Man Alive! — Jonah: Lessons From a Wayward Prophet
Pastor Ricky Kurth
(From a class taught in Minor Prophets at Berean Bible Institute)
In the news industry, they say when dog bites man, there’s no story, but when man bites dog, then it’s time to alert the media! Just so, when a man swallows a fish, it’s no big deal, but when a fish swallows a man, now we’re talking headlines! There are fish stories, and then there are fish stories, and certainly Jonah’s story of the fish from which he got away is the grandest of them all!
The world may scoff at the story of Jonah, but the Lord Jesus Christ firmly established the historicity of Jonah when He referred to Jonah’s story on a couple of occasions. Either the account of Jonah was true, or else our Lord was lying, or at the very least, misleading people into believing a fable.
For the Bible-believing child of God, of course, the story of Jonah is accepted without question. It has well been said that there is a reason why the very first verse of the Bible begins with such an illustrious declaration of the stupendous miraculous power of God. If the reader of Holy Writ can accept this opening statement by faith, then nothing in the pages that follow can stretch the limits of credibility. Hence, when asked if he really believed the Bible when it says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, one Christian is reported to have replied that he would believe the Bible even if it said that Jonah swallowed the whale!
A fascinating fact about Jonah is that even though the Lord identifies him as a “prophet” (Matt. 12:39; 16:4), he made no predictions of the future, except for one—an apparent prediction which didn’t come true! This reminds us that a “prophet” in Scripture was simply someone who spoke for God, and didn’t necessarily predict the future. And so when Jonah faithfully delivered his message of impending doom to the Ninevites, he was a prophet in the truest sense of the word.
Jonah is introduced to us as “the son of Amittai” (1:1). This means that the Pharisees were wrong when they dismissed the Lord Jesus as a prophet, saying, “out of Galilee ariseth no prophet” (John 7:52). We are told that Amittai was “of Gathhepher” (II Kings 14:25), a city also known as “Gittahhepher” (Jos. 19:13), part of the inheritance of the children of Zebulun (Jos. 19:16). Matthew 4:15 identifies Zebulun as Galilee, and our Lord was a Galilaean (Matt. 21:11).
Jonah was sent to “Nineveh” (1:2), the capital city of ancient Assyria, and so a Gentile city. It should never be assumed that God cared nothing for the Gentiles in Old Testament times.
Jonah is often accused of racism in refusing to preach to Gentiles, but as we shall see, this is demonstrably not true. The real reason for his refusal is that the Assyrians were butchers, guilty of war-time atrocities that would make a Nazi blush. Jonah’s sense of justice prompted him to want to see such monsters judged of God, not given an opportunity to be spared His wrath. Jonah may also have been motivated by a patriotic desire to spare his beloved homeland from this brutal regime.
It is significant that “Joppa” is mentioned here in connection with Jonah (1:3), for it reminds us of a New Testament Jewish leader who was sent to the Gentiles from Joppa, the Apostle Peter (Acts 10:5,8,23,32). When called upon to defend himself for going to the Gentiles, Peter mentions Joppa twice (Acts 11:5,13). The significance of this emphasis would escape most Gentiles, but was not lost on the Jews who sought an explanation from Peter for going to Gentiles. In mentioning Joppa, Peter is reminding them that it was not without precedent that a Jew be sent to Gentiles. He was also reminding them of the futility of resisting such a commission! Peter did not dare disobey God and end up like Jonah, “sleeping with the fishes,” so to speak! It is interesting to note in this regard that Peter was “the son of Jona” in more ways than one! (John 1:42; 21:15,16,17).
Notice that Jonah “paid the fare” to enter the ship. Even today, there is always a price to pay for disobedience to the revealed will of God!
It is more than probable that there were worse sinners on board the ship than Jonah, yet God did not alter the course of nature to deal with them, but rather with Jonah (1:4). While God’s people are often quick to decry the sins of unbelievers, it is our conviction that God is far more concerned with the sins of believers than He is with the sins of the unsaved, and the example of Jonah would seem to bear this out.
Jonah 1:5 records the third time we are told that in running away from the Lord, Jonah was going “down”(cf. 1:3). Any time a believer in any dispensation is living in rebellion against the revealed will of God, he is going down not up. When a man standing on the North Pole takes a step in any direction, he is heading south, and when we choose to walk away from the will of God in any direction, we too are heading “south,” spiritually speaking.
