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Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – The natural erosion of promise

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


This is the Old Testament selection for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B. It will next be read aloud in church on Sunday, January 21, 2018. It is important as it presents the purpose of a prophet being to save people, which can only be done by telling them the evil they are doing, eliciting repentance and changing ways that avert the end foretold.

It should be understood that this selection from Jonah, as a reading on the third Sunday after the Epiphany, is linked to the reading from Mark (1:14-20), which told of Jesus calling Andrew and Simon, and James the son of Zebedee and his brother John, to follow him. That connection makes it possible to see a call made by a prophet and the devoted dropping everything to follow that call.

Just as verse 10 from the third chapter of the Book of Jonah is sliced off and tied to the first five verses, which neatly says, “And they all lived happily ever after” (sarcastic paraphrase), it is also noteworthy to read what Jesus said about Jonah, according to Matthew (or Luke).  All is well and good when one responds to holy calls of repentance.  All only stays well and good when one keeps honoring that call.

In the Biblical versions available, which divide the chapters into groups of verses and then place neat summation titles above them, Matthew 12:38-42 (as well as Luke 11:29-32) is headed: “The Sign of Jonah” or “The Desire for signs.” This is because the Pharisees and scribes who followed Jesus, confronting him, told Jesus they desired an “attesting miracle” (“sēmeion” means “sign, mark, token, or miracle”) from him, to prove he was not an agent of “Beelzebul the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24). They drew that conclusion from having watched Jesus cast out demons from a blind mute, who had been brought to him for healing.

In response to that miracle on demand, Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet”

(Matthew 12:39) Jesus then added, “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41) That message from Jesus requires one understand this reading from Jonah.

When we hear the announcement, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you,” you have to realize that the first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah, he was told to do the same thing: “Go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2).

The problem then was that Jonah did not want to go into a Gentile land and tell them what an Israelite’s God said. So, he fled on a boat that was headed away from Nineveh.  That boat was about to be sunk by bad weather caused by God, who knew Jonah was fleeing his responsibility as a prophet.

The sailors eventually threw Jonah overboard, where he was swallowed by a whale.  Three days in that whale’s belly changed Jonah.

Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” That prophecy flew over the heads of the Pharisees and scribes, because Jesus had basically just told them, “You want a miracle? Here will be a big one to look for” (sarcastic paraphrase). Still, the Israelites and Jews, much less the Pharisees and scribes, had no clue about the meaning of “three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster,” so they could not have foreseen the meaning of “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

In the Jonah reading, one learns, “Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.” There is that number “three” again. Three is associated with the Trinity, such that there is a divine nature symbolized by the number three; but I see this divinity on the worldly plane, representative of one’s initial completion of the tests that prove the presence of the Holy Spirit, which connects God with man.  Heaven joins with earth to complete this triangle.

Because God had sent Jonah to warn Nineveh that it would be overthrown, that dire prediction was due to a state of three in Assyria (symbolized by Nineveh being “a three days walk across). Thus, as the capital of Assyria, the initial completion for them was to have entered into a divine state that connected them to an evil spirit.  The warning sent by God was that Nineveh had been filled with an evil spirit, one that would cause its destruction.

For Jonah to enter Nineveh and walk one-third of the length into it, he had repeated an entrance into a danger zone, just as when he had been swallowed by the “sea monster.” That being the “second time,” where “two” symbolizes an attraction between two singles (two ones) so they come together so two is as one, Jonah had no fear of being God’s messenger. Jonah entered Nineveh as a “three,” one who was married to God, as the bearer of the Holy Spirit for others to meet. The symbolism of the number “one” (“going a day’s walk) says Jonah then represented a “new state” or “new opportunity” that was being offered to the Assyrians, which was from the Israelite God, a new God for them to listen to.

The happy ending of verse ten was not to be permanent. When Jonah announced, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the prospect of forty days becomes significant. Moses was on top of Mount Sinai for forty days. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Jesus was tested in the wilderness, fasting for forty days.

The number 40 breaks down numerologically into 4 times 10. Thus, it is a higher octave (spiritual elevation) of a base four. This means forty days (or years) represents one’s return to basics (the foundation or base of 4), with an assistance from above. Therefore, just as Jesus was attended by angels, the people of Nineveh spent forty days cleansing themselves to the God of Israel by repentance and a successful testing of their sincerity for changing their ways. They put on the sackcloths of mourning, as repentance for their evil ways.  None of that could have happened without belief in a prophecy and a commitment to please the God who blessed them with warning.

