We know that we are children of God and that the world around us is under the control of the evil one. That’s right, isn’t it? You do know that you are children of God. You do know that the world is under the control of the evil one, who is called Satan.
When God sent the prophets Amos and Hosea to the people of God in Israel, he was warning them not to be under the control of Satan. We heard last week and the week before how the ten tribes rejected the message. As a result, they disappeared from the world. The chosen people of God shrank from 12 tribes to just the two tribes that remain today. Satan grabbed the ten rebellious tribes of the children of God and destroyed them.
In between Amos and Hosea was another prophet. He was born up in the northern part of Israel in a small village near Nazareth called Gath-hepher. He is recorded in 2 Kings 14:25 as delivering a prophecy to King Jeroboam II. He was Jonah son of Amittai.
Israel was in terrible trouble and there was a lot of wickedness. But things were much worse in some of the other countries in that region. Today the terror group ISIS (also called ‘Daesh’ or ‘Islamic State’) is the most wicked group in that region. They have done things so awful that I cannot bear to think of them or speak of them.
In the days of Amos and Jonah and Hosea, the nation of Assyria was unbelievably wicked. The nation was prosperous and powerful. The Assyrian empire lasted 750 years and stretched as far as Egypt. It was a time of incredible cruelty. These people invented a method of painfully killing people using wooden spikes. It was called impalement. They were a terror group just as terrifying as ISIS is today. They were surely under the control of Satan.
Then as now, the world was evil. It is written in 1 John 5:19 – “We know that we are children of God and that the world around us is under the control of the evil one.”
After God sent Amos to his children, he sent Jonah to the cruel people under the control of the evil one. God sent Jonah to Nineveh, which was the capital of Assyria. It is a bit like God sending a missionary to ISIS or North Korea. No wonder Jonah started to run in the other direction. We know what North Korea does to missionaries.
The story of Jonah is well known and so we can focus on a couple of details.
When Jonah eventually obeyed God and went to Nineveh, we read that the people believed him straight away without any argument. Maybe they knew just how wicked they were. Some people who are wicked are rather proud of it. Not the people of Nineveh.
Verse five tells us that they felt disgrace and were sorry.
“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.”
To show they were sorry, they dressed in burlap. Burlap is the rough material that sacks are made from, and it is very scratchy and uncomfortable.
In the very next verse, the head of this cruel and evil nation heard the news. What did the tyrant do? “He stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes.”
The most powerful and wicked man in the world sat on a pile of ashes wearing a sack when he heard God’s message. He recognised his own wickedness and showed he was sorry.
Contrast this with the response of God’s own children in Amos 7:12. The leader of God’s people, the priest of Bethel, rejected Amos. ‘Then Amaziah sent orders to Amos: “Get out of here, you prophet! Go on back to the land of Judah, and earn your living by prophesying there! Don’t bother us with your prophecies here in Bethel.”’
There is a record that says Amos was killed by the son of Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. It claims that before he died, Amos made his way back to his homeland and was buried there.
When we look at all three prophets together we see something we may not have noticed if we only looked at each one alone.
God sends Amos from Judah to his people in Israel. His prophet is rejected and killed. So God sends his prophet to the evil people under the control of Satan. Surprise, they repent instantly. It is actually an example to the people of Israel. God is saying to them, this is what you should have done. This is how you should respond to my message through my prophet. Now God sends his prophet again to the people of Israel. Have his children learned their lesson?
When the evil people of Nineveh repented, God “changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.” (Jonah 3:10) The appropriate response when God judges us is to say sorry and show we are sorry. Then God relents and has mercy. God removes the threat.
This time God sends Hosea, one of their own, to warn the ten tribes that they are walking into oblivion. This time too they refuse to listen. Hosea is disregarded. God’s children reject him. God’s bride rejects her husband.
The king of Nineveh had said, “Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.” He was right. The people of Israel should have listened. They were protected from the Assyrians for a while. This gave God the time to send Hosea. The protection didn’t last. The Assyrians eventually came and took them all away.
I’m struck by the fact that however wicked and cruel we are, however dark our sins, what God wants is not to punish us but to save us. When God shows us our sins, it is so that we can repent and be saved. It is good to be alert to the possibility we need to repent.
Another feature of the repentance of the Assyrians is that the animals also repented. Perhaps that seems strange to us. Verse 8 says, “People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning.”
The Hebrew Bible consistently includes animals in both the praise of the Creator and the lament for the human condition as well as the environmental devastation humans bring to the world. An example of praise is Psalm 148, a classic text where all creation is called to praise God. “Let every created thing give praise to the Lord, for he issued his command, and they came into being.”
An example of lament is Joel 1 where the “the wild animals cry out to you” just as the priests do. Scripture is filled with images of cosmic praise as well as cosmic groaning.
Given this biblical narrative, it is not surprising animals are included. They, too, participate in Nineveh’s mourning over the violence of their culture. Creation groans over human evil, and it mourns over human violence because creation is devastated by that violence. The earth perishes because of what humans do (Hosea 4:1–3).
Consequently, the animals fast and wear sackcloth along with the Ninevites.
When we follow the example of the evil and cruel people of Nineveh and reject the example of the ten tribes of Israel, the whole earth will rejoice. We do not live in isolation. Our decisions are not ours alone. Everything was made to be relational. Us in relationship to God, to each other and to creation in all its shapes and forms.
We sometimes might be tempted to think that our status as chosen people protects us. It is our relationship with God as his children that saves us. If we don’t have that relationship we are under the control of the evil one. When we are under the control of the evil one, all of creation suffers along with us. Do you doubt it? Just look at modern farming methods.
Amos and Jonah and Hosea teach us that however bad anyone is, God will forgive them. Amos and Jonah and Hosea also teach us that however much God has favoured us in the past, we can lose it all if we break our relationship with him. Let’s be careful, shall we? Let’s not crucify Jesus again in our own lives. Let’s not prolong the suffering of the creation.