Who Can Stand Before God?

Are you better than Thebes
    that sat by the Nile,
with water around her,
    her rampart a sea,
    and water her wall?
Cush was her strength;
    Egypt too, and that without limit;
    Put and the Libyans were her helpers.

Yet she became an exile;
    she went into captivity;
her infants were dashed in pieces
    at the head of every street;
for her honored men lots were cast,
    and all her great men were bound in chains.
You also will be drunken;
    you will go into hiding;
you will seek a refuge from the enemy.
All your fortresses are like fig trees
    with first-ripe figs—
if shaken they fall
    into the mouth of the eater.
Behold, your troops
    are women in your midst.
The gates of your land
    are wide open to your enemies;
    fire has devoured your bars.

Draw water for the siege;
    strengthen your forts;
go into the clay;
    tread the mortar;
    take hold of the brick mold!
There will the fire devour you;
    the sword will cut you off.
    It will devour you like the locust.
Nahum 3:8-15a ESV

 

Nahum is unrelenting in his description of Nineveh’s fall. You would think that, by now, he had made his point. But he is far from done. He continues to drive home the point that mighty Nineveh would fall, because God had ordained it. He even reminds them that the fall of great nations was not an uncommon thing to happen in that day and age. He uses the great city of Thebes as an example. Thebes had been the capital of upper Egypt and was similar to Nineveh in that it was surrounded by a protective barrier of water. But this powerful and well-protected city fell at the hands of the Sargon and the Assyrians in 663 B.C. And the Prophet Jeremiah predicted its coming destruction by the Babylonians:

The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, said: “Behold, I am bringing punishment upon Amon of Thebes, and Pharaoh and Egypt and her gods and her kings, upon Pharaoh and those who trust in him. I will deliver them into the hand of those who seek their life, into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and his officers” – Jeremiah 46:25-26 ESV

If Thebes could fall, so could Nineveh. And while Thebes had plenty of allies to assist her, they would prove helpless to provide her with adequate defense. Her superior forces, formidable defenses and more-than-adequate alliances, would prove to be insufficient. And the same would be true for Nineveh. In a sense, Nahum is warning the Assyrians that it is futile to put their trust in material or earthly things. It was King David who wrote, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7 ESV). Nothing is an adequate defense against the wrath of God. Large armies, impregnable defenses, powerful allies, deep moats, massive walls, and the most state-of-the-art weapons are no match for God.

Nahum goes on to describe in graphic detail the fate of Thebes. The city fell and its people were captured and taken into exile. Innocent babies were murdered in its streets. Its powerful and prominent citizens were sold as slaves. And Nahum warns that the same fate is in store for the people of Nineveh. When the Medes and Babylonians show up and lay siege to the city, the Assyrians will spend their days drinking in order to escape the fear of destruction. They will seek places to hide within the walls of the city. But Nahum compares their fortifications to over-ripe fruit hanging on a tree. One shake of the trunk and the fruit falls to the ground. In other words, Nineveh was ripe for the picking. He compares the mighty Assyrian warriors to weak and defenseless women, incapable of standing up to the forces of the Medes and Babylonians. In the end, their wall and gates would be as if they were non-existent. The enemy troops will swarm into the city as if the gates had been opened wide to receive them.

All of this would have been difficult for the Assyrians to believe. Even the Jews to whom Nahum was writing this oracle would have had a difficult time believing that what he was saying would actually happen. He was describing the fall of the most powerful nation in the world at that time. No one had been able to stand up to the Assyrians. There were no powers comparable to them. The thought of their capital city being defeated by anyone was hard to believe. But Nahum was a prophet of God. He spoke on behalf of God. And what he was saying, while difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to believe, was going to happen. It was God-ordained, not wishful thinking. It was not a matter of if, but when.

What is amazing about what Nahum is predicting regarding Nineveh and the nation of Assyria is not only that it will happen just as he says it will, but that the Assyrian Empire will disappear off the face of the earth. A nation that had existed for more than 2,000 years, will suddenly vanish from the scene. It will become a historical footnote. And the once great city of Nineveh will become a heap of rubble and a lost kingdom. It would not be until 1842 that the remains of the city were discovered. When God decided to destroy Nineveh, He would do so in a no-holds-barred fashion. They would not live to repeat their sins of the past. They would not rise from the ashes to fight another day. Their destruction would be comprehensive and complete.

They would prepare for the siege. They could make more bricks and fortify their defenses. But it would all prove hopeless in the face of God’s wrath. No amount of chariots, soldiers, allies, walls, or military strategies would save them.

Nahum wants his readers to understand that Yahweh is a great and mighty God. He is all-powerful and no one can stand against Him. He wants the people of Judah to fear and reverence God, to show Him the glory and honor He deserves. There is a story in the book of 1 Samuel about the return of the Ark of the Covenant which had been captured in battle by the Philistines. God had punished them by sending a plaque on them as long as they held the ark. So, in fear of God’s continued vengeance, they returned it to the Israelites. And when the men of Beth-shemesh saw it, they made the mistake of looking inside the ark. For doing so, 70 of them were stuck dead. And their response was, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” (1 Samuel 6:20 ESV). The Philistines had not been able to stand before God. The disobedient men of Beth-shemesh had not been able to stand before God. And they had suffered the consequences.

But there is another passage, found in the book of Malachi, that also speaks of man’s inability to stand before God. It tells of a time when God shows up on the scene, but not to judge, but to refine. He will appear to the people of Israel, not as a burning fire of judgment, but a refining fire that will purge them once and for all of their sins.

“But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.” – Malachi 3:2-4 NLT

God is a mighty, all-consuming fire. But His fire is not just destructive in nature. It can be purifying and redeeming. God would consume the Assyrians in His wrath. But there is a day coming when He will refine the people of Israel in His mercy and grace. He will keep the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He will fulfill His covenant with His people. And in spite of their sin and rebellion, in spite of their rejection of His Son as their Messiah and Savior, He will redeem a remnant of the people of Israel as His own. When God decides to judge, who can stand before Him? When God determines to redeem, who can stand before Him? He is the sovereign God of the universe. He does as He sees fit. He accomplishes what He desires. And no one can stand before Him. The book of Revelation tells of the coming day of judgment, when God will accomplish His final will concerning those who have refused to bend the knee to Him and acknowledge Him as God.

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” – Revelation 6:14-16 ESV

No one can stand before God. No one can stand up to God and live to tell about it. His will will be done. His kingdom will come. His Son will reign. And His chosen people will be there to reign at His side.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
Advertisements

When God Says, “Enough!”

Woe to the bloody city,
    all full of lies and plunder—
    no end to the prey!
The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel,
    galloping horse and bounding chariot!
Horsemen charging,
    flashing sword and glittering spear,
hosts of slain,
    heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
    they stumble over the bodies!
And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute,
    graceful and of deadly charms,
who betrays nations with her whorings,
    and peoples with her charms.

Behold, I am against you,
    declares the Lord of hosts,
    and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will make nations look at your nakedness
    and kingdoms at your shame.
I will throw filth at you
    and treat you with contempt
    and make you a spectacle.
And all who look at you will shrink from you and say,
“Wasted is Nineveh; who will grieve for her?”
    Where shall I seek comforters for you? Nahum 3:1-7 ESV

 

For the third time since he started his oracle, Nahum will describe the fall of Nineveh, but this time he will provide the reason for the fall. He begins this section with the word, “woe”, which signals that what follows contains a warning of impending doom. The prophet, Isaiah, would use the same word when speaking of the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah.

“Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves.” – Isaiah 3:9 ESV

Their impending doom is directly tied to their guilt. They were a people known for shedding blood. They had conquered countless cities and captured or slaughtered their citizens. As a result of the victories, they had taken much plunder and moved it to their capital, Nineveh. But their appetite was insatiable. There was no end to their need for conquest and so there was no end to their prey. They were never satisfied. But God had had His fill of the Assyrians. He would no longer put up with their exploits, so Nahum uses very graphic terms to describe their fall: “hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies!” (Nahum 3:3 ESV). The chariots and horsemen of the Medes and Persians were going to do to Nineveh what the Assyrians had done to countless other cities. The citizens of Nineveh were going to know the fear and terror of a siege as enemy soldiers attacked their city day after day, month after month. They would know what it was like to live under the constant threat that each day could bring the city’s fall and their own deaths.

And Nahum provides us with the “why.” He lets us know the reason for their coming destruction.

And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute,
    graceful and of deadly charms,
who betrays nations with her whorings,
    and peoples with her charms. – Nahum 3:6 ESV

Nahum compares the Assyrians to a prostitute. In some sense their probably refers to the role they often played as an ally to more defenseless nations. They would offer their services to those under threat by other powers, and agree to come to their aid should they be needed – all for money or tribute. King Ahaz of Judah, would turn to the Assyrians for aid against the combined forces of Syria and Israel.

So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria. – 2 Kings 16:7-8 ESV

But on many occasions, they would turn on those they had agreed to help. That’s exactly what they did to Judah. Years later, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria surrounded Jerusalem and sent a message to the king.

Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. – Isaiah 36:16-17 ESV

Sennacherib was lying to Hezekiah. He offered to take them to Assyria and provide them with fine land and to treat them fairly. But he had nothing of the sort in mind. They were deceitful and motivated by conquest. And they were willing to use military might or cunning deception to get what they wanted. Not only that, Nahum accuses them of witchcraft and sorcery. The Hebrew word translated as “deadly charms” is the word kesheph and it refers to the practice of witchcraft. The Assyrians were pagans who mixed sorcery and witchcraft with their religious practices, and sought the aid and direction of the spirit world to determine their fate. This, coupled with their military success, made them highly attractive to the nations around them. Even King Ahaz of Judah, when he met with King Tiglath-pileser, was enamored by their temple and its altar. So he “sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus” (2 Kings 16:10-11 ESV). Not only that, Ahaz had the bronze altar, the one that was prescribed by God as the place to offer all the sacrifices, moved from its place of prominence. And then Ahaz began to use to as a tool of divination, saying, “the bronze altar shall be for me to inquire by” (2 Kings 16:15 ESV).

The power and success of Assyrian had made them attractive to other nations. They became the nation to emulate. Their power was great, so their gods must be great as well. Their methods had been successful, so other nations began to model themselves after Assyrian, adopting their ways, both militarily and spiritually. But many of these nations would become the victims of Assyria and end up being sold into slavery.

But God was about to bring all that to an end. He tells them, “Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will make nations look at your nakedness and kingdoms at your shame” (Nahum 3:5 ESV). God was going to expose them for what they really were. But not only that, He was going to judge them for all that they had done. One of the things the Assyrians were known for was mocking the gods of the nations they conquered. Sennacherib did so when he surrounded Jerusalem.

Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’” – Isaiah 36:18-20 ESV

But God would have the last laugh. He would be the one to mock the Assyrians.

“I will cover you with filth
    and show the world how vile you really are.
All who see you will shrink back and say,
    ‘Nineveh lies in ruins.
Where are the mourners?’
    Does anyone regret your destruction?” – Nahum 3:6-7 NLT

Mighty Nineveh would be no match for the might of Yahweh. Their track record of success would be brought to an abrupt end. Their tenure of violence and destruction was coming to come to a screeching halt, all because God deemed it so. And the nations would rejoice over the demise of Assyria. There would be no mourners at their wake. No one would cry over the destruction of the once mighty nation of Assyria. Their day in the sun would end with darkness and anonymity. No king or nation can stand before God Almighty. No individual or people group is immune from His power or can escape His judgment. Like the Assyrians, they may face the music in their own lifetimes, but all will face the coming judgment of God. No one will be able to escape His righteous indignation and avoid His future punishment reserved for all those who rebel against Him and refuse His Son as the only means by which they might be saved. The Assyrians would hear the “woe” of God and live to regret it. But the day is coming when all mankind will hear God’s declaration of either judgment or acceptance. All will have to answer for their sins one day. But for those who have placed their faith in His Son as their sin substitute and Savior, they will face no judgment, because their sin debt has been paid for once and for all.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God, the Scatterer.

The scatterer has come up against you.
    Man the ramparts;
    watch the road;
dress for battle;
    collect all your strength.

For the Lord is restoring the majesty of Jacob
    as the majesty of Israel,
for plunderers have plundered them
    and ruined their branches.

The shield of his mighty men is red;
    his soldiers are clothed in scarlet.
The chariots come with flashing metal
    on the day he musters them;
    the cypress spears are brandished.
The chariots race madly through the streets;
    they rush to and fro through the squares;
they gleam like torches;
    they dart like lightning.
He remembers his officers;
    they stumble as they go,
they hasten to the wall;
    the siege tower is set up.
The river gates are opened;
    the palace melts away;
its mistress is stripped; she is carried off,
    her slave girls lamenting,
moaning like doves
    and beating their breasts.
Nineveh is like a pool
    whose waters run away.
“Halt! Halt!” they cry,
    but none turns back.
Plunder the silver,
    plunder the gold!
There is no end of the treasure
    or of the wealth of all precious things. Nahum 2:1-9 ESV

The Assyrians were powerful. They were feared. And rightly so, because their military might was second to none. No one had been able to resist their armies and oppose their will. When they determined to take a city, its walls eventually crumbled under the onslaught of the Assyrian siege engines, and the inhabitants were either killed or taken captive. This scene had been repeated time and time again throughout the known world as the Assyrian empire slowly and methodically spread, consuming everything in its path. But Nahum has news for the Assyrians. They are about to meet “the scatterer”. All the other nations they conquered and consumed had been protected by false gods made of stone or precious metals. But this time, they had chosen to attack a nation whose God was real. He did not need to be carried around and placed on a shelf. He was not mute and deaf. He did not have arms that hung lifeless at His side and eyes that were incapable of seeing. He was Yahweh, the God of the universe and the protector of the people of Judah. They were His people. He had chosen them and He would be faithful to protect them. Yes, they were disobedient and rebellious and undeserving of His grace and mercy, but God had made a covenant with them, and He would keep it. And He had not ordained the Assyrians to act as His agents of punishment. They had been His chosen instrument of destruction when He finally chose to punish the northern kingdom of Israel. He had sovereignly commissioned the Assyrians to attack Israel, sack their capital and take their people captive. This tragic event and the explanation for it, is described in the book of 2 Kings:

In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the Lord their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the Lord to anger, and they served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. – 2 Kings 17:6-14 ESV

God had used the Assyrians before, but He had not called on them this time. They were out of bounds and outside the will of God. So, Nahum, speaking on behalf of God, warns the Assyrians of what is about to happen. Speaking prophetically, Nahum describes for them the scene that is going to take place within the walls of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. The scatterer has come. That term was a common one in that day and was used of a conquering king. But in this case, Nahum is using it to speak of Yahweh. He will be the driving force behind the fall of Nineveh. While God will use other nations to accomplish His will, their efforts will be ordained and sanctioned by Him. And their victory will be the result of His sovereign will. The Assyrians and their capital will fall because they defied the will of God.

God was going to send Cyaxeres the Mede and Nabopolassar the Babylonian against Nineveh. And Nahum warns the people of Nineveh to make preparations for their arrival.

