Jonah the Bad Preacher

When last we left Jonah, the reluctant prophet was deep in the belly of a fish. Why is he in a fish? Because he tried to run from God and the fish was God’s way of getting Jonah back on track. After the fish spits Jonah back out again, God gives Jonah His marching orders:

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

This time, there is no running. There’s no hesitation. Jonah is told to go, so Jonah goes to Nineveh. He goes to the heart of the cruel Assyrian Empire, Enemy #1, and he delivers…

Well, let’s be honest. He delivers what I consider one of the worst sermons in history:

“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Now you might think I’m being overly harsh, but let’s compare what Jonah has to say with how the other Biblical prophets behaved when given similar messages. Yes, they would have similar doom and gloom messages, but they would also have two very specific additions to that message:

  1. Specifics about the sins that have offended God.
  2. A call to repent and return to God.

You notice that Jonah doesn’t offer specifics about why God is angry at the Assyrians. And he doesn’t issue a call to repent either. Jonah basically just says: “You’ve got forty days. Get your affairs in order, because then God’s pulling the plug.”

It’s an awful sermon. It’s incomplete. But here’s the screwiest thing: it’s super effective.

In spite of the total lack of information, Jonah’s harsh message gets through to the Assyrians:

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

Ancient Assyrian relief 700-692 BCUnfortunately, this repentance didn’t last. The Assyrians would eventually return to their sinful ways. But amazingly, in spite of Jonah’s lackluster attempt, they repented. They declared a fast. They threw themselves on the mercy of God and waited to see if He would carry out the destruction that Jonah had so harshly promised.

There’s no reason that Jonah’s words should have produced such amazing results. There’s really only one explanation. It’s a God thing. And that’s a great thing for us to remember. God was able to work through Jonah’s horrible sermon and accomplish a miracle. He can do the same thing with our attempts to serve Him as well.

God doesn’t always work through the big and flashy things. He can work through the small actions, the tiny moves, the half-hearted attempts. He’s done it before. He can do it again.

Fortunately for the Assyrians, God does change His mind:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

The people off Assyria are spared. But how is that going to sit with Jonah? We’ll have to wait next week to find out.

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