Jonah 4:1 - 2
ESV - 1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, "O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
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This question cannot be adequately addressed without understanding the historical background of Nineveh and the geo-political dynamics that informed the relationship between this Assyrian port kingdom and Israel. The political and socio-cultural and spiritual status of the Ninevites is more clearly revealed in the book of Nahum 1-3. It was an extremely evil and violent society (Notice the appalling description given in Nahum 3:1-4). At the time of Jonah, scholars believe that the Ninevites were the arch-enemies of Israel. They were famed for extreme cruelty including the torture and skinning of their enemies alive! The fact that Jesus mentions Nineveh in Matthew 12:41 is instructive. The Assyrians were therefore rightly perceived by the Jews as enemies of God (Nahum 1:2). Some scholars have estimated that the city of Nineveh held a population of about 600,000 people at that time and the 120,000 mentioned in Jonah 4:11 may have been innocent children whom God sought to spare. However, it may well be that the description given about the people could also suggest that the Ninevites were ignorant of good and evil because of lack of divine revelation of God’s moral standards or because they were blatantly evil so that the 120,000 may therefore have been the total number of people including children. When God sent Jonah to deliver his warning of coming judgment to Nineveh, Jonah was perhaps convinced that the time for the destruction these enemies of Israel had come. Jonah had hoped that that God would not forgive the Ninevites though he knew that He was a gracious God (Jonah 4:2). Three possible reasons are can be advanced for his action of fleeing to Tarshish (Jonah 1:1-3). First, Jonah may have sought to evade the opportunity to deliver the message so that God would eventually destroy them. Secondly, his flight may have been informed by the fear for his safety in carrying out the prophetic command. This was a legitimate concern but we know that God preserves His people wherever He sends them. He may also have been driven by his personal prejudice and hatred for the Ninevites who were rightfully counted as the enemies of his people. At the preaching of Jonah, the Ninevites did the unusual thing. They all repented of their evil and God graciously forgave them and did not destroy them. This confounded Jonah and he became exceedingly bitter with God. His anger betrayed his deep seated hatred for the Ninevites.. Notice his lament in Jonah 4:2. Jonah knew that God as a forgiving God and yet he did not want to see His mercy extended to the enemies of Israel. When Jonah prayed that God should take his life, God rebuked him for his evil attitude and it is hoped that Jonah’s ministry changed for the better after this encounter with God. So why was Jonah bitter and angry? He just did not see any reason why God would deal with the enemies in that way. His anger represented that of the average Israelite against the Assyrians This story also teaches us about the nature of God as a loving and forgiving God and demonstrated His universal sovereignty over all humanity. Our God is not like us men who are vengeful and often find it difficult to forgive our enemies. God loves the redeemed and the lost alike and seeks their redemption from evil. This is a missiological truth about our God. He seeks that we reach out to those outside our confines, those dwelling beyond our usual zones because God stretched out His hand to us too in saving us yet we were deeply in sin and we were God’s enemies (Romans 5:8, 1 Peter 3:20). It appears that God was teaching his prophet an important lesson that perhaps jolted his ministry focus forever. The story of Jonah carries a vital lesson for believers in that it confronts our deep seated prejudices for people who we perceive as our sworn enemies and for whom we may silently wish harm and destruction. God sympathizes with our evil nature and seeks to heal and restore us so we can share in His loving nature
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