Man the ramparts;
    watch the road;
dress for battle;
    collect all your strength. – Nahum 2:1 ESV

They were to prepare for battle and arm themselves for war. Now, they were going to be on the receiving end of an enemy attack. This time, it would be the walls of mighty Nineveh that would be surrounded by enemy troops and pounded by siege engines. And Nahum tells the Assyrians why this is going to happen:

For the Lord is restoring the majesty of Jacob
    as the majesty of Israel,
for plunderers have plundered them
    and ruined their branches. – Nahum 2:2 ESV

God had not forgotten His people. He had not abandoned them. Even though He had allowed some of their cities to be plundered and destroyed by the Assyrians, He had not forsaken them completely. Now, He was going to put an end to Assyria’s onslaught against His people.

The following verses provide a graphic depiction of what was going to happen. This description of the coming events was intended to provide encouragement for the people of Judah and instill fear in the Assyrians. Nahum provides a scene-by-scene summary of what is going to happen within the walls of Ninevah. The enemy’s soldiers with their gleaming shields and spears will appear on the streets of the city. Chariots complete with scythe-like blades attached to their wheels will careen through the city, wreaking havoc and scattering the people before them. The Assyrians will attempt to muster a defense, but will fail. During the siege of Nineveh, which would last three years, there would be storms that would cause the rivers running through the city to flood. Historians believe these natural events were part of the cause of the city’s eventual fall. The flooded rivers ended up washing away the foundations under some of the walls and causing them to fall. Many of the cities buildings, along with its palaces, were also destroyed by the flooding. So, God, the creator of the universe, would not only marshal enemy armies against Nineveh, He would utilize His creation to bring and end to the once-mighty Assyrians.

And all of this would leave the people of Nineveh running for their lives. But the city and its great wealth would be plundered by the Medes and Persians. It’s gods would be taken as booty. It palaces would be stripped of their gold and silver. Nothing of value would be left. And Nahum warns that the end result will be total desolation.

Desolate! Desolation and ruin!
    Hearts melt and knees tremble;
anguish is in all loins;
    all faces grow pale! – Nahum 2:10 ESV

Nobles and slaves alike, would all be taken captive. They would be marched out of Ninevah, mourning and wailing over their defeat. One day they would be on top of the world, the next they would be demoralized and defeated captives, walking in chains to face their God-ordained fate.

This entire passage is designed to portray God as sovereign. He is not just the God of Judah, He is the God of the universe and everyone who lives in it. Whether the Assyrians, Medes, Babylonians or any other people group acknowledge Him as God is beside the point. He is God. The world is His and all who live on this planet do so at His pleasure. There is a sense in which all men believe they are self-made and self-determinative. We want to believe that we are the masters of our own fates and in control of our own destinies. But God, speaking through His prophet, Nahum, would have us remember that it is He who is in control. And while there will be those days when it appears as if God is distant and His power has somehow waned or diminished, we must always remember that He alone is God. He is not done yet. His will is not yet completely fulfilled. In the case of the nation of Judah, they would have additional experiences of defeat and demoralization. They would be spared from the attack of the Assyrians, but would eventually fall at the hands of the Babylonians. But it would be all according to God’s will. And the prophet Joel reminds us that God has an even greater fate in store for His people, and it will come about in His perfect, sovereign timing.

“Egypt shall become a desolation
    and Edom a desolate wilderness,
for the violence done to the people of Judah,
    because they have shed innocent blood in their land.
But Judah shall be inhabited forever,
    and Jerusalem to all generations.
I will avenge their blood,
    blood I have not avenged,
    for the Lord dwells in Zion.” – Joel 3:19-21 ESV

The Scatterer will also be the Gatherer. He will return His people to their land and place His Son on the throne of David. The Kingdom of God will reign on earth, with the King of kings and the Lord of lords ruling in righteousness over all the world.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Wake-Up Call.

Thus says the Lord,
“Though they are at full strength and many,
    they will be cut down and pass away.
Though I have afflicted you,
    I will afflict you no more.
And now I will break his yoke from off you
    and will burst your bonds apart.”

The Lord has given commandment about you:
    “No more shall your name be perpetuated;
from the house of your gods I will cut off
    the carved image and the metal image.
I will make your grave, for you are vile.”

Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him
    who brings good news,
    who publishes peace!
Keep your feasts, O Judah;
    fulfill your vows,
for never again shall the worthless pass through you;
    he is utterly cut off. Nahum 1:12-15 ESV

Nahum now addresses the people of Judah directly. Despite the overwhelming power of the Assyrians and their seemingly limitless numbers, God assures the people of Judah that He is going to deal with this centuries-old menace once and for all. The Hebrew literally says, they will “trickle away” like the last remnants of a great flood that has done its damage, but has slowly receded to nothing. Their power will be no match for God. While He has allowed them their moment in the sun, He will also see that this once great nation is judged for its many atrocities and condemned to defeat at the hands of other nations. They will go from a once great nation-state to virtual oblivion, all because God has deemed it so.

But as for the people of Judah, God tells them that He is going to provide them with a break from the affliction brought upon them by the Assyrians. It must be noted that God’s promise to the people of Judah to bring an end to their affliction, only referred to their suffering at the hands of the Assyrians. Because it is clear from Scripture that God continued to bring affliction on the people of Judah from other sources, including the nation of Babylon, which, in 586 B.C., destroyed the city of Jerusalem and took many of the people of Judah captive. But God promised to eliminate Assyria as a threat, and He did so. This should have caught the attention of the people of Judah. They should have realized that their God is all-powerful and incredibly merciful. They had done nothing to deserve this reprieve, yet God had brought it about. They should have recognized that “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nahum 1:7 ESV). But the sad reality will be, that the people of Judah, who will see the hand of God move on their behalf, will continue their stubborn rejection of Him as their God. Yes, they will continue to worship Him, but as God said through the prophet Isaiah:

They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Their deliverance at the hand of God should have been a wake-up call. It should have driven them to their knees in gratitude and reverence to God for His mercy and grace. But God will be forced to replace the Assyrians with yet another foreign power that will act as His instrument of judgment upon His disobedient people.

But as for the present problem of the Assyrians, God assures the people of Judah, “now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds apart” (Nahum 1:13 ESV). What a bold claim for God to make. This seemingly impossible claim would have been hard for the people of God to accept. It would have seemed far-fetched and too good to be true. The Assyrians had been around for centuries. They were a powerful dynasty and the alpha predator of their era, with no known competitor strong enough to unseat them. How was God going to accomplish what Nahum was saying? This all sounded great, but it would have seemed like such an impossibility. But as Nahum has already reminded them:

His way is in whirlwind and storm,
    and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
    he dries up all the rivers
– Nahum 1:3-4 ESV

God was all-powerful. He was the God of the universe, the creator of all things. The Assyrians would be no problem for him. And so, Nahum changes his focus yet again and addresses the Assyrians directly.

The Lord has given commandment about you:
    “No more shall your name be perpetuated;
from the house of your gods I will cut off
    the carved image and the metal image.
I will make your grave, for you are vile.” – Nahum 1:14 ESV

Their false gods will prove to be no match for the one true God. They will be exposed for what they are: false and powerless. God will see to it that their posterity of the Assyrians ends. They will cease to exist as a nation-state. Their rise to power was great, but their fall will be even greater. Their seeming invincibility will end with with their virtual invisibility. They will cease to be. Again, what a bold claim. But what is interesting to note is that the Medes, who would be part of the coalition force that conquered the Assyrians, would see to it that the gods of the Assyrians, found in the capital city of Nineveh, were completely destroyed. The Assyrians had a policy of collecting the images of all the gods of the nations they defeated. They would bring them back to their capital and put them on display as an illustration of the superiority of their own gods. But when the time came for Nineveh to fall, all the gods of Assyria would be captured and destroyed, just as God had promised.

