1 Jonah is running from the God; in chapter 2 he is praying to God; in chapter 3 he is speaking for God; in chapter 4 he is learning about God.
I. The Story
Since most of us already know this story in its broad outline, let me sum up the high points in 8 simple statements:
A. Nineveh was a wicked city.
The story begins this way: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ’Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” It helps to know that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and Assyria was the mortal enemy of Israel. When God said Nineveh was wicked, he wasn’t kidding. They had a reputation for cruelty that is hard to fathom in our day. Their specialty was brutality of a gross and disgusting kind. When their armies captured a city or a country, unspeakable atrocities would occur. Things like skinning people alive, decapitation, mutilation, ripping out the tongues, making a pyramid of human heads, piercing the chin with a rope and forcing prisoners to live in kennels like dogs. Ancient records from Assyria boast of this kind of cruelty as a badge of courage and power. It would be accurate, I think, to call them the Nazis of their day. It would also be fair to say that everyone feared and hated the Assyrians.
B. Jonah hated Nineveh.
That’s exactly how Jonah felt when God called him to go preach in Nineveh. He didn’t want the slightest thing to do with Nineveh. He was a prophet of Israel; not a preacher to the degenerate Assyrians.
He didn’t have the slightest desire to do what God had said.
C. Jonah ran the other way.
So the Bible says that Jonah ran from the presence of the Lord. We don’t know exactly what that means. Maybe he thought God’s presence was a like a radio signal—the farther you go from the tower, the weaker the signal gets. If that’s what he thought, then the farther he ran from Israel, the weaker the “signal” would get. Who knows? Maybe he thought if he ran far enough the Lord would lose track of him and decide to get someone else to take his place.
So Jonah decided to take a cruise. He traveled to the seaport of Joppa (near modern Tel Aviv) and found a ship headed for Tarshish. Now Nineveh was about 600 miles to the east—on the banks of the Tigris River. Tarshish was probably on the coast of Spain—about 1600 miles to the west. Jonah was going as far as he could as fast as he could.
By the way, isn’t it interesting that Jonah found a ship going where he wanted to go? Whenever we don’t want to obey, we can always find a ship bound for Tarshish. The devil has his fleet and a new ship sails for Tarshish every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Don’t miss the point. Whenever the word of the Lord comes to us, it demands a response.
What will you do with what God has said? Will you run the other way?
If you decide to run, you’ll probably find a ship going your way.
So it is that Jonah ends up on the boat going to Tarshish. As the journey begins, he appears to be just another traveler. There is nothing to mark him out from anyone else. Unless he says something, no one will know the truth. But that is as it should be. Disobedience is deceptive. Things are not always what they appear to be. We may appear to be on a routine trip to Tarshish when we are actually running away from God.
You know the story, I’m sure. A great storm comes up while Jonah is taking a nap down below. The sailors cast lots to see who is responsible, and the lot falls on Jonah. He tells them to throw him overboard and everything will calm down. They do and it does.
And Jonah the reluctant prophet treads water in the Mediterranean Sea as the ship sails off for Tarshish.
I left out one small point, didn’t I? The God who called Jonah can command the forces of nature to force his runaway prophet to start paying attention.
D. God found Jonah and turned him around.
Now Jonah is dog paddling in the middle of the ocean. If something doesn’t happen soon, he’s a goner. Well, something happened but it wasn’t what Jonah was expecting. The Bible says it this way: “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)
What kind of fish do you suppose it was? We’re accustomed to thinking of a whale and that indeed may be correct. Some species of whales have openings large enough to swallow a man. The Hebrew phrase simply means “a great fish,” which might mean an existing fish or one God specially prepared for this occasion.
At this point Jonah is really down in the mouth. But he’s only getting what he deserves.
It’s a dangerous thing to run away from God.
Jonah is learning his lesson the hard way.
Can you imagine what it was like inside that fish? It’s dark, you can’t move around very much, the fish is swimming constantly, salt water washes over you, seaweed wraps around your body, unidentified objects knock against you. One other thing. The inside of a fish really stinks. Plus it’s greasy, slippery, and the fish is trying to digest Jonah. This isn’t three days at the Holiday Inn. The fish thinks Jonah is a mid-afternoon snack.
