May 21 lesson: God’s Love for Ninevah
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God’s Love for Ninevah
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 3: God’s Pervasive and Sustaining Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 21, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Jonah 3
Background Scripture: Nahum 1-3
As we are aware, communities today are wrecked with separation and violence. What can bring people together to live in wholeness and peace? The scripture lesson points out that when the people of Nineveh repented, God brought peace and wholeness through divine love.
Review of Jonah scripture lesson
1. What does God tell Jonah? (Jonah 3:1-3)
That the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time is symbolical of the entire story. Jonah did not respond properly the first time, yet God spoke to him a second time. And as we are reminded, the second chance given to Jonah anticipates the second chance given to the city of Nineveh.
We see also that the book of Jonah identifies Nineveh as a “great city” three different times (1:2; 3:2; 4:11). Evidently, the phrase seems to refer to the city’s physical size (3:3) and population (4:11). Also, during its golden age, Nineveh had an abundance of wealth, architecture, and culture.
2. What does Jonah tell the people and how do they respond?
Note that Jonah’s message is brief, yet evokes a tremendous response within the city of Nineveh. Fasting and wearing sackcloth are common symbols of both mourning and repentance in Scripture. Wisely, the people of Nineveh are genuine in their repentance. And we also observe how comprehensive their response is, ranging all the way from their king to their animals. It is the king who gives expression to the communal hope and purpose: “God may relent and change his mind” (3:9).
3. How does God respond to the actions of the Ninevites? (3:10).
The king’s hope was realized. The narrator reports that “God saw what they did.” Scholars call our attention to how reasonable the divine judgment is. Just as God had seen their wickedness before, so God sees their repentance now. With the people’s change of heart comes a change of behavior, and with the change in behavior comes change in their fate.
The Book of Nahum
We are informed that Nahum serves as a kind of counterpart to Jonah in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. Both men are assigned messages concerning Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Conventional wisdom puts Nahum in the era of the Babylonian Empire’s ascendency. Nineveh fell to a coalition of Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C.
According to scholars, from about 900 B.C. Assyria had been a dominant empire in the ancient Near East. She gained and maintained her superiority through brutal military victories which resulted in a reputation as an evil world empire. It is not surprising that Assyria’s capital Nineveh, would be referred to as “the bloody city” (3:1). In 722 B.C. the northern kingdom of Israel finally succumbed to Assyria’s attacks. Nahum’s mission is to announce the judgment of Nineveh. Doubtless it is also to provide comfort to all those, especially God’s people, who have suffered abuse at the hands of this evil world power. As we are told, Nahum’s message is based on God’s justice, a side of His nature not given much attention in our time.
Stating it again, because of its centrality, Nahum’s mission is to announce the judgment of Nineveh, and the starting point of that message is not the wickedness of the people but the character of God. In case we suspect that the Lord acts in response to us and what we do, Nahum reminds us that human beings ought to live in response to who God is and what God does.
Quite often we humans like to ask God “why?” But perhaps it is even more common that the Lord wants to ask us “why?” Specifically, Nineveh, gives the justice and power of God, the question is why these people would presume to oppose the Lord.
We note in Nahum 1:12-13 that the personal pronouns change freely. Suddenly, in the midst of a message to Nineveh, we meet three words of comfort that are evidently meant for the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. The Lord assures those people that their oppressive enemy, the Assyrians, will be defeated and that their affliction and bondage will come to an end. This is true even as Nineveh’s name itself will be terminated, as another sign of divine judgment.
Since the book of Nahum is the background scripture for today’s lesson, I want to push forward by sharing with you “The Wesley Bible’s” outline of Nahum.