As Nahum prepares to transition to a new train of thought, he appeals to the people of Judah directly, calling them to rejoice in the inevitable salvation of God. He speaks as if the destruction of Nineveh has already happened and the deliverance of the people of Judah is complete. He calls them to “Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows,
for never again shall the worthless pass through you; he is utterly cut off” (Nahum 1:15 ESV). God’s word is so powerful, that you can go ahead and celebrate before it has even been fulfilled.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?
 – Numbers 23:19 NLT

God will bring about what He has promised. He will accomplish what He has said. And He is calling the people of Judah to do their part. They are to remain obedience to Him, keeping His appointed feasts and fulfilling the vows they had made to Him. God will do His part, but they must do theirs. God will remove the false gods of the Assyrians, but the people of Judah must remove the false gods they worship and return to faithful, unadulterated allegiance to Yahweh. After all God has promised to do, you would think that this would have been easy for the people of Judah to pull off. But they would prove to be ungrateful to God for His undeserved mercy and grace. He would do exactly what He promised, removing the yoke of the Assyrians, but they would continue to live their lives in open rebellion to Him. They would worship them with their lips, but their hearts would be far from Him. And God would be forced to bring yet another nation against His people, to prove to them that He is serious about their holiness. He not only demands obedience, He will do what He has to do to see that it happens.

This entire section of Nahum’s oracle, should have been a stark reminder to the people of Judah that their God was actively involved in their lives. He was blind to their spiritual condition or oblivious to their suffering at the hands of their enemies. As a matter of fact, the Assyrians were nothing more than tools in His hands, accomplishing His divine will concerning His judgment against the people of Judah. But God had promised to defeat the Assyrians and deliver the people of Judah. All He wanted in return was their faithfulness. He wanted their obedience and willful submission to His sovereign will concerning their lives. He had promised them blessing after blessing if they would only remain faithful to Him. And to prove both His power and mercy, God promised to destroy the very ones He had sent to persecute His people. He would remove the threat of destruction, but He desired the repentance of His people in return.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Our Great God.

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and keeps wrath for his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
    and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
    he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
    the bloom of Lebanon withers.
The mountains quake before him;
    the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
    the world and all who dwell in it.

Who can stand before his indignation?
    Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
    and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
Nahum 1:1-6 ESV

Nahum was an unknown man from an unknown town. Other than what we read about him in the book that bears his name, we know very little about him. He was simply Naham of Elkosh, but the one thing that sets him apart from all his peers is that he was chosen by God to be a prophet. Nahum was most likely a contemporary of Jonah. We have some idea of when he penned this information, because he mentions the fall of Thebes in chapter three, verse 8. Historically, we know that took place in 663 B.C. So his writing had to have taken place after that. Most of this book predicts the fall of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, which occurred in 612 B.C., when Nineveh fell to a combined force of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians. So, that puts the date of his prophecy and writing somewhere between 663 and 612 B.C. Most scholars put the date closer to 660 and 650 B.C. So, it is likely that Nahum prophesied during the reign of King Manasseh of Judah.

Nahum was a Jew and, while the majority of his message concerned the Assyrians and their capital city of Nineveh, it was intended for the Jewish people. It is interesting to note that Jonah was given a message of judgment for the people of Nineveh, but God spared them when they repented. Jonah was required by God to take that message directly into the heart of enemy territory, within the walls of the city of Nineveh itself. And he did so under great duress, having tried to escape from the task by running from God. And even when he saw that the people of Nineveh repented and God spared them from judgment, he was angry with God, and even accused God of evil. But at virtually the very same time, Nahum was writing an oracle concerning the Assyrians and their great capital city. He also had a word of warning from God concerning them. But his was very descriptive and specific as to exactly what was going to happen to them.

This message, while dealing with the coming fall of Nineveh, was meant to bring comfort to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians were a powerful force in the region, having already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The Assyrian troops remained in the area and had conquered many Judean cities and had even besieged Jerusalem, the capital of Judah in 701 B.C. While their efforts to take the city had failed, their presence had left its mark on the people of Judah. They were scared and demoralized. They felt it was only a matter of time before they were the next victims of the all-powerful Assyrians.

It is interesting to note that God had been warning the people of Judah that their destruction would come, and that He would use the Assyrians to accomplish it. He had warned of this very thing to King Ahaz of Judah through the prophet, Isaiah.

“The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!” – Isaiah 7:17 ESV

Unless the people of Judah repented of their rebellion against God, He would send judgment upon them. He would use godless nations like the Assyrians and Babylonians to harass and defeat them. But God also assured the people of Judah that He would bring justice to those same pagan nations.

“What sorrow awaits Assyria, the rod of my anger.
    I use it as a club to express my anger.
I am sending Assyria against a godless nation,
    against a people with whom I am angry.
Assyria will plunder them,
    trampling them like dirt beneath its feet.
But the king of Assyria will not understand that he is my tool;
    his mind does not work that way.
His plan is simply to destroy,
    to cut down nation after nation.
He will say,
    ‘Each of my princes will soon be a king.
We destroyed Calno just as we did Carchemish.
    Hamath fell before us as Arpad did.
    And we destroyed Samaria just as we did Damascus.
Yes, we have finished off many a kingdom
    whose gods were greater than those in Jerusalem and Samaria.
So we will defeat Jerusalem and her gods,
    just as we destroyed Samaria with hers.’” – Isaiah 10:5-11 NLT

Ultimately, the book of Nahum is a book about the sovereignty of God. He is in control of all things, including all nations and kings. He has the power to lift up and tear down. He can make a nation great, like He had done for Judah, and He can bring a nation to its knees. As Daniel wrote:

…he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. – Daniel 2:20-21 NLT

While God had sovereignly used Assyria to punish the sins of Israel, He would also hold them accountable for their own sins and for their pride and arrogance. The Assyrians would not acknowledge God as the source of their strength or power. They would never acknowledge that they were instruments in His hands. Instead, they would see themselves as all-powerful and a force to be reckoned in the world of their day. They were arrogant and self-assured, believing themselves to be invincible. But God had other plans for the nation of Assyrian. The prophet, Zephaniah would make those plans perfectly clear:

And the Lord will strike the lands of the north with his fist,
    destroying the land of Assyria.
He will make its great capital, Nineveh, a desolate wasteland,
    parched like a desert.
The proud city will become a pasture for flocks and herds,
    and all sorts of wild animals will settle there.
The desert owl and screech owl will roost on its ruined columns,
    their calls echoing through the gaping windows.
Rubble will block all the doorways,
    and the cedar paneling will be exposed to the weather.
This is the boisterous city,
    once so secure.
“I am the greatest!” it boasted.
    “No other city can compare with me!”
But now, look how it has become an utter ruin,
    a haven for wild animals.
Everyone passing by will laugh in derision
    and shake a defiant fist. – Zephaniah 2:13-15 NLT

The Assyrians were mighty warriors. And their military exploits were well-known and well-chronicled. They were brutal in battle and unmerciful to all those they conquered. Nahum graphically describes this powerful and fearful nation:

She is crammed with wealth
    and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
    the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
    and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
    as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
    heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
    people stumble over them. – Nahum 3:1-3 NLT

They had left a wake of destruction in their path. They had swept through that region of the world, reeking havoc and decimating city after city. But Nahum also assures the people of Judah that God is also a great power.

The Lord is a jealous God,
    filled with vengeance and rage.
He takes revenge on all who oppose him
    and continues to rage against his enemies! – Nahum 1:2 NLT

He too, is a force to be reckoned with. He may be slow to get angry, but that does not mean His anger will go unchecked forever. And He has the power to back up His anger with action. He will ultimately deal with the guilty and justly mete out exactly what they deserve.

