A TALE OF TWO PROPHETS
By R. Herbert
One city – Nineveh. Two prophets – Jonah and Nahum. Both talked about the same city, though to read the books written by these two messengers of God, they may well seem like tales of two cities. Jonah and Nahum both prophesied against the great Assyrian metropolis Nineveh - the very heart of the Empire that took Israel captive in 740-720 BC and repeatedly attacked and threatened Judah. Although the two prophetic books have very different tones and outcomes, underlying both these books is a surprising message relevant to each of us today.
The leading city of the brutal Assyrian Empire, Nineveh was the largest city in the world till it was destroyed by the Babylonians and their allies in 612 BC. Although God allowed Assyria, as the “rod” of His anger, to punish sinful Israel, the Bible shows that God also intended to punish the Assyrians for their own evil. Yet, just as He had repeatedly warned ancient Israel through His prophets, God spoke to the Assyrians by means of the two messengers who are the subject of this article - so that Israel’s captors would themselves have the opportunity to repent.
Nahum and Jonah are both found in the minor prophets section of the Hebrew Bible – the twelve short books which deal with events which occurred mainly toward the end of the Old Testament period. The thematic nature of the Minor Prophets is interesting. Commentators agree that the twelve books may be divided into two groups of six with the first six books having different stresses from those found in the second six. The first six books frequently stress problems, while the second group of six books seem to stress answers. Interestingly, Jonah appears in the first six, Nahum appears in the last six.
Jonah is mentioned in II Kings 14:25 as living and prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC) – just a few years before the final captivity of Israel, but well before the downfall of Nineveh in 612 BC. The story of the book which bears his name is probably one of the best known in the Bible. It has no complex internal structure, but is a simple narrative. When God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh to call on its people to repent, the prophet balks and runs in exactly the opposite direction (Jonah 1:1-2). The account of Jonah trying to flee in a ship headed westward through the Mediterranean, but being caught in a violent storm, thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish sent by God is one most people know – as is the outcome in which Jonah, inside the fish, repents and accepts God’s will, then is eventually deposited unharmed on the sea shore. Finally, God again commands Jonah to preach to Nineveh and this time he obeys – with the result that the people of the city actually repent and are, at least for a time, spared punishment.
Jonah found out that being a servant of God is not like “Mission Impossible” – there is no “Your prophecy, if you accept it…” – though his mission must have seemed an impossible one. It helps to understand it in more modern terms. If God had told you or me to go to Berlin in Nazi Germany – at the outbreak of the Second World War – and to tell the people there to repent, we might well have felt as Jonah did. In the fish, however, Jonah may have reflected on the fact that the name "Nineveh" was written with the sign for a fish inside a city wall: meaning “fish city.” Once Jonah realized his options were Jonah inside Fish City – or Jonah inside the fish – he accepted God’s assignment for him. But it is clear that Jonah did not run away from his commission through fear or cowardice. Remember he volunteered to be thrown overboard to an expected certain death. Jonah seems to have not wanted to preach to the Assyrians as he says himself in Chapter 4, because he did not want the Ninevites to repent and avoid punishment: “… That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2b-3). Jonah found it hard to want this outcome for the enemy. By the end of the story, God has to make it clear to him: “ ... should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). This is clearly the ultimate message of this book. But the problem in Jonah’s mind doubtless also existed in the minds of many of his ancient readers: Should we be concerned about our enemy – especially if we know our enemy is planning to destroy us?
In contrast to Jonah, nothing is known of the prophet Nahum outside of “The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite” (Nahum 1:1), which is also “a prophecy concerning Nineveh.” Commentators are divided on the date of the book, but it must be dated after the Assyrian destruction of Thebes in Egypt in 663 BC as this event is mentioned in Nahum 3:8.
Also in contrast to Jonah, Nahum seems to gladly accept his charge to deliver God’s message to Nineveh. The book is written in a poetic style in which Nahum prophesies the Assyrians’ downfall in great detail - even “getting into” the situation by acting out the part of an Assyrian officer barking orders at his defending troops (Nahum 3:14, etc.). But the motif of God’s punishment, “… the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished” (Nahum 1:3b), is put in perspective from the beginning: “The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh …” It seems clear that Nahum understood God’s compassion and willingness to extend mercy, just as Jonah did, but Nahum spells out the punishment which is now almost certain. Assyria, whose symbol was the lion, was feared throughout the Ancient Near Eastern region, and its messengers carried threats and terror to cities far and wide. Now, Nahum says, “… the sword will devour your young lions. I will leave you no prey on the earth. The voices of your messengers will no longer be heard” (Nahum 2:13b). The prophet also makes it perfectly clear how Assyria’s downfall will be received: “All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?” (Nahum 3:19).
Nahum’s message also includes a vital additional aspect which Jonah’s did not. In Nahum, God states, “Although I have afflicted you, Judah, I will afflict you no more. Now I will break their [the Assyrians’] yoke from your neck and tear your shackles away” (Nahum 1:12b-13). While Jonah knew that God was willing to extend mercy to the Assyrians if they repented, his prophecy carried no mention of hope for Israel beyond that time. In Nahum, a renaissance is foretold for Judah: “Celebrate your festivals, Judah, and fulfill your vows. No more will the wicked invade you …” (Nahum 1:15b). This is the answer to the problem found in Jonah. While God offered Assyria the opportunity of repentance, he also had a plan for the protection of His people if they would also obey. It is as though Nahum understood – at least his message makes clear – what Jonah did not: that God’s will takes everything into account. That His willingness to extend mercy to all peoples who will accept that gift – even if they are the enemy - does not in any way diminish what God plans for us. It is as though theologically Jonah cannot see beyond the problem, but Nahum carries the answer. Perhaps Nahum would have better understood the New Testament command to pray for one’s enemies (Matthew 5:44). He might well have realized that praying for our enemies does not mean that their success will harm us.