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The Nineveh Mission

The book of Jonah is the story of the prophet's own experiences concerning his mission to Nineveh.
As such it is unique among the "Minor Prophets" where various prophetic oracles present the substance of the books.
Yet the greater uniqueness is that in Old Testament literature this book records the divine correction of a Hebrew prophet concerning the plight of the heathen Gentiles and demonstrates the impartiality of God!
historical circumstance of this mission is the earlier part of the reign of Jeroboam II, about 780 BC (II Kings 14:25). Assyria was troubled by the unruly Urartu to her north and the warring tribes had effectively pushed her frontier to less than 100 miles from her capital Nineveh. Ellison writes of this time that –
"occasional campaigns against the West were a warning that she was still a power to be reckoned with, but Assyria itself knew that if the fierce mountaineers of Urartu, Mannai and Madai were to venture down into the plain of the Tigris the ensuing battle might well mean its end" (1969:57).
The mighty empire of earlier days was in real danger. This makes Nineveh's serious and positive response to Jonah's announcement of imminent destruction more understandable.
In addition, the timing of Jonah's message of judgment was known to be morally justified.
"Assyria had earned itself ...lasting infamy by its inhuman conduct"
Assyria had earned itself, in the words of one scholar – "lasting infamy by its inhuman conduct" (Ellison 1969:57). Her extremes of cruelty to conquered peoples was a boast among her generals and proudly displayed on her monuments.
The commission to Jonah should have brought him joy for Israel had much to gain from Nineveh's destruction. Syria at this time was no longer a danger to Israel (II Kings 13:25; 14:28)., and other Gentile states of the Fertile Crescent had been too badly mauled by Assyria to now attempt to take over her empire and threaten Jonah's people. In addition, Jonah's prophecies of Israel's territorial expansion toward Syria made the future of his nation seem bright and the international prospect of peace and security promising. Yet, Jonah abandons his calling to herald destruction to the great enemy city, and thus his calling as prophet –
 "Jonah rose up to flee ...from the presence of the Lord" 
Jonah 1:3,10
do not need to fall into the same trap that so many have succumbed to in denigrating the prophet as a coward or as simply a hater of Gentiles. The book itself adequately shows the Jonah's thinking and motivation. Jonah's complaint after God's postponement of Nineveh's destruction is –
"I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying when I was yet in my country?
Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest Thee of the evil"
Jonah 4:2
Because Jonah knew God he knew that his mission was a mission of mercy, even though his message was of coming judgment! Jonah's special love for his own people Israel should have been reason enough to shout for joy at God's announcement of coming judgment upon the empire that had already threatened Israel's national security and would do so again. The vicious cruelties of Assyrian warfare were not unknown to this prophet of Gath-hepher a few miles north-east of Nazareth in the vulnerable border area. His past ministry to his people had focused on encouragement in the face of their vulnerability and weakness (II Kings 14:25-27). So, to refuse the mission which he knew (because he knew God) was a mission of mercy to Nineveh the dreaded enemy of his people was neither cowardice nor unthinking personal prejudice. He sent himself into voluntary exile from his beloved Israel, both the people and the holy land, rather than warn Israel's enemy of coming judgment.
Jonah's nationalism
his misguided loyalty to his people he did what seemed so right in his own eyes (Prov.14:12), and consequently became under God's hand an object lesson to following generations in the perseverance of God's over-riding and impartial mercy.

Let modern Zionism hear this today!
Linguistic evidences of this book's date of composition line up with two possible periods –
780 to 730 BC/BCE, and 550 to 350 BC/BCE (Baxter 1958:4:170)
The opinion of the majority of scholars favours the latter period (the post-exilic). But this view has had its main support from those who presuppose the book as a fiction used for allegorical teaching. In contrast, the Christian approach of this study cannot reject out-of-hand the supernatural elements in the story, which have been the main cause of opposition to the writing's integrity.
The so-called problems of the fish, the fast growing creeper, and timely worm and wind, are no problem to a believer, especially as the book specifically describes them as prepared by God. The objections that Nineveh's size (Jon.3:3) and population (Jon.4:11) don't agree to historical fact have been more than adequately answered in pointing out that imperial Nineveh was more than the town of Nineveh. It was a metropolis which included four neighbouring cities with a total perimeter of over 60 miles and an estimated population of over 600,000 persons (Baxter 1958:4:170).
However, acceptance of the historicity of the record does not exclude any typological content, as Christ Himself showed in reference to Jonah (Matt.12:39-40; 16:4; Lk.11:29-30). But the books does not at all conform to the norms of Old Testament allegory (Eybers 1971:213). Nowhere in this book is there a hint of metaphorical significance as is found with Old Testament allegories (see Jeremiah 25:15; Ezekiel 17:4; 24:6; 19:1; Zechariah 11:10,14; Eccles. 12:5).
In addition, Professor Eybers asserts that –
"the allegorical interpretation contains various problems and obscures the great message of the book".
Eybers 1971:213.
Rather than seeing the 'fish' as Israel's Babylonian exile which threatened to swallow them and construct contrasts between the divine compassion on Gentiles in this book and divine exclusivism in Ezra and Nehemiah, we should rightly see the book as a declaration of –
(1) the sovereignty of the God of Israel over all nations (even the most feared); and,
(2) His concern that Israel bear this witness according to His inclusive compassion.
The fish rescued Jonah. The fish was not God's punishment for exclusivism, as the misguided allegorical interpretation would have it. Instead, the fish-experience produced a prayer of praise – a "voice of thanksgiving" from the fish's belly (Jon.2:9). This presumed rebuke of exclusivism also has no support in the post-exilic prophets, contrary to what one would expect if this were the real purpose for the book's composition.
Christ's own authentication of the historicity of the book of Jonah is surely the final word. The Lord treated Nineveh's repentance at the preaching of Jonah as factually as the solemn truth of the final judgment of God on our world. (Matt.12:41; Lk.11:32).

