Establishing the facts
"The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth." Jonah 3.5
Anyone seriously engaging with a text like Jonah must surely wonder about its historical legitimacy. Setting aside the likelihood of Jonah's surviving for three days inside the belly of a big fish, what chance of a reluctant prophet's success in single-handedly bringing a formidable and hostile neighbour to its knees in humble contrition? Probably about as much as the ability of this "poor preacher" to stop Vladimir Putin in his tracks, through convincing his troops of God's imminent judgment on their antics in Ukraine!
So what are the facts? We know that in Jonah's day Israel lived in fear of its powerful neighbour, Assyria (whose capital was Nineveh), which was infamous for the size of its army and the ruthlessness of its soldiers. However the northern kingdom of Israel was enjoying a temporary boom under the successful rule of Jereboam II. A further couple of twists worth taking into account are the famine endured by Assyria around that time and a total eclipse of the moon which, in pagan society, was interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure.
If ever there was a time for prophetic intervention, surely this was it? Given his background and the historical circumstances, it is easy to understand Jonah's reluctance. Yet that is no impediment to God, whose agenda stretches beyond our hang-ups and prejudice. Jonah needed no convincing about the wickedness of his Ninevite neighbours. What he lacked was any appetite for their having the chance to repent and be spared the judgment they deserved. His succumbing to the nobler intention of God and the success of his mission must rank as one of the most spectacular contradictions of human-divine endeavour, second only to the success of the Roman and Jewish authorities in getting rid of Jesus - only to discover that they had unwittingly fulfilled scripture and secured Jesus' mission to atone for sin through his own perfect sacrifice!