The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great,
    and he never lets the guilty go unpunished.

He displays his power in the whirlwind and the storm.
    The billowing clouds are the dust beneath his feet. – Nahum 1:3 NLT

God could and did use nations to accomplish His divine will. He had used Assyria to conquer Israel. He would eventually use Babylon to conquer Judah. But God was not dependent upon these nations. He had all of creation at His disposal. He could wipe out entire armies with a word. He could use the forces of nature to defeat the forces of Assyrian or any other nation.

At his command the oceans dry up,
    and the rivers disappear.
The lush pastures of Bashan and Carmel fade,
    and the green forests of Lebanon wither. – Nahum 1:4 NLT

Nahum is about to utter an oracle against Nineveh and the nation of Assyria. And he reminds the people of Judah that their God is great. He is all-powerful. He stands in judgment over all nations, and is equipped to enact justice against any and all, at any time.

Who can stand before his fierce anger?
    Who can survive his burning fury?
His rage blazes forth like fire,
    and the mountains crumble to dust in his presence. – Nahum 1:6 NLT

The news of the day was filled with stories of the atrocities being committed by the Assyrians. Conversations at the water wells of Judah were all about what was going on in the surrounding regions. News of destruction and devastation was everywhere. The people had begun to fear the Assyrians. But Nahum wanted them to know that they need not fear their enemies. Their God was still in control. It was He they should fear. It was His power they should be talking about. It was His sovereignty they should be concerned with.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Dead Plant and a Dead Heart.

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Jonah 4:5-11 ESV

Having spoken his mind with God, Jonah left the city and made himself a temporary lean-too under which he could rest. But he also anticipated being able to watch something happen back in the city. The text says that he wanted to “see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:65 ESV). Perhaps Jonah believed that he had persuaded God to change His mind and destroy the city after all, because God had not taken him up on his request to kill him. Jonah was still alive and so he probably had hopes that their destruction might still come true. Or he could have been waiting to see if the Ninevites’ repentance would run its course and they would for right back to their evil ways. If that happened, he probably assumed God would either destroy them or send him back with another message of impending doom. Either way, Jonah was wanting to see God bring down His wrath on the people of Nineveh. But as before, Jonah was to learn some things about the God he thought he knew so well.

God created a plant to grow up around Jonah’s little shelter, to provide him with shade from the intense heat of the day. In the Hebrew, the word for “plant” is very specific. It refers to a gourd or cucumber-like plant that begins very small, but grows very quickly. According to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, it was “a tall biennial plant, beautiful and quick-growing, with a soft and succulent stalk, a slight injury of which would cause the plant to die.” In what was probably a miraculously short period of time, the plant had grown to such a degree that it provided Jonah with shade and what is described as salvation “from his discomfort.” What is interesting to note is that the word translated “discomfort” is actually the Hebrew word, ra`, which can be translated, “evil” or “wickedness”. The plant, small and insignificant as it started out to be, had become a source of God-ordained salvation from wickedness for Jonah. This point should not be overlooked. This was going to be part of God’s divine lesson for the stubborn, hate-filled prophet.

But what was the wickedness or evil from which the plant rescued Jonah? His own anger and hate. Jonah despised the Ninevites. He had from the very beginning and I believe it was for this very reason that God called Jonah to be the one to take the message to them. God knew full well the condition of Jonah’s heart when He commissioned him. He was aware of Jonah’s feelings for the people of Nineveh and the nation of Assyria in general. And it is just like God to take someone like Jonah and make him the messenger to a people he can’t stand. In a similar way, God took Paul, who had begun his career as a persecutor of the followers of Christ and made him the primary messenger of the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul had been a faithful Jew committed to the Hebrew faith and commissioned by the high priest to hunt down and arrest Christians. But God would convert Paul and recommission him, giving him a new job to perform: Taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike. God saved Paul from his wickedness and gave him a new heart and a new mission in life.

So, God sent the plant for Jonah, and he was very glad. But Jonah’s pleasure was based on his relief from physical discomfort alone. He was happy to have the shade and a break from the scorching heat. But Jonah was still oblivious to his real problem: His own evil attitude. Jonah had been guilty of accusing God of evil. Verse one of this chapter tells us of Jonah’s anger with God over His sparing of the people of Nineveh, and that verse could actually be translated, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” According to Jonah, what God had done was wicked. And yet, God is trying to show Jonah that he is the one with the evil, wicked heart. God’s decision to spare Nineveh had left Jonah “exceedingly angry”. The arrival of the plant had made Jonah “exceedingly glad”. What an interesting and insightful contrast.

And when God sends a worm to attack the plant and destroy it, Jonah loses his shade and his will to live. We’re told that “he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:8 ESV). This would be the third time for Jonah to have a death wish. He had commanded the sailors to throw him overboard in order that he might die. When God had spared the Ninevites, he had asked God to take his life. And once again, he sees death as preferable to living with what he deems as unacceptable conditions. Jonah was a man who didn’t like it when things failed to go his way. I don’t think Jonah had a death wish, it is just that he had a strong aversion to having his will resisted or his desires fulfilled. 

So, God asks him a question that is very similar to one He had asked before: “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” (Jonah 4:9 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” He is once again asking Jonah if his anger is justified. Did he have a right to be angry about the plant? And Jonah responded, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:9 ESV). Jonah had lost his shade and he was ready to die because of it. I would say that is a bit of an overreaction. Yes, he was suffering from the scorching wind and sun, sent by God, and he was feint from the experience, but was it enough reason to prefer death over life?

And God cuts to the chase, exposing Jonah’s real problem. He says, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly” (Jonah 4:10 NLT). Most likely, Jonah had been staring at the withered plant, his former protector from the sun, and was troubled with its demise. He lamented its untimely destruction. And God reveals to Jonah the absurdity of his emotions. Jonah was more upset over a dead plant than he would have been about the destruction of hundreds of thousands of people. He would have rejoiced at their deaths, but he mourned over the withering of a simple plant. And God puts it all in perspective for Jonah, telling him:

“But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” – Jonah 4:11 NLT

God confronted Jonah about the condition of his evil heart. He had no compassion for the people of Nineveh. In fact, Jonah didn’t even care about all the livestock within the walls of the city that would have died as a result of any destruction God had brought. It is as if God was saying, “You didn’t care about the people of Nineveh, but couldn’t you have at least asked for the livestock to be spared?” No, Jonah wanted everyone and everything within the walls of Nineveh destroyed. He wanted the entire city wiped out. He had no pity, mercy, or love for them. But God did. The people of Nineveh didn’t know their right hand from their left. In other words, they were morally ignorant. They were not the people of God. They didn’t know any better. They had not been given the laws of God. They had no Levitical priesthood or sacrificial system. They were pagans who were ignorant of the ways of God, and yet, they had believed God and repented of their wickedness. And God had showed them mercy.

Jonah had been willing to weep over the death of a plant, but had no problem wishing for the deaths of more than 100,000 people. He had a wrong perspective. He had a wicked and evil heart. He was not seeing things as God does. And yet, Jonah was the one who had admitted that God was “a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT). Jonah just wanted to be the one to decide who would be the beneficiaries of God’s mercy, compassion and kindness. He wanted to be the one who determined who got saved and who got destroyed. But that was God’s job. It was God who had told Moses, “For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose” (Exodus 33:19 NLT). And the apostle Paul would quote from that very same passage, when he wrote, “For God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.’ So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it” (Romans 9:15-16 NLT). It is up to God to decide who will receive His mercy. It is not earned or deserved. Jonah had done nothing to deserve the plant that had provided him with shade. In fact, what he had deserved was the wrath of God for his rebellion, insubordination and accusations of evil against God. But God had shown Him mercy. And God had shown mercy to the undeserving people of Nineveh.

