We Are Jonah
|Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11|
Today, we come to the book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel. That would place his time as somewhere between 793-753 B.C.
The reign of Jeroboam II was a good time for Israel materially. Jeroboam had strengthened the country militarily and had managed to recapture some of the territories that had been lost earlier to her enemies. But, spiritually Israel was suffering. Jeroboam II “did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit” (2 Kings 14:24). That is, he continued the earlier Jeroboam’s policy of encouraging the worship of idols in the Northern Kingdom.
But God is not mocked. Those who have sown the wind will reap the whirlwind. To the east, God was preparing an instrument of judgement on his disobedient people. Assyria was the up and coming new power in the world. In 722 B.C., the Assyrian army would defeat the Northern Kingdom and deport its people. Israel would cease to exist.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 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 (vss. 1-3).
God told Jonah to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, but Jonah didn’t want to go. Why? We’ll see later. But here we see Jonah trying to run from God. Bad idea!
Jonah heads down to Joppa, the port on the Mediterranean Sea and buys a ticket to Tarshish. Tarshish was on the western shore of the Mediterranean, near Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean joins the Atlantic Ocean. It’s as far away from Nineveh as you could go in those days. Nineveh was 500 miles to the east of Israel, Tarshish was 2500 miles to the west. It’s as if Jonah went to the ticket agent and said, “Give me a ticket on a ship going as far from Nineveh as possible.”
But you can’t run from God.
Jonah should know that. He even tells the sailors, “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9). Well, if he made the sea, what makes you think you can run from him on it. I guess he’s forgotten Psalm 139.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
In verse 3 God pursues his fugitive prophet. He “sent a great wind on the sea.” The storm is so bad that the seasoned sailors, who probably knew a thing or two about storms, are terrified and begin to pray to their various gods. But one person onboard isn’t praying to his God—Jonah. He’s down below deck sleeping! The sailors, pagans though they are, are more spiritually astute than Jonah.
The sailors, as pagans do, believe that misfortune comes because someone has offended a god, and so they cast lots to determine who it is. And God allows the lot to fall on Jonah.
They question him—Who are you? Where are you from? What is your job? And Jonah tells them. He even confesses that he is running from God. And he says, “If you want to live, throw me overboard. This storm is my fault.”
At first they don’t want to do it. Even pagans have principles. But, finally, after praying for forgiveness, they throw him overboard. Immediately the sea becomes calm. And there is a kind of revival onboard the ship. “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (vs. 16). We probably shouldn’t make too much of this. It doesn’t say they turned from their idols to Yahweh, but they did acknowledge his power and his role in their rescue.
Jonah, meanwhile, is sinking below the waves. By all rights, the story should be over. But God isn’t finished with his disobedient prophet. “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (vs. 17).
By the way, the book of Jonah is not a story about a man who gets swallowed by a fish. That’s the part of the story that we know, but it’s not the point of the story. The fish is just God’s vehicle to save Jonah and move him on to the place he needs to be.
Chapter 2 is Jonah’s prayer from the fish’s belly. We won’t read it today, but you should read it sometime. It’s impressive.
Again, we see the grace of God. You would think that after Jonah had disobeyed him, after he had tried to run from him, that God would have said, “Well, Jonah, you had your chance. I think I’ll find a more obedient prophet to take my message to Nineveh.” But no, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” (vs. 1). After the fish had “vomited Jonah into dry land” (2:10) the Lord gave him a second chance to obey.
Jonah still has some lessons to learn, but at least he’s learned that it’s not wise to try to run from God. He “obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh” (vs. 3).
In Nineveh, he preaches what is probably the shortest sermon in the Bible, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (vs. 4). In Hebrew, I understand, it is even shorter—five words! And, amazingly—incredibly, the Ninevites respond! The text says that they believed God, that they fasted and prayed and put on sackcloth (symbolic of grief over sin). And, furthermore, the king repents and declares a fast—even commanding that the animals wear sackcloth!
The response by the Ninevites makes Jonah the only successful prophet in the Old Testament. The prophets who preached to God’s people were mostly ignored and persecuted, some of them were killed. But, Jonah preaches to these pagan idolaters, and they listen to him and repent! Later Jesus would refer to this event as a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees of his day who rejected him:
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here (Luke 11:32).
God sees the repentance of the Ninevites and “he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (vs. 10). You would think that Jonah would be happy. “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah! The Ninevites got saved!” But you’d be wrong:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 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. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (vss. 1-3).
So, now we know why Jonah resisted going to Nineveh. He didn’t want the Ninevites to repent, because he knew if they did, God would forgive them, and that was something he simply could not abide. Simply stated, Jonah wanted the Ninevites to die.
To understand we need to talk about Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria was the most powerful nation in the world at that time. They had bullied Israel for decades and were well known for their violence and ruthless actions in warfare.
In the British Museum is a large carving known as the Lachish Relief. It was found in the ruins of Nineveh. It relates the Assyrian siege and conquest of the Judean town of Lachish in 701 BC. In it Assyrian soldiers are seen torturing prisoners by impaling them on sharpened poles and skinning them alive. It hung in the throne room of the king of Assyria as an object of pride.
The Assyrians were BAD people. They were the ISIS of their day. In fact, guess where the ruins of Nineveh were found. In northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul. Heard of it? The Ninevites were a brutal, violent people; unworthy of God’s grace—and Jonah, like a good Israelite, hated them with all his heart.
Jonah was a nationalist and a racist. His motto was “My country right or wrong” and “Israel über alles.” If God wanted to wipe out Nineveh, it was fine with him. They were only getting what they deserved.
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (vs. 2). Jonah is angry because God is so good! Maybe Jonah has forgotten how much God has forgiven him. God has been “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, who relents from sending calamity” to Jonah. He shouldn’t be resentful; he should be grateful. Isn’t it funny how Jonah didn’t have a problem with God’s grace and mercy when he was inside the fish?
Jonah is angry and resentful because he has ceased to think of himself as a sinner. When we see ourselves as basically worthy people—that God owes us good things—then grace is shocking to you. And you may get resentful when God seems to be blessing people who don’t seem to deserve it.
Yet, even in his resentment, we see how God’s grace is greater than Jonah’s sin.
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
“Jonah, I’m only showing them the same grace I’ve shown you. Can you really be angry about that?”
Sure, we can say, “Jonah, just chill out.” But, think about it, who are your Ninevites? Terrorists? Homosexuals? People of another race? That person who hurt you? How would you feel if they repented and God forgave them? Are you as enthusiastic about God being gracious to everyone in the same way he’s been gracious to you?
5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
He’s probably thinking, “Ninevites are Ninevites. They’re gonna blow it eventually and God will have to destroy them. I want to see that when it happens.”
6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.
This is the first time in the story that Jonah is happy. The only time Jonah is happy about God’s provision is when it provided for his convenience. Jonah still needs to learn that it’s not about his comfort, but God’s purposes. So, what does God do?
7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered (vs. 7).
God has more than one way of getting our attention. Sometimes he uses the wind; sometimes he uses the whale; and sometimes he uses the worm.
8 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.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (vss. 8-11).
The end. It’s kind of a cliffhanger, isn’t it? We don’t know if Jonah repented of his sin. It doesn’t matter. Remember I said this is not a book about a man who gets swallowed by a fish? This is not a book about a man at all. It’s a book about God. The writer of the book of Jonah is not so much interested in telling the story of Jonah as he is in putting God’s question before us. “Do you care more about plants or people? More about temporary things or eternal souls?”
I ask again, who are your Ninevites? To whom is God calling you to share the offer of his free grace?
Each year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the book of Jonah is read in the synagogues and, at the end of it the people all declare, “We are Jonah.” We are Jonah when we look down on other people as not deserving God’s grace. We are Jonah when we forget all that God has forgiven us and refuse to forgive those who have wronged us. We are Jonah whenever we forget the words of Jesus:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6:27, 28).