Repentance comes to a great city
Jonah is chiefly renowned for his encounter with the great fish; his subsequent achievement in the city of Nineveh is not dwelt upon so much, yet that achievement was of greater consequence, and has much more to say concerning the attitude of the Lord to evil-doers. That of itself is important.
The tiny book which bears Jonah's name does not do justice to his position as a prophet in Israel. He lived round about the beginning of the 8th century BC, in the northern kingdom of Jeroboam, King of Israel at about the beginning of the reign of Uzziah of Judah. He therefore came just between Elijah and Elisha before him and Isaiah after him. There is some ground for thinking that he was a man about Court or at least not unknown in royal circles. 2 Kings 14.25, the only other mention of him in the Old Testament, says that he predicted to Jeroboam "by the word of the Lord" that Jeroboam would recover Israel's lost territories and enlarge the borders of the nation. Jeroboam reigned forty-one years and did in fact extend his domains more than did any other king of the ten-tribe nation, finally ruling over an area almost as great as King David had done before him. It is possible, therefore, that Jonah stood in much the same relation to Jeroboam II as Elisha before him did to Ahab and Joash, and Isaiah after him did to Uzziah and Hezekiah. He might well have been the King's adviser, as those prophets had been in their times.
Gath-hepher, the home of Jonah, was in the territory of the tribe of Zebulun, and he was probably a member of that tribe. The people had not been long enough in the land for there to be much tribal intermingling. That may account for his prompt going to Joppa to find an ocean-going vessel to take him to the other side of the world away from the presence of God, for the three northernmost tribes, Asher, Zebulun and Issachar, adjacent to the merchant Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon, were familiar with the sea and many of them were themselves seafarers. Jacob, dying, predicted that Zebulun would eventually have a maritime connection (Gen.49.13). At any rate, Jonah was evidently a prophet of the northern kingdom, the "Ten Tribes". And these considerations make it plain that he was definitely a historical character, that he did live at the time indicated, and was remembered by the historian for the fulfilment of his prediction of the king's military successes. That goes far to establish the literal veracity of the book that bears his name.
The incident of the voyage and the great fish was over, and Jonah was back in Gath-hepher, a chastened and a wiser man. He may have learned two great lessons from the experience.
One, that it is impossible to get away from God. He must have forgotten the words of David when he went to Joppa to get a ship to Tarshish, at the end of the then known world, "whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up to heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol (the grave) behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me" (Psa.139.7-10).
Two, that God is abundantly able to protect and deliver from danger or disaster in even the most unlikely situation, as in his experience of the storm and the great fish. As a prophet and servant of the Lord it was his obligation to obey the Lord's call without question and leave the consequences with him. And so he went back to Gath-hepher and waited for the voice of the Lord.
"And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee".
This time there was no hestitation. He arose and went. It was a long journey. From his village of Gath‑hepher he would have to go a few miles to the sea coast, to the trade route which ran from Egypt to Assyria. There he would find a caravan of merchants bound for Nineveh with their goods and would be able to travel with them. Such a caravan, goods loaded on camels or mules and the men riding on mules, could comprise as many as two hundred beasts of burden and perhaps forty men, armed to repel bandits by the way. Lone travellers could join without hindrance. Progress was slow, about fifteen miles a day; at night the convoy would gather round a great fire and sleep in the open air with a few men on watch. The distance was seven hundred miles and Jonah would be about two months on the journey. At first the caravan would make its way over the mountains to Damascus in Syria, where it would stop for a few days' trading. Then something like a hundred and twenty miles across a tree-clad mountainous region, arduous and difficult to traverse, alternately climbing and descending, but at least, to some extent, sheltered from the tropical sun.
So they eventually descended the other side of the mountains and arrived at the desert town of Tadmor in the wilderness (now Palmyra) to which Solomon had in past times extended the kingdom of Israel and which he had either built or considerably extended (1 Kings 9.18). Here, another few days' rest before embarking on the hundred and twenty miles of the great Syrian desert, where the sun scorched by day and the frost chilled by night, an endless trail over flat sandy wastes uninhabited by man or beast, where dried-up stream beds led to patches of marsh where alone water and rest could be had, day after weary day, until, at last, the trail led downwards to a valley wherein flowed the great river, the river Euphrates, a river of which Jonah had often heard, but until this day had never seen, a river beyond which lay the goal of his journey, Nineveh, that great city.
