Jonah=A Miracle of History

The story of Jonah in the Old Testament is a familiar one to many. The account of him being called to preach at Ninevah and running in the opposite direction, only to be swallowed by a great fish during a raging storm at sea, and then being miraculously released to go preach to the Assyrian people at Ninevah has been told to children and adults alike over the years. This narrative can easily be re-told. What I am trying to amplify here is that God accomplished a historical miracle in the way that He halted the usual decline of a civilization and allowed them to live for about another 125 years simply because they listened to Him for at least a while and repented, as He wanted them to.

What is the historical miracle? It centers upon Toynbee's theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. The only reason that I would exhume one of man's theories in a Bible class is that man found exactly the same thing that the Bible teaches. Arnold Toynbee found in studying the history of the world that civilizations go through four very predictable stages from birth through demise. All 27 civilizations that had existed before 1948 progressed through these same four stages at various rates and for various times:

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...........................x...........x....C:...Decline........................

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.......B: Stable.......x...................x.......republic.....................

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.................x...............................x.....D: Disintegration.........

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......A:......Revolution/birth.............................x.......................

The civilization was the unit Toynbee analyzed. Countries have sometimes been crushed from without, but a civilization (such as Rome, Syria, Phoenicia) has never been. Civilizations always fall from within, due--Toynbee found--to moral decay from within.

The books of Jonah and Nahum, to those who know this historical theory, tell a story of a historical miracle. After God sent the great man Jonah--in a time in the life cyle of civilizations when customarily no more great men arise--to preach to Ninevah of Assyria to get them to repent. Oh how Jonah didn't want to go! The Assyrians were unGodly people and they were the captors of Israel in 722. Jonah's people had been carried off to what would be present-day Iraq as captives and Jonah had no love for Israel's captors. But God "persuaded" him to go and preach, so finally he did. And the people of Assyria repented in sackcloth and ashes. This outcome was not a demonstration of Jonah's power as a gospel preacher, but rather a demonstration of the power of God's word to convict men of sin and urge them to repent. As a result of this historical miracle, instead of Assyria's decline following the usual straight downward line from C to D, they had about 125 additional years until their decline. They should have been gone long before they finally were.

Here is a brief description of each of Toynbee's four stages:

1. In revolution/birth "great men" are willing to lead. They lead in unselfish ways. Leaders are believable and act in good faith. In the birthing times of most civilizations, leaders are religious, at least in broad terms. All sacrifice to help the new country or civilizations get on its feet. There is strong pressure from the outside which helps to solidify on the inside. In stage A, participants do not dwell on individual rights or immediate gratification.

2. In the stable republic there are still great men. With the revolution behind them, people begin to try to make themselves a little comfortable. They are still willing to sacrifice to keep their civilization, whether it be through taxation or military service. The pressure from without has abated somewhat, lessening the response from within.

3. In stage C, decline, the people become too self-indulgent. They begin to lose the will to fight, like David who stayed behind in Jerusalem (II Samuel 11: 1) or the Romans who hired mercenaries to do their fighting rather than to continue to do it themselves. There is strong talk of civil rights and individual freedoms. As the stage progresses, the freedoms of everyone actually decline while a lawless few capture even more freedom. There is graft in high places. "Great men" become fewer and fewer, and public officials become less and less believable. Few are drawn to public service purely because of the desire to serve; most are drawn to office for what they can get out of it. Morals decline, then break down, as in the Roman orgies; the civilizations reach a point where evil looks good and good looks evil to many. A few begin to warn of decline and impending doom, but they are written off by a majority who seek instant gratification. Rome was the most classic case.

4. In stage D, disintegration, even the densist of persons knows that the country/civilization is not long for this world. There is widespread hopelessness. The people do not believe that they can mount a collective self- discipline to avert disaster. In government, there are no more good men. All government officials are opportunists. Religious persons are persecuted or are at least ignored. The military has become a mockery. In the midst of this chaos, there are still those who call for more individual freedom and less interference from the State.

The pre-exilic books (Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Hosea, Amos, Micah) were warning God's people that they were getting down toward D and past the point of no return if they didn't change soon. One of the inexorable difficulties of trying to deal with a people in this situation is that they do not take prophets or preachers seriously. Compare to Lot's relatives in Genesis 19:14. While some see what is coming, most refuse to believe it.

Questions for discussion:

1. Where do you see the North American civiliation today?

2. In Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah, which stage do each of the authors seem to be portraying?

3. What should we be doing in America today to stay away from D?

4. When does God do away with a nation? Can you offer a scriptural basis for your answer?

5. Given Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 7, what advice would you give to a government leader today?




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