Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Matthew 12: 38-42
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Nineveh at the time of Jonah (mid to late 700 B.C.), was the capitol city of Assyria and the Assyrian Empire which encompassed what we now know today as Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Nineveh was a massive city (150,000 pop.) – with a circumference of nearly sixty miles. The Assyrian empire collapsed in 604 B.C along with the desolation of it’s greatest city, Nineveh. 100 years ago our knowledge of the Assyrian empire and the magnificent capital Nineveh was extremely limited, almost non-existent. In fact, Nineveh was so laid waste that it was considered a total myth of the Bible throughout most recent centuries. Ancient historians, generational memories, biblical references of course survived to reveal the impact of its power, greatness, and character but very little was known about its fate and exact location. Other cities which had perished, as Palmyra, Persepolis, and Thebes, had left ruins to mark their sites and tell the story of their former greatness; but of this city, imperial Nineveh, not a single evidence seemed to remain, and the very place on which it had stood was only matter of speculation and conjecture. In fulfillment of the prophecy of Nahum, God made “an utter end of the place.” It became a “desolation.”
After being lost for more than two thousand-five hundred years, the city was discovered and disentombed. It was discovered by the Frenchman Paul Emil Botta, and the Englishman Austen Henry Layard, in the mid-nineteenth century. The site of ancient Nineveh was extensively excavated, and its occupational levels reach far back to the beginning of civilization. Shockingly Nineveh’s location is almost adjacent to Mosul across the Tigris River on the eastern bank. The core city itself, with the walls around it, was 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. It is interesting that the prophet Jonah described the “great city” of Nineveh as a “3 days journey” across, obviously referring to the whole territory as does other parts of the Bible. At the time of Botta and Layrd’s discovery the residents of Mosul and Iraqi government had no clue it was there, mostly because there was no physical evidence of its existence, secondly because of their historical and biblical illiteracy. Botta and Layard began to search the vast mounds that lay along the eastern bank of the Tigris River opposite the side of Mosul. After extensive excavation the Arabs whom they employed in the project, came upon the ruins of a building at the mound of Khorsabad, which, on further exploration, turned out to be the royal palace of Sargon, one of the Assyrian kings.
The Nineveh culture brought many scientific, philosophical and practical advances to humanity including things that we take for granted today. Everyday most of us lock our doors when we leave the house, locks and keys were invented ad used in ancient Nineveh. They also invented a system that kept time and ascribed 360 degrees to a circle. They are given credit for inventing paved roads, the first postal system, the first use of iron, the first libraries, the first plumbing, flush toilets and sewage aqueducts. They came up with the first governmental administration of dividing of territories ruled by local governors reporting to a central authority.
But yet, they could not sustain enough of a moral and ethical standard to avoid being consumed by wickedness, perversion, and evil. The story of Jonah includes their repentance, and for a time it was better. Eventually, their godless hearts became the cause of Nineveh’s judgment and its ultimate destruction.
Though Nineveh of old was like a pool of water, Now they flee away. Halt! they cry; But no one turns back. Take spoil of silver! Take spoil of gold! There is no end of treasure, Or wealth of every desirable prize. She is empty, desolate, and waste! The heart melts, and the knees shake; Much pain is in every side, And all their faces are drained of color.”
Most people are so familiar with the story of Jonah that nothing in it surprises or interests them anymore, including the fact that it begins with the word “and.” If one of Cathy Caskey’s students began one of their English essays with the word “and.” she would probably wonder if they had lost the ability to use the English language – in most cases, they have… lol!
Interestingly enough, Jonah is one of fourteen Old Testament books that open with the word “and.” All of these books like Jonah remind us of God’s “ongoing story” of mercy, forgiveness, and His love that continues on and on throughout history until it finally includes you and I today. Though the Bible is comprised of sixty-six different books, it always tells only one story; and God keeps communicating that message to us, even though we don’t always take the time listen to it.
As we enter 2018, with the challenge of the 521 Multiplied before us, you are probably asking why Jonah? That answer is simple – why not. The more complete answer is that you eventually will find out (as did I), that there are many similarities and connections to the emotive personality, predictable behavior, and the spiritual message and mission of Jonah. All of those can be used as powerful teaching moments for ourselves personally to move forward into faith and the exciting challenge of the 521 Multiplied.
Who is Jonah?
The next good question would likely be who is Jonah? Was he real? Or, was he and his story nothing more than an ancient allegory? Anyone who chooses to consider the Book of Jonah an allegory or a parable should note that 2 Kings 14:25 identifies Jonah as a real person, a Jewish prophet from Gath-Hepher in Zebulun who ministered in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.) should also note (from our opening scripture reading in Matthew 12), that Jesus considered Jonah a real and significantly historic person and referred to him as a “type and shadow” of His own death, burial, and resurrection.