So the cortege wound its way into the little riverside settlement of Dura (now Deir-el-Zor) where alone the great river might be crossed, and again the caravan remained a few days before embarking upon the final stage of the journey. Perhaps it was now that Jonah began to think seriously of the message he was so soon to proclaim in the great city; "yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown". Once across the river he would be inside the territory of the Assyrians, whose capital city was Nineveh. What would be his reception, he might have wondered. The ruthlessness and savagery of that nation was well known to the prophet, even although as yet they had done little more than invade the land of Israel from time to time and exact massive tributes of gold and silver, valuable treasures, flocks and herds, and retire with their booty to their own land. But he was full of fears about their future intentions and under no illusions as to the terrors they would bring his people and that was why at the beginning he had refused to take the call to repentance to Nineveh and tried to run away to Tarshish. If he did not go to Nineveh, he reasoned, the message would not be given. If the message was not given, the Ninevites would not have the opportunity to repent. If they did not repent, God would not deliver. So he had run away, in the opposite direction, and God had brought him back. But now he was here, resolved to obey the Divine call come what may. The issue he must leave with God. So he took his place in the convoy as it entered the waters of the only ford where Euphrates could be crossed.
Now he was in a different environment, a gently undulating terrain with trees and grass and rippling streams, as yet only sparsely inhabited but affording welcome relief to the travellers after the rigours of the earlier part of the journey. As Jonah travelled the way, he did not know that less than a century later this same region was to be the home of many of his own people, taken captive by the Assyrians and brought here from their own land in what has been called the Captivity of the Ten Tribes. They, like him, were to undergo the arduous journey he had just experienced, for although his mission was destined to be successful and the Ninevites repent and be saved, it was not a repentance that lasted and eventually all of Israel was to be taken captive and led along this road, never to return. Scattered all over this area today there are still low hills, "mounds" seven or eight miles apart, each one covering the ruins of ancient villages, villages built by those captive Israelites in which they and their children lived in their successive generations. Whether Jonah's prophetic instinct enabled him to foresee anything of this it is not possible to say; all that is certain is that he continued his journey with the fixed resolve to carry out his mission and leave the consequences to the Lord.
So, at last, Jonah reached his destination. As the caravan passed over the stone bridge which spanned the wide river Hiddekel (in later times, and now, the Tigris), and through the ''Gate of the Plains", giving entrance through the high walls, his heart must have beat faster. He could not have seen such lofty and magnificent buildings before neither was he accustomed to the sight of the many statues to the gods, the winged dragons and other fantastic stone creatures which adorned the streets, the evidences of wealth and luxury so manifest on every hand. To his left, as he entered, on the hill now known as Koyunjik, he looked upon the imposing Temple of Nabu, the messenger of the gods, and behind that the lofty staged temple tower, characteristic of all Assyrian and Sumerian cities, sacred to all the gods. Here, too, stood the Temple of Asshur, the national god of the Assyrians, and a little farther on, the Temple of Ishtai daughter of the Moon-god, a great goddess indeed here in Nineveh, for she, under her other name of Ninua, goddess of the waters, had given her name to Nineveh. Somewhere too, he would have seen a Temple to Dagon, the god with the head of a fish for he was the god of the sea, revered by Phoenecians and Assyrians alike, especially when the ventured out in ships on the great deep. And there crowning the hill, his gaze fell upon the king's palace, a magnificent building five hundred feet long by four hundred wide ‑ today there is nothing left of it but the foundations to show where it once stood. As Jonah looked upon all these evidences of an idolatry which must have been quite unfamiliar to him he must have wondered what hope he had of turning these people from all this to serve the living God.
Somewhere in the midst of this great city was the central market-place and here the caravan of traders with their wares came to rest. It would be here that Jonah parted company from them and went on alone, wondering just how to initiate his work. The account says he went into the city "a day's journey" and then commenced. The narrative had already said that Nineveh was "an exceeding great city of three days' journey" and different explanations have been given as to the meaning of the phrase. The probably true explanation is that three days was required to walk all round the city, sprawled along the River Tigris for a distance of some twenty miles from the present ruins of Nineveh in the north to those now known as Nimroud in the south. Nimroud is the "Calah" of Gen.10.10-12 where the historian declares that Asshur the son of Shem built Nineveh, Calah, "Rehoboth-Ir", (the "walls of the streets") and "Resen", (the "fountains of waters"). The entire complex apparently consisted of the two built-up walled centres with what is now called "Garden city suburbs" between and around. Jonah and his caravan had to penetrate some fifteen miles into this complex of gardens, dwellings and so on before reaching the centre of the walled city itself. Says one Anglican clergyman who ministered in the district for the major part of his life during the last years of the 19th century, Rev. E. Wigram, "we have many a mile to travel before we are really clear of the site of ancient Nineveh, for the space comprised within its walls was only its inner nucleus; and without was a great garden city of mansions and parks and orchards. Greater Nineveh may well have embraced the outlying palaces of Khorsabad and the temples of Nimroud and this would easily account for the "great city of three days' journey", (i.e. of about sixty miles in circumference) of which the prophet speaks." And this was the great city to whose people Jonah preached repentance. And the people believed!
