Click here for a print-friendly version
Preaching to the Enemies
Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 3: Courageous Prophets of Change
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 30, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Jonah 3
Key Verse: Jonah 3:10
- Class members define and discuss repentance.
- List reasons why the Ninevites’ reaction to Jonah’s proclamation was unexpected.
- Commit to one needed change to obey God more fully.
Imagine that you are nearing the end of a good book that you just can’t put down. You are anticipating a satisfying ending. But it’s not there! The ending has nothing to do with the book itself or it ends in a ridiculous manner or it fails to end up somewhere. Few things are more frustrating to a reader than an unsatisfying ending to an otherwise meaningful book.
All Jonah wanted was an ending that made sense to him regarding the story of the Ninevites. They deserved to be destroyed. They had done “nothing” to merit a better ending. People for miles around could see that they should be destroyed. But how would God write the ending of this drama?
Though the book of Jonah is only four chapters long it has much to teach us about the character of God. And that is also true of the character of Jonah. Jonah reacted to God’s call like no other prophet in the Old Testament. At least, those other prophets agreed to speak for God even when they would rather not (Exodus 4:10-12; Jeremiah 1:6-9; etc.). However, Jonah chose not only to keep his mouth closed but also to try to run away from God (Jonah 1:1-3).
Scholars tell us that Jonah appears to have been willing to live in self-imposed exile rather than deliver a message of repentance to wicked Nineveh, an important city of the aggressive Assyrian Empire. In this way, Jonah held a mirror up to Israel, a nation that would prefer to believe that God’s choosing them meant he cared about them “exclusively.” Perhaps Jonah and his fellow Israelites needed to read the “all nations on earth” part of Genesis 18:18, 22:18, and 26:4 again!
Even so, Israel had good reason to desire God’s sole protection. Assyria was a powerful, expansive nation when Jonah received his call from God in about 780 BC. The city of Nineveh, to which Jonah was called, was a royal residence for the king of Assyria. The city was massive and had a reputation for violence and cruelty (3:8). Far from small-mindedness, Jonah knew that his nation, indeed the known world, would be safer if the barbarous Assyrians were eliminated.
Ultimately, Israel’s fear of Assyria was justified. Assyria invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, plundered it, carried people into captivity, and resettled the territory (2 Kings 17). While history doesn’t provide detailed accounts of the Assyrian invasion, there is no reason to believe that the aggressors didn’t commit terrible atrocities on the northern kingdom of Israel as done elsewhere.
Now, that was after Jonah’s time. But even so, he certainly preferred to avoid his assigned task. Adding to his escape attempt (Jonah 1:3), Jonah later revealed his deep disappointment in God (4:1-3). However, God insisted that Jonah fulfill his prophetic tasks. And even Jonah did not try to escape God’s calling a second time.
The Word of the Lord
That the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time is emblematic of the entire story. Jonah did not respond properly the first time, yet still God spoke to him a second time. And the second chance given to Jonah anticipates the second chance given to the city of Nineveh.
At any rate, Jonah’s prior disobedience had not disqualified or exempted him from being God’s chosen vessel.
Writing in his book “The Great Secret,” pastor Walter Albrithon says, “God’s grace is not reserved for people who are qualified to receive it. Instead, the grace of God qualifies those who receive it.” Such was certainly true of Jonah in his second call from God.
This command in verse 2 repeats what God originally told Jonah. Noticeably missing is the previous emphasis on the city’s evil seen in the phrase “its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). The prophet was already aware of that fact, but didn’t see the remedy as God saw it. Jonah’s desired remedy was fiery judgment; God’s remedy was repentance (4:1-2, not in our lesson text). “Proclaim to it the message I give you” is a command for Jonah to speak only what God would tell him – nothing more, nothing less. Jonah’s instructions had not changed.
Perhaps we wonder why would God send an Israelite prophet to a nation that threatened his chosen people. The answer is found in the last verse in the book:
“Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11)
Point! God’s love is not determined or constrained by national boundaries. Because ancient Israel had nationalistic and exceptionalistic pride due to the fact that they were chosen by God uniquely, it is not difficult to see that same trait in Jonah himself. Repeating, God’s love is not determined or constrained by national boundaries.
Now, Jonah’s time inside the great fish had evidently taught him the price of disobedience (Jonah 1:17-2:10). We see the evidence of this in his going to Nineveh. The “three days [it took] to go through it” ironically matches Jonah’s three days in the fish (Jonah 1:17).
One suggestion regarding the meaning of a very large city that takes three days to pass through is that it includes the time necessary for Jonah to stop and preach neighborhood by neighborhood. Archaeology has determined that the size of Nineveh encompassed some 1,730 acres. Combining this with the 120,000 population gives us some idea of the strength of the Assyrian Empire.
We are told that Jonah walked one-third of the way into the city before delivering God’s message. Given his lack of enthusiasm to this point, the prophet likely was giving God only minimum obedience. And, don’t we do much the same thing when we obey the letter of the law without allowing our hearts to be changed by God’s commands?
Jonah’s recorded sermon is simple but powerful. It contains just five words in the Hebrew. Of course, this could be all that Jonah said, or it could be a summary of a much longer sermon. But note here that in Jonah’s sermon there is no call to repentance. This omission seems to be in keeping with Jonah’s mindset to this point: he seems not to want to mention the possibility that God would forgive. From Jonah’s perspective, the Ninevites were an evil people who deserved judgment.
As we know, the number “forty” has symbolic meaning in the Bible. Rain fell for that number of days in judgment on wicked humankind (Genesis 7:17).
