Imitate Their Faith
He Learned a Lesson in Mercy
JONAH would have plenty of time to think. Before him lay a journey of more than 500 miles [800 km], an overland trek that would take him about a month, perhaps even longer. To begin, he had to choose between the shorter routes and the safer ones and then steadily make his way through valleys and over mountain passes beyond counting. He had to skirt the vast Syrian Desert, ford such rivers as the mighty Euphrates, and seek shelter among foreigners in the towns and villages of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. As the days passed, he thought about the destination that he so dreaded, the city that drew closer with each step he took—Nineveh.
One thing Jonah knew for certain: He could not turn around and run away from this assignment. He had tried that before. When Jehovah first commissioned him to go and deliver a message of judgment to this mighty Assyrian stronghold, Jonah promptly boarded a ship sailing in the opposite direction. Jehovah then sent a great tempest, and Jonah soon saw that his rebellion was about to cost the lives of everyone on board. To save those brave mariners, he told them to throw him overboard. Reluctantly, they did, and Jonah thought his death was certain. However, Jehovah sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah and deliver him unharmed on the shore some three days later, an awed and more compliant man.a—Jonah, chapters 1, 2.
When Jehovah ordered Jonah to Nineveh the second time, the prophet obediently headed east on this long journey. (Jonah 3:1-3) However, had he allowed Jehovah’s discipline to work a thorough change in him? For instance, Jehovah had shown him mercy, saving him from drowning, holding back punishment for his rebellion, and giving him a second chance to carry out this assignment. After all of this, had Jonah learned to show mercy to others? Mercy is a lesson that is often difficult for imperfect humans to learn. Let us see what we can gather from Jonah’s struggle.
A Message of Judgment and a Surprising Response
Jonah did not see Nineveh as Jehovah did. We read: “Now Nineveh herself proved to be a city great to God.” (Jonah 3:3) Three times, the record of Jonah quotes Jehovah as referring to “Nineveh the great city.” (Jonah 1:2; 3:2; 4:11) Why was this city great, or important, to Jehovah?
Nineveh was ancient, being among the first cities that Nimrod established after the Flood. It was vast, a metropolitan region that evidently included several other cities, requiring a man three days to walk from one end to the other. (Genesis 10:11; Jonah 3:3) Nineveh was evidently impressive, with stately temples, mighty walls, and other edifices. But none of these factors made the city important to Jehovah God. What mattered to him were the people. Nineveh had a huge population for that time. For all their badness, Jehovah cared about them. He values human life and the potential that each individual has for repenting and learning to do what is right.
When Jonah finally entered Nineveh, its immense population of more than 120,000 may have made the place only more intimidating.b He walked for a day, penetrating ever deeper into that teeming metropolis, perhaps looking for a suitable central location to start spreading his message. How would he reach these people? Had he learned to speak the Assyrian tongue? Or did Jehovah grant him that ability through a miracle? We do not know. It may be that Jonah made his proclamation in his native Hebrew and used an interpreter to relate it to the Ninevites. At any rate, his message was simple and not likely to win him any favor: “Only forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) He spoke out boldly and repeatedly. In doing so, he showed remarkable courage and faith, qualities that Christians need today more than ever.
Jonah got the Ninevites’ attention. No doubt he braced himself for a hostile and violent response. Instead, something remarkable happened. People listened! His words spread like wildfire. Before long, the whole city was talking about Jonah’s prophecy of doom. Jonah’s account tells us: “The men of Nineveh began to put faith in God, and they proceeded to proclaim a fast and to put on sackcloth, from the greatest one of them even to the least one of them.” (Jonah 3:5) Rich and poor, strong and weak, young and old were all caught up in the same repentant spirit. News of this popular movement soon reached the ears of the king.
The king too was struck with godly fear. He rose up from his throne, removed his luxurious robes of state, put on the same rough clothing that his people were wearing, and even “sat down in the ashes.” With his “great ones,” or nobles, he issued a decree turning the fast from a spontaneous popular movement into an official action of state. He ordered that all wear sackcloth, even the domestic animals.c He humbly acknowledged that his people were guilty of badness and violence. He also expressed hope that the true God would soften upon seeing their repentance, saying: “God may . . . turn back from his burning anger, so that we may not perish.”—Jonah 3:6-9.
Some critics express doubts that such a change of heart could have occurred so quickly among the Ninevites. However, Bible scholars have noted that a movement of that kind was not out of keeping with the superstitious and volatile nature of people of such cultures in ancient times. At any rate, Jesus Christ himself later referred to the repentance of the Ninevites. (Matthew 12:41) He knew what he was talking about, for he had been alive in heaven to witness those events as they unfolded. (John 8:57, 58) How, though, did Jehovah react to the Ninevites’ repentance?
A Contrast Between Divine Mercy and Human Rigidity
Jonah later wrote: “The true God got to see their works, that they had turned back from their bad way; and so the true God felt regret over the calamity that he had spoken of causing to them; and he did not cause it.”—Jonah 3:10.
Does this mean that Jehovah decided that his own judgment about Nineveh had been in error? No. The Bible says of Jehovah: “Perfect is his activity, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice.” (Deuteronomy 32:4) Jehovah’s righteous anger against Nineveh simply abated. He observed the change in those people and saw that the punishment he had intended to bring upon them would no longer be fitting. This was an occasion to show divine mercy.