There is one positive aspect to being swallowed by a fish. It leaves you with plenty of time to yourself. Suddenly Jonah began to reflect on how he ended up in such a predicament. As he ponders the matter, Jonah begins to pray to God. His prayer comprises all of chapter 2. In essence he says, “Lord, I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve promised to obey you, and if I ever get out of this fish, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
With that lesson learned, there is no point in staying inside the fish any longer. The Bible tells us what happened next: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (Jonah 2:10) I don’t imagine that was a fun experience. There’s only one thing worse than being in the belly of a fish; that’s being in the belly of a sick fish.
E. Jonah ended up doing what God wanted in the first place.
So here’s Jonah on the beach. Can you imagine what he looked like? He would have looked better if he had been dead. Most people think his skin was bleached white from the stomach acids. No doubt his clothes are ripped to shreds and seaweed hangs from his neck. He looks terrible, but at last he’s ready to go to Nineveh.
God now speaks to Jonah again, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ’Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’” There is both grace and warning in those words. Grace because the word of the Lord comes a second time; warning because God’s will has not been changed by Jonah’s delay. Sometimes we think we can stall God into changing his plans. If Jonah thought that, he was sadly mistaken.
F. Nineveh experiences the greatest revival in history.
So he goes to Nineveh and preaches a very simple message: “… Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4) Not a very positive approach. Jonah evidently was into Possibility Thinking. And you wouldn’t expect such a negative message to strike fear into the hearts of the pagan Ninevites. But it does. God had evidently prepared their hearts so that once Jonah starts preaching, the whole city repents.
That’s no exaggeration. The entire city—perhaps encompassing 600,000 people—from the king on down—the whole city repents and turns to God.
As a result—and this point is crucial—God sees their genuine repentance and cancels the punishment he had planned to send upon them.
Historians tell us that this is the greatest single revival in the history of the world.
An entire metropolitan area is turned from paganism to the worship of the God of Israel. No revival since then has ever produced such a dramatic result.
G. Jonah is still unhappy.
We rush on to the end of the story. Jonah is not a happy man. He didn’t want to come to Nineveh in the first place. He didn’t want to preach to these dirty heathens. He fought God all the way. The only consolation for Jonah was the thought that after Nineveh rejected his preaching, he could enjoy watching God destroy the city. The very last thing he wanted was to see God “go soft” and let Nineveh off the hook.
Jonah 4:2 is the heart of the whole book: “He prayed to the Lord, ’O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” In essence he says, “I knew you would do something like this.” We can say it very simply:
God wanted to save Nineveh.
Jonah wanted to destroy it.
Jonah wanted to see Nineveh go to hell. They deserved it and he wanted to be there to watch it happen. Now Jonah is angry at God because he has messed everything up.
H. God still loves Nineveh!
This surely is the great point of the book. In the very last verse God asked a pointed question—a question that is never answered and indeed, begs for an answer today: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
We never hear from Jonah again—which leaves us to wonder whether he ever got the message. This story is in the Bible because it speaks to all of us who would rather not get involved in the world.
We’d rather be comfy, cozy and keep it nice and neat inside the four walls of the church.
There is another way of looking at this whole issue: Jonah has two problems. On the surface, his problem is that he has no heart for the people of Nineveh. But his real problem is deeper: He has no room for a God who does. Jonah’s real problem is God!!! His God is too small and that’s why his heart is too small.
One final note. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that God’s greatest problem is not with the wicked people of Nineveh. Oh, they were truly evil—no doubt about that. But God has no problems with them.
God’s greatest problem was his reluctant, rebellious prophet.
—God’s greatest problem is not the sinner out there.
—His greatest problem is the saint in here.
We’re a lot more like Jonah than we would like to admit. That’s why we laugh and then we squirm. There’s a lot of Jonah inside most of us.
II. Lessons From This Story
Let me point out four simple lessons from this ancient story.
A. God still loves Nineveh!
Where is Nineveh today? Nineveh is Chicago. Nineveh is Oak Park. Nineveh is Elmhurst and Elgin and Rockford and Austin and Cicero and Berwyn.
Nineveh is wherever the people of the world gather to do business. It’s the Midwest Stock Exchange, the Sears Tower, the Brickyard Mall and it’s every high-rise insurance company and every high-powered legal firm. Nineveh is the Northern Illinois Gas Company, the Illinois National Guard, the Chicago Public School system and Oak Park District 200.
