And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
As a teacher, I often tell my students that the reason why experience is the best teacher is that it is Mr. Experience's job to teach those who will neither listen to their elders or read a book. If a student walks into a class interested in learning, any fool with more knowledge of a subject than the student has will be able to help the student learn, but if a student is going to be stubborn and unwilling to listen, he'll learn only from the school of hard knocks--perhaps the instruction of the stocks of which Proverbs speaks?
Jonah has proven a learner from his experience on the sea and in the great fish. He heads for Nineveh, and proclaims the message which God commissioned him to proclaim.
Jonah's message is what once was called fire-and-brimstone; a warning of terrible temporal and eternal judgments to come. The genre has become very unpopular in modern times, and is generally held up for ridicule by people who consider themselves enlightened and taken as a handy excuse to ignore the teachings of Scripture.
Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the human condition, whether today's or that of the ancient Assyrians, is a dangerous one. The casualties of war occupy the headlines and television news, yet traffic accidents claim many times the number of young American lives that distant battlefields do. Those who went to work in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 did so unaware that thousands of them would die or be seriously injured as their ordinary working day began. All of us work hard and try to save, but a combination of imprudence and expediency may well lead a government to adopt policies which might wipe out our economic security in a matter of months. And, to fortify ourselves against the dangers of life, we adopt a number of comforting lies, such as that a group of people no better than ourselves will, if given sufficient power, guarantee secure lives for all. We do this in order to ignore the uncomfortable truth that life is a bit like being a fiddler on the roof--he needs to make beautiful music without falling down and breaking his neck. At least fire-and-brimstone is a reminder of the fact that life is lived on a dangerous precipice.
It also reminds us that there is a terrible significance to life. While Jonah does not speak of the world to come, the warnings given by Jesus Christ and others about the coming day of judgment is a reminder that, unlike the Zen koan that speaks of man entering the water and leaving no ripple, our lives leave ripples that go on forever. Are our lives the sort that honor God; or are they such that they provoke a righteous God to not only snuff them out, but also sweep away the society that they have helped shape, and then cast us and all around us on that great burning rubbish heap of history called Gehenna?
Perhaps the citizens of ancient Nineveh, on the day Jonah came to town, figured that their powerful monarch who had begun the systematic conquest and looting of neighboring tribes and nations would ensure that sufficient booty would flow into Nineveh to keep it the most prosperous of cities for eternity. Perhaps the Ninevites believed that their craftsmen, merchants, and farmers would be able to eternally keep up a flow of trade with those with whom they were not at war as well. Yet to them, Jonah announces that their world is to be overthrown in forty days.
The task of prophecy is not to stroke the ego and soothe consciences that ought not to be soothed. Jonah has accepted and followed that calling. It remains to be seen what his prophecy brings about.