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The City God Loved
Photo: Fokko Veenstra
The story of Jonah is one of the greatest stories in the entire Bible. This one is probably more well-known than most because of the seemingly impossible premise. You know, Jonah is swallowed by a fish and regurgitated a whole three days later. I’ll leave you to wrestle with the difficulties of that. What is more compelling to me is the reason for the telling of the story.

This is a story about God’s love for the city. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire – the most powerful empire in the world at that time. God looks down upon them and sees their wickedness and has compassion upon them. This is the heart of God for this world class city – "the" city of it’s day. God calls it “that "great" city.” Jonah, on the other hand, represents God’s “good” people. He is a prophet and up until this point in his career he has only been asked to give messages to God’s chosen people, the Hebrews. The idea of giving a message of warning to pagans is more than Jonah can imagine. The very idea of entering that huge, pagan city is enough to send him sailing to the far reaches of the then-known world.

The Reluctant Preacher

After chasing Jonah around the Middle East, God finally prevails upon him to deliver the message. Jonah agrees. Barely. Here’s the full text of his sermon, as recorded in scripture: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). Remarkably, the Ninevites repent, even though Jonah never told them what to do to prevent this overturning of Nineveh. The Bible tells us that they basically said, “Sorry.” There is no record that they formed a covenant of faithfulness with God. The men weren’t circumcised. They didn’t become Jews. Nothing. But God has compassion.

This compassion of God upon the city has a strange effect on Jonah. He despises God for it. He demonstrates more compassion for a vine than for the “more than 120,000 people” of the city. God even shows compassion on their shared life – their economic and political life – as indicated in this statement, “and many cattle as well.” It isn’t just that God likes cattle. It’s that He looks upon Nineveh and sees not just 120,000 individuals but the web of humanity that makes up that “great city” and in the closing words of the story, God leaves Jonah, and us, to ponder this penetrating question, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (Jonah 4:11).

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By Ryan Bell. Copyright © 2012 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines. Scripture taken from the NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ®.

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