Jeroboam II recovered the territories of Israel between Lebo-hamath and the Dead Sea, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher. [2 Kings 14:25 (NLT)]
Since Nineveh was famous as the religious center for the worship of Ishtar (Astarte), the goddess of fertility, we might wonder why this pagan city repented after hearing Jonah’s prophecy? Jonah was an Israelite not an Assyrian—he believed in Jehovah and the people of Nineveh were pagans. Some speculate that the Ninevites had learned of Jonah’s miraculous delivery from the fish but Nineveh was about 500 miles from the sea and, since the fish delivered Jonah onto the beach, that seems highly unlikely! Was Jonah such an eloquent speaker that the heathen people of Nineveh would respond to him when, more often than not, the people of Judah and Israel ignored the words of warning they heard from the prophets who were their own countrymen? What caused the king and 120,000 of his subjects to make such an immediate turnaround?
Perhaps a little history lesson explains Nineveh’s response. We know from 2 Kings 14 that Jonah prophesized during the reign of Jeroboam II (793 – 753 BC). While Jeroboam II did “evil in the Lord’s sight,” he was the most notable and longest reigning king of the northern kingdom. For Israel, this was a time of prosperity, power, and military success. Scripture tells us that it was Jonah who prophesized the king’s victory in battles that restored the borders of the northern kingdom to what they were during Solomon’s time. With Jonah’s proven track record of fulfilled prophecies, perhaps his reputation preceded him.
Moreover, in the realm of international politics, while Israel was on the upswing, Assyria was in decline. Having fragmented into various governor-ruled states, there had been a series of rebellions and attempts to usurp the crown. Preoccupied with internal security, the nation also was threatened by the kingdom of Uratu to the north and powerful Israel to the south. When Jonah proclaimed the city’s destruction, he wasn’t talking about an earthquake. The word he used was haphak which meant overthrown or conquered. Considering the political climate at the time, being conquered seemed a likely possibility to Nineveh and its king. Known for their excessive brutality, few armies were as hated as the Assyrians. Perhaps, when facing the possibility of being conquered, the Ninevites repented in the hope they’d escape such merciless treatment at the hands of their conquerors. Putting the story of Jonah’s prophecy into historical context helps us understand Nineveh’s response to the reluctant prophet and why they believed God’s message. Upon learning that their city would be overthrown within forty days, they proclaimed a fast, donned sackcloth as a symbol of their contriteness and remorse, and repented of their wicked ways. In the story of Jonah, we see God’s mercy extended to Gentiles and a concealed prophecy that was fulfilled by Jesus.
Without even seeing the miracle of Jonah’s “resurrection” from the fish, 120,000 Ninevites were saved but, when someone “greater than Jonah” resurrected, His own countrymen refused to listen and believe—even after seeing the empty tomb! Comparing Jesus to Jonah, however, is a bit like comparing the sun to a match or the entire universe to a tiny pebble. We’ve been warned, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” [Matthew 4:17] What is our response?