Posts Tagged 'Jonah'

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.

 

 

A SURVEY OF THE MINOR PROPHETS, Part 6

Jonah and God’s Compassion

Jonah

What we know about the prophet Jonah we find in 2 Kings 14:25—

He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

The “he” of this verse is Jeroboam, king of Israel, who reigned from 781—753 BC, so we know the date of Jonah’s ministry. During the Jeroboam years, Israel experienced a time of political and economic revival as the fortunes of Assyra waned.

Even though our glimpse of Jonah’s life is only 48 verses long, they are a powerful 48 verses, full of great spiritual truth. Scholars have found these to be the major themes in the book:

  • The sovereignty of God. God accomplished His plans in spite of Jonah’s failures.

  • Mercy and grace. God is compassionate to whomever He wants to be, whether a sinful nation or a struggling prophet.

  • Responsibility. If we claim to know God, we have a responsibility to serve Him to the best of our ability.

  • Servanthood. Jonah’s disobedience is a classic example of how NOT to serve God.

  • Repentance. God always gives people time to repent.

  • Missions. God reaches out to people everywhere.

1. God’s patience with disobedient believers

You don’t see a lot of missionary activity in the Old Testament. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say that “evangelism” is a New Testament concept and activity. The book of Jonah, though, teaches us that even way back in the days of the Old Testament, God was concerned with sinners, those outside of the Covenant.

Jonah is the reluctant missionary. God called him to a task that he wanted to avoid. He was, after all, a prophet. His job was to proclaim God’s Word to his people. Why in the world did God now want this prophet to take God’s Word to other people?

a. The fleeing prophet, 1:1—3, 17

Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

This is God’s commission and call of Jonah. Nineveh is referred to here as “the great city” because at this time it was a world power. Even though the Assyrian Empire was struggling, Nineveh was the seat of power in the ancient world. It may have been a great city, but it was also a wicked city. The fact that God was concerned about this city shows us that God’s concern and even love reached beyond His chosen ones, even though they believed they were only ones He truly loved.

But Jonah, full of fear and apprehension, decided that this mission was not for him. So he boarded a ship that was sailing in the opposite direction. But of what was Jonah fearful? We might think he was afraid of the Assyrians; afraid that they would harm him. But, in fact, he was afraid they would turn and repent and that God would indeed forgive them. It’s not that Jonah wanted people to die in judgment, it was that if Nineveh was spared, then he would appear to be a false prophet in the eyes of his people back home.

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (verse 17)

Jonah was clearly in disobedience to God, and in act of discipline mingled with mercy, God provided a big fish that swallowed up the errant prophet. We aren’t told how big this fish was. Matthew 12:40 speaks of “a whale,” but the Greek word used there means “a huge fish” or even a “sea monster.” For three days and three nights Jonah remained in the belly of the fish. This expression is probably a colloquial expression suggesting a relatively short, indefinite period of time.

This incident brings back to our minds the beautiful words of the Psalmist—

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?…If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7, 9—10, NKJV)

b. The returning prophet, 2:1—10

Jonah knew he was in the wrong and cried out to God for help from within the fish. Jonah was wrong to rebel and run away from God, as if hiding among a bunch of Phoenician sailors would work! Jonah was also wrong about by taking refuge among these godless sailors, because he was implicitly declaring that, for this moment in time at least, he was preferring the Canaanite way of life to that of Israel.

Rather than dying inside the big fish, Jonah called to God for help, and we have recorded for us in poetic form, the prayer he prayed. It chronicles how dumb he was to do what he did. Yet even in his stupidity, Jonah had the presence of mind to remember God and His compassion. The prophet recommits his life to the Lord:

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.” (verse 9)

On the heels of Jonah’s confession and his recognition that God alone is his deliverer, the big fish pukes up the prophet, right onto dry land. We are not told just where he was deposited, but he was free, once again, to do God’s work. This man of God learned the hard way that fleeing from God’s will in an effort to avoid difficult tasks always results in even greater difficulties.

