The story of Jonah is a masterpiece of brevity. Its few verses reward the reader with vivid human drama and suspense; with passionate prayer; with faith and defiance. But above even these things it favours us with an intriguing insight into the mind of a man who is at once an erudite scholar, a lover of Israel and who is so engaged with his God, so intimately involved with Him, that he dares to defy Him, to display anger with His judgments, even to remonstrate petulantly with Him. And all this is inter-woven with a wonderful foretelling in sign of events to come, and against a backdrop of a turbulent and volatile international scene.

Israel Under Jeroboam II

The Kings record of the reign of the second Jeroboam is contained in a few short verses in 2 Kings 14:23–29. It includes in verse 24 that bleak refrain of the kings of Israel: “And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD: he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin”. Despite this summation, his was a long reign, marked by significant prosperity and strong national expansion.

This success was a Divine blessing; the extension of mercy and opportunity to the king and the people “according to the word of Yahweh Elohim of Israel”. Significantly it was the prophet Jonah who bore to the king the Divine message that He, Yahweh would be the helper of Israel and would save them “by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash”. The words of 2 Kings 13:23 set out the principles applied in this wonderful extension of Divine mercy to a sinful king and an unresponsive nation: “And Yahweh was gracious unto them, and had compassion on them, and had respect unto them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither cast he them from his presence as yet”.

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the prosperity and strength of Israel in the days of Jeroboam. Jereboam’s splendid limestone palace has been identified, as have the massive fortifications of Samaria including the double wall that later took the Assyrians three years to breach (2 Kings 17:5).

The prophecy of Amos further illuminates the wealth and luxury of Israel at this time. He speaks of those “that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches…That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of musick, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph” (Amos 6:4–6). The blatant lack of faithful response to the mercy of God would lead to the end of the house of Jeroboam, and exile for Israel (Amos 7:7,8,17).

So Jonah had two Divine commissions. He was sent to Samaria with a message of mercy and prosperity for Israel. Yahweh’s overshadowing providence granted those blessings but there was no corresponding response of repentance and worship by the king or the people. And he was sent with a message of judgment to Nineveh, and met with an astonishing response led by the king himself.

Assyria

The origins of Assyria go right back to Nimrod that “mighty one in the earth”, the first man in Scripture described as having a kingdom: “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel” (Gen 10:10). Hence as Brother Thomas observes: “The Kingdom of Men was founded by Nimrod…” From the land of Shinar, Nimrod proceeded north to the region of Assyria “and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen…” (Gen 10:11,12). Thus is recorded the evil beginnings of what was to become the mighty Assyro-Babylonian empire, itself the prototype of the latter-day Assyrian.

It was Tiglath-Pileser I who ruled from 1114– 1076 BC who established the Assyrian empire. His death saw the kingdom diminished until the emergence of Ashurnasipal II in 883 BC who extended Assyrian power as far as the Mediterannean. His son Shalmaneser III (859–824 BC) carried out repeated campaigns against Syria and Israel, making Jehu his vassal. The famed Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser found by Layard in 1846 depicts Jehu kneeling before the Assyrian ruler while the inscription reads: “Tribute of Jehu, son of Omri. Silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden beaker, golden goblets, pitchers of gold, lead, staves for the hand of the king, javelins, I received from him”.

A succession of weak kings, Shalmaneser IV (783–773 BC), Ashurdan III (772–755 BC) and Assur-nirari V (754–745 BC) followed. During this time the nations of the Urartu to the north and the Hittites from the north west were pressing upon the borders of the Assyrian empire. Civil unrest, famine, and, for a superstitious people, the portentous omen of a total solar eclipse in the tenth year of Assurdan III added to the issues facing the Assyrian empire in this period. Jeroboam II was able to take advantage of this short-lived weakness in the Assyrian empire to consolidate the position of Israel.

One historian summarises this period thus: “The reign of Ashur-dan III (772–755 B.C.), was marked by unsuccessful campaigns in central Syria and Babylonia, an epidemic of plague and revolts in Assur, Arrpha (Kirkuk) and Guzanna (Tell Halaf)—not to mention an ominous eclipse of the sun. As for Ashur-nirrari (754–745 B.C.), he hardly dared leave his palace and was probably killed in a revolution which broke out in Kalhu and put upon the throne his younger brother, Tiglathpileser III. Thus for thirty six years (781–745 BC). Assyria was practically paralysed” (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq).