We can learn a valuable lesson about prayer from these unsaved mariners, for they “cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them.” While we do well to pray to God about anything that might cause us to be “careful,” or full of care (Phil. 4:6), we should also “put shoe leather to our prayers,” as they say, by doing all that we can do to alleviate any adversity in which we find ourselves. While the people of Israel are called “the children of Israel” over 600 times in Scripture, God considers members of the Body of Christ to be full-grown “sons” (Gal. 4:5,6), and expects more of us when it comes to helping ourselves.
You would think that Jonah’s disobedience to God would render him unable to sleep due to a guilty conscience, but we are told that he was not only asleep but “fast asleep.” The world may say, “let your conscience be your guide,” but the conscience of man can be “seared” (I Tim. 4:2), rendering it unreliable as a guide through the treacherous waters of life. The Apostle Paul could say that he had “lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1), including even his murderous days as Saul of Tarsus, for in those days he truly believed he was doing God’s will (cf. John 16:2).
Our conscience is only a reliable guide when the light of God’s Word is shining upon it. In this the conscience is much the same as a sundial, which can only give accurate time when the light of the sun shines upon it. When read by moonlight, a sundial will be an inaccurate guide to the correct time, and with the application of a flashlight, you can make a sundial to read any time you want! How like man, who tends to bring different lights to bear on his conscience, until even rebellion against the revealed will of God seems perfectly acceptable.
It is a pretty sorry circumstance when an unbeliever has to chasten a believer to pray (1:6)! But there was something about this storm, either its ferocity, or the unseasonableness of it, or both—something told these storm-seasoned mariners that this storm was a judgment from God.
The casting of lots (1:7) was an accurate means of divining the will of God in time past (Prov. 16:33; Acts 1:26), but as we rightly divide the Word of truth we know that such is not the case today. Today, our Apostle Paul says that we must prayerfully test or “prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” by renewing our minds (Rom. 12:2) with a “knowledge” of the Word of God (Col. 1:10).
In Jonah 1:8, Jonah is asked four questions, all of which are satisfied with one answer: “I am an Hebrew” (v. 9). Being a Hebrew was a unique thing in the world, for it was at once a nationality, an ethnicity, a religion, and for the true Hebrew it also indicated that he was a child of God (Rom. 2:29), making it his “occupation.” Every true believer today should likewise look upon his faith as the thing which should occupy his mind, his body, his soul and his spirit.
It is noteworthy that when Jonah speaks to these Gentiles about God, He introduces Him to them as the Creator. In the Book of Acts, Paul twice addressed crowds of Gentiles, and both times mirrored this unique form of presentation of the Almighty. It didn’t matter if he was addressing primitive, superstitious Gentiles (Acts 14:15) or urban high-brow philosophical sophisticates (Acts 17:24); in both cases he began by telling them about Creator-God. While Jews, who by nature accept the truth of Genesis 1:1, did not need to be reminded of who God is, Gentiles were another story. At one time in our own day the vast majority of people in this country were church-goers who knew that Jesus Christ was Creator-God in the flesh, but as our society has devolved away from such knowledge, some have suggested that we too should preface our gospel presentation with affirmations that the One who died for our sins was the Creator in the flesh.
On the surface it might seem obvious that the thing to do to calm the storm was for the sailors to rid themselves of the source of the problem. However, if Jonah was truly a prophet of God, perhaps killing him would not be the best way to curry God’s favor! Rather they rightly asked him what should be done (1:11). What a picture of how the nations in time past were responsible before God to look to Israel to learn how to be saved, even when Israel was living in rebellion against God!
In Jonah 1:12 we have proof that Jonah’s reluctance to preach to the Ninevites was not racially motivated, for Jonah here shows his willingness to die for Gentiles; his problem was only with Assyrian Gentiles! Jonah also shows his stubbornness here, saying as it were, “I’d rather die than turn the ship around and go preach to Nineveh!”
When the mariners are finally convinced that the advice of this Hebrew prophet is their only hope of salvation, they comply with his instructions to cast him into the sea (1:12-17). Jonah now believes that he has succeeded in sacrificing his life that justice might be served upon the Assyrian barbarians. But God has other plans!
When Jonah 2:1 opens with the word “then,” the careful student of Scripture will ask when Jonah prayed this prayer. If we back up to the last verse of Chapter 1, it mentions Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish. So when the second chapter opens by telling us Jonah prayed “then,” we know that we are reading about a prayer that Jonah prayed after the three days and nights.
