Part of a new weekly series on the book of Matthew. This week: Matthew 12:38-41
Jonah had no idea what to expect the day he walked into Nineveh.
As the capital of the Assyrian Empire, it was quite possibly the largest city in the known world.
The inner city was surrounded by walls 8 miles long. The outer city circumscribed 60 miles. As many as 600,000 people could have been living in Nineveh at this time.
It was founded by an eponymous Ninnus. But it was Sennacherib who made it great.
The Spectacular Wealth and Sin of Sennacherib and His City
He built new streets and squares and created a palace with 80 rooms, some full of sculptures. The doorways were flanked by stone bulls or winged lions weighing 30 tons.
On the walls artisans carved battles, impalings and scenes of his soldiers parading the spoils of war before their king.
Of his conquest of Babylon he bragged that he slaughtered all of its citizens–young and old, woman and child.
Of his conquest of Jerusalem he gloated about caging up Hezekiah like a bird and starving the inhabitants of the city.
The people of Nineveh worshipped Nanshe, the fish goddess, the daughter of Ea, the goddess of fresh water.
They worshipped Dagon, the fish god, represented as half man and half-fish.
They worshipped Assur, highest god in the Assyrian pantheon and protector of the city.
And they worshipped Ishtar, the goddess of love, war, fertility and sex.
And Jonah was commissioned to cry out against their wickedness.
The Most Extraordinary Revival the World Has Ever Seen
It took Jonah three days to walk around the city and preach his sermon, which amounted to this: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Jonah more than likely felt pleasure in his sermon. He did not want to share salvation with non-Jews. However, obedience to God trumped his reluctance. Jonah’s reward? The destruction of the city he hated.
Historians are not sure who exactly was king over Nineveh during Jonah’s sermon: it is either Adad-irari III or Assurdan III. One puts us at about 810-783 B.C. The other at 772-755 B.C, respectively.
The king of Nineveh’s response was dramatic. He rose from his throne and cast off his robe. He covered himself in ashes and sackcloth. Then came his proclamation:
In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish. Jonah 3:7-9
It is not a stretch to say that Jonah’s jaw probably dropped.
Something Greater than Jonah Is Here
It’s this story, embedded in the Old Testament and embedded in the teachings of scribes and Pharisees, that Jesus uses to answer a request for a sign by some scribes and Pharisees.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “ An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. Matthew 12:38-41
Jonah was a stranger to Nineveh. He preached for 3 days. He performed no miracles. He was a fallen and flawed man. A disobedient prophet. And he only preached punishment on this earth.
In all ways he was inferior to Jesus.
Jesus was no stranger to the Jews of Jerusalem. He preached for 3 years. He performed all kinds of miracles. He was sinless. He was God in the flesh. Perfect in his doctrine. Perfect in his obedience. And he preached eternal punishment.
Yet, the Jews would not repent.
Their punishment? On the day of judgement, a day they all believed was coming, they would stand before God. And the people of Nineveh, the generation that repented, would stand before them and level a finger to pronounce them condemned.
Those Jews were not seeking repentance. They were seeking a sign. And that lust would cost them their eternal lives.
The revival in late eight century B.C. Nineveh parallels nothing else in recorded history. A city of half a million fall to their knees and repent, removing the judgement of God.
Pentecost. The Reformation. The First and Second Great Awakenings. The sheer size of the Global South Movement may be the closest contender.
But no examples of a single city the size of Nineveh.
Some suggest the Nineveh revival was superficial because within a generation the city was destroyed as predicted by Nahum. Jesus doesn’t buy that. His illustration suggests their repentance was sincere, an instance of true saving faith.
And a warning to us: do not seek signs. Seek repentance.