The real message of the book of Jonah is not the repentance of the people of Nineveh. That was really an object lesson for Jonah and the people of Israel. They had been reluctant to listen to the prophets of God, refusing their warnings of coming destruction and calls to repentance. And yet, the wicked Assyrians, including their king, had heard the message of God, repented of their wickedness and mourned before Him in sorrow and fear. The people of Israel were no less deserving of God’s judgment, but they somehow felt they were immune from destruction. They were God’s chosen people. But God will show mercy on whom He will show mercy. He will spare those whom He chooses to spare. What He is looking for are repentant, broken hearts. As the great king, David, wrote after his sin with Bathsheba:

“The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” – Psalm 51:17 NLT

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Unjust Anger.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” Jonah 4:1-4 ESV

In order to get the full impact of these verses, it’s important to remember what immediately preceded them.

God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:10 ESV

God’s message that the Nivevites would be overthrown, delivered through the prophet Jonah, had resulted in their repentance. From the king in his palace to the peasant in the streets, everyone in the city was on their knees before God in a state of mourning. Not only that, an official royal decree had gone out commanding every citizen to “turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence” (Jonah 3:8 NLT). And they had. But Jonah was displeased. And that’s putting it mildly. He was angry. In the Hebrew language, the  frustration is much more intense. Verse one of chapter four could actually be translated, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.”  He saw what God had just done as not just wrong, but evil. And the result was anger and frustration – with God. Again, the Hebrew word translated as “angry” is much more intense. It is charah and it literally means, “to be hot, furious, burn.” Jonah was incensed. He was boiling over with rage and it was directed at God. So, he decided to call God out – in prayer.

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish!” – Jonah 4:2 NLT

So, now the truth comes out. For the first time, Jonah shares the true reason for his refusal to obey God’s initial commission to go to Nineveh. He feared they might repent. This is fascinating. It wasn’t that he feared they might kill him for bringing them a message of pending destruction from a God they didn’t even worship. It wasn’t that he feared rejection. He feared the people might repent. And he feared that God might spare them. Why? Because he knew God.

“I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.” – Jonah 4:2 NLT

What an amazing acknowledgement. Jonah knew his God well. And he knew his Israelite history well. What he says is almost a direct quote from the book of Exodus. Moses had returned to the mountain with a second set of stone tablets to receive God’s law again. This was after Moses had smashed the original set after having come down off the mountain the first time to find the people worshiping a golden calf. So just before engraving His law one more time, God called out to Moses:

“Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT

God had spared the people of Israel, in spite of their rebellion against Him. Before Moses had even had a chance to give them God’s laws, they had turned away from Him and decided to worship a false god made from the gold and silver God had provided for them when they had left Egypt. Jonah knew the story. And he knew that God was compassionate and merciful. He knew God’s reputation for forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin. And his greatest fear had been that God would do just that for the people of Nineveh, who Jonah hated with a passind on. And Jonah explains to God that his original plan to flee to Tashish had been an attempt to keep what he feared from happening. He had preferred to disobey God than risk the chance of God forgiving and sparing the Ninevites. The thought of that happening had been more than he could bear.

But it’s interesting to note that God had spared and forgiven Jonah for his iniquity, rebellion and sin. He had saved Jonah’s life from death by drowning by providing a large fish to swallow him. Then, three days later, God had miraculously caused that fish to vomit Jonah up on the dry land. If you recall Jonah’s prayer, offered up to God from the belly of the fish, he was counting on God’s mercy and compassion.

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me…” – Jonah 2:2 ESV

“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit…” – Jonah 2:6 ESV

“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” – Jonah 2:7 ESV

Salvation belongs to the Lord! – Jonah 2:9 ESV

Jonah had been more than willing to accept the mercy and compassion of God for himself, but he refused to allow God to do the same thing for the people of Nineveh. Somehow, Jonah felt their sins were worse and their destruction much more deserving than anything he had done. But at a time when Jonah should have been kneeling before God in awe and wonder at what had just happened in the city of Nineveh, he is accusing God of evil. He is shaking his fist in the face of Almighty God and questioning His wisdom and integrity. Now, it’s important to note that Jonah’s anger was partially a result of his intense nationalistic fervor. He was a loyal Israelite. And he would probably have been aware that the prophets Hosea and Amos had both predicted that God was going to use the Assyrians to bring judgment on Israel.

They [Israel] shall not remain in the land of the Lord, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria. – Hosea 9:3 ESV

They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. – Hosea 11:5 ESV

“I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. – Amos 5:27 ESV

Jonah most likely thought that if he refused to go to Nineveh, there would be no chance of them repenting and God sparing them. And because they were vile and wicked sinners, God would be forced to destroy them. That way, there would be no Assyrians to fulfill the prophesies of Amos and Hosea. Jonah had thought he could somehow force God’s hand and halt the pending destruction of Israel. But the sad reality was, the people of Israel would fail to heed the warnings of Hosea or Amos. But the Assyrians living in the capital city of Nineveh, would hear God and believe. They would repent. And God would eventually use them to conquer rebellious Israel and take them into captivity.

Jonah knew that God was merciful and compassionate. He was well aware that God was slow to anger. But he just seemed to have a difficult time with the concept of God’s sovereignty. Jonah found it hard to understand that God was going to do what He wanted to do, whether Jonah agreed with it or not. God didn’t need his input or help. Jonah couldn’t fathom why God would spare the very people who had been prophesied to be the future source of Israel’s destruction. He failed to trust God and His bigger plan for His people. So, he asked God to kill him.

“Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” – Jonah 4:3 NLT

In other words, Jonah tells God that he would rather be dead if God is not going to destroy the Assyrians. This took a lot of guts on Jonah’s part. And I think it reveals just how upset he really was. Jonah is not bluffing. He had already tried to take his own life once before, when he had the sailors toss him overboard in the midst of a raging storm. This time, He asks God to do it. He wants God to kill him. And I find it somewhat surprising that God didn’t take him up on his offer. After all, his insubordination and disrespect for God are off the charts. God would have been fully justified in taking Jonah up on his offer. But instead, God simply asks Jonah a question:

“Is it right for you to be angry about this?” – Jonah 4:4 NLT

God asks Jonah is his anger was truly justified. Did he have a good reason to literally burn with anger at God? Was he just in calling what God had done, evil? In essence, this is a rhetorical question from God. Jonah had no right at all. He had no clue as to what God was doing and why He was doing it. God had a perfectly good reason for sparing the Ninevites, whether Jonah understood it or liked it. His problem was with accepting the will of God. The apostle Paul would deal with this very same issue centuries later.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. – Romans 9:20-22 NLT

The prophet, Daniel, spoke very similar words regarding the sovereign will and right of God to do as He pleases in the world which He has created.

“All the people of the earth are nothing compared to him. He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, ‘What do you mean by doing these things?’” – Daniel 4:35 NLT

Jonah’s beef was with God. While he knew much about God, He didn’t know what God was up to. From his limited human perspective, none of this made sense. But rather than shake his fist in the face of God, he should have kneeled in awe and wonder at the mystery of God’s way. Jonah could have used the wise words of Paul about now.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Saves.