But as Jonah begins to pray, it is obvious that he is speaking about a prayer that he “cried” (past tense) earlier (2:2), before his three days and nights in the whale. However, this earlier prayer was not prayed from “the belly of the fish,” but rather “out of the belly of hell.” You see, while tradition holds that Jonah was miraculously preserved by God in the belly of the whale, it is the conviction of this writer and others that Jonah rather died and rose again three days later, making him a true type of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 12:39,40).
But here a word of explanation is necessary. When the Bible says Jonah went to “hell,” it mustn’t be assumed that he went to the place of fire and torment normally associated with this word. The Hebrew word for “hell” used here is sheol, and was the after-life destination of all who died in Old Testament times. We read, for example, that “the wicked shall be turned into hell [sheol]” (Psa. 9:17), but we also read that righteous David anticipated going to “hell” [sheol] (Psa. 16:10). When Peter quotes David’s psalm and applies it to Christ (Acts 2:25-31), we understand that the Lord Jesus likewise went to “hell” when He died.
However, when Peter quotes Psalm 16, Luke was inspired to translate the word sheol using the Greek word hades. And so we understand that sheol and hades are one and the same, and speak of a place of both comfort and torment, with “a great gulf fixed” in between (Luke 16:23-26). Hence the Lord Jesus, David and Jonah all went to the comfort side of this place of the departed dead.
And so while Jonah 2:1 speaks of a prayer Jonah prayed in the fish at the end of his three day experience, he refers back to a prayer that he prayed in hell at the beginning. We will see more evidence that Jonah died and went to sheol in the verses that follow. These evidences are important, for if Jonah was conscious in sheol, these verses join the list of Scriptures that prove the doctrine of soul sleep is untenable.
In Jonah 2:3, it is precious to see the prophet quoting Scripture (Psa. 42:7), as he does frequently throughout this passage. What a wonderful thing it is for the child of God to memorize the Word of God, to build up a reservoir of Scripture in our souls, to be drawn upon for comfort when in distress. While it is not likely that the reader will ever be swallowed by a whale, it is likely and almost certain that we will often find ourselves in troublous times, times that can be greatly eased by the comfort that only God can provide through His Word.
Jonah 2:4 also begins with the time-word “then,” and refers again to his earlier prayer prayed from sheol. And so this time when Jonah quotes Scripture (Psa. 31:22), it leads us to an even more precious conclusion: that the repository of Scripture that we store away in our soul during this life is something we take with us into the next life! Wrong conclusions that we have made about God’s Word will of course have to be unlearned, but the Scripture itself that we learn in this life will be a foundation that we will build upon throughout eternity.
Before leaving this verse, note that the Psalm Jonah quotes here is a Psalm that speaks prophetically of the thoughts of our Lord Jesus after He committed His spirit to God and died (Psa. 31:5 cf. Luke 23:46), more evidence that Jonah himself has died. When we read that the waters touched Jonah’s “soul,” while the weeds were wrapped around the head of his body (2:5), we see yet further evidence that he has expired.
In Jonah 2:6, we see further evidence that Jonah was no longer in the fish, but was rather in sheol. He describes sheol as a containment area enclosed by “bars” from which there is no escape (cf. I Sam. 23:7). It is safe to conclude from Jonah’s words here that one of the first things you learn when you arrive at your after-life destination is that it is “for ever,” a delightful reality for believers, but a sobering thought indeed for those who have not yet trusted Christ as their Savior.
When Jonah says to God, “yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption,” these too are words that ill-fit a man who was miraculously preserved alive, but make perfect sense when spoken by a man who has been raised from the dead. The Bible word “corruption” speaks of the corruption of death. In I Corinthians 15:53, for instance, the word “mortal” means living but capable of dying. At the Rapture, Paul says that those who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord will have to “put on immortality.” But by contrast the word “corruptible” speaks of a body that has died and is now subject to the corruption of death. At the Rapture, those who have died previous to the Lord’s coming “must put on incorruption.” Thus we know that when Jonah speaks about how God brought back his life “from corruption,” he speaks of how God had raised him from the corruption of death.
The lying vanity Jonah speaks of in Jonah 2:8 is doubtless the vain idea that you can rebel against God and get away with it. All who fall for this lie “forsake their own mercy.”
