The book of Jonah is a wonderful message of forgiveness and grace. Jonah is called by the Lord to preach repentance to a hardened people, a people that he does not feel are worthy of being saved. In Jonah’s estimation, the people of Nineveh are so hardened, so unworthy of God’s love that he would rather die than preach unto them (Jonah 1:12 and 4:3).
Jonah is a righteous prophet of the Lord – we see this in the very beginning of the text. In Jonah 1:3 we read, “Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord…” Jonah is “in the presence of the Lord” מִלִּפְנֵ֖י – which comes from פָּנִים panim or paneh, a word which suggests that Jonah was before the face of the Lord. This phrase suggests to us that he has been in the divine council, or before the face of the Lord.
Jonah 1:3 is an example of catabasis (Greek: “going down”), which is characterized by a lowering of the sense, form one level to another, which each succeeding idea. In the following example, it is as if Jonah is leaving the presence of God, going down, down, into the abyss represented by the fish that swallows him in the depths of the sea – to where Jonah states that he was in “the belly of hell” (Jonah 2:2). This is reminiscent of Adam leaving the presence of the Lord going into a fallen world, or like Jesus going into the world of spirits during the three days that his body was in the tomb. We see this as Jonah leaves the presence of God:
Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord
and went down to Joppa
and he found a ship going to Tarshish… and went down into it…
But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship;
and he lay and was fast asleep… (Jonah 1:3-5)
As the story unfolds, Jonah is found by the men on the ship heading to Tarshish and questioned. After he tells them to cast him into the sea (Jonah 1:12), they attempt to row to land, but are unable to do so. They then cast him
into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging…
And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 1:15-17).
A great example of catabasis in the New Testament comes to us from the writings of Paul. Paul used this form to illustrate the redemptive power of Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer. Paul first shows us that Jesus is equal with God the Father, and then step by step downward shows us that Jesus became human, going down in the depths of humility so far as to suffer a humiliating death “as a man” on the cruel cross of Calvary:
Who, being in the form of God,
thought it not robbery to be equal with God;
But made himself of no reputation,
and took upon him the form of a servant,
and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man,
he humbled himself,
and became obedient unto death,
even the death of the cross (Phillippians 2:6-8).
But we must return to the story of Jonah. He goes to Nineveh, preaches, and is successful. The entire city repents: “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5). Most students would be thrilled if they had this type of success on their mission. Yet Jonah is angry with the outcome. Students usually wonder why this is so. To me, Jonah’s response is the critical point in the text where we really can get some application of this book in the lives of our students.
From the institute manual we learn about the Assyrian nation:
(D-1) Assyria: Masters of War
In 721 B.C. Assyria swept out of the north, captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and took the ten tribes into captivity. From there they became lost to history.
Assyria, named for the god Ashur (highest in the pantheon of Assyrian gods), was located in the Mesopotamian plain. It was bordered on the west by the Syrian desert, on the south by Babylonia, and on the north and east by the Persian and Urarthian hills (see J. D. Douglas, ed., The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Assyria,” 1:137). This area today is primarily the nation of Iraq.
Perhaps the earliest inhabitants of the area were the Subareans, who were joined later by the Sumerians. In the third millennium B.C. came the Semites who eventually merged with the Subareans and Sumerians. “They took their common language and their arts from Sumeria, but modified them later into an almost indistinguishable similarity to the language and arts of Babylonia. Their circumstances, however, forbade them to indulge in the effeminate ease of Babylon; from beginning to end they were a race of warriors, mighty in muscle and courage, abounding in proud hair and beard, standing straight, stern and solid on their monuments, and bestriding with tremendous feet the east-Mediterranean world. Their history is one of kings and slaves, wars and conquests, bloody victories and sudden defeat.” (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, The Story of Civilization, 1:266.)