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.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. Jonah 3:6-10 ESV

Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. It was a large city and it is believed that it contained a population of at least 1 million people. The Assyrians were known for their military prowess and their cruelty. They were far from being barbarians, though. Nineveh was a great city and its inhabitants would have been civilized and somewhat sophisticated. Yet, God had deemed them as wicked. And He had told Jonah to warn them of their coming destruction. That message had made a dramatic impact on the people, leaving them in a state of mourning, wearing sackcloth and ashes. And when the king of Nineveh, who would have been the king over all Assyrian, heard the message of Jonah, he too reacted the same way. We’re told, “removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6 ESV). This great king who ruled over one of the most powerful nations of that time, took the warning of God seriously, and he issued a decree that was sent throughout the entire city.

No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. – Jonah 3:7-8 NLT

He proclaimed a city-wide fast that was to include even the animals. Everyone and everything was to be covered in sackcloth and ashes. But not only that, the people were to “stop all their violence”. In other words, they were to change their ways. And that word, translated “violence” is the Hebrew word chamac and it means “violence, wrong, cruelty, injustice” (“H2555 – chamac – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was used of someone who misused their power over others in an unjust and cruel manner. The Assyrians were conquerors, and they were known for their extreme cruelty toward the nations they defeated. But there were probably all kinds of “violence” and injustice taking place within the walls of the city. And the king knew that this was the basis of God’s warning of impending destruction. They were going to have to change their ways. So, he issued a proclamation.

The prophet, Nahum, would later pen these words regarding the city of Ninevah, as part of God’s words against them.

What sorrow awaits Nineveh,
    the city of murder and lies!
She is crammed with wealth
    and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
    the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
    and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
    as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
    heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
    people stumble over them. – Nahum 3:1-3 ESV

Violence and cruelty were part of their DNA. It was in their nature. And it was through violence and cruelty that they had become a great nation. And yet, the king of Nineveh knew that what they were guilty. He was well aware that their behavior was wrong and they were far from innocent. And he hoped that their change in behavior would garner them the favor of God.

Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us. – Jonah 3:9 NLT

The prophet, Isaiah, wrote some very harsh words to the people of Israel regarding their practice of fasting.

“‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
    and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
    will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
    by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
    like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
    and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
    Do you really think this will please the Lord?” – Isaiah 58:3-5 NLT

The people of Israel were guilty of going through the motions. They were prone to act like they were sorrowful, while continuing to do the very things for which they were supposedly fasting and mourning over. But in the pagan city of Nineveh, the king and his people vowed to change their ways. They were willing to repent, to change their minds and their actions regarding the very things that had made them a great nation and a formidable city. They were known and feared for the cruelty. And yet, they were willing to give it all up in order to escape the wrath of God.

It is important to point out that this was probably not a repentance leading to salvation. They were simply wanting to escape death. But they believed the word of the prophet and took seriously the threat that Yahweh, the god of the Jews was powerful enough to do what He said He would do. And so they bowed in reverence and awe to Him. This was not a wholesale conversion of the population of the city of Nineveh. But it was a transformation or turning of their hearts from the pagan gods to the one true God. During this point in time, they knew that their hopes of salvation were in the hands of the Hebrew God, not their own. So they called out to Him, and God spared them.

When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. – Jonah 3:10 NLT

Did their actions change God’s mind? Was God somehow convinced to alter His plans and go from destroying the city of Nineveh to sparing it? One of the main messages contained with the book of Jonah is the sovereignty of God. He is in control. Jonah could try and run from Him, but God controlled the wind, waves and the sea. Jonah could try and end his own life in an attempt to thwart the plan of God, but God controlled the creatures in the sea. And when God had originally told Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV), it was a clear indication that He was fully aware of all that was going on within the walls of the city of Nineveh. God is omniscient. God is omnipresent. And God knew exactly what was going to happen before it happened. Yes, He had given Jonah a message.

“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” – Jonah 3:4 ESV

But as we saw before, that word, “overthrown” has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew. While it can mean “destruction,” it can also mean “to turn or transform”. When God told Jonah what to say, Jonah and the people of Nineveh heard one thing only: God was going to destroy them. But God had something else in mind. He was going to transform them. He was going to take a great city, known for its cruelty, injustice, and polytheism, and have them bow before Him, changing their behavior in the process.

But wait, doesn’t the text clearly say, “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it”? Yes, it does. But that does not mean that God was always aware that they would repent. He knew all along that His word of warning, spoken through Jonah, would have the very effect that it did. It is from our finite perspective as men, that the outcome looks as if it was dictated by the actions of men. They repented, therefore, God spared them. But this would make God far less than sovereign and His will left up to the whims of men. What if they had failed to repent? Would God have been forced to destroy them? Was their future in God’s hands or their own? The overarching message of the Bible is that God is in full and complete control. And while that may be hard for us to accept as men, it is the reality of God’s character and the nature of the universe He has created. God leaves nothing up to chance. H. L. Ellison explains it this way:

“We may know the character of God only from what he does and the words he uses to explain his actions. When he does not do what he said he would, we as finite men can say only that he has changed his mind or repented, even though we should recognize, as Jonah did, that he had intended or desired this all along.” – Ellison, “Jonah,” pp. 383-84. Cf. Feinberg, p. 37.

Why would God spare a pagan city like Nineveh? The text doesn’t tell us, but it would be easy to assume that God was using the repentance of this immoral, wicked city to shame the people of God. He sent one prophet, and a reluctant one at that, to share a single message of coming destruction. And He sent him to a people who were not His own. And yet, they heard, they listened and the repented. They believed God. It is similar to what God did in the New Testament, when He took His gracious offer of salvation to the Jewish people and they refused to accept it. Instead, they crucified the messenger. So God took His message to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and they heard and believed. Paul would later write:

God has appointed me as the apostle to the Gentiles. I stress this, for I want somehow to make the people of Israel jealous of what you Gentiles have, so I might save some of them. For since their rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance will be even more wonderful. It will be life for those who were dead! – Romans 11:13-15 NLT

God was using the Ninevites to shame the Israelites. But He was also showing His sovereign power to save anyone He might so choose. There is no sinner too great that God cannot redeem him.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Prophet Overboard.

Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:13-17 ESV

Jonah has just confessed to his shipmates that he has run from the Lord. He has admitted to them that he is the cause of the storm they are having to endure. And he has offered to give up his life in order to save theirs. But this was not some altruistic move on Jonah’s part. He knew that death was the only way he would ever escape God’s command to take His message of judgment to Nineveh. So, Jonah told the men, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12 ESV). And that is exactly what they ended up doing, but not before they desperately tried to make it to land. They seemed quite reluctant to take Jonah’s life. But in the end, as the severity of the storm grew worse, they realized they had no other choice. “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:15 ESV), and “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV) immediately calmed the storm. The winds ceased and the waves calmed.

All of this is reminiscent of a scene that took place in Jesus’ life. One day, He and His disciples boarded a fishing boat in order to sail across the Sea of Galilee. But not long after launching off, they found themselves in a terrible storm. And as the disciples panicked and rowed for their lives, Jesus, like Jonah, slept through the whole thing. Mark tells us the rest of the story:

And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:38-41 ESV

And when the disciples woke Jesus up, He took matters into His own hands. He became the solution to their problem. He spoke to the wind and the sea, and the wind ceased and the waves calmed. And like the men on the boat with Jonah, the disciples were filled with awe and fear. It is interesting to note that Jonah, a rebellious and reluctant prophet was forced to sacrifice his life so that others might live. And while Jesus simply had to speak to the storm in order to save the lives of the disciples that day, it would not be long before He too would sacrifice His life so that others might live. And if you recall, Jesus would later make a comparison between His sacrifice and that of Jonah.