The question in Jonah 2:9 is: what did Jonah vow, and when did he vow it? There are a couple of possibilities. First, it is possible that before any of this took place, Jonah may have told the Lord, “I’ll preach anywhere you want me to preach,” only to learn to his dismay that God wanted him to preach in Nineveh! If this be the case, he learned the hard way that “better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:5).
But it is also possible that when Jonah cried to the Lord “out of the belly of hell” (2:1) that he then vowed to go to Nineveh after all, if God would only give him another chance. If this be the case, then it points up the truth that regret is something else that we will take with us into the next life, regret that we did not serve the Lord faithfully when we had the chance. Fortunately, this is something that we can do something about while we yet have life and breath!
When God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh, the prophet replied, as it were, “Over my dead body!” Jonah then showed that he would rather die than give the barbarians in Nineveh a chance to repent (Jonah 2:12). And as we have seen, Jonah actually did die in the whale, and God raised him from the dead, making him a true type of Christ.
Now no one knows that “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9) like someone who has died and been imprisoned in sheol, the place of all the departed dead in Old Testament times. No human effort could avail to free a man from that divinely secured place of confinement. What a picture of how if we are to be saved from the penalty of sin, this too must be “of the Lord,” for no human effort can avail to free us from the bondage of sin. Salvation is of the Lord!
The obedience of the fish to the word of the Lord (2:10) stands in stark contrast to thedisobedienceof Jonah! Frogs, flies, lice, locusts and caterpillars all obey God without question (Psa. 105:30-34); only man dares say no to God.
But God is a God of second chances (Jonah 3:1,2), as witnessed by men such as Moses, Peter, and John Mark, to name just a few. These examples should give hope to any of our readers who may have strayed from the Lord and are wondering if He could ever take you back. However, these examples should also serve as a warning to us all that it is always best to obey God when first we learn of His will.
Thanks to the second chance extended to Jonah, he is now as obedient to God (3:9) as the wind and the sea in Chapter 1. Isn’t it amazing the attitude adjustment that a few days in a fish can produce!
Jonah had only begun to deliver God’s message (3:4) when every preacher’s dream came true, and the people of Nineveh repented “from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5). God used this brief sermon of eight words (even fewer in the Hebrew text!) to bring an entire city to repentance, proving once again the old adage that “a sermon need not be eternal to be immortal!” When we consider the darkness of the human heart, we wonder whether such momentous results cannot be considered the biggest miracle in the Book of Jonah.
How was the prophet able to see such extraordinary results? The key just might be in Jonah’s description of how the citizens of Nineveh repented “from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” This phraseology is used eight other times in Scripture, but in each case the categories are reversed. That is, the normal way of expressing this phrase is to say, “from the least even unto the greatest.” But here we feel that the transposition is significant.
Jonah 3:6 begins with the word “for,” which means that the prophet is about to tell us how it came to be that the entire city repented. Verse 6 then goes on to explain how even the king of Nineveh repented, and so it is possible that Jonah was able to bring an entire city to its knees because of the influence of the city’s sovereign. Once the king of Nineveh believed and repented (3:6), the people followed suit. This hypothesis has a couple of possible applications to our ministry today.
Not long ago, Things To Come Mission director Ben Anderson began to implement what he called “the Troas strategy” in countries where TCM ministers. This strategy is based on Paul’s experience in Acts 16, where after the Spirit forbad him to preach the word in Asia and Bithynia (v. 6,7), the apostle came to Troas (v. 8), where a vision convinced him that the Lord had called him to preach in Macedonia (v. 9,10). He soon found himself in Philippi, which was “the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony” (v. 12). This designation of Philippi as a Roman “colony” made it a city of considerable influence.
It would seem from all this that rather than letting Paul continue to stop and minister in every city to which he came in piecemeal fashion, God was rather guiding him to “chief” cities such as Athens, Corinth and Ephesus. While there will always be opponents and proponents of what was called “trickle-down economics,” as the gospel trickled down from these influential cities “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). The considerable results achieved by reaching key, influential cities reminds us of the results that Jonah achieved by reaching Nineveh’s influential king. Pastor Dennis Kiszonas has similarly produced a considerable ministry that has emanated out of New York City after this visionary pastor targeted the chief city of the United States.
