What sort of a place was this Nineveh to which
Jonah was being sent?
Few cities go so far back in history. The
archaeologists think they have found a reference to it in a tablet dated about
B.C.3000 (sic!) And an inscription by Shamshi-adad (about B.C.1700) suggests
that at Nineveh the worship of Ishtar was instituted there, a long time before
that. Another archaeological mention goes back roughly to the time of
By far the most informative ancient account of
Nineveh is Genesis 10: 11,12: “And out of that land (Shinar, Babylon) went
forth Asshur, and built Nineveh and the city Rehoboth (even the city of broad
places), and Calah and Resen (Larissa, Kuyunijik?) between Nineveh and Calah:
the same (Nineveh) is a great city.” This Genesis statement should almost
certainly read: “He (Nimrod; v.8,9)went forth to Asshur, and
built...”. Such a reading is supported by Micah 5: 6, where a parallelism
describes Assyria as “the land of Nimrod.” In “Abraham”
(H.A.W.), page 10f, it has been suggested that “Nimrod the mighty hunter
before the Lord” was a persecutor of the faithful. These three
cities were sufficiently close together to grow into one enormous metropolis
including in its compass not only splendid temples to Ashur, the special god of
this empire, and to a variety of other deities, but also even more splendid
palaces erected and adorned by conquering Assyrian monarchs.
In the period now being considered, Nineveh had
not yet reached its full glory, but already Assyrian rapacity and greed had
begun a policy of plundering every state, which its mighty warriors invaded.
From earliest days violence was a normal characteristic of these Assyrians, even
in their dealings with one another (see Jonah 3: 8). Hence the charge laid upon
“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and
cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before
That Hebrew verb ‘alah, “come
up”, is normally used regarding persons. So there would seem to be a
suggestion here of angelic inspection and report, as happened regarding Sodom;
“I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according
to the cry of it, which is come unto me” (Gen. 18: 21).
When, in earliest days, God took Israel to
Himself as His own peculiar people, He declared: “Ye shall be unto me a
kingdom of priests and an holy nation” (Ex. 19: 6). Yet hardly ever did
Israel show signs of rising to the challenge of such a high destiny. Since the
function of a priest was to be an instructor of the people and to be God’s
representative among them, the intention that Israel be “a kingdom of
priests” meant, in effect, that they become a missionary nation, as
God’s representatives among the Gentiles, instructing them in the
knowledge and service of God.
But throughout their history Israel showed few
signs of ever fulfilling this exalted and privileged role, because it meant also
being “an holy nation”, and they were not interested in
Now, at this late hour, when Israel was steadily
becoming more decadent than the Gentile nations they should have been
evangelizing, Jonah is selected to be an example to his own people of how they
should fulfil this role: ‘Jonah, go down to Nineveh, and denounce it for
There was doubtless another divine purpose behind
this mission. If Nineveh’ hearing the word of the Lord, repented through
fear of the judgment of heaven, then perhaps wayward Israel would take notice
and by following such an example would likewise repent and save itself from the
wrath of God.
However, Jonah had other ideas. As a shrewd man
of affairs he had already come to recognize that the growing might of Assyria
was a threat to be feared. How long would it be before that rising tide of
Assyrian expansion swept west and south to engulf his own land? Then why should
he lift a finger or raise his voice to fend off the violent judgment of God from
such a nation? Assessing the situation as a politician, he thought he knew
better than the angel of the Lord.
And there was a personal consideration as well.
Had not he, Jonah, published a prophecy that by and by the territory of the
kingdom of Israel would expand to recover the lost northern territory near
Hamath and also would sweep southwards through Moab to the Dead Sea? Then if
Nineveh, repentant, remained prosperous and strong, its expansion would leave no
room for the fulfilment of Israel’s territorial ambitions — and thus
he, Jonah, would turn out to be a false prophet, boosting the ego of his own
people with futile forecasting.
So, rebellious, and with a certain feeling of
self-righteousness, he determined to have no part in this missionary work in
Jonah, you poor fool, do you realize what a
distinguished company you are enrolling in — men of God who jibbed at the
wisdom of heaven, thinking that they knew better: Moses, Gideon, Elijah,
Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Peter. How many more?
By and by Jonah’s rebellious flight from
God was to make him into a witness to other Gentiles besides Nineveh. Did it
also teach him that rebellious Israel would follow the same pattern —
proclaiming God’s truth through their adversity because unwilling to be a
holy nation and carry the holy Word of God to the rest of the world? And if
repentance would pull back Nineveh from the brink, what would it not achieve for