Even Prophets and Kings Must Repent
On the crowded streets of Nineveh, Jonah the prophet proclaimed that destruction was coming to that city in forty days (Jonah 3:1-4). Some of his startled hearers moved menacingly toward him. Others advised them to use caution.
News of this strange man with his disturbing message quickly spread through the city. As the crowd increased, Jonah repeated his warning, which was having an increasingly troublesome effect.
There were jeers and angry retorts, but most of the people refrained from speaking out because of the miraculous report of Jonah’s coming out of a fish’s mouth!
Suddenly two stern-faced officers emerged from the crowd, strode up to Jonah and informed him that they had orders to take him to the king of Assyria for questioning. The prophet was dismayed. He reasoned that if he weren’t put to death, he would probably be imprisoned and die in the destruction of Nineveh.
Matters appeared grim for Jonah, but he was about to learn that his fears were unfounded and that the Assyrian ruler was considerably different from what he imagined him to be.
“I know about what you’ve been telling the people,” the king said to Jonah after the prophet had been escorted to the palace. “Now I want to learn from you what this is all about.”
Jonah explained who he was, why he was in Nineveh and that he completely believed what he had been telling the people.
“Many reports about the great power of the God of Israel have come to me over the years,” the king observed. “I have heard what happened to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah a thousand years ago. Perhaps I am foolish to believe that it happened, but I want no part of the wrath of your God. I can’t change the ways of my people overnight, but I can decree that they fast for the next few days and cry to your God to change His mind and spare us.”
“How can you force people to be repentant?” Jonah asked the king.
“I can’t,” was the reply. “My people may be a wicked lot, but they do have a certain respect of authority and usually follow their leader’s example. My mistake has been in not exerting enough authority and good influence over them. Therefore, I shall be the first to put aside my robes, dress myself in sackcloth and pray to your God in public to spare us. Those who refuse to follow my example will surely be the first to die.”
Jonah was surprised that the king of this pagan nation was affected so strongly by the prophet’s warning. The ruler of Assyria immediately ordered that all the Ninevites, including their animals, refrain from eating and drinking.
Furthermore, animals as well as people were to be dressed in sackcloth. The Ninevites were also commanded to forego their regular pursuits and spend their time seriously calling on the Great God of Israel, possessor of Heaven and Earth, to not destroy Nineveh.
The people willingly obeyed the king’s orders because they were fearful of what would happen to them. Within hours, the outlook of the people of this vast Gentile city were abruptly altered. The people had changed from their wicked ways (Jonah 3: 5-9).
By this time the forty days Jonah had mentioned had almost expired. Tension and fear mounted rapidly.
Jonah was free to go where he pleased. He left, but only to go a mile or so from the east wall to take up a temporary residence with his burro in a rocky spot from which he could command a good view of Nineveh; but could take safety behind boulders if the annihilation of the city came about by some exceedingly violent means (Jonah 4:5).
An ominous, nerve-racking silence came over Nineveh as the hours dragged by. The fortieth day dawned. Thousands fearfully wondered if the end would come through an earthquake, a hurricane or by fire from the sky.
As the day drew to a close, Jonah stared from behind a boulder, waiting in apprehension, for the terrible thing he hoped for God to do. He firmly held the tether of his burro, lest the animal bolt and run at some sudden loud noise or light. The prophet shivered with suspense as the sun disappeared behind Nineveh’s walls and sank beyond the horizon of the distant western desert – the fortieth day was over and God had not sent the evil Jonah so expected.
Those were supposed to be the fatal moments, but nothing happened except the advent of darkness. Jonah was puzzled. All night he kept a vigil beside the boulder. By the time the sun came up over the eastern mountains, the prophet’s perplexity had turned to disappointment. He was resentful and even angry because God had failed to do what He had threatened to do (Jonah 3:10).
“Back when you first told me to go to Nineveh I was afraid that this thing would happen,” Jonah said aloud irritably, intending that God would hear his opinion. “That’s why I took a ship to the west, I knew that You are merciful, kind and slow to anger, and that You very likely would decide to spare the Ninevites if they showed any desire to repent. They did and You changed Your mind. Now the Assyrians will think of me only as one who has deceived them. When they find me, they’ll kill me. I want You to take my life. I would rather die by Your hand than by the bloody weapons of Ninevites who are angry because I caused them so much fear and terror” (Jonah 4:1-3).
Jonah continued to kneel for a time, expecting God to snatch his life from him at any moment. But as in the case of Nineveh, nothing happened. Instead, the prophet was startled to hear a distinct voice. He looked quickly around him, but the only living thing he could see was his burro. It obviously heard nothing.
“You are angry with Me, your God,” the voice uttered. “Do you consider that wise? Why are you disappointed because the people of Nineveh are still alive? Do you think that they are more concerned with you than with knowing that they have been allowed to live” (Jonah 4:4)?
“I dare not show myself to these men who will become the enemies of Israel as soon as they conquer the Syrians,” was Jonah’s bitter answer.
“The Israelites have refused to repent after I warned them through you what would happen to them if they continued in idolatry,” God pointed out. (II Kings 14:26). “They don’t have as much respect for their Creator as do the Assyrians. Then why should I not use the Assyrians to punish them?”
Jonah was miserable. Besides his mental distress, a physical problem was rapidly developing. As the sun went higher, the heat became very intense. Jonah tried to produce some shade by constructing a kind of booth out from the boulder. All he had to use were rocks and dried weeds and branches, and he wasn’t very successful. He feared to move elsewhere lest he be discovered and attacked, though his fears were ungrounded. All he could do was sit with his coat over his head and hope that he would survive the almost unbearable rays of the blazing sun.
Next morning Jonah was startled to find that he was in the shade of a large plant that overnight had sprung out of the ground. Broad, green leaves were spreading themselves between him and the sky, shielding him from the hot solar rays that had plagued him earlier. He realized that this was something that God had miraculously prepared for his relief. He was pleased and thankful, but his unhappy attitude concerning Nineveh continued to gnaw at his mind (Jonah 4:6).
Next day dawned hot again, but Jonah remained comfortable under the wide leaves of the unusual plant. Then, as suddenly as it had come up, the plant withered and its leaves shriveled. Again the prophet was exposed to the almost unbearable heat. As he sat staring at the remains of the plant, he even felt sorrow for it because it had lived for such a short period of time. He was concerned mainly about his comfort, but besides that he regretted to see the beautiful plant die. He didn’t know that God had purposely caused a large, voracious worm to consume the vine’s roots.
A hot wind came up from the east to add to the prophet’s distress. That and his gnawing resentment were too much for him. He fell into a state of unconsciousness. When he regained his senses he was even more miserable than he had been before. He desperately wished (for the 3rd time) that his life would come to an abrupt and merciful end. That was when the voice came again to him.
“Do you feel that you have good reason to be troubled because of the gourd plant”? the voice asked.
“I have plenty of reasons to be troubled,” Jonah answered. “I’ll be troubled until the day I die, and I hope it’s soon” (Jonah 4:7-9)!
“You had nothing to do with causing the plant to grow,” the voice said, “but you had a feeling of sorrow for it because its life was so brief. You believe that I was unmerciful in allowing the plant to die so soon. If I should have spared that plant, shouldn’t I also have spared the great city of Nineveh, with its thousands upon thousands of men, women, innocent children and helpless animals? (Jonah 4:10-11)?
There is no record in the Bible of what happened next to Jonah. There is strong evidence that a monument uncovered in the ruins of Nineveh in recent years had been built to honor this prophet. Evidently he turned out to be a national hero or at least an object of great respect by the Assyrians of that time.
Eventually, in later years, as Jonah feared and as God indicated would happen, the Assyrians did come against Israel because the Israelites wouldn’t turn from idolatry. That invasion meant the end, for many centuries, to the combined nationality of ten tribes of Israel, most of the people God had chosen for a profound purpose in this world and the world to come. (Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 14:2; 26:18-19; I Peter 2:9.)
During the reign of Jeroboam, king of the ten northern tribes of Israel, the son of Amaziah began to rule the kingdom of Judah. His name was Uzziah, also known as Azariah (II Kings 14:16-21; II Chron. 26:1). He was only sixteen years old when he became king, but because he looked to God for direction, through Zechariah the prophet, he developed into a wise, courageous ruler whose ambition was to strengthen his kingdom and improve the welfare of the people.
God prospered Uzziah and gave him success in battle. Even with his relatively small army the king overcame the Philistines, who had been a growing threat to Judah since the invasion of the ten tribes of Israel. The fortification of Philistia’s major cities was destroyed, including those of Gath, Ashdod and Jabneh. Uzziah’s men then built towns near those cities, so that the Philistines could be kept under control through garrisons established in the new towns.
Before long the king’s army had grown to 307,500 stalwarts, well-trained, splendidly equipped troops under the command of 2,600 able clan chiefs (II Chron. 26:11-15).
To prevent trouble from the south, Uzziah’s growing army swept over territory as far as the border of Egypt, depriving hostile Arabians of the means of making serious attacks on the towns of Judah bordering the desert of the Sinai Peninsula.
Many miles to the southeast, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea, Uzziah’s men took over the seaport town of Elath, which had formerly belonged to Judah. The port was rebuilt and equipped for a continuance of the sea commerce. Solomon had started from that gulf of the east side of the Sinai Peninsula (II Chron. 26:2-7; II Kings 14:22).
Moving in separate bands spread over wide areas, Uzziah’s army marched to the southeast and up around the south end of the Dead Sea. There was little resistance until reaching the country of the Ammonites, who met the invaders and were defeated. Instead of destroying his victims, Uzziah demanded that they bring a regular tribute to Jerusalem (II Chron. 26:8).
Convinced that his nation was at least temporarily safe from attack from three directions, Uzziah set about improving conditions for raising sheep and cattle. Large flocks and herds were raised on the plains bordering the Paran desert in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. In this lonely region shepherds and herdsmen had often lost their lives and their animals in surprise attacks by Arabians. To prevent this, fortifications were established at various places throughout the grazing frontier. These included high towers from which watchmen could see for miles over the plains and spot approaching marauders in time to prepare for defense. Wells were dug as close as possible to the fortified shelters and towers, so that men and animals wouldn’t have to move long distances to water, previously available at much fewer locations.
Wells were also dug in areas where farming could be developed and expanded. Although he had made war and defense first in the order of things, Uzziah was far more interested in agriculture. He felt that everything possible should be done to balance agriculture and to get the most good out of the soil of all regions – mountains, valleys and plains (II Chron. 26:10).
Having established strong projects of food production and commerce, the king of Judah turned his attention to repairing the aging walls of Jerusalem. Towers were built at various locations along the walls. Special movable platforms were constructed on the wall tops for the placement of extraordinary defense machines, some to shoot clusters of giant arrows and others to hurl heavy stones with tremendous force.
Such outstanding devices, never known before, were invented and built by men who were very skillful, ingenious mechanics. These unusual engines of war, generally powered by the sudden release of tension in cables and springy planks, were object of wonder to all who saw them or heard of them (II Chron. 26:9, 15).
Over the years Uzziah became powerful, prosperous and quite respected because he had honored and obeyed God. Unhappily, there came a time when he began to think of himself as a very special person. In spite of the wisdom he had used for so long, good judgment began to fade the more he thought of himself as greatly superior to other men.
One day when there were special services at the temple and many worshippers were present, Uzziah decided that the congregation would take more interest in the ceremonies if he were to take over some of the functions of the priests. After making a dramatic entrance up the steps to the temple, he turned to the crowd.
“Inasmuch as this is a special day, your king will assume the responsibility of burning incense on the incense altar,” he announced.
There was a murmur of approval from those in the audience who weren’t aware that only a priest was to burn incense at the temple (Ex. 30:7-8; Num. 16:1-40; 18:1-7). Those who were aware of it only stared and probably thought that Uzziah had made some special arrangement with Azariah the high priest. But Azariah, standing off to one side, was surprised by the king’s words. His surprise gave way to grave concern as Uzziah strode into the temple and toward the sanctuary.
“He must be stopped!” Azariah exclaimed in a low voice to one of his assistants, “Bring all the priests to me at the entrance of the sanctuary immediately!”
Moments later the priests gathered around Azariah, who hastily walked into the sanctuary with his men.
“Leave this room at once!” the high priest firmly called out to the king, who was standing by the incense altar.
Uzziah, holding a smoking censer, slowly turned and glared at Azariah.
“The king of Judah does not jump at the command of a priest!” he muttered angrily.
“Then I beg you to leave here before God shows His displeasure!” the high priest implored Uzziah (II Chron. 26:16-18).
Be watching for the results of king Uzziah’s poor decision to burn incense on the altar.