A similar strategy is being employed by Grace Evangelist Art Fowler, who has a unique ministry. Art witnesses to anyone and everyone, from the least of men even unto the greatest. However, he targetshigh-profile people in entertainment, government, and many other circles of life, people thought by most of us to be simply unreachable with the gospel. We wonder if this too isn’t an example of following the methodology of the Apostle Paul, who after his Troas experience perhaps purposely sought out not only chief cities but chief citizens (Acts 17:7). By the time he reached Ephesus, it could be said of “certain of the chief of Asia” that they “were his friends” (Acts 19:31). Perhaps Paul was able to reach all which dwelt in Asia because he had focused on certain key, influential people, from whom the gospel was received by others more readily. We might call this the Nineveh strategy, for it sure seemed to work in the case of the king of this great city.
Another application of this principle might be reflected in the efforts of many of our Grace brethren to get dispensational literature into the hands of pastors and other spiritual leaders. The people of the 1st Philippian Church of Detroit all came to rejoice in the message of grace when years ago Pastor Wilson Watkins came into a knowledge of the truth.
Next, when we read that Nineveh’s king repented in hopes that God would change his mind about destroying his city (Jonah 3:9), it should be noted that he was not acting in compliance with any stated terms or conditions uttered by Jonah. That is, Jonah had not proclaimed, “Your city shall be destroyed—unless you repent.” It would seem that the prophet was simply stating a prophetic prediction when he proclaimed, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” But whether the king knew it or not, Israel’s God was a God that Jeremiah later characterized as a forgiving God, even when it came to nations other than Israel:
“At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
“If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jer. 18:7,8).
And so as we compare Scripture with Scripture, we understand that whenever we read of an announcement on God’s part to bring judgment on a people, such pronouncements always carry an implied proviso that He will relent should the people He intends to judge change their ways. We see an example of this in Micah 3:12. While this verse seems to be an unqualified prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah later quoted this verse (Jer. 26:18) and observed that when the city repented, God changed His mind (v. 19).
All of this is significant in light of the position held by open theism that God didn’t offer Nineveh any terms by which they might be spared because He fully intended to destroy the city, and then was surprised at their repentance. The open view, as some of our readers may know, teaches that God does not know the future, outside of what He himself has determined to do. Open theists would hold that God did not know in advance that Nineveh would repent.
However, unless it was understood that Jonah’s proclamation was conditional, then under the strict terms of Deuteronomy 18:22, his prophecy was a false prophecy, making him a false prophet. But as with the seemingly unconditional prophecy of Amoz in II Kings 20:1, of which God quickly repented (v. 6), the conditional nature of Jonah’s words was clearly implied.
The case of Amoz deserves special attention in this regard. When he delivered God’s announcement to Hezekiah that he would “die, and not live,” there didn’t seem to be anything conditional about his words. His prophecy seemed to be a clear prediction of the king’s imminent demise. However, we can demonstrate from Scripture that it was simply not possible that Hezekiah could die at that time. God had promised David:
“…If thy children take heed to their way, to walk before me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail thee (said He) a man on the throne of Israel” (I Kings 2:4).
Hezekiah was one of David’s descendants, and as he himself tells us, he had fulfilled the conditions expressed to David in I Kings 2:4 and had walked before God “in truth and with a perfect heart” (II Kings 20:3). Yet at this time he had no sons who could sit on the throne of David if he should die. II Kings 20:18 makes it clear that the sons that would issue from him had not yet been begotten of him. If he should die childless, as Amoz had stated, the Word of God to David would be broken.
Why then did God flatly state to Hezekiah that he would die? Had He forgotten His promise to David until reminded of it by Hezekiah? Surely not! God was rather testing Hezekiah to see if he remembered God’s promise, a test Hezekiah passed with flying colors, actually quoting the promise as he called upon God to be true to His Word. God then acknowledged Hezekiah’s claim on His Word by identifying Himself as “the God of David thy father” (II Kings 20:5), as He granted the king another fifteen years of life.
And so we know that God’s seemingly unconditional prediction of Hezekiah’s death was actually an attempt on God’s part to elicit a declaration of faith from Israel’s king. Similarly, God’s seemingly unconditional pronouncement of doom on Nineveh was actually designed to elicit repentance from a people whom God was eager to spare.
The very fact that God warned Nineveh of their imminent destruction shows that He was pressing them to repent. Surely the example of Sodom serves to teach that when God fully intends to destroy a city, He does so without warning. In His foreknowledge, God knows who will repent and who will not (Ezek. 3:6; Matt. 11:21).