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. – Matthew 12:40 ESV

The context of Jesus’ words was an encounter with the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Him, demanding that He perform some kind of a sign for them. But Jesus responded, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39 ESV). And then He spoke the words predicting His impending death. The men who asked Jesus to perform a sign for them had already determined that He was a fraud. They had no intention of believing in Him, no matter what He did. And Jesus knew it. He knew their hearts were hardened by unbelief, and the only sign they would be given would be His ultimate death, burial and resurrection. Even then, they would reject Him and refuse to accept His resurrection as a reality. They would even play a major part in His death, in an attempt to get rid of Him.

Let’s go back to the scene of Jesus and His disciples in the boat. He calmed the sea and the disciples are amazed. The text tells us, “they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41 ESV). And Jesus confronts them for their lack of faith. “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40 ESV). They had seen Jesus do many miracles. They had heard His teachings and watched Him do many amazing things. But they were still unsure as to just exactly who He was. Their faith was still in its infancy. They were still coming to know Jesus and learning to trust Him.

And the scribes and Pharisees also struggled with faith. Theirs was non-existent. To them, Jesus was nothing but a charlatan and a potential threat to their way of life. He was swaying the hearts of the people with teachings that were contrary to their own. They saw Him as seditious and dangerous to their own cause. So they refused to believe anything He said. And even the “sign of Jonah”, His own death, burial and resurrection, would not sway them.

What about Jonah? He had a faith problem as well. It wasn’t that He didn’t believe in God. He knew God was fully capable of calling the people of Nineveh to repentance. That’s exactly why he had run. He will later admit to God, “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for 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 ESV). He had full confidence that God could and would spare the people of Nineveh, but he wanted nothing to do with it. And Jonah also knew that God would calm the storm as soon as the men threw him overboard. So what was his faith problem? He refused to believe that God’s way was the best way. He was unwilling to accept God’s will regarding the people of Nineveh. He knew God could, but wrestled with why God would. A big part of faith is learning to trust that God knows best. For instance, if you were to suddenly learn that you have cancer, you would most likely pray, in faith, that God would heal you. And rightly so. You would do so because you have been taught that your God is fully capable of healing diseases of all kinds. But the even greater display of faith would be to accept God’s will regarding the outcome. In other words, trusting God that He is well aware of your cancer and has some greater plan in store for you to which you are ignorant. That requires great faith. Jonah could see no good coming out of the Ninevites repenting. He wanted to see them destroyed by God. And he assumed that if he refused to go and preach to them, they would not repent and, therefore, be judged and destroyed by God. But Jonah’s faith in God was too small. He thought he could thwart God’s plan by running away. He was even willing to sacrifice God’s messenger by having himself thrown overboard by the sailors. But Jonah had a lot to learn about God. And so do we all.

Jonah went overboard. He was thrown into the sea, but his rash action didn’t do a thing to stop God’s plan. God calmed the sea and spared the sailors, but He would also spare Jonah. He would provide a means of salvation. Jonah would be literally swallowed up, and find himself as good as dead. But just when he thought all was lost, God would come through. God would “resurrect” Jonah, and give him a second chance to do His will. But as we will see, Jonah’s time spent in the belly of the fish would be a watershed moment for him. He would learn an incredible valuable lesson: “ Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When Our Will Resists God’s.

So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”

Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?”

Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”

“Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” Jonah 1:6-12 ESV

Jonah was a prophet. Well, it might be safer to say that he was a reluctant, runaway prophet. At this point in the story, there is no indication that Jonah had ever been a prophet of God before. It seems from the opening verses of the book, that he had just received His prophet’s commission from God and, rather than accept it, Jonah decided to make a run for it. Jonah knew exactly what God was commanding him to do and he was well aware of what the job of a prophet entailed. He just didn’t consider himself to the be right man for the job. And it would appear that he considered the Ninevites the wrong people to be given a chance to repent and gain the favor and forgiveness of God.

But Jonah was not the first man to be a reluctant prophet. When God approached Jeremiah and told him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5 ESV), Jeremiah responded, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6 ESV). He didn’t feel qualified or equipped for the job either. But Jonah’s reluctance was based on more than fear. He had a hatred for the people of Nineveh, because they were Assyrians and enemies of the Jews. It will not be until the last chapter of the book that Jonah will confess the true cause of his attempted escape to Tarshish. When he sees that God has extended mercy to the people of Nineveh, he will say, “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen” (Jonah 4:2-3 ESV). He would rather die than see the people of Nineveh spared by God. And his initial attempt to run from God was a sign that he would rather die as a rebel than play a part in God’s redemption of the people of Nineveh.

So when the ship in which Jonah sailed encountered the storm, he remained asleep in the hold. He most likely had resigned himself to his fate. He knew God was not going to let him get away with his rebellion. But the sailors on the ship were in a panic. They knew their lives were in danger, which had prompted them to call out to their various gods, in an attempt to gain some kind of divine help. So, the captain woke Jonah up and confronted him, saying, “How can you sleep at a time like this? Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives” (Jonah 1:6 NLT). The sailors even cast lots in order to determine who might be the one who was responsible for this obvious divinely ordained disaster. And the lot fell to Jonah. And this should not surprise us. We read in the book of Proverbs: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33 ESV).

When the sailors saw that Jonah was somehow responsible, they peppered him with questions: “Why has this awful storm come down on us? Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?” (Jonah 1:8 NLT). And Jonah revealed that he was a Hebrew, a worshiper of Yahweh, the creator of the sea and the land. That bit of news terrified the sailors. In their minds, they were dealing with some sort of water god. This could not be good. But what were they to do? How could the appease this god of the Hebrews? And when Jonah revealed that he had run away from his God, they only had two questions: “Why did you do it?” and “What are we going to do about it?”

And Jonah knew exactly what needed to happen. He was the cause of the problem and his death was the only cure. Or so he thought. His response to the sailors’ questions reveals that he would rather face death at the hands of God than go to Nineveh and face the prospect of seeing the people repent and be spared by God.

“Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” – Jonah 1:12 NLT

Jonah accepted responsibility for the storm, but refused to confess his sin to God. He would rather die than obey God. For whatever reason, Jonah held a deep and bitter hatred for the people of Nineveh. As we saw earlier, when God eventually spared the people of Nineveh, Jonah had the temerity to demand that God kill him. He preferred death at the hands of God over having to watch God show mercy to pagans.

There is no doubt that the city of Nineveh was inhabited by wicked people. The Assyrians were known for their barbarism and had proven to be a constant thorn in the side of the Israelites. So, it is not surprising that Jonah was repulsed by the idea of being God’s messenger to these people. He knew that God’s prophets were commissioned to carry His message of judgment, but with an underlying purpose of calling people to repentance. And God had been gracious enough to send prophet after prophet to the people of Israel, warning them of judgment and calling them to return to Him in repentance. So, Jonah knew that God was merciful and slow to anger. He had seen God’s patience with Israel. And the idea of God offering this same mercy and forgiveness to pagans was more than he could handle.

But we see in the early stages of this story, that God has a heart for all mankind. His love and affection were not limited to the people of Israel. Even the wicked people of Nineveh were going to be given a chance to repent of their sinful ways. We will see later on, that when Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh and preaches the message God had given him to preach, the people of Nineveh respond.

On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. – Jonah 3:4-5 NLT

Even the king and his nobles will issue a decree, stating:

“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.” – Jonah 3:7-9 NLT

Jonah had been reluctant, but the people of Nineveh were not. He had initially refused to obey the word of God, but the people of Nineveh had not. He had done evil rather than obey God. They had agreed to turn from evil rather than face the judgment of God. Jonah had preferred being thrown into the stormy sea, while the people of Nineveh chose to throw themselves on the mercy of God. The pagan people of Nineveh proved to be more obedient, submissive, and repentant than the prophet of God. God was able to accomplish His divine will in spite of Jonah’s stubborn and resistant will. Not only could Jonah not run from God, he could not deter, delay or, in any way, derail the will of God.

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson