Jonah 3:1-10 The Tone of God's Justice
Tone of voice communicates so much more than we might think.
If I say “nice one” you could interpret a couple of ways. If I say it like this “nice one” you might think I’m being encouraging, if I say it like this “nawh, nice one” you’d probably think I was being condescending. Or if I said it like this, “nice one” you’d assume I was being sarcastic.
It’s not just when we speak – tone is communicated in body language and it can be communicated with written words too. I was talking to someone recently who told me that if you send a text to a teenager and finish it with a full stop it communicates that you are cross or at least being direct. I just thought it was punctuation.
Tone is complicated and easy to get wrong.
It’s this idea of tone that is really important in today’s reading. Jonah preaches a sermon – just five words – and I wonder about the tone? Was this all that Jonah said? Or is it a summary? What was Jonah’s tone and why on earth did the people respond so rapidly and positively?
Today we’re going to explore some of the key points of this passage in Jonah and let it speak to us about “tone” – What is the tone of the Christian message about God? How do we understand and communicate themes like justice, judgement, repentance and mercy?
So let’s start at the beginning…
3:1 – In these opening words of chapter 3 it’s as if the whole book of Jonah starts all over again. The book of Jonah opens with the phrase “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah” and here the “Word of the Lord comes to Jonah once more.” Jonah gets a complete reboot, he gets a second go at it all, and not only does he get a second go at it all, it turns out as we see this chapter unfold that this is a major theme of chapter 3 – the Ninevites get a second go too!
3.2 God tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh, that great city and proclaim the message that I tell you. God calls Nineveh a great city. What kind of great is implied?
Is it because they city is big? Perhaps. Is it because the city is excellent? Not likely? Why is Nineveh great? Some biblical commentators have argued convincingly that because of the construction of this phrase in Hebrew it is likely implying that this city is “great to God”, as in, God cares for this city. This reading makes sense of the great lengths that God has gone to in getting Jonah to this point. God deeply cares about the welfare of this city and once again he reminds Jonah of this.
Jonah’s job description given by God is clear: “Proclaim the message to it that I tell you.” Jonah is to deliver God’s message. Not his own. His role isn’t to critique God’s message or edit it to make it more palatable to him or to the Ninevites. His role as a Prophet is to make God’s will and purpose clear.
3:3-4 And so Jonah goes out into Nineveh to preach. We hear it took him three days to walk across. It’s likely that Nineveh referred not just to one city but rather a whole district, a bit like the district of Timaru for example and so Jonah travelled preaching.
His sermon isn’t particularly eloquent. It’s just a few words: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
There is no mention of repentance or response. No call to come to God so they may be spared. Just a bracing message.
So, what happens next is nothing short of a miracle.
3:5 – We hear the people of Nineveh believed God. They took the message to heart. In Luke chapter 11 Jesus looks back to this moment in Nineveh and uses it as an example of repentance. The people hear God’ word to them through Jonah and they respond.
3:6-8 – How they respond is interesting. What we see is an inner mourning and outer change. They turn from evil ways and violence which Nineveh was famous for. The Kings and armies of Assyria were known for their bloodthirsty campaigns and brutal practices in battle. Yet the King does something unimaginable.
He gets down from his throne, humbles himself and calls all of Nineveh to do the same – the people and the animals. The people go without food and water for a period of time and they wear sackcloth, a kind of coarse outfit made of goat’s hair. This was customary in the OT for mourning and was customary dress for the poor. But for the king of Assyria to do this was a serious response of humility and hope.
3:9We hear the hope in verse 9 - Who knows? Maybe god will change his mind? This is the hope of the Ninevites. They repent genuinely not as if this is a transaction by which they can manipulate God, they seek genuine restoration. God does see and changes his mind, sparing them from calamity.
Here once again we are reminded of God’s freedom and sovereignty, a key theme in the book of Jonah.
Jeremiah 18 reflects a similar theme, saying:
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.
In Jonah and in Jeremiah we see that God is deeply interested and invested in the world just as a potter is with his clay. God can build up or destroy and God responds to the actions of nations and kingdoms. God offers mercy to Judah through the prophet Jeremiah, and God offers mercy to Nineveh through the prophet Jonah.
3:10 – In verse 10 we hear the conclusion of chapter 3 – God sees the response of the Ninevites, and God changed his mind about their fate.
So, what are the implications of this part of Jonah’s story for us as the church?
I think this passage has major implications for us.
Firstly it reminds us once more that like Jonah, we as the church are called to exist not for own sakes, not just so we may experience God’s love and mercy but rather so we may announce it boldly to others so they might experience it too!
4 Implications for the church:
1) The first implication is this – repentance starts with us. The whole story of Jonah at this point has been a story about Jonah needing to repent from his running from God. Jonah learns the lesson in chapter 1 and 2 and the whole story starts again in chapter 3. Before we share anything about God’s mercy and grace and the need to respond with others, we must experience it ourselves. We cannot give what we do not have. We too like the Ninevites must also hear God’s word to us calling us to repent of injustice and evil.
2) The second implication is that true faith and repentance will involve the transformations of our lives and our societies.
Right through Scripture we can see the importance of not just inner contrition but also outer change. Isaiah 68:6-7
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
This is the “both/and call of the prophets”
Robert Lessing says: “God calls his people to manifest their inner faith through outward signs and fruit (cf John 15). But while Israel often is like an unfruitful vine (Isaiah 5:1-7), the Ninevites respond with authentic faith.”
The Ninevites illustrate what it looks like to repent by believing God and by a turnaround in their lives. They turn from injustice and seek to make things right.
The book of James is a great read on this issue of our faith and our lives being deeply connected.
3) The third implication is that we are called to communicate clearly God’s love for the cities in which we live and God’s displeasure with evil and injustice.
What issues might we speak out on today as Christian’s out of love and concern for our neighbour?
Euthanasia? Abortion? The care for humanity that is vulnerable.
The honouring of the treaty and relations between Maori and Pakeha? Reconciliation and justice in this area.
The Housing Crisis and homelessness, the indictment that this is on our collective greed and economic systems that are failing people.
The motivation for speaking out on all these issues is not a party agenda, personal hobbie horses, identity politics or some kind of polly-anna pipe dream of “wouldn’t it be nice if we all just got along.” Our motivation as Christians at its core is the belief that God is just, that God abhors injustice and therefore calls us to work for justice.
In fact, we might even go as far to argue that without this heavenly vision why would we seek justice?
In a purely secular vision of the world why not survival of the fittest? Perhaps we have all decided it is a good idea to work together, to help one another for our mutual survival. But we know that this is a weak bond for us to work together as humanity. We have seen time and time again it fails. We need a justice from above, Christianity makes sense of the call to social justice because it’s work toward justice is grounded in the vision of a just God who has made humanity to bear his image.
Tim Keller points out that God has created a world in which there are natural consequences toward injustice, saying:
“God has created the world so that cruelty, greed, and exploitation have natural, disintegrative consequences that are a manifestation of his anger toward evil.”
As well as these natural consequences, the book of Jonah clearly depicts a God who will bring justice where necessary. The God who judges rightly with goodness, truth, and love is a huge theme of the Bible.
The kingdom of God that Jesus preached and inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection is God’s vision of a just and reconciled world.
As Jesus famously put it to the listeners in the Synagogue recorded in Luke 4 - 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What a vision of justice.
4) The fourth and final implication of today’s passage from Jonah is that tone is important.
Notice that Jonah was terse. As Tim Keller says: “(Jonah) enjoyed preaching wrath. He did it with glee, not tears, because he couldn’t wait for God’s hammer to fall on them.” God however is gracious and full of mercy, wanting the best outcome for the people. How might we get the tone right in our mission? We must first ask the question “Do we genuinely love our neighbourhoods, particularly those who are different in belief, ethnicity and custom from us?
Dorothy Day once said: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
Is our tone one of love or self-righteousness? This is a key question. If we want to call people to respond to God’s grace and mercy our tone is important. Don’t get me wrong – God used Jonah’s tone even if it was harsh. Yet I know so many people who have been put off from Christianity not by the message but by the tone communicated by the messenger.
Two navel images/metaphors to finish. We as the church are called to be BOTH:
-A light house. God’s people called to be a light – a warning and a beacon of hope. A light to the nations (OT) and a city on a hill (NT)
-A tug boat, pushing and pulling in the right direction. Getting active, working toward justice. James – Be doers of the word not just hearers.