Posts Tagged 'fish story'

The Minor Prophets, Part 4

The Old Testament prophetic book written by Jonah is a favorite among Christians because it’s easy to understand and, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a story about a man swallowed by a huge fish who lives to tell about it? Reading Jonah’s experiences brings to mind a quote from another story about a man, Captain Ahab, whose quest was the great whale:

Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

Mellville understood people – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we all need mending. Jonah needed mending, but in spite of that, God still used him to accomplish His purposes. And the process of doing the will of God while “dreadfully cracked about the head,” was part of the mending this rebellious prophet needed.

Probably the best commentary on Jonah’s four chapters is a single verse found over in Psalm 103:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. (Psalm 103:8 | TNIV)

W.W. Sloan, who was professor of Bible at Elon College, wrote this about the book of Jonah:

The book of Jonah comes closer to New Testament teachings than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. Its central theme is that God is interested in all people whatever their nationality or race and expects those who know him to dedicate themselves to sharing that knowledge.

To that task the prophet Jonah was called. He was a real man and a prophet by profession, unlike some of the other minor prophets. He lived in Gath-hepher, the son of Amittai. He preached in the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II about 786-746 B.C. (II Kings 14: 25) and was an early contemporary of Hosea and Amos. What Jonah did after preaching in Nineveh the Bible does not say. Tradition tells us that he was buried in Nineveh on a site now marked by a mosque.

A surprising call

Even though Jonah was a prophet in Israel, God called him to leave Israel and go to a heathen nation to preach a message. Specifically, God wanted Jonah to go to a city called Nineveh, which was the second-largest city in the region, and was located some 500 miles from Israel. Actually, Nineveh was located near modern-day Mosul, in Iraq. It would have take our prophet almost a month to get there.

Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” 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. (Jonah 1:2, 3 | TNIV)

It wasn’t the month-long journey that caused Jonah to run away from the Lord. It was the fact that Jonah didn’t like the assignment God had given him. Nineveh was a godless city, full of godless people and Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with it. To understand Jonah’s reasoning, you have to understand how the Hebrews understood their covenant with God. To them, Jehovah was their God and nobody else’s. His covenant was with them, not with the people in Nineveh. Yet here he was, being charged with delivering a message from his God to a violent, oppressive people. In person, to make matters worse! Jonah’s response was a knee-jerk one, for sure. It’s hard to imagine a man of God thinking he could actually outrun God simply by going in the opposite direction. But rebellion against God never makes sense.

Obviously God wasn’t at all happy with Jonah’s blatant rebellion:

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. (Jonah 1:4 | TNIV)

There was always bad weather, but this storm was unprecedented; it was caused by God, brought on by one man’s bad decision. The question that might be entering your mind, Why would God threaten the lives of all those sailors because of one man’s rebellion?, is a valid one. The answer is found over in the New Testament:

God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29 | TNIV)

God had called Jonah to be a prophet and He’s not going to let Jonah go and He’s not going to let Jonah call the shots. To the credit of these sailors, they understood something was up and they knew Jonah was the cause of this bad weather.

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.). (Jonah 1:10 | TNIV)

You have to hand it to these sailors; they had more faith in God than the prophet Jonah did! Sailors were well-known for tossing overboard people they didn’t like or people who broke the rules, but they seemed to be cut Jonah some slack. Soon, though, they had no choice:

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. (Jonah 1:15, 16 | TNIV)

Verse 16 is a remarkable verse. Because of what Jonah did, these me found the Lord! There’s no other way to read it: These men “feared the Lord and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” These hardened men, superstitious sailors who had no relationship with God whatsoever, found faith through the actions of a rebellious man of God! That’s how God works. No, the Lord didn’t condone what Jonah did, He didn’t cause Jonah to bolt and run, but He did make something good come of it. These men found God when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

A surprising response

We know the story well. A giant fish swallowed up our wayward prophet. What a fall from grace: from prophet to fish bait! Jonah, sinking like a rock surely thought he was descending to his judgment, ended up in the most unlikeliest of places. It seems crazy, but here’s what happened next:

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. (Jonah 2:1 | TNIV)

Dwight L. Moody once remarked that if we could send all young preachers to hell for a while, they would all come back better preachers. Here, God was trying to make a better preacher out of Jonah. Half-stunned, scared to death, Jonah examined his surroundings and came to the right conclusion: He decided to pray. He was wrong to run, but right to pray. While Jonah did the right thing in praying, nowhere does it say that God was pleased that he prayed. God was with Jonah in the belly of the fish, but we know the whole story: This really didn’t change Jonah that much. Sure, he came out of the fish and did what God wanted him to do, but he was still stubborn and rebellious. Sometimes it takes hell to get some people to pray, but you have to wonder how genuine the person really is.

If you read the whole prayer, you’ll notice something very interesting. Notice what’s there:

• Praise is there.
• Worship is there.
• Thanksgiving is there.
• Sacrifice is there.
• Vows are there.
• God’s sovereignty in salvation is there.

But nowhere does Jonah repent. Nowhere does he say he’s sorry for what he did. Yet, we read this:

And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 2:10 | TNIV)

Jonah went from prophet to fish bait to fish vomit all within three days. By now, covered in slime and feeling pretty low, this one-time prophet was probably regretting buying that boat ticket to Joppa. God came through for Jonah and, as God is wont to do, picked up right where He left of:

Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”. (Jonah 3:2 | TNIV)

God was determined to get His man to Nineveh to preach what He wanted him to preach, and so Jonah, the reluctant prophet, was given a second chance. God could have left him in the fish or saved his life but moved on to some other prophet, but God saw in Jonah something worth the trouble. However, if you look at the sailor’s response and compare it Jonah’s, you can see the difference in how each responded to the Lord.

Our God is definitely good at giving second chances to people who mess it up the first time. Over in the New Testament, for example, there was Peter. He was first commissioned in the early chapters of Mark and Luke, but fell from grace and washed up as an apostle. By the end of John’s gospel, he had been recommissioned by the risen Lord, restored to service.

Too bad we followers of Jesus aren’t as good at emulating that part of our Lord’s character. I sometimes think we’re much harder on our fellows than God is. When Mark fouled things up on a missionary trip, Paul didn’t want anything to do with him. Now, to Paul’s credit, he did later patch things up with Mark and recognized the younger preacher’s abilities and value.

Speaking of responding to God, the response of the people of Nineveh to Jonah’s preaching was nothing less than spectacular!

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (Jonah 3:3 – 5 | TNIV)

And because the people, from the lowliest citizen to the king, believed the Word of God and repented, God’s wrath was stayed and the great city was spared. One could say that Jonah was one of the most successful preachers – if not the most successful preacher – of all time. An entire metropolis heard his sermon and responded to it the right way! This was surely the greatest revival ever.

Jonah’s anger and God’s compassion

Instead of reveling in his success as a preacher and rejoicing that lives had been spared, Jonah’s actions were quite the opposite:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. (Jonah 4:1 | TNIV)

The contrast between the prophet and his God is stark. While God was more than pleased with the response of the Ninevites to His Word, Jonah was not. This prophet is not about to recognize these new converts as his spiritual brothers and sisters. Recall what Jonah had said from the belly of the fish:

But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’ “. (Jonah 2:9 | TNIV)

In other words, God saves whomever He wants, whenever He wants, and wherever He wants. God is absolutely sovereign when it comes to salvation. Jonah understood this and declared it and here, now when he disagrees with God, he backtracks.

He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. (Jonah 4:2 | TNIV)

Not only was this man unhappy with what God had done (or not done), he actually left the area without God’s permission. He left when his new converts needed him the most. He was only concerned about himself; his own comfort and reputation. But God was going to teach this prophet a lesson.

Then the Lord God provided a gourd and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the gourd. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the gourd so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”. (Jonah 4:6 – 9 | TNIV)

It’s all about Jonah now. And yet the point of the story goes way beyond one Israelite prophet and strikes at the problem with the nation of Israel in general. Jonah was a product of his time and culture. Israel was an arrogant, petulant nation who thought they owned God; they thought they had His ear and attention to the exclusion of all other nations. And they had deluded themselves into believing that no matter how they behaved, God would always bow to them. Jonah was the embodiment of his entire society.

Jonah’s name means “dove,” but he was just another angry bird thinking he knew more than God did.

We don’t know what became of Jonah. Did he learn his lesson? Did he return to Israel to live out his years serving God? History is silent. But we do know what happened to Nineveh: They squandered the chance they had been given. Some fifty years later, Nineveh, as part of the Assyrian Empire, invaded Israel and destroyed it, taking the people captive. From that point on, the ten northern tribes ceased to exist as nation. Jonah had no idea how high the stakes were in saving Nineveh; in bringing those godless people to salvation.

Dr Dean Cook’s observations on the prophet Jonah are worth reproducing:

But who is he really? Could Jonah be that little worm that eats God’s vine? It is certainly interesting that God places this little creature in the story at the critical moment when He is appealing to Jonah to change his attitude and join God’s holy mission. Jonah would certainly not be the first or last “worm” that harmed or destroyed God’s work, rather than build on it. Jonah either cannot or will not see the big picture God places before him. His god and his heart are far too small.

 

 

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