Alas, they eventually reverted back to their evil ways, causing God to send another prophet to tell them the same fate was coming, only to have them fail to believe and fail to change.  So, they were eventually destroyed, meaning the prophecy of Jonah never stopped being in their future. They averted that end by changing their ways, away from evil.  The moral of that story is why Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes:

“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

That was the fate of Assyria as a world power. Its collapse and the razing of Nineveh was the end of its height of power. In the accompanying reading from Mark, Jesus called upon disciples who responded to that call, just as the people of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s call. Jesus went out into Galilee proclaiming “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  However, Jesus was rejected, just as the people of Nineveh rejected the second prophet of Israel.

Judas Iscariot responded to the call of Jesus, as did Andrew, Simon, James and John (first two sons of Jonah and last two sons of Zebedee). Judas reverted to evil, as did the Assyrians.  The same rejection of God’s messenger was what the Jews who were in power in Jerusalem, during the times of the Second Temple, did to Jesus and his Apostles. Rather than that Temple taking its attraction to God (a two) to the initial completion as a Trinity (a three), as one with God (a thirty-three), it would eventually be destroyed by the Romans because of the same failures seen by God in the people of Nineveh.

It is important to see Jonah in the light of an Apostle being sent into a land of Gentiles, to spread the Gospel of God just as Paul and his companions went into the Roman conquests of a fallen Greek empire. This concept continued over centuries, to the fallen Roman Empire and into their European holdings, where pagans had fought against Rome. America today can be seen as a modern Assyria, with Washington D.C. as its Nineveh, at the height of its power.  When prophets warn of evil ways needing to be changed, and then there is no repentance, what can one expect to happen, based on the past?  America pretends to thank the One God for not letting it be destroyed, while building altars to worldly deities.

Perhaps, when the second prophet came to warn the Assyrians, and they did not change their evil ways, it was because they said to that prophet, “We already bowed to that God, back when Jonah came.” Does that sound like someone using the excuse, “I don’t need to change my ways, because I have been baptized with water and I believe in Jesus Christ”?

The same fate always awaits anyone (no matter how big in rank or size) who thinks they are too big to fail. Failing comes when evil ways are called righteous.

The one unforgivable sin, according to what Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, is this:

“Blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:31) He added, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32)

One speaks against the Holy Spirit by saying, “I have been baptized (by water), so I have the Holy Spirit.” We discussed that lesson when Paul asked the Corinthians, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” They admitted they had never heard of the Holy Spirit.

It is the Holy Spirit that sends a prophet into places like Nineveh.  The presence of the Holy Spirit does not send one running in the opposite direction that God wills.  The presence of the Holy Spirit does not create excuses for why someone cannot do as God asks.  It does not lie and say, “God told me to do nothing.”

If you do not know what the Holy Spirit is, then admit it and get to work getting it.  Or spend three days in the belly of a whale [death symbol], so you can be spit back out into the world [reincarnation], given a second chance to get that Holy Spirit within.  Life and death are the common two that are always joined to one soul that never gets the Holy Spirit.

As a personal Epiphany lesson in 2018, it is easy to read this Jonah selection as one hearing the call of Jesus to follow him, as Jonah (eventually) followed the call of God. The Big Brain of hindsight tells us, “We learn from the lessons the ancients went through, so there is nothing more to do than believe it all happened and enjoy the wealth of that faith since.”  The Big Brain hinders receipt of the Holy Spirit.  The Big Brain convinces the body to go along with its ideas, not those from God.

The problem is not seeing the demand from God, for Him to see what you have done towards sincere repentance and changed ways. All adult Christians are first evil human beings (sinners), whose ways have to change for God to “change his mind about the calamity that he had said (through Jesus that) would be brought down upon the wicked.”

All is well and good, to dance and skip along saying, “I am Christian. I am saved by Jesus.” All is well and good if that is the truth and not a lie.  All is well and good as one evangelizes that truth so others can find God in the same ways.

The truth of one’s ways is fully known by the mind of God. It is one thing to follow what a preacher, pastor, priest or minister says, as peons or minions, doing nothing more than walk in the shadow of Jesus the Son of the Almighty (i.e.: showing up for church on Sunday). It takes disciples that act in righteous ways, so one becomes an Apostle; just as it takes prophets who do not flee their service to God, those who go to the Gentiles with a message.

Still, a prophet cannot make God change the outcome of the future.  The sailors pleaded with Jonah to make his God calm the storm; but Jonah could do nothing.  That was why they threw him overboard.  It took “the people of Nineveh believing in God” for “God to change his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them.”  Collectively, as one, and individually, the responsibility lies within, not without.

Apostles are those who walk fearlessly into the depth of evil and speak for God. That proves one’s sincerity. Without that test proving one’s metal, one is little more than the evil God warns others not to be led by.

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