Jehovah is nothing like the rigid, cold, even harsh God so often portrayed by religious leaders. On the contrary, he is reasonable, adaptable, and merciful. When he determines to bring punishment upon the wicked, he first uses his representatives on earth to issue warnings, for he is eager to see the wicked do what the Ninevites did—repent and change their ways. (Ezekiel 33:11) Jehovah told his prophet Jeremiah: “At any moment that I may speak against a nation and against a kingdom to uproot it and to pull it down and to destroy it, and that nation actually turns back from its badness against which I spoke, I will also feel regret over the calamity that I had thought to execute upon it.”—Jeremiah 18:7, 8.
So was Jonah’s prophecy a false one? No; it fulfilled its purpose as a warning. That warning was based on the Ninevites’ bad ways, which subsequently changed. Should the Ninevites resume their wicked ways, God’s judgment would be upon them. That is exactly what happened later on.—Zephaniah 2:13-15.
How did Jonah react when destruction did not come at the time he expected it to? We read: “To Jonah, though, it was highly displeasing, and he got to be hot with anger.” (Jonah 4:1) Jonah even uttered a prayer that sounds like a rebuke of the Almighty! Jonah suggested that he should have stayed home, on his own ground. He claimed that he knew all along that Jehovah would not bring calamity on Nineveh, even using that as an excuse for his running away to Tarshish in the first place. Then he asked to die, saying that death would be better than life.—Jonah 4:2, 3.
What was troubling Jonah? We cannot know all that went through his mind, but we do know that Jonah had proclaimed doom to Nineveh before all those people. They had believed him. And now, no doom was coming. Did he fear being ridiculed or being labeled a false prophet? Whatever the case, he did not rejoice over the people’s repentance or over Jehovah’s mercy. Instead, it seems, he was on a downward spiral into a mire of bitterness, self-pity, and wounded pride. Evidently, though, Jonah’s merciful God still saw good in this distressed man. Instead of punishing Jonah for his disrespect, Jehovah simply asked him one gentle, probing question: “Have you rightly become hot with anger?” (Jonah 4:4) Did Jonah even answer? The Bible record is silent.
How Jehovah Taught Jonah a Lesson
The despondent prophet left Nineveh and headed, not home, but eastward, where some mountains overlooked the region. He built a little shelter and settled in to wait and watch Nineveh. Perhaps he still clung to the hope of witnessing her destruction. How would Jehovah teach this hardheaded man to be merciful?
Overnight, Jehovah caused a bottle-gourd plant to sprout up. Jonah woke to see this luxuriant growth, with its broad leaves providing far more shade than his flimsy shelter ever could. His spirits lifted. “Jonah began to rejoice greatly” over the plant, perhaps viewing its miraculous appearance as a sign of God’s blessing and approval. However, Jehovah wanted to do more for Jonah than simply deliver him from the heat and from his own petulant anger. He wanted to reach Jonah’s heart. So God used a worm to attack and kill the plant. Then he sent “a parching east wind” until Jonah began “swooning away” from the heat. Again the man’s spirits plummeted, and he asked God that he might die.—Jonah 4:6-8.
Once again Jehovah asked Jonah if he was rightly angry, this time over the death of the bottle-gourd plant. Instead of repenting, Jonah justified himself, saying: “I have rightly become hot with anger, to the point of death.” The stage was now set for Jehovah to drive home the lesson.—Jonah 4:9.
God reasoned with Jonah, saying that the prophet was feeling sorry over the death of a mere plant that had grown up overnight, one that Jonah neither planted nor caused to grow. Then God concluded: “For my part, ought I not to feel sorry for Nineveh the great city, in which there exist more than one hundred and twenty thousand men who do not at all know the difference between their right hand and their left, besides many domestic animals?”—Jonah 4:10, 11.d
Do you see the depth of Jehovah’s object lesson? Jonah had never done a thing to take care of that plant. Jehovah, on the other hand, was the Source of life for those Ninevites and had sustained them as he does all creatures on earth. How could Jonah place more value on a single plant than he did on the lives of 120,000 humans, in addition to all their livestock? Was it not because Jonah had allowed his thinking to become selfish? After all, he felt sorry for the plant only because it had benefited him personally. Did not his anger over Nineveh spring from motives that were likewise selfish—a prideful desire to save face, to be proved right?
A profound lesson indeed! The question is, Did Jonah take the lesson to heart? The book bearing his name ends with Jehovah’s question hanging there, in effect, still echoing. Some critics might complain that Jonah never answers. In truth, though, his answer is there. It is the book itself. You see, evidence indicates that Jonah wrote the book bearing his name. Just imagine that prophet, once again safe in his homeland, writing this account. We can almost picture an older, wiser, humbler man ruefully shaking his head as he describes his own mistakes, his rebellion, and his stubborn refusal to show mercy. Clearly, Jonah did learn from Jehovah’s wise instruction. He learned to be merciful. Will we?
a See the article “Imitate Their Faith—He Learned From His Mistakes,” in the January 1, 2009, issue of The Watchtower.
b It has been estimated that Samaria, the capital of Israel, may have had some 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants in Jonah’s day—less than a fourth of Nineveh’s population. In its heyday, Nineveh may have been the largest city in the world.
c This detail may seem odd, but it is not without precedent in ancient times. Greek historian Herodotus noted that the ancient Persians grieved over the death of a popular general by including their livestock in the customs of mourning.
d God’s saying that those people did not know right from left suggested their childlike ignorance of divine standards.
[Blurb on page 16]
God is eager to see the wicked repent and change their ways, as the Ninevites did
[Blurb on page 17]
God used the bottle-gourd plant to teach Jonah a lesson in mercy