It was a time when the nation of Assyria was rising to power in the Middle East. Its capital was Nineveh, a great city so large that it would take three days for someone to walk across it. The Assyrians were beginning to conquer all the lands near them and Israel was in danger of being attacked. At this time a prophet named Jonah was telling the word of God to the people of Israel. One day the Lord spoke to Jonah, saying, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it, for its wickedness rises up before me.”
But Jonah did not want to preach to the people of Nineveh, because they were the enemies of his land, the land of Israel. He wanted Nineveh to die in its sins, not turn to God and live. So Jonah tried to run away from God’s command. He went down to Jaffa, on the shore of the Great Sea, and found a ship about to sail to Tarshish, far away in the west. He paid the fare and went aboard, intending to go as far away from Nineveh as possible.
But the Lord saw Jonah on the ship, and the Lord threw a hurricane at the sea, and there was such a great storm that the ship was in danger of sinking. The sailors threw everything on the ship overboard, and when they could do no more, every man prayed to his own god to save the ship and themselves. Jonah was now lying fast asleep under the deck of the ship, and the ship’s captain came to him, woke him up, and said, “What do you mean sleeping at a time like this? Awake, get up, and call to your God. Perhaps your God will hear you and save our lives.”
But the storm continued to rage around the ship, and they said, “There is some man on this ship who has brought us this trouble. Let us cast lots, and find out who it is.” When the sailors cast their lots, the lot fell on Jonah. They said to him, “Tell us, who are you? From what country do you come? What is your business? To what people do you belong? Why have your brought all this trouble on us?
Then Jonah told them the whole story about the Lord of the Israelites and how he was running away from what God asked of him. And they said to him, “What must we do to end this storm?” Jonah said, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the storm with stop and the waters will be calm, since I brought this storm on you.”
But the men were not willing to throw Jonah into the sea. They did not want God to be angry with them for killing Jonah. They rowed hard to bring the ship to land, but they couldn’t. Then they cried to the Lord, saying, “We pray thee, O Lord of Jonah’s people, don’t make us die for this man’s life.”
At last, when they could do nothing else to save themselves, they threw Jonah into the sea. At once the storm ceased and the waves became still. Then the men on the ship feared the Lord greatly. They offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and made promises to serve him.
Now the Lord caused a giant fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was alive inside the fish for three days and three nights. In the fish, Jonah cried to the Lord, and the Lord heard his prayer and made the great fish spit Jonah out onto the dry land.
After this, Jonah had learned that some men who worshiped idols were kind and were loved by the Lord. This was the lesson that God wanted Jonah to learn, and now that he knew this, the Lord called Jonah again. “Arise. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it what I command you.” So Jonah went to the city of Nineveh, and as he entered it, he called out to the people, “Within forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed.” And he walked through the city all day crying out, “Within forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.”
The people of Nineveh believed Jonah. They turned away from their sinful ways, fasted and sought the Lord, every one of them. The king of Nineveh left his throne, put aside his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes, as a sign of sorrow for his sins. And the king ordered his people to fast, seek the Lord, and turn from their sinful ways.
God saw the people of Nineveh were sorry for their wickedness, and He forgave them and did not destroy their city. But this made Jonah very angry. He did not want to have Nineveh spared, because it was the enemy of his own people, the Israelites. He also feared that people would think he was a fake and call him a false prophet since his words did not come true.
So Jonah said to the Lord, ” O Lord, I was sure it would be like this and you would spare the city. That’s why I tried to run away. I know you are a gracious God, full of pity, slow to anger, and rich in mercy. Now, Lord, take away my life, for I’d rather die than live.” So, Jonah went out of the city, built a little hut on the east side of it, and sat under its roof, to see if God would still spare the city or would destroy it for him. The Lord caused a plant with thick leaves to grow up and shade Jonah from the sun. Jonah was glad about the plant and sat under its shadow. But the Lord sent a worm to the plant and destroyed it, and the next day a hot wind blew, and Jonah suffered from the heat. Again Jonah became angry and wished that he could die. And the Lord said to Jonah, “You were sorry to see the plant die, though you did not make it grow, and though it came up in a night and died in a night. Shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh, that great city where there are more than a hundred thousand people who I created but don’t know me; people, children and animals, all helpless and knowing nothing?”
And Jonah learned that men, women, and little children are all precious in the sight of the Lord, even if they don’t know who God is.