2. God’s compassion for unbelievers, 3:1—10

God is a God of second chances, even in the Old Testament. Abraham, Moses, Saul, and David are among the people in the Old Testament who personally experienced a “second chance” to make it right with God. In chapter 3, Jonah’s story reboots with his “second chance” to fulfil his mission to evangelize the great city, Nineveh and save it from certain destruction.

a. The prophet obeys, vs. 1—4

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I will give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord… (verses 1—3a)

At this point in the story, it seems as though our intrepid prophet has learned his lesson. There is a New Testament parallel in the experience of Peter. His first commission is found in Mark 1:16, 17 and Luke 5:10. After his failure and restoration, Peter was recommissioned as we read in John 21:15—17. How wonderful it is to serve a God that knows us and gives us the opportunity to hear and to respond to His call more than once!

Jonah had been forgiven by God, but he had to take up his cross where he laid it down. He had to go to Nineveh and preach the Word God would give to Him. To keep God’s restored favor and blessing, he, like all of us, had to face up to the same issue we sought to escape. God is compassionate, but He is also firm. Remember what what Samuel cautioned Saul:

To obey is better than sacrifice, to harken than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22, KJV)

Or, as Father Mapple said in his classic sermon:

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, and it this disobeying ourselves wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)

b. A surprising response, vs. 5—10

What an amazing site greeted the prophet as he approached Nineveh. The inner city was surrounded by a wall 100 feet thick, wide enough for 3 chariots to drive side-by-side on. The walls had 1,500 towers, 100 feet in height. Huge lions and bulls carved our of stone guarded its 27 gates. Stunning gardens surrounded the public building, which were ornamented with alabaster and beautiful sculptures. Acres and acres of lush gardens were to be found within the city walls so fresh produce was always available. But, at the same time, Assyria’s national economy was in dire straights. The whole Empire, and Nineveh in particular, was in the grips of a devastating depression. And this could explain their readiness to hear, listen to, and respond to the Word of God as they did.

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. (verse 10)

God spared the city just as He had spared the sailors. God’s incredible response to sinners in this short book foreshadows Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:4—

(God) wants all people to be saved and to come a knowledge of the truth.

3. God illustrates His compassion, 4:1—11

a. The prophet’s prejudice, vs 1—3

Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live. (verse 3)

Maybe it was his national pride and his self-esteem that caused Jonah to resent the fact that God responded in compassion and forgiveness to the Ninevehites. He may have felt that if Assyria, the promised destroyer of Israel were destroyed, then Israel itself would be spared. This, of course, would have been faulty reasoning, since it wasn’t really Assyria that destroyed Israel, it was Israel’s own sins.

The petulant prophet blamed God for everything from sparing a godless city to his own disobedience. Amazingly, he defended his own failure by blaming God’s loving-kindness!

Jonah felt humiliated and discredited. Overcome with self-pity, he felt it would be better for him to die rather than face embarrassment back home.

Another prophet, Elijah, also got depressed over the outcome of events of which he was a part. He too wanted to die.

He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)

The difference between Elijah and Jonah was that Jonah was depressed because so many sought God, Elijah was hurt on God’s behalf because so few sought God. We could say that Elijah was jealous for god, but Jonah was jealous of God.

b. God’s compassion on Jonah, vs. 4—6

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”

God had rescued Jonah from death when he was in blatant rebellion against Him. But now, the Lord reasoned with him. God wanted to know why His prophet was so angry. God was displeased with Jonah’s attitude, yet He did not openly rebuke Him. Like a parent who practices good parenting skills, the Lord worked with Jonah so that he would see for himself how childishly he was behaving, and then hopefully he would change his attitude.

c. A stern lesson, vs. 7—11

This group of verses is interesting:

  • God provided a gourd.

  • God provided worm that ate the gourd.

  • God provided a scorching wind.

What lesson was God trying to get Jonah to learn?

Jonah was thrilled with the plant, but was angry when it went away. Jonah could see no further than his own discomfort. Then God drove the point home. Jonah had been upset over something insignificant—a plant which he neither planted nor tended. Why didn’t he have the same concern over the eternal destiny of the population? Yes, Jonah’s priorities were completely out of whack.

The book of Jonah ends with God asking his prophet a final question, to which there was no answer recorded:

...should I not have concern for the great city, Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (verse 11)

God was trying to show Jonah that he was blind; his religious exclusiveness blinded him to the needs of ignorant sinners. Almost all believers, from time to time, behave like Jonah. We overvalue the less important things of life, like the gourd. We also, from time to time, even when thinking about spiritual things, do so in their relation to ourselves, or our own “little world.” However, God’s concern reaches out the last person on earth.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.

(c) 2011 WitzEnd

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