The Ninevite Possibility
The book of Jonah begins:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
– Jonah 1:1-2
Of all the people on the earth at that time, the people of Nineveh have drawn Jehovah’s special attention. The time for her judgment has come. At first, Jonah ran away from his assignment, but is later persuaded to obey. (Jonah 1:3-3:2) When he gets his bearings, he heads to Nineveh to begin his ministry:
“Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
– Jonah 3:3-4
The situation in the great city of Nineveh is similar to the way many view the entire world of our time. They believe the badness has reached a point where the only solution is a complete overthrow of the entire world system. Like Jonah, many are preaching a message of doom for our world because from their standpoint, so few really serve God. But is doom man’s destiny? Notice how the people of Nineveh reacted to Jonah’s preaching.
“The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.”
– Jonah 3:5
The people of Nineveh repented first. They did more than make a verbal proclamation of their error. They performed certain acts to demonstrate the sincerity of their repentance. And their actions had a domino affect.
“When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.”
– Jonah 3:6-8
The king of Nineveh witnessed the repentance of his countrymen and followed suit. But more than that, he decreed that the entire city must repent and perform acts demonstrating their repentance. Why? The king explained:
“Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
– Jonah 3:9
Though the king had to recognize his errors, he had faith in the goodness of God. He believed if God saw their repentance, He would be moved to spare their city. And he was correct:
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”
– Jonah 3:10
What a wonderful outcome! True and honest repentance saved Nineveh! This example is encouraging to our generation when so many expect a complete overthrow of our world. The interpretations of Bible prophecy leads them to assume that destruction is a foregone conclusion. But, as shown by the Ninevites, that is not necessarily so. Paul wrote:
“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”
– Romans 15:4
Yes, the story of the Ninevites is comforting to those whose hope is in God. But not everyone was pleased with the salvation of Nineveh:
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
– Jonah 4:1-3
Jonah was upset. In effect, he said, ‘I knew it! I knew you wouldn’t destroy them! Why did you put me though all of this? I was minding my own business, but, no, I had to go to Nineveh to preach its destruction. And now, you don’t even destroy it? Just kill me now! Put me out of my misery!’ But God’s patience and loving kindness was available to Jonah also. After giving Jonah an object lesson on mercy (Jonah 4:5-10), God said:
“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
– Jonah 4:11
God was concerned for the sheer number of men, as well as animals, who would have been destroyed in their ignorance. His words indicate that destruction was not His purpose at all. What He wanted was repentance, a turning around and a turning away from badness. As Jonah rightly said, our God is indeed ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.’
No, the destruction of Nineveh was not a foregone, foreordained conclusion. It was a warning that could have resulted in destruction, but did not. It underscores the importance and the power of our God given free will and how our free will decisions can affect God’s actions. Like Nineveh, it is possible that the destruction of our world is not a foregone conclusion either. This example demonstrates that there IS something man can do to effect a merciful response from our loving and merciful Father. Why wouldn’t God be merciful to our generation?
There are millions of faithful men and women on the earth today, and more people are seeking truth than ever before. Why would He not be patient with us when more people today are turning to the plain and open teachings of Christ and his true message of salvation?