Summary for week: In Preparation for our time of prayer and fasting during this series, this week we will spend time learning about different times of fasting from the Bible.
Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”
This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all. On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.
When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:
“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”
When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.
Many people are familiar with the story of Jonah and the great fish even if they’ve never read the Bible. It’s a favorite story from the Old Testament to tell our kids and to speculate on the possibility of a fish so large. But often we don’t notice how the account of Jonah and his misadventures is not really about the fish at all. It’s about the call to repentance by a loving, merciful God who does not wish to see anyone perish.
The backdrop to Jonah’s story is the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was a place of wickedness, greed, idolatry, and violence – basically a people very far from God, living life as they saw fit. It seems Nineveh would fit right into our world today in many ways. God, however, decided to give Nineveh a chance, so he sent Jonah to declare His message of impending judgment and destruction “because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2b). Jonah fled instead, as he did not want to give Nineveh the chance God was offering and thus he had the encounter with the fish, being swallowed and thereby spending three days in its belly. For all intents and purposes dead to the world.
Jesus refers to the experience of Jonah by likening it to His being swallowed by death for three days after His crucifixion (For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Matthew 12:40).
Jonah had little choice but to fast while he cried out to God and accepted what seemed to be his own end. However, God still had plans for Jonah.
After God released Jonah from his underwater “tomb”, Jonah finally accepted his calling and did in fact travel to Nineveh to give the warning.
What seems most surprising in all of this account? The Ninevites accepted the message, believed God, and repented. They demonstrated their change of heart by fasting and humbling themselves before God. ALL of them. From the lowest to the very king of Assyria himself. Their change of heart was so complete as they even had their animals take part in the fast. Now this is an awe-inspiring revival and God, true to His character, showed mercy so that the city would be saved from destruction.
It’s interesting to note how Nineveh fasted for three days by their own decision – just as Jonah had “fasted” for three days whether he wanted to or not.
Thankfully God also shows us mercy as we accept the work of His Son, repent, and trust that we too can be saved. So, as we consider what the purpose and meaning of fasting and humbling ourselves before God is, let us, like the Ninevites, open our ears to the message of Jonah (and Christ). Let us turn our hearts and our thoughts to God, so that we be revived just as Nineveh was revived.
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23.