This is the great wonder of the story. The Assyrians were the most ruthless and cruel of all the peoples with which Israel ever had to deal. They inflicted indescribable barbarities on the populations of the countries they invaded and subdued. They were universally hated and feared. Yet one prophet of the despised people of Israel went alone into their capital city and preached God's righteousness and called upon them to repent in the face of imminent judgment, and they believed, and repented. A hundred and twenty thousand people "believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them" (Jon.3.5).
What was the underlying cause of this sudden and wholesale conversion? It has been suggested that the story of Jonah's escape from the great fish could have influenced the Ninevites to take notice of this man and his message. They, like the Phoenician sailors who threw him overboard in the first place, were worshippers of Dagon the sea-god. The story of the incident would certainly have preceded him to Nineveh for news travelled fast on the trading routes. The only "great fish" in the Mediterranean is the whale, and since whales only swim at four miles an hour and as he was back in Joppa in three days it is obvious the incident took place before the ship had proceeded very far. And the known fact that Marcus Scaurus, Aedile of Rome in the year 58 BC, found in a temple at Joppa and took to Rome for exhibition the skeleton of a forty-foot Mediterranean whale, lying there for unknown ages to memorialise some long-forgotten event, does point to some noteworthy happening in previous times connected with a whale. In the case of the modern authenticated case of whaler sailor James Bartley, who was swallowed by a whale in the South Atlantic in 1896, and rescued twenty-four hours later to live another thirty years, his skin was permanently bleached to a ghastly white by the whale's gastric juices. If Jonah appeared in Nineveh in some such state, and it became known that this was the man of the story the inevitable conclusion must have been that Dagon, the god of the sea, had personally interfered to rescue him. He must be a favourite of Dagon and had better be heeded. The doubters who had scoffed at the story would have had to lie low in the face of this evidence, much as modern doubters have had to do on account of the 1896 evidence.
But the narrative does say that the people "believed God" and so did the king of Nineveh a little later on, and it is certain that when Jonah used the term he did not mean Dagon. The people of Nineveh knew that whatever part Dagon may have played in the matter, Jonah's God was supreme over all gods and so they prostrated themselves before him and craved mercy. Behind all this is the fact that never, through all the history of idolatry, has the true God been entirely forgotten. Their gods were admittedly subordinate deities; behind them all, supreme above all, was Anu, the Most High God, ruler of all things, worshipped by their ancestors back in the days long before Abraham when there were no subordinate deities, only the Most High whom all men honoured and served, as had Noah and his sons when they came out of the Ark.
So the city went into mourning and word came to the king in his magnificent palace on the hill. The king of Assyria at the time of Jonah's visit was probably Shamsi-Adad V, a mild-mannered man not addicted to warfare as were most of Assyria's kings. Between his grandfather, the warlike Ashur-nasir-pal, sixty years earlier, and the equally war-like Tiglath-Pileser III in the days of Isaiah eighty years later, the Assyrian kings were a fairly peaceable lot, and Jonah's position in time with respect to his own king Jeroboam II rather points to this Shamsi-Adad V as the king concerned. He seems to have acted quickly and resolutely. He published a decree confirming the spontaneous action his people had already taken and commanded a national period of repentance. "Cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn every man from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?" (Jonah 4.7-9). Considering that Israel, in alliance with all the other nations of the west, had for years been forming military coalitions to resist by armed force the invasions of the Assyrians ‑ and dismally failed each time ‑ this national embracing of the arts of peace consequent upon a few days preaching by one unarmed man is a signal example of the power of God when He does see fit to intervene in human affairs.
And the Lord relented. That is the most amazing part of the entire story. The indescribable atrocities inflicted upon all the adjacent nations by the Assyrians would seem to justify their condemnation as a people unfit to live. But they repented and God reprieved them. "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he said he would do unto them, and he did it not". What political power, what nation, in such circumstances and having the ability to pass judgment ‑ and exact penalty, would act thus? The most important lesson which the Book of Jonah has for the Christian is declared by Ezekiel. "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way, and live. Turn ye, turn ye, from your evil ways; for why will ye die?' (Ezek. 33.11). Objection is sometimes raised to what in some quarters is called the "gospel of the second chance". God gave the Ninevites a second chance.
(The sequel to Jonah's achievement will be narrated in the next issue.)