It may well be that in part at least the weakness of the Assyrian empire during this period came about due to a change of focus in this cruel and aggressive empire as a result of the repentance and change of ways following the successful preaching of Jonah most likely at the time of Ashurdan III.

“The Sign of the Prophet Jonas”

It was the Lord Jesus Christ who pointed out to “certain of the scribes and Pharisees” the “sign of the prophet Jonas” (Matt 12:38–41), and then repeated the allusion (Matt 16:4 and Lk 11:29–32). The record of Jonah, the storm, the great fish, his deliverance and remarkable preaching success with the Ninevites was vivid and memorable. But Christ’s generation had in their midst the very Son of God, working miracle after miracle, finally raised up, not from the belly of a fish but from death itself—and still they would not believe!

Consider some of the remarkable elements of this sign:

  • The word of Yahweh came to Jonah (the dove) son of Amittai (truth) (Jonah 1:1)
  • Jonah hailed from Gath-Hepher in Galilee
  • Jonah was ready to be accursed on behalf of Israel by refusing the Divine commandment (Jonah 4:2)
  • Jonah was prepared to sacrifice his life to save the Gentile sailors, who turned from their gods to worship Yahweh (Jonah 1:11–16)
  • The sailors declared their innocence of the blood of Jonah (Jonah 1:14)
  • Jonah was cast into the sea and “compassed about” by the water (Jonah 1:15; 2:3-6)
  • Jonah was in “the belly of sheol” (Jonah 2:2)
  • Having “died “ symbolically, God “brought up my life from corruption”, said Jonah (2:7)
  • Jonah was “three days and three nights in the whale’s belly” (Jonah 1:17)
  • The fish (Divinely directed) “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10)—a symbolic Resurrection
  • Jonah took the gospel to the Gentile Ninevites who responded remarkably to his preaching (Jonah 3)
  • Jonah’s message included a forty day period of probation (Jonah 3:4)
  • Jonah defied his God, underwent a self-imposed exile from his land, was Divinely preserved to become the medium of salvation to Gentiles
  • The spirit of God (Spirit of truth, John 16:13), descended on Jesus like a dove at his baptism. (Matt 3:16)
  • Jesus grew up in the Galilean village of Nazareth, just over the hill from Gath-Hepher
    Jesus Christ was made a curse for us in obeying the Divine commandment (Gal 3:13)
  • Jesus gave his life to give opportunity of salvation to all flesh, including Gentiles (1Pet 2:21–24, Isa 49:6)
  • Pilate washed his hands and declared himself “innocent of the blood of this just person” (Matt 27:24)
  • Jesus was overwhelmed by “deep mire…deep waters…floods overflow me” as his enemies beset him on every side and finally accomplished his death (Psa 69:1–4,14,15)
  • Jesus was in the grave (Acts 2:31)
  • Jesus literally died, yet his flesh did not “see corruption” (Acts 2:31)
  • Jesus was “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40)
  • “But God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:30) “Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Rom 6:4)—a literal resurrection
  • The apostles in Jesus’ name took the gospel to the Gentiles after his ascension, and there was a remarkable response (Acts 13:46–48; 19:17–20)
  • Jesus’ death and resurrection as a sign to his generation was followed by a forty year period of probation for
  • Israel, ending in the destruction of AD 70
  • Israel rejected their Messiah, were exiled from their land, have been Divinely preserved, and have been and yet will be the medium of salvation to Gentiles who will bless Israel and Israel’s God (Rom 11:11–15; Zech 8:13, 20–23)

Perhaps the greatest legacy of this reluctant prophet, which doubtless he will appreciate at the end, will be the resurrection from amongst the ancient ruins of Nineveh of multitudes of Ninevites. Many of them will stand victorious at the judgment, their repentance and faithful lives far from the Temple and its ordinances, providing a sad witness against the faithless of Jesus’ generation, and indeed of every generation who turned their back on the Son of God (Luke 11:32).

We, in our generation, are witness to the stirrings of a new Assyro-Babylonish Empire. And this against a background of an Israel so like the Northern Kingdom under Jeroboam II, wealthy, confident, building its monuments and fortresses, “in unbelief of the Messiahship of Jesus”. Not a time for the servants of God to be sleeping.