With God on Our Side

Jonah 3

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.


Thus far in the story of Jonah, here’s what we know from the text alone. Jonah is a prophet living during the time of the Divided Kingdom in the mostly pagan Northern Kingdom of Israel. He is living during the reign of Jeroboam II, whom the book of 2 Kings calls an evil king because he does not worship the Lord. 

Jonah is called by God to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh and “call out against it.” But, for reasons unbeknownst to us, Jonah tries to run away from the Lord. He boards a ship bound for a city called Tarshish, perhaps on the other end of the Mediterranean, but the Lord sends a great storm to disrupt his trip. The pagan sailors that Jonah finds himself with cast lots, which is to say that they, basically draw straws in an effort to determine why the storm has come upon them. Their pagan beliefs led them to see all natural events…especially things like storms…as the work of the gods, and yet, in this instance, it is very much the work of God. The lot falls on Jonah, and Jonah confesses that he is a Hebrew, that he fears the Lord, even though his actions make that a debatable claim, and that he is running away from the Lord. When they ask Jonah what they can do to calm the storm, he tells them to pick him up and throw him into the sea. The sailors don’t want to do this, but after realizing that they can’t row against the storm, they pray to God asking his forgiveness and then throw Jonah into the ocean. And the storm immediately ceases and the sailors worship God and take vows of obedience to him. 

From there we have a complete genre switch as we move into chapter two. As Jonah sinks into the ocean, he is swallowed by a great fish. What kind of fish? How is that even possible? We don’t know. And those don’t seem to be questions that the text is asking. But, suddenly, it is as if we are in the Psalms of David. Jonah prays this poetic prayer from within the fish. And, it is a strange prayer because it appears to be a prayer of thanksgiving and not a prayer of confession. Jonah praises the Lord for bringing him up from the pit and saving him from Sheol, the Hebrew place of the dead, but he also doesn’t really ask for forgiveness. Last week we illuminated a few of the inconsistencies in Jonah’s prayer, and we looked at some of the connections between the prayer and the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve also sought unsuccessfully to hide from the Lord, also between the language Jonah uses and King David. 

What we did not have time to consider last week though, is a connection that we don’t necessarily get from the book of Jonah, but it comes hundreds of years later from the mouth of Jesus. Look with me at Matthew 12:38-42

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

It is here that Jesus validates the story of Jonah. And, that is important because many people want to look at this story as just a story, and discount it as a tall tale of sorts. But, Jesus likens his time in the grave to Jonah’s time in the fish. And, that’s really interesting because we ended chapter two by seeing that Jonah also, in a sense, is resurrected from the grave. As far as the sailors know, Jonah is dead and gone. As far as the Romans and the Jewish authorities were concerned, Jesus was dead and gone. And yet, there comes a third day. By the way, the phrasing of “three day and three nights” is somewhat colloquial to the Hebrews. If you think about it, you see that phrasing throughout the Bible. For example, with Noah it rained “forty days and forty nights.” And, many scholars believe that phrasing is literal but not expressly literal, like there is an approximation embedded in the statement. Like with Noah, was it exactly forty, twenty-four hour periods? Or Jonah, was he spat out of the fish at exactly the thirty-sixth hour? Jesus was resurrected on the third day, but it wasn’t exactly three, twenty-four hour periods. So, many scholars think it’s almost like saying something like “no more than three days.” 

Jesus not only validates the story of Jonah, but he also validates the results of Jonah’s efforts that we read about today in chapter three. Jesus says that the repentance of Nineveh was so real that in the last days, when the resurrection of the dead occurs and Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, that the repentant resurrected people of Nineveh will condemn the lack of repentance in the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Meaning, the faith of the people of Nineveh will only serve to illuminate the lack of faith of the scribes and Pharisees. So, not only is what we’re reading about real, Jesus says that the repentance of Nineveh that we see today will have ramifications even in the future from now. 

Let’s look at our text:

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Two things to begin with: the city itself and Jonah’s message. 

Nineveh, on multiple occasions throughout this book is described as “great,” and that is really a statement its size. By the standards of ancient cities, Nineveh was pretty big. The city was, in the Hebrew language, “gadol” (gaw-dole). Other things things that are “gadol” in the Old Testament:

  • Genesis 1:16 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.
  • Or in perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for Jonah: Genesis 1:21 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Nineveh, according to verse three was exceedingly gadol. We learn that it was a three days journey in breadth, and it’s not totally clear if the text is telling us that it was a three days journey for Jonah to get there or if it took him three days to walk through the city declaring his message. Nineveh still exists as a city, although it is not often called Nineveh. It’s actually a city that we have heard a lot about in Modern America, especially if you remember the war in Iraq. In today’s world it is called Mosul and is located in Iraq, and back in 2003, it was the site of some major battles. In fact, Mosul was where American forces killed Saddam Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusay. So, even in today’s world, this is still a site of great battles and controversy. 

