The Prophet to Assyria
“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’”- Jonah 1:1–2
The eighth century BC was a tumultuous time for the people of Israel. Despite the relative peace and prosperity during the reign of Jeroboam II (793–753 BC), all was not well in the northern kingdom. Prevalent, impenitent sin was stoking the fires of the Lord’s wrath, prompting Him to send prophets such as Amos to warn Israel that without repentance, exile would be its end. The few Israelites who actually listened to Amos and the other prophets knew that Assyria would be their enslaver (Hos. 11:5; Amos 4:2).
Pagan Assyria was one of the most significant empires of the ancient Near East, and there was no love lost between it and Israel. Those who later read the inscripturated oracles of Hosea, Amos, and the other eighth-century prophets had lived through the empire’s invasions of Israel and Judah that culminated finally in Assyria’s conquest of Israel in 722 BC (2 Kings 15:17–22; 17). They also read that the Lord would judge Assyria for its arrogance even though He used the empire to discipline His people (Isa. 10:5–19).
Yet did God’s promise to judge Assyria and the fact that He would allow the empire to visit horrors upon His covenant people mean the Lord had no love or compassion for the Assyrian people? The book of Jonah answers in the negative, recounting Jonah’s ministry in Assyria’s capital city of Nineveh during the eighth century BC. We cannot be sure of the date of Jonah’s work aside from noting that it records events that likely occurred during the reign of Jeroboam II, as 2 Kings 14:25 places Jonah in that era. A date between 773 and 756 BC is perhaps as specific we can get. During those years, Assyria was racked by famine, popular uprisings, and an earthquake—all of which, scholars note, would have made the people willing to take Jonah’s threat of divine judgment more seriously than if no troubles or potential omens had been present.
Liberals often criticize the book of Jonah as ahistorical, mostly due to their antisupernatural bias. Yes, a man’s preservation in the belly of a great fish and the widespread repentance of a pagan city are incredible—but not impossible given what the Bible says about God. Furthermore, the author of Jonah does not paint the prophet as an idealized hero like a fiction author might. Instead, as it does with other figures, the Bible presents Jonah to us warts and all. This prophet learned that God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, a lesson we must remember in every generation.
Despite God’s promise to Abraham that His descendants would bring blessing to the world (Gen. 12:1–3), the old covenant community, as a whole, tried to keep the Lord’s blessings for themselves and did not reach out to the nations. Christians, of course, are just as susceptible to this error of hiding our light under a bushel. May we not do this but be willing to pray, give, and do whatever is necessary to reach all nations with the gospel.
Passages for Further Study
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