What a famous story is the book of Jonah, I’m sure it’s one of the first stories I’ll be reading to my little one when they’re born.
G. Campbell Morgan once said of the book of Jonah: “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have often failed to see the great God.”
So, I’m going to largely ignore the fish.
What’s really weird is that for a book that appears in the ‘the prophets’ in Jonah, there is only one speech consisting of only 5 words. Yep the entire message that Jonah gives is 5 words in Hebrew.
So therefore what we have is a prophetic book that’s not really about what is what Jonah says, but more through what he does. Jonah is almost Elijah like character, but where Elijah’s actions bring glory to God though his obedience, God is glorified through his reaction to Jonah’s disobedience.
Let’s remember that nothing would be more confusing to the Old Testament Jewish mind than the notion of a disobedient prophet- a phrase that apart from the existence of this text would probably be considered to be a complete oxymoron.
Perhaps most important of all is the fact that where the point of just about every prophetic book is found in the fact that God’s word will be fulfilled, the lesson of Jonah springs from the very fact that God renegs on the message of judgment. The only thing more surprising than that is Jonah’s prediction of the same. Surprise after surprise after surprise.
A book of surprises.
So, who is Jonah?
The only other place in scripture where we hear of Jonah is 2 Kings 14:25 Which is actually talking about king Jeroboam the 2nd of Israel. He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.
Ok, lots of weird words, but here’s the point:
So Jonah was a prophet who at some point was called to proclaim God’s promise to restore the boundaries of Israel. That’s really important to keep in mind.
So what’s Jonah’s mission?
Number one, like most Christians, if someone had asked me what message God gave to Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, I would have said something like this, ‘God sends Jonah to tell the Ninevites to repent of their sin.’
But God never tells Jonah to evangelize the Ninevites with a message of repentance.
God’s command to Jonah is to simply go and tell them that he will destroy them because of their sin.
No where in the book of Jonah does God give any guarantee that there will be mercy wrought upon the Ninevites if they repent, in fact it is the Pagan king who introduces the concept of God’s mercy. (Jonah 3:6-9)
That’s huge. Pagan religions nearly always described their deities as either being constantly at war with each other or playing with humanity’s misery like a cat plays with a mouse. Faced with only a message of doom what he is really saying is this; “You never know, maybe this God is different?”
These are very carefully chosen words, he’s walking the fine line between supplying his subjects with a reason for repentance, whilst avoiding sliding back into the pagan idea that a deity can be manipulated for a desired outcome. And so lo and behold, pagan king instigates a revival!
But that idea (mercy) annoys Jonah.
Jonah 1:3-4 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD. 4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. Jonah 1:15 15 Then they (the sailors) took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. Jonah 1:17 But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
It’s not that God rescues Jonah, but the way in which he does it that matters. He could have just stilled the storm. But he doesn’t. Jonah’s got to go overboard first, he’s got a lift waiting for him!
The fish doesn’t just represent a rescue but a lesson. Just because God rescues every time that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to like his methods every time.
By the end of the story, Jonah has gone through one of the most extreme, humiliating and horrible lessons God has just about ever had to deal out to anyone. He’s spent three days in the stomach of a fish and despite this, He hasn’t learned a thing (Jonah 4:1-2)
Actually, after God decides not to send judgement Jonah is (still) saying: “I knew it God, you just couldn’t help yourself could you? You gave to me a message of judgment but I know you better than that, I knew that you would let them off the hook.”
Here’s the irony; you ready? Jonah knows so much about God that he knows exactly what he going to do before he does it, but he doesn’t know God at all. He even manages to be doctrinally accurate, quoting Exodus 34:6 back at God’s face!
I just love the thought of a bloke having a theological argument with God.
With every step, God is smashing down Jonah’s theological box that he has tried to squeeze God into, and in the process, Jonah’s Idolatry is revealed.
Jonah is such a scary story because we already know that money power and those things can become idols, but Jonah’s idol was the ideal of the holy nation of Israel, to the point where he finds the thought that God genuinely cares for anything else, utterly repulsive.
So what about us?
Maybe one of the reasons why we struggle to tell people about Jesus isn’t that we’re scared or feeling ‘not up to the task’ at all?
Maybe sometimes we just don’t like the idea of ‘dirty people’ being saved by God and walking into our Churches?
Have you ever read the book of Jonah, finished chapter three and thought “shouldn’t it end there?” I mean I don’t remember looking at the fourth chapter when I was in Sunday school.
But it is the most important chapter in the book.
The characters are introduced, the conflict arises, the drama of the fish ensues, the character (apparently) changes his ways, fulfills his mission, and everyone get’s mercy and the resolution’s complete, all by the third chapter. Surely it’s time to go home?
But no, there’s a surprise, all is not well, we thought Jonah was just the runaway prophet, but we find out that he is at this point, the lost prophet.
Despite all that is happened the existence of Chapter 4 reveals that because Jonah is still controlled by his Idolatry, he can confront and denounce the Ninevites… but he cannot love them.
It is possible to do what God wants you to do, even be used by God for an amazing impact….and secretly hate every moment of it.
God, shows love to Jonah’s enemies and Jonah is so furious and emotionally raw that even the slightest disappointment such as a little vine withering and dying, pushes him to the edge of suicide.
So what do we do with this? What do we do if or when we see a ‘Jonah’ in us?
Much like Jesus’ parables, Jonah’s story does not finish with a happy ending, we are left only with a haunting question which the entire book has been leading up to and it is coming from God straight at us which is; “shouldn’t your love be like mine?”
But the question is also a clue to the answer, It’s only God’s love that can fill the heart with God’s love. All the religion in the world won’t, only an experience of God’s personal love for us.
Love comes from God. (1 Jn 4:7)