Two of the Minor Prophets spoke exclusively to and about Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire:
Jonah, in about 785 BC, reluctantly delivered a message of mercy to the great city.
Nahum, about 150 years later in 630 BC, spoke a message of doom.
Zephaniah, a contemporary of Nahum, also predicted Nineveh’s destruction:
And the Lord will strike the lands of the north with his fist, destroying the land of Assyria. He will make its great capital, Nineveh, a desolate wasteland, parched like a desert. The proud city will become a pasture for flocks and herds, and all sorts of wild animals will settle there. The desert owl and screech owl will roost on its ruined columns, their calls echoing through the gaping windows. Rubble will block all the doorways, and the cedar paneling will be exposed to the weather. This is the boisterous city, once so secure. “I am the greatest!” it boasted. “No other city can compare with me!” But now, look how it has become an utter ruin, a haven for wild animals. Everyone passing by will laugh in derision and shake a defiant fist. (Zephaniah 2:13-15 NLT)
In addition, Isaiah, who ministered midway between Jonah and Nahum, predicted the fall of the Assyrians in Isaiah chapter 10.
Together they illustrate God’s way of dealing with nations: prolonging the day of grace, and in the end sending punishment for sins.
Let’s look deeper at what history tells us about Nineveh and Assyria to see why Jonah was so reluctant to deliver a message of mercy.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was by the Assyrian Empire that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed. The deportation of the Northern Kingdom lasted about 20 years from 734-715 BC. In recent years, annals of Assyrian kings have been found in which they themselves had their own exploits recorded.
Assyrian policy was to deport conquered peoples to other lands, to destroy their sense of nationalism and make them more easily subject. Assyrians were great warriors. Most nations then were robber nations. Assyrians seem to have been about the worst of them all. They built their state on the loot of other peoples. They practiced cruelty. They skinned their prisoners alive, or cut off their hands, feet, noses, ears, or put out their eyes, or pulled out their tongues, and made mounds of human skulls, all to inspire terror.
Nineveh was founded by Nimrod shortly after the flood (Genesis 10:11-12), it had, from the beginning been a rival of Babylon: Babylon in the south part of the Euphrates valley, Nineveh in the north part of the Euphrates Valley; the two cities were about 317 miles apart. Nineveh rose to world power about 900 BC. Soon thereafter it began to “cut off” Israel.
About 785 BC God had sent Jonah to Nineveh in an effort to turn it aside from its path of brutal conquest. Within the following 60 years (by 721 BC) the Assyrian armies had completed the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. For still another 100 years Nineveh continued to grow more and more powerful and arrogant.
At the time of Nahum’s prophecy, Nineveh was queen city of the earth, mighty and brutal beyond imagination, head of a warrior state built on the loot of nations. Limitless wealth from the ends of the earth poured into its coffers. Nahum likens it to a den of ravaging lions, feeding on the blood of nations (Nahum 2:11-13).
The term Nineveh refers to the whole complex of associated villages served by one great irrigation system, and protected by the one network of fortiﬁcations based on the river defenses. The city proper is also called Nineveh. It is the great palace area in the heart of the greater system.
Greater Nineveh was about 30 miles long and about 10 miles wide. It was protected by 5 walls and 3 moats (canals) built by the forced labor of unnumbered thousands of foreign captives, Jonah’s mention of 120,000 babes (Jonah 4:11), suggests it might have had a population of near a million. The inner city of Nineveh proper, about 3 miles long, and 1.5 miles wide, buillt at the junction of the Tigris and Khoser rivers, was protected by walls 100 feet high, and broad enough at the top to hold 4 chariots driven abreast, 8 miles in circuit.
At the height of Nineveh’s power, on the eve of its sudden overthrow, Nahum appeared with this prophecy, called by some “Nineveh’s Death—Song,” a “Cry of Humanity for Justice.”
The fall of Nineveh took place in 612 BC. This was within 20 years after Nahum’s prediction. An army of Babylonians and Medes closed in on Nineveh. After 2 years of siege a sudden rise of the river washed away part of the walls. Nahum had predicted that the “river gates would be opened” for the destroying army (Nahum 2:6). Through the breach the attacking Babylonians and Medes swept in to their work of destruction. Prancing horses, cracking whips, rattling wheels, bounding, raging chariots, ﬂashing swords, great heaps of dead bodies (Nahum 2:3-4; 3:1-7). It all came to pass exactly as Nahum had pictured it; and the bloody vile city passed into oblivion.
Its destruction was so complete that even its site was forgotten. When Xenophon and his 10,000 passed by 200 years later he thought the mounds were the ruins of some Parthian city. When Alexander the Great fought the famous battle of Arbela (331 BC), near the site of Nineveh, he did not know there had ever been a city there.
So completely had all traces of the glory of the Assyrian Empire disappeared that many scholars had come to think that the references to it in the Bible and other ancient histories were mythical; that in reality such a city and such an empire never existed. In 1820 an Englishman, Claude James Rich, spent 4 months sketching the mounds across the Tigris from Mosul, which he suspected were the ruins of Nineveh. In 1845 Layard deﬁnitely identiﬁed the site; and he and his successors uncovered the ruins of the magniﬁcent palaces of the Assyrian kings, whose names have now become household words, and hundreds of thousands of inscriptions in which we read the history of Assyria as the Assyrians themselves wrote it, and which to a remarkable degree conﬁrm the Bible.
