What, you don’t remember seeing the book of Nineveh listed in your Bible’s table of contents?
After some energizing discussion in adult Bible study class on August 30* about the prophet Jonah’s experiences related to the city of Nineveh, I found my attention drawn to the very last verse of Jonah and I decided that one might debate whether the main character in this Old Testament book is the title character. The extent of Nineveh’s need and the city’s targeting by God for a well-timed warning might overshadow what Jonah saw and felt and learned, if reporters had interviewed some of the 120,000+ who were spared rather than punished.
As is frequently the case with Bible stories, this one has several angles of equal importance. God directed His servant Jonah to the city of Nineveh as much to teach Jonah something as to bring a word of warning to Nineveh’s inhabitants that would result in their repenting of their sins and avoiding imminent destruction.
In a sense, God “set Jonah up” to learn a whopping big lesson that goes something like this: God is full of mercy and compassion, slow to anger, and rich in love – not just to His family, but to everyone, including a city of great size and of even greater evil. (And here we’ve been thinking the whopping big part of Jonah’s story was the fish!)
The last verse of this short Old Testament book describes Nineveh as a city of 120,000-plus inhabitants who were so blind and misguided they didn’t know their right from their left. We might say that spiritually they didn’t know whether they were coming or going; they didn’t know which end was up; they were completely “out of it.” Clueless. We are not told that many or any of those folks were seeking the one true God or any kind of spiritual guidance at the time. But we can easily imagine that, because they were living without God’s laws, there was an awful lot of bad and sad stuff going on. (Sound like another time and place we know of?) Our compassionate God saw the dire situation of the Ninevites. To quote a song, He “looked beyond their fault and saw their need.”
If we ever need proof that God pursues those who don’t even have Him on their minds, we can add to the body of evidence the story of His reaching out to Nineveh. Jesus said, “Seek and you shall find.” He didn’t say this that we know of, but apparently it’s true: “Some will find even when they haven’t been seeking.” Indeed, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10
You creative writers out there ought to sit down sometime and fashion an account of these events from the viewpoint of an inhabitant of Nineveh. Jonah 3:3-10 would be the basis – and would be the sum total unless Jonah happened into the East Nineveh Starbucks and divulged to the locals all about the ship and the storm and the fish and (later) the vine. The short, short version of “the book of Nineveh” might read like this: “A prophet came into town and made us aware that our ways were so evil we were in for immediate destruction by the God whose laws we were violating. In fear and desperation, we all – from the king on down – repented and fasted and prayed for God’s mercy. And we were spared! How grateful we are to have had our eyes opened to the truth! Indeed, God’s way is right and is best for us.”
Jonah 4:11, “Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” HCSB
On a humorous note: When I glanced at Jonah 4:11 in the Holman Christian Standard Bible, I thought it was saying that the Ninevites couldn’t tell their right from their left as well as many types of animals could do that. “Now, my little goslings, remember we will be turning LEFT up here after we waddle past the pond you are seeing on your RIGHT.” Then I read in other versions, “and [which has] much livestock” (or “many cattle”). God was saying, “Does it really surprise you that I care about Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people and which also has many animals? It would make me very sad to destroy them, whom I created.” I guess that little comma after the word “left” makes the difference. Never underestimate the importance of punctuation – especially in the Bible!
*Lifeway’s MasterWork periodical series, Summer 2015, seventh and final session based on Compelled: Living the Mission of God by Ed Stetzer and Philip Nation.