There is also a sense in which the city is “gadol” in that the Lord cares about it and views it to be important. In fact, the very last line of the book of Jonah is God saying: 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Jonah arrives in Nineveh and preaches, as we’ve said before, an eight word message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Last week I called that a half-hearted message because we know that Jonah’s heart was not to see Nineveh saved, but to see Nineveh overthrown. He is telling the people the word that God has given him, he’s just not giving them any more than what is absolutely necessary. And, yet, it says, the people believed God. They didn’t believe Jonah…who believed God. And, the Bible paints this as a moment of almost instantaneous repentance that effects everyone rich and poor…royalty and common people. The king issues a decree calling for a full fast…no food; no water. And, everyone calls out to the Lord for forgiveness. In other words, they do the very thing that we have not seen Jonah do. This is not what Jonah did inside the fish. And, that is the paradox of this story that I think Jesus was illuminating in talking about the sign of Jonah. Jonah, the one who knows and supposedly fears the Lord, does not grieve for his sin or even ask forgiveness so far that we can see. But, the people who did not know the Lord, need only hear an eight word message and they immediately call for a full fast, sackcloth and ashes, and beg the Lord for forgiveness. So, in many ways, I think Jesus is drawing a comparison between the man Jonah and the Pharisees. Both Jonah and the Pharisees are both suffering from the potential numbing effects of organized religion. When the worship of God becomes just some ritual you participate in. Or it is just some vow you take. Or it is just some set of beliefs that you espouse. When the worship of God is not the actual posture or desire of your heart, then you can be numbed to the actual call of God. As in the case of Jonah, his “fear” of the Lord winds up looking like a complete lack of fear. 

And, one of the ways this manifests itself for both Jonah and the Pharisees is that it leads them to feel superior to other people. They think that because they are Jews that God cares only about them. And, this is one of the big points that God is trying to get across to Jonah. “Why do you think that I should only care about you?” God is on our side. So, we are right and everyone else is wrong. We are saved and everyone else is damned. We are wise and everyone else is foolish. But, who are the truly wise people in this story? Who are the people who are truly saved in this story? It’s the sailors and the Ninevites. 

And, here’s what I hope this illuminates for us today. This is not a problem that is unique to Jonah and the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It is not a problem unique to the Jews. American Christianity has the exact same problem. The American version of Christianity inclines us to think we have God on our side and that everyone else is our opponent, and thus everyone else is an enemy of God. Muslims, homosexuals, liberals, those who support abortion and on and on. This is who American Christianity is against. The foundational framework of the Hebrew and Christian faith is that if you truly know the Lord, if you truly fear the Lord, then it reveals for you that everyone is not your enemy…everyone is your neighbor. Rather than viewing the groups I mentioned and others as people made in the image God, whose primary sickness is simply a lack of the gospel, our nominal Christian culture tell us that the real goal is not to share Christ with them, but instead to gain political power over such people so that we can silence their voices and create a utopian society for just the people who think like we do. And, meanwhile, God is saying “should I not care about these people?” 

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’

My age it means less

The country I come from

Is called the Midwest

I was taught and brought up there

The laws to abide

And that land that I live in

Has God on its side

Oh, the history books tell it

They tell it so well

The cavalries charged

The Indians fell

The cavalries charged

The Indians died

Oh, the country was young

With God on its side

The Spanish-American

War had its day

And the Civil War, too

Was soon laid away

And the names of the heroes

I was made to memorize

With guns in their hands

And God on their side

The First World War, boys

It came and it went

The reason for fighting

I never did get

But I learned to accept it

Accept it with pride

For you don’t count the dead

When God’s on your side

The Second World War

Came to an end

We forgave the Germans

And then we were friends

Though they murdered six million

In the ovens they fried

The Germans now, too

Have God on their side

I’ve learned to hate the Russians

All through my whole life

If another war comes

It’s them we must fight

To hate them and fear them

To run and to hide

And accept it all bravely

With God on my side

But now we got weapons

Of chemical dust

If fire them, we’re forced to

Then fire, them we must

One push of the button

And a shot the world wide

And you never ask questions

When God’s on your side

Through many a dark hour

I’ve been thinkin’ about this

That Jesus Christ was

Betrayed by a kiss

But I can’t think for you

You’ll have to decide

Whether Judas Iscariot

Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leavin’

I’m weary as Hell

The confusion I’m feelin’

Ain’t no tongue can tell

The words fill my head

And fall to the floor

That if God’s on our side

He’ll stop the next war

That’s Bob Dylan. Friends, let us recognize today, that Christ has called us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And not just the neighbors who think like us or look like us. And to label someone as our enemy does not absolve of from love. Because Christ has also called us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Next week, we will see Jonah’s anger at the fact that God has grace on Nineveh. Those great enemies of Israel. And, yet, let us never forget that while we were enemies of God, Christ died for us. That has nothing to do with political power. It has everything to do with the paradigm shift of true gospel-centered faith. Jesus’ example is that of one who gave up power in great humility and sacrificed so that the world might be saved. He tells us to go and do likewise. 

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