Now let’s look deeper at what the Bible tells us about Nineveh and Assyria to see further why Jonah was so reluctant to deliver a message of mercy.
Jonah was well aware of the horrific levels of cruelty of the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:17). They were the inhabitants of a country that became a mighty empire dominating the biblical Middle East from the ninth to the seventh century BC. They conquered an area that comprises what is now Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. In the seventh century BC, Assyria occupied and controlled the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Excavations in Mesopotamia have confirmed the Bible’s description that it took three days’ journey to go around the capital city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3).
The Assyrians were a thorn in the side of Israel. Beginning in 733 BC under King Tilgath-pileser, Assyria took the Northern Kingdom’s land and carried the inhabitants into exile (2 Kings 15:29). Later, beginning in 721 BC, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser besieged Israel’s capital, Samaria, and it fell three years later (2 Kings 18:9-12). This event fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that God would use Assyria as the “rod of His anger” (Isaiah 10:5-19); that is, the Assyrian Empire was implementing God’s judgment against the idolatrous Israelites. The sovereign God takes full credit as the source of Assyria’s authority (compare Isaiah 7:18; 8:7; 9:11; and Daniel 4:17). Secular history records that in 703 BC Assyria under King Sennacherib suppressed a major Chaldean challenge.
Given the Assyrian threat against Israel, it is understandable that the prophet Jonah did not want to travel to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3). When he eventually arrived in the Assyrian capital, Jonah preached God’s impending judgment. After hearing Jonah’s message, the king of Assyria and the entire city of Nineveh repented, and God turned His anger away for a time (Jonah 3:10). The grace of God was extended even to the Assyrians.
In the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, in 701 BC, the Assyrians under Sennacherib took 46 of Judah’s fortified cities (Isaiah 36:1). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem—the Assyrian king engraved upon his stele that he had the king of Judah caught like a caged bird in his own country.
However, even though Sennacherib’s army occupied Judah up to the very doorstep of Jerusalem, and even though Sennacherib’s emissary Rabshakeh boasted against God and Hezekiah (Isaiah 36:4-21), Assyria was rebuffed. Hezekiah prayed, and God promised that the Assyrians would never set foot inside the city (Isaiah 37:33). God slew 185,000 Assyrian forces in one night (Isaiah 37:36), and Sennacherib returned to Nineveh where he was slain by his own sons as he worshiped his god Nisroch (Isaiah 37:38).
We are now ready to look at the ‘Jonah Spirit’ and make sure we do not fall into the same trap.
Since most of us know the story of Jonah and the great fish, let’s pick up the story at Jonah chapter 3:
“Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.” This time Jonah obeyed the Lord ’s command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all. On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city: “No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.” When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.
As we enter chapter 4, we turn back to Jonah:
This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord ? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord ! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. And the Lord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed. Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” “Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!” Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”
In conclusion I would like to say the following:
There was no doubt in Jonah’s mind that the inhabitants of Nineveh were a most cruel society and needed to be stopped. But to jump to the conclusion that they were not deserving to be warned of impending judgment if they did not repent, was where Jonah stepped over the line. I have heard people say that if God does not send judgment down because of our homosexuality, abortions, greed, cruelty, and turning our backs on God, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah. I must point out that we serve a sovereign LORD whose ways are much higher than our ways. He alone is responsible for the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms (Daniel 2:21 and 4:35). He is both merciful and just and He is slow to wrath. We must never develop a ‘Jonah Spirit’ and think we know best. Worse off, to become angry if things don’t happen the way we think they should. There are times we must most certainly judge (1 Corinthians 6:2-3) and expose (Ephesians 5:11), but only in accordance with listening to our LORD’S ‘still small voice’. If not, we are guilty ourselves of having a ‘Jonah Spirit’.
Here are some portions of Scripture to cement this:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord . “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NKJV)
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. (Romans 13:1 NLT)
For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness. They wear pride like a jeweled necklace and clothe themselves with cruelty. They boast against the very heavens, and their words strut throughout the earth. Look at these wicked people— enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply. Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain. So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is! Then I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked. Truly, you put them on a slippery path and send them sliding over the cliff to destruction. In an instant they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors. Then I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. Yet I still belong to you; you hold my right hand. (Psalms 73:3, 6-6, 9, 12-14, 16-19, 21, 23 NLT)
But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village. (Luke 9:53-56 NKJV)
At the opposite end of a ‘Jonah Spirit’ of judgment, we are also not to have a ‘Corinthian Spirit’ of indifference. Many church leaders no longer meet the requirements set forth in the New Testament (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6–7). They have brought shame to the Bride of Christ, but continue in office despite legitimate accusations against them. Yes, we are to forgive and restore to fellowship when they repent, but never to be put back into office. This has been forfeited according to the Word of God, no matter who they are.
Judgment, whether at the national and world level or judgment at the personal and individual church level is tricky business. We must always seek Holy Spirit discernment in complete alignment with Scripture when we try to understand it. People have a really hard time with the fact that the LORD allowed Hitler and the Nazi regime to rise, but yet He did. He allowed the cruel Assyrians to punish Israel for their sins, even though Assyria was a much more wicked kingdom. It will be the same when the Antichrist arises, but remember the LORD is in complete control.