Jonah is undoubtedly also a type - on the one hand of Israel the Servant of God, and on the other the greater Servant, the Messiah Himself. Yet, as is true of typology that rides upon the literal reality of the account, every detail of the events described is not to be read symbolically as if it were an artificially contrived metaphorical teaching.
1. The storm demonstrates God's judgment (Jon.1), halting the prophet's flight and turning the mariners ultimately to the worship of Yahweh;
2. God's salvation comes to Jonah through the fish, and his praise and thanksgiving climax with the words and realization "salvation is of the Lord" (Jon.2);
3. The mission to Nineveh recommences and the people of Nineveh "believed God" (Jon.3); and so,
4. God "repented of the evil" (Jon.4).
Chapter Four is Jonah's personal lesson and the beautiful climax of the continuing confrontation between God and His unwilling prophet.
Jonah is very angry at the postponement of the judgment that he himself announced. He complains to God and is queried by God over the righteousness of his anger. Jonah, whose destiny is now so attached to the destiny of Nineveh as its minister, makes a rough shelter to observe what would happen to the city. God in compassion at Jonah's physical vulnerability causes a shady creeper to grow rapidly over his rough shelter, for which Jonah is very glad in contrast to his attitude to the city's welfare. The "prepared" creeper is destroyed by a "prepared" worm and a "prepared" wind, which causes Jonah such intense physical distress that he wishes to die.
God's response in the last three verses of the short book is its message. It is the revelation of the one who is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9). There is a remarkable parallel between the message of this book and that of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:11-32), yet not so strange as it is the one God who is revealed in both. In the parable the nature of the heavenly Father is shown in the father's treatment of his returning reprobate son, as also He is shown in His treatment of a repentant Nineveh. The angry Jonah and the sulking "older brother" of the parable story well express those whose religious privilege and mistaken value-system make them a hindrance to God's purpose of mercy upon all (Rom.11:32).
God's compassionate concern for all men, so fully revealed in the New Testament record, is not limited to the book of Jonah in the Old Testament Scriptures (such as Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3). Even God's care for the animals in Nineveh (4:11) is reflected elsewhere in the Old Testament (such as Habakkuk 2:17). But the way in which God fully accepts the conversion and worship of the heathen is without parallel is without parallel (Jonah 3:10;  cf. 1:14 and also 3:9 and 1:6-7). Thus the book of Jonah may truly be called the missionary book of the Old Testament with a strong "centripetal missionary" emphasis (such as Jeremiah 3:17; Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 2:11; 8:20-23; Psalm 22:27-28; 67:31-32; 86:9-10), but the book of Jonah is the fullest witness in the Old Covenant Scriptures to the fact that –
the Word of God should be carried forth to the heathen by Israel (Eybers 1971:221).
Could Jonah's grief for the loss of his shady creeper weigh against God's grief for Nineveh's people and animals?
  Could our distress at the loss of public favour or material comfort or any other deprivation ever be compared to the great grief of the eternal Father and His Spirit within us for a world lost in spiritual darkness beyond our description and a dying earth?
  • Baxter, JS    1958  Explore the Book, Vol. IV. London, UK: Marshall, Morgan and Scott Ltd.
  • Bright, John    1953 The KIngdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church. New York, USA: Abingdon Press.
  • Ellison, HL    1969  The Prophets of Israel: from Ahijah to Hosea. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press.
  • Eybers, IH    September 1971 "The Purpose of the Book of Jonah", article in Theologia Evangelica. Pretoria, RSA: Faculty of Theology of the University of South Africa.

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