Assyria’s ascent as a formidable power in the Near East was due in large measure to strong kings who increased her borders and subjected other nations as tributaries. Assyria first became an independent nation between 1813 and 1781 B.C. under Shamshi-Adad (see LaMar C. Berrett, Discovering the World of the Bible, p. 180). Other powerful kings who left their mark on Assyrian history included Tiglath-pileser I (1115–1077 B.C. ), Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C. ), Shalmaneser III (858–824 B.C. ), Shamshi-Adad V (824–811 B.C. ), Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 B.C. ), Shalmaneser V (726–722 B.C. ), Sargon II (721–705 B.C. ), Sennacherib (704–681 B.C. ), Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C. ), and Ashurbanipal (668–627 B.C. ) (see Berrett, World of the Bible, p. 180; see also Douglas, Illustrated Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Assyria,” 1:139).
Under these kings Assyria reached its greatest apex of power, controlling the area that included not only Assyria but also Babylonia, Armenia, Media, Judea, Syria, Phoenicia, Sumeria, Elam, and Egypt. This empire “was without doubt the most extensive administrative organization yet seen in the Mediterranean or Near Eastern world; only Hammurabi and Thutmose III had approached it, and Persia alone would equal it before the coming of Alexander” (Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 1:270).
(D-2) The Standardization of Terror
The most vital part of the Assyrian government was its army. Warfare was a science to the leaders of Assyria. Infantry, chariots, cavalry (introduced by Ashurnasirpal to aid the infantry and chariots), sappers, armor made from iron, siege machines, and battering rams were all developed or perfected by the Assyrians. Strategy and tactics were also well understood by the Assyrian officers. (See Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 1:270–71.)
But it was not just Assyrian effectiveness in warfare that struck terror to the hearts of the Near Eastern world. They were savage and brutal as well.
“A captured city was usually plundered and burnt to the ground, and its site was deliberately denuded by killing its trees. The loyalty of the troops was secured by dividing a large part of the spoils among them; their bravery was ensured by the general rule of the Near East that all captives in war might be enslaved or slain. Soldiers were rewarded for every severed head they brought in from the field, so that the aftermath of a victory generally witnessed the wholesale decapitation of fallen foes. Most often the prisoners, who would have consumed much food in a long campaign, and would have constituted a danger and nuisance in the rear, were dispatched after the battle; they knelt with their backs to their captors, who beat their heads in with clubs, or cut them off with cutlasses. Scribes stood by to count the number of prisoners taken and killed by each soldier, and apportioned the booty accordingly; the king, if time permitted, presided at the slaughter. The nobles among the defeated were given more special treatment: their ears, noses, hands and feet were sliced off, or they were thrown from high towers, or they and their children were beheaded, or flayed alive, or roasted over a slow fire. . . .
“…The Assyrians seemed to find satisfaction—or a necessary tutelage for their sons—in torturing captives, blinding children before the eyes of their parents, flaying men alive, roasting them in kilns, chaining them in cages for the amusement of the populace, and then sending the survivors off to execution. Ashurnasirpal tells how ‘all the chiefs who had revolted I flayed, with their skins I covered the pillar, some in the midst I walled up, others on stakes I impaled, still others I arranged around the pillar on stakes. . . . As for the chieftains and royal officers who had rebelled, I cut off their members.’ Ashurbanipal boasts that ‘I burned three thousand captives with fire, I left not a single one among them alive to serve as a hostage.’ Another of his inscriptions reads: ‘These warriors who had sinned against Ashur and had plotted evil against me . . . from their hostile mouths have I torn their tongues, and I have compassed their destruction. As for the others who remained alive, I offered them as a funerary sacrifice; . . . their lacerated members have I given unto the dogs, the swine, the wolves. . . . By accomplishing these deeds I have rejoiced the heart of the great gods.’ Another monarch instructs his artisans to engrave upon the bricks these claims on the admiration of posterity: ‘My war chariots crush men and beasts. . . . The monuments which I erect are made of human corpses from which I have cut the head and limbs. I cut off the hands of all those whom I capture alive.’ Reliefs at Nineveh show men being impaled or flayed, or having their tongues torn out; one shows a king gouging out the eyes of prisoners with a lance while he holds their heads conveniently in place with a cord passed through their lips.” (Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 1:271, 275–76.)