Forty was the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness because of their faithlessness (Numbers 14:33-35). And it was the number of days Jesus fasted before facing the tempter (Matthew 4:2-10). In each case, God considered the completion of this number of days or years to be sufficient to excise evil or prove its absence. Giving Nineveh that amount of time before being “overthrown” was fair in God’s reckoning.
The people of Nineveh
Several startling events are recorded in the book of Jonah, but one of the greatest is the tremendous response to Jonah’s terse message. The faith of the Ninevites depended not on Jonah’s rhetoric or his enthusiasm for the subject. Instead, their reaction speaks to the work of the Spirit of God in their midst, although not specifically stated as such.
The late Albert Outler, prominent Methodist scholar, stated that “Without the Spirit in the church our sermons would become editorials…” It wasn’t Jonah’s editorial that brought the response from the Ninevites.
Fasting and wearing sackcloth are common symbols of both mourning and repentance in Scripture. As with any external or physical act, it isn’t worth much if it remains superficial. In the case of the people of Nineveh, however, it appears to be a sincere reflection of their hearts.
We also see how comprehensive their response is. The response of the Ninevites ranges all the way from their king to their animals. And it is the king who provides expression to the command and purpose: “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:9).
In spite of the fact that the Ninevites had their own gods, we are told that the Ninevites believed God (v.5), the underlying Hebrew of that designation being Elohim, not Yahweh. When the word “Elohim” is used without the word “Yahweh” being adjacent, the implication is that of the Creator of the universe (Genesis 1).
Of course, the Lord is both Creator of everything on the earth and Ruler over Israel specifically. Old Testament texts, especially the Psalms, often use the names interchangeably. But the Ninevites’ belief seems to have been tied only to God as he makes himself known through creation (Romans 1:18-20), rather than to God as he reveals himself more fully in the Law of Moses.
Fasting from food or drink was a common religious practice in many nations during biblical times. It could be practiced privately or corporately. The practice indicated self-denial, repentance, and/or humility. In the case of the Ninevites’ fasting, all these applied. “Sackcloth” was a rough material that was generally made from goat hair, and wearing sackcloth signified submission (example: 1 Kings 20:31-32) or intense distress (example: 2 Kings 19:1). Fasting combined with wearing sackcloth’s added intensity to the situation (Psalm 35:13). A spiritual change was happening throughout Nineveh.
The fast was originally limited to the citizens of “Nineveh,” but livestock were also to be denied food and water. To cover these animals in “sackcloth” was a symbol of the city’s repentance. Though we often think of the consequences of sin being confined to humans, this verse (v.8) underscores that the natural would also suffer because of sin (Romans 8:19-22). God’s last recorded response to Jonah also reinforces the fact that God cares for “all” of his creation, not just the human parts (Jonah 4:10,11).
For the king to risk the health of the city’s livestock by causing them to fast meant that he believed that destruction was imminent. If God didn’t see genuine repentance, the well-being of the livestock wouldn’t matter anyway.
Now, the king seems to have recognized that empty ritual would yield no benefit (see Isaiah 58:3-7). True repentance begins with the heart and is verified through righteous behavior. For that reason, the king commanded his people to reject their evil lifestyle. The city of Nineveh was called on to repent of a way of life built on violence, torture, and slavery.
Repentance then in the Biblical sense is more than simply a change of mind or a feeling of regret. It’s a decisive turning away from sin and back to God, and the emphasis may rest on the negative side to turning away, disobedience, or rebellion. It may also fall on the positive side, the turning back to God with the beginning of a new religious or moral life. But repentance is a U-turn. As mentioned earlier, true repentance always begins with the heart and is verified through righteous behavior.
“Who knows?” stated the king of Nineveh, “God may relent and change his mind” (Jonah 3:9). It was an amazing hope, but it was exactly what happened. The scripture lesson states, “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” (Jonah 3:10, key verse).
Question: Is it possible to change the mind of God? As scholars point out, on the one hand, we read in Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change.” While on the other hand, Moses’ experience echoes this episode from Jonah. After Moses interceded on behalf of the people: “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he had promised to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14).
According to scholars, a closer look at Jonah’s story reveals both an important theological point and a lovely truth about God. For God’s mind to change is not the same as God’s nature of will changing. In fact, scholars point out, the change of mind actually reveals the consistency of the divine character and will.
Always, the question to ask is, “What does God want?” And the answer from start to finish is that God desires our salvation, our wholeness, and our love. And both the judgment and the forgiveness of God serve these purposes. As it is explained, the judgment pushes us backward toward the wholeness of God’s design while the forgiveness welcomes us back to God and provides that wholeness.
Without doubt, Jonah’s message is one of coming judgment, but Jonah’s presence is a proof of mercy. If the real desire was to destroy Nineveh, then no warning would be needed or given.
But the very fact of the warning proves that God would rather not do it. Therefore, when the narrator reports that “God changed his mind,” there is no actual change in the nature or will of God. In reality, if God had persisted in destroying a repentant people that would have shone inconsistency in the divine character.
In closing, the theme of human repentance and God’s forgiveness reaches its peak in Nineveh, but the same centrality was introduced in the experience of Jonah himself. Therefore, what was true for Jonah was true for Nineveh. And what was true for Nineveh is true for us. God always urges, invites, and welcomes us back. Our repentance continually embraces God’s love, grace and forgiveness. You see, God forgiving laws do not change. Thanks be to God!
Resources for this lesson
- On what occasions should fasting be promoted today, if any? Why do you say that?
- What do class members understand about God changing his mind?
- What is your main takeaway from today’s lesson regarding modern missionary endeavors?
- Why is repentance important and how would you define it?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 329-336.
- “The New International Lesson Annual, September 2016-August 2017,” pages 383-388.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII” pages 510-516.