You see, Nineveh is not just a place. Nineveh is a symbol for the gathering together of the people of the world. Wherever you find people, there you find Nineveh in all its splendor and power and glory and greed and brutality and evil. It’s all there, mixed together, the good with the bad, the light with the darkness.
Look around, child of God! You live in Nineveh, you work in Nineveh, all your life is lived in and around “that great city.” No one can escape it.
And the message is clear: God still loves Nineveh! He still loves Chicago. He still loves Oak Park. He still loves the people who make their living in the Loop. He loves the teeming thousands who ride the El each day. He loves those union workers who ply their trade on the steel or under the hood or in some mammoth factory or in the bowels of the city.
Sometimes we see only the evil and think, “God must hate this city.” No, God loves this city and these people. Nothing they can do can make him stop loving them. He sees all the sin—not the tiniest bit escapes his vision—but it does not turn back his heart of love.
God still loves Nineveh!
B. God still wants his children to go to Nineveh.
His heart has never changed. God has never stopped loving the great cities of the world:
God still loves the cities because that’s where the people are. Where will you find the masses at the end of the 20th century? You’ll find them gathered in the cities of the world. But wherever people gather, you also find crime, drugs, prostitution, hatred, class warfare, greed, murder, broken lives, broken homes, broken dreams.
That’s why God’s children must go to the cities: The people need us there and God wants us there!
C. God is still willing to do whatever it takes to get you to Nineveh!
For Jonah that meant spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish. What will God have to do to get you to obey him? Our churches are filled with modern-day Jonahs who have taken a holiday cruise to Tarshish. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe God has spoken to you and you have said, “God, I don’t think I can do that.” If so, I’ve got good news and bad news for you: The good news is: Don’t worry about that great storm on the horizon. The bad news is: You’d better start worrying about that great fish!
Perhaps you remember an old gospel song that included this line: “He doesn’t make you go against your will, he just makes you willing to go.” How true. God won’t force you go to Nineveh. But he will make your life miserable until you decide to go on your own.
He just makes you willing to go.
D. Nineveh needs you.
Think about this. For all its cruelty and sinful brutality, Nineveh was ready to turn to God. The people didn’t know it, they weren’t consciously aware of their need, they weren’t looking for God in any sense. But God who sees all things knew that this vile city was primed and ready to turn to him. If only he could find a man—the right man with the right message—who would dare to go there and deliver God’s message.
Jonah was God’s man for Nineveh!
The world is full of Ninevehs today … and God is still looking for someone to go there.
Nineveh is first of all a literal city.
It also stands for all the great cities of the world.
But Nineveh is even more personal than that. It stands for …
That place only you can go.
That person only you can reach.
That opportunity only you can fill.
You’ve got a Nineveh in your life right now. It might be a friend where you work. It might be that group you hang around with after school. It might be your neighbors down the street, or it might be the women in the PTO or the guys on your bowling team. Who knows? Your Nineveh might be your husband or wife or even your grown-up children. Your Nineveh might be a new job in a new city or a home on a new street. Nineveh ultimately stands for any part of the will of God that you are afraid to face.
You’re afraid to go … but God wants you there.
You’re afraid to speak up … but there are people who need to hear what you have to say.
You’re afraid to make a move … but God says, “Trust me.”
Nineveh is calling you today …
What will you do about it?
God wants you in Nineveh …
But you don’t want to go.
You’d rather go to Tarshish …
Fine, but watch out for that great fish.
The world is evil and mean …
Will you speak up anyway?
People are cruel …
Will you tell them about God’s love?
You say, “I don’t want to go.”
God says, “Fine, I’ll just make you willing to go.”
Thomas Carlisle wrote a poem called “You, Jonah.” The last two stanzas go this way:
And Jonah stalked
To his shaded seat
And waited for God
To come around
To his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting
For a host of Jonah’s
In their comfortable houses
To come around
To his way of loving.
“Jonah, do you hear that sound? It’s the noise of Nineveh. What’s that? You hate the Ninevites? I know you do. But Jonah, I want you to go there anyway. I’ll go with you. You do the talking and I’ll take care of the rest. Hey, where are you going? Tarshish? Have a nice trip. They tell me the fishing is great this time of the year.”