The Prodigals of Nineveh
(Photo by Marcos Paixão on Unsplash)
On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds,
"Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!"
Jonah 3:4 (NLT)
Remember Jonah? He is the prophet who was told to go to Nineveh with a message of judgment because of the wickedness of the people there. But Jonah refused to go. In fact, he ran in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. In a series of events, Jonah ended up in the belly of a great fish where he had time to re-think the wisdom of running away. Jonah 2:7 says, "As my life was slipping away, I remembered the Lord. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple." Jonah repented and promised to do as the Lord had told him to do. It took until the third day, but God had mercy on Jonah and caused the fish to spit him out on the land.
JONAH GOES TO NINEVEH
When the Lord came to Jonah a second time and told him to go to Nineveh with the message He had given him, Jonah obeyed. Nineveh was a large city that took three days to see all of it. When Jonah entered the city, he began shouting God's message to the people, "Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed." He gave no reason and no way out. But the people knew the message was from God, and immediately declared a fast from the greatest to the least. They put on burlap to show their sorrow. When the king heard Jonah's message, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. He sent out a decree: no one, including the animals, was to eat or drink. People and animals alike were to put on garments of mourning and pray earnestly to God. Everyone was to turn from their evil ways and stop all the violence. Who knows? Maybe God would change His mind and not destroy them. And that's precisely what happened! When God saw what they were doing and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, He relented. He had mercy on them and did not destroy them.
Jonah was angry! He knew if he brought the message of judgment to the people, they would repent. He knew God would change His mind and be merciful. Because that is the way God works! He is always ready to give mercy when he sees repentance. But it wasn't fair! Jonah wanted Nineveh to receive justice. He said to God, "Didn't I say before I left home that you would do this? 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 (Jonah 4:2-3 NLT).
AN OBJECT LESSON FOR JONAH
Of course, God doesn't kill Jonah; instead, He poses a question: Is it right for you to be angry about this? Jonah didn't answer but went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under while he waited to see what would happen to the town. God arranged for a leafy plant to grow and shade Jonah, for which he was grateful. Then God arranged for a worm. The next morning, the worm ate through the stem of the plant, and it withered and died. The sun grew hot, and God sent a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. He became so hot and faint that he wished to die...again! God comes to Jonah once more and asks him if it is right for him to be angry that the plant died? Jonah says, "Yes, angry enough to die!" God replies, "Why? You did nothing to put the plant there. It came and went quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people in its city, all living in spiritual darkness. You cared about the plant dying, so shouldn't I care about such a great city and all the people living there?
God is saying to Jonah that if he was justified in being so upset about the loss of a plant for which he had nothing to do with its existence, wasn't God justified in showing love and concern and mercy for the people in Nineveh whom He created?
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE PRODIGALS OF NINEVEH
We may run into a similar situation today when a person commits one or more heinous crimes. We later learn that they have accepted Christ and their life has changed. We aren't sure we like the idea that God would have mercy on such a terrible criminal. We balk at the idea that they will be in heaven. We want justice. But if God gave everyone what they deserved according to His standard, none of us would go to heaven. God loves all He has made, and He cares about everyone. He graciously sent a warning to the people of Nineveh so they would have a chance to repent, and God sent His Son, Jesus, so that anyone who believes will be saved.
The Ninevites were given the same opportunity as prodigals are offered today. The people knew what God required and had walked away to live as they wanted. But when given a warning of impending doom, the people of Nineveh turned from their wicked ways and followed God. They fasted and prayed in hopes that God would change His mind. God wants all to come to repentance; He wants all to be saved; He wants all to know Him. God feels the same way about our prodigals today as He did about the people of Nineveh in Jonah's day. Continue to pray that your prodigal will respond in the same way the prodigals of Nineveh did when they heard a message from God. They believed Him!
Does it seem unlikely that the Ninevites would respond the way they did? It does to me, and that gives me hope. We never know when a turn around will happen. It can take place in an instant.