- God is merciful, but just 1:1-11
- God’s word against Nineveh 1:12-2:12
- Nineveh’s fall announced 1:12-2:2
- Nineveh’s fall described 2:3-12
- God’s word to Nineveh 2:13-3:19
- Nineveh’s wickedness2:13-3:4
- Nineveh will be debased3:5-7
- Nineveh will be like Thebes3:8-11
- Nineveh’s strength will be useless3:12-19
The Anatomy of Repentance
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” proclaimed Jonah to the Ninevites. I think you will agree that this is hardly a rhetorical masterpiece. Compared to the impassioned exhortation and frighteningly detailed warnings of other prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, Jonah’s effort seems a bit embarrassing.
In their amazement about Jonah’s seemingly weak effort, scholars suggest that this may not be Jonah’s whole message. Or, it may be that Jonah’s heart was never in this mission. But whatever he preached, the people of Nineveh responded commendably.
This may be a lesson for all of us who preach. We just never know about our messages. How many times have we preached a message that we thought was off the wall (less than our best) and it touched someone’s heart. Or, how many times have we preached what we thought was a powerful message and it turned out to be a disaster.
Consequently, when we set Jonah and Jeremiah next to each other, we conclude that it doesn’t matter how good the preacher is if the audience or congregation is unresponsive. On the other hand, it may not matter how average the preaching is if people’s hearts are inclined to respond.
The fact is that the people of Nineveh responded, and that is to their credit. The Book of Jonah offers a brief summary of how Nineveh responded. And their response is a model for us all.
The starting point is the heart of God, which sends a prophet to proclaim the word of the Lord. Paul’s words are appropriate to the situation: “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim (Jesus)? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (Roman 10:14b-15a).
The next step is the receptive and responsive heart of the listeners or audience. We are told in Jonah 3:5 that “the people of Nineveh believed God.” At this point, we are reminded of Romans 4:3 where it says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham was justified by faith.
Next, comes the fasting and the command to turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:8). Fasting and turning are always the stuff of repentance.
As we are informed, the command to turn came from the king. In the Old Testament, that kind of loyal leadership is often part of national repentance and revival. Without difficulty, we think Hezekiah and Josiah.
Finally, we observe the comprehensive compliance that characterized Nineveh’s repentance. By the king’s command, both human beings and animals were to participate in the humble fast. And we are reminded that it is the same kind of thoroughgoing observance of all people and creatures that we see required in the Sabbath commandment: “you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your town” (Exodus 20:10). It is only this kind of total obedience and complete response that honors God.
Perhaps God Will Relent
“Who knows?” stated the king of Nineveh. “God may relent and change his mind” (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” (3:10, key verse).
So what can we say about this episode? Is it possible to change the mind of God? As scholars point out, on the one hand, we read, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6). 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 planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14).
Is it possible for one who is omniscient to think differently? And if so, can we rely on God, or are we left with a capricious unpredictable deity?
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 or 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. 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, the prophet’s message is one of coming judgment, but the prophet’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.
As scholars suggest, when the narrator reports that “God changed his mind,” therefore, there is no actual change in the nature or will of God. Indeed, the inconsistency would have been if God had not changed his mind. If the Lord had persisted in destroying a repentant people, that would have reflected inconsistency in the divine character.
Now, this same truth is revealed beyond just the story of Jonah. The instance from the time of Moses, for example, follows the same pattern. There, too, the Scripture declares that the Lord changed his mind, but it was the same change: a decision not to destroy people.
A Recurring Story
The theme of human repentance and God’s forgiveness reaches its peak in Nineveh, but the same centrality was introduced in the experiences of Jonah himself.
Prior to the people of Nineveh hearing and responding to God’s word, the courier of that word foretold their experience. As we remember, Jonah disobeyed God, and God did not ignore it. Thus, divine presence brought Jonah back to his senses, and within the belly of the great fish, Jonah repented. Jonah himself was the beneficiary of the mercy and forgiveness of God.
But even after Jonah, the melody of this sweet music keeps playing. The same motif is woven through all of Scripture, and it resounds in our own lives and experiences as well.
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’s forgiving love does not change.
- Conduct a class discussion on Nineveh’s model of repentance and why it is important for us.
- What do class members understand about “God changing his mind?”