I don’t think that I would be remiss to say that, when we’re earnestly seeking after God, we long to hear His voice and see the path He has illuminated for us to follow. We might sometimes enjoy a little bit of the unknown and the excitement that flows from it, the adrenaline rush, but deep down we long for the anchor of our purpose and calling that He has for us. We want to know the things He would have us do and to put our effort into working with Him to accomplish them. We want to walk the path as well as talk about it. We want to be obedient to love Him with everything we are and love others just as much as He does. Easy right?
Hardly. Obedience is birthed out of discipline, which is not something we immediately take to. We have a great example in Jesus. He was always about the work the Father had given to Him. He continually called attention back to it. He was driven in that purpose and yet He did not stumble in keeping the tenets of the Law. He brought people to the heart of it, illuminated the true purpose of what it meant to seek first the Kingdom. He was obedient to His purpose even unto death, which was part of the plan, even if He might have wished for another way. He is our ultimate role model and the one our eyes should be transfixed on, the one we should be seeking to emulate in our lives from the moment we awake in the morning to the time we close our eyes to sleep at night.
I also love that the Bible is full of other examples that speak to us in our humanness – that we may identify with more than we might like to admit. We want to be obedient to the calling God has for us, but what if He’s calling you someplace you don’t want to go? To speak a message you don’t want to give – for whatever the reason – and that you would rather choose to run from. I think Jonah knew a little something about that. He was a recognized prophet, and was given a message for the people of Nineveh that he did not want to deliver and would rather make an attempt to run to the end of the earth and hide from God to avoid doing it.
Read Jonah 1:1-3, Nahum 3:1-4, Psalm 139:7-10
God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, the pagan capital of the Assyrian empire and thought to be the largest city in the world at the time, to rebuke them for their wickedness and call them to repentance. I think I can see the wheels in Jonah’s mind spinning at the thought of doing this – “that sounds very difficult Lord! Those people are exceedingly awful and will make fun of me at best, or kill me at worst! And they’re Assyrians! They’ve done horrible things to Israel! They deserve to be judged and punished for their sins! I want that to happen!” So, Jonah decides that he would rather go to what was thought to be the end of the world rather than go do what God had asked of him and hopped on a boat sailing for Tarshish. Of course, God was not going to let Jonah just run away.
Read Jonah 1:4-9
Jonah may have felt that everything was going to be fine. Maybe God would call on someone else to do the task and he could sail west in peace. After all, he was able to board the ship and set sail without issue. He tried to silence the turmoil I imagine he was feeling and hid himself in the bowels of the ship to sleep. God was not just going to let him run, and instead He stirred up a tempestuous storm that threatened to completely break the ship apart. Think of the sailors in this instance. They hadn’t done anything to invoke this particular scenario, hadn’t done anything other than accept payment and a fare for someone to tag along on their journey. They were terrified; and like all humanity in times of great distress they cried out to the gods they served and prayed for deliverance. The captain went looking for Jonah, and found him sleeping – sleeping! – through the storm. “Are you kidding?! Get up! Pray to your God for mercy!” This is a bit ironic, as Jonah is in this current state of affairs because he doesn’t want to talk to God and is running away from Him. He casts lots with the sailors and draws the short straw – all of this raging storm and imminent death is because of him