Jonah’s struggle to forgive such brutal people is only natural. In fact, he mentions that he would rather die than to be the mouthpiece of the Lord in extending mercy to such a hardened people (Jonah 4:3). Jonah was well aware of the tender mercies of the Lord, and he knew that if the people of Nineveh repented, that the Lord would spare them. There are several applications of this text in the lives of young people.
Never Give Up
A great truth in the book of Jonah that must be emphasized to young people is the great love that God has for his children. He truly will manifest himself unto all people. This also happens to be a great theme that runs throughout the Book of Mormon. The purpose of the Book of Mormon is to “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations…” (Book of Mormon, title page). The book of Jonah is an illustration that the Lord is mindful of every people, even the most battle hardened Assyrian warrior.
An excellent cross reference for Jonah 3:1-7 is Mosiah 28:28-30 where Alma tells us that he “was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.” If the Lord will manifest himself to Alma, a man intent on destroying the church, certainly he will reach out to the youth of this Church in our day. 1 Nephi 17:35 reminds us that “all are alike unto God”, this being a great theme in the book of Jonah.
Jonah’s Struggle: To Forgive His Enemies and See as God Sees
Jonah is angry with the Lord for his grace in saving the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4:1-4). Just as Jonah was upset with the Lord showing mercy for those who have caused us pain, so we too have difficulty forgiving those who trespass against us. “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men (D&C 64:9-10).
Elder Neal A. Maxwell stated: “Do not let yesterday hold tomorrow hostage!” (Ensign, May 1982, p. 39).
A classic story by the French writer Guy de Maupassant illustrates this principle. He wrote of a life changing event that happened to a peasant named Hauchecome who at a critical time in his life decided to hold on to bitterness and anger instead of let go:
While walking through the public square of his village one day, Hauchecome saw a piece of string lying on the cobblestones. Without much forethought he leaned over and picked up the string, placing it in his pocket. Unknown to him, the village harness maker, with whom he had previously had a disagreement, had observed this seemingly unimportant action.
Later that same day a purse was reported missing, and the harness maker accused Hauchecome of picking it up and pocketing it. He was arrested and brought before the mayor, where he protested his innocence, showing his accusers the piece of string he had placed in his pocket. However, his protests provoked mocking laughter rather than exoneration. Surely he did not expect his accusers to believe this fabled excuse of “a piece of string.” They demanded the return of the lost purse.
The following day the purse was found, and Hauchecome was absolved of any wrongdoing. However, he refused to accept the apology and allowed the incident to embitter and canker his soul. In a spirit that became increasingly resentful of the humiliation he had suffered, he thought and spoke of little else. “A piece of string! A piece of string!” he would say as he repeated over and over his story to any unlucky enough to be stopped by him.
His obsession with the injustice done to him led to a neglect of his farm and ultimately to ill health and death. Unforgiving to the last, his final words in mortality were, “A piece of string! A piece of string!” (Hoyt Brewster, Defining Moments, p. 69-70; see also The Works of Guy de Maupassant [Roslyn, N.Y., Black’s Reader Service, 1972], p. 34-38)
If we really take some time and put ourselves into Jonah’s shoes, the text becomes even more real. Imagine being called to serve a mission to the nation of the people who destroyed your whole family? What if you were called to give service to someone who spread lies about you? There really is no perfect analogy, but the students will get the point. Jonah had “reason” to take offense. He had “reason” to be angry. Faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ can, at times, require that we suspend reason and see things through the eyes of faith. There will always be difficult times in our discipleship, where, to the natural man or to the world, what we do or how we view things does not square with reason. If we only look at things of God with our natural eyes, we will begin to lose faith.
If Jonah had this struggle, I assume we all have moments in our lives when we will as well. This is part of our mortal experience, to have the eyes of faith and pray for a vision that is Godly. In so doing, we become like the master we serve.