The rule and reign of Jeroboam II was a time of great prosperity in Israel; the nation regained lost territory and expanded both its boundaries and influence. But it was also a time of moral and spiritual decay as the nation moved away from God and into many forms of paganism and worship of idols. Jonah’s contemporaries Hosea and Amos both courageously denounced the wickedness of the rulers, priests, and people. It’s worth noting that Hosea and Amos also showed God’s merciful concern for other nations, which will be one of our central messages from Jonah.
While Jonah had a ministry to Nineveh, at the time a major city in Assyria, he also had a ministry to Israel through the story of his message and mission in Nineveh. In this process, Jonah realizes God’s compassion and mercy for people outside Israel, even those who were their enemies. Israel repeatedly ignored and disobeyed God’s calling on them to be a blessing to the Gentiles (Genesis 12:1-3), but, like Jonah, God was not letting them off the hook. He expected them to do something with what they had been given. And, like Jonah, they had to be disciplined. History shows that Assyria would conquer Israel and Babylon would take Judah into captivity. Jonah’s book and story clearly illustrates the sovereignty of God, as well as great love and mercy. He is the “God of the second chance,” even for rebellious nation like Israel, and a stubborn prophet like Jonah.
What is Jonah’s Story?
Of course, after meeting him, we logically should have a curiosity for his Jonah’s story? By now I probably do not have to tell you it’s not simply about a great fish (mentioned only four times), or a great city (named nine times), or even a stubborn and disobedient prophet (mentioned eighteen times). It’s about God and people – all people! God is mentioned thirty-eight times in these four short chapters, and if you eliminated Him from the book, the story wouldn’t make sense. The book and story of Jonah is about the will and expectations of God and how we respond to them. It’s also about the love and mercy of God and how we use it to make difference with others. In fact, the story about Jonah is about so much more than a big city, big fish, and a prophet with a big attitude. Let me tell you about a little artistic and biblical history that might help me explain just how wide open the story of Jonah truly is.
There is a church called St. John’s about an hour outside of Amsterdam, North Holland – Netherlands, in the town Gouda (yes, famous for the cheese). Cheese is not the point. Gouda is really a town built around St. John’s, the famous Dutch church. The history of St. John’s is not only remarkable but it’s beauty is breathtaking,” The church is the length of a football field and a half, with 70 stained-glass windows, with all but two of them from the late 1500s. The most recent is a window from 1947 depicting the liberation of Holland, with airplanes, a concentration camp and a man making a “V for victory” sign. The largest of the beautiful windows at St. john’s is more than 60 feet high.
Because I love history and stained glass, I have a little background about the history of this church and how the beautiful stained-glass window depictions came to be. Originally, St. John’s was a Catholic church. In 1552 it had been struck by lightning and almost destroyed. The people of Gouda decided to rebuild it, and asked various individuals and groups from the community to donate windows designed with biblical themes, characters and their stories. Their response and contribution was miraculous. They created and added to the church all but two of its present day stained-glass depictions. In 1573, because of the force of the Protestant Reformation and its movement, the Gouda council prohibited the practice of Roman Catholicism, and in the summer, it changed hands and was opened for the Protestant Dutch Reformed faith, which still worships there today. In 1939, the stained glass was removed in fear of being destroyed because of the war with Germany. Later during the war, in 1944, when 51,000 men were called for service from Amsterdam and Rotterdam, about 2800 men were marched to Gouda, where they spent the night in this church on November 10, 1944.
I tell you this story about St. John’s for one reason. One of the most magnificent of the 70 windows is the depiction of Jonah and his story.
Among the great gothic architecture St. John’s and its breathtaking beauty is the window depiction of Jonah, made and donated by a fisherman named Dirck Crabreth in 1560. The window is Jonah’s story and a sermon in itself. In the background are the storm clouds and the ship. Jonah is being thrown overboard and intercepted by the whale. In the foreground is a mighty mouth and part of a huge blue eye. The Prophet is emerging, his body language suggesting determination; his clothing, action. His eyes look at you; there is a glimmer of humor in his expression. His finger points to a banner he is carrying, with a slogan in Latin: “Behold, something greater than Jonah is here,” a quotation from Matthew 12:41, which links Jonah and Jesus (more on that later). My whole point is to say to all of us today… there is something here for us greater than Jonah. That message is of course – Jesus. But, what Jesus wants from us is greater than what we are and what we have! This isn’t just about a wicked city, a giant fish, and a disobedient Jew.