Next, in Jonah 3:10, we have an example of how salvation in time past was by faith plus works. Earlier in this chapter we read that “the people of Nineveh believed God” (v. 5), but it was not until “God saw their works” that He “repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them.” While today faith alone“is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5), this was not the case in time past. For example, when Phinehas executed judgment, we read that “that was counted unto him for righteousness” (Psa. 106:30,31). As we rightly divide the Word of truth, we see that God’s plan of salvation in time past was very different than His plan of salvation today in the dispensation of grace.
Did the people of Nineveh truly repent? We know that they did, for we have the Lord’s word on it (Luke 11:32). However, their repentance would not last, and about one hundred and fifty years later God sent the prophet Nahum to announce their destruction, a destruction which came to pass about a century later (Jer. 18:9,10).
Since we know that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10), how sad it is to see Jonah angry over the repentance of many thousands of sinners (Jonah 4:1). He who rejoiced in the mercy of God when it was extended to him in Chapter 2 is now unhappy when mercy is extended to the Assyrians. Jonah says here, as it were, “Lord, I told you this would happen! I knew You would spare them if they repented!” (4:2).
Jonah doubts that their repentance is genuine, and believing it was only a matter of time before they rebelled against God, he determined to pitch a tent outside of town so as to wait and watch it happen (Jonah 4:5). Since Jonah refused to answer God’s question about whether he is right to be angry (4:4), God gave him a little object lesson to prompt him to respond. The Lord supplied the prophet with a sun-blocking gourd, and then took it away from him. Sadly, Jonah’s reaction was not the same as Job’s (Job 1:21), but rather mirrored the attitude of the foolish women of Job 2:9,10.
Like all sin, sinful anger must be checked or it will worsen. Jonah was angry enough to die when God spared Nineveh, and now he is angry enough to die because God took away his shade! (Jonah 4:5-9). Likewise if we allow ourselves to be sinfully angry over big things, it won’t be long before we are sinfully angry over little things.
Asking the same question in Jonah 4:9 that he asked in Verse 5, God provoked a response from Jonah, in which the prophet declared he had a perfect right to be angry about the gourd that at first had shielded him from the desert sun, but then was taken away. Now that Jonah has taken the bait, God springs the trap on His wayward prophet, pointing out how He had “laboured” much in Nineveh, while Jonah had not expended the least bit of energy to produce the gourd. And yet while Jonah had pity on the gourd, he did not want God to have pity on Nineveh! Once the incongruity of this was pointed out to the seer, Jonah is left with nothing to say in his own defense.
Something should be said, however, about the many people in Nineveh that could not discern between their right hand and their left (4:11). These would include young children and the mentally retarded. God was saying to Jonah, in effect, “You want Me to destroy Nineveh because of the atrocities committed by the adults. But remember, Jonah, there are one hundred and twenty thousand innocent people in Nineveh who would perish along with the guilty,” something God found repugnant (cf. Gen. 19:23-33).
If the reader object that these people, having inherited sin from Adam, were not “innocent,” we would tend to agree, in light of verses like Psalm 51:5 and Psalm 58:3. However, our text points up the truth that there is an “age of accountability,” and children who die before reaching it, and adults whose limited mental capacity never allows them to reach it, are “covered under the Blood,” as Pastor Stam used to say. We see a symbol of this very thing when Ezekiel 45:20 states that the sacrifice of the priest is offered “for him that is simple.”
We see more evidence of an age of accountability when the people of Israel left Egypt. We read that there was an entire generation among them “which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil” (Deut. 1:39). God made it clear that these children would not be held responsible for the rebellion of the adults, but would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. And so it is just sound Biblical hermeneutics to extrapolate from this that God does not hold children and the mentally impaired responsible for their sins.
This precious doctrine is what enabled David to assert with confidence concerning the child that he had lost, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Sam. 12:23). This beloved truth also enabled this writer to preside recently at the funeral of a darling one-year-old little girl and comfort her parents from the Word of God that their hearts would ache only until they are caught up together with their daughter in the clouds.
The lessons to be learned from a wayward prophet are many and varied. May we take them to heart as things that were written “for our learning” (Rom. 15:4), as we determine as never before to obey the Lord without question, to the infinite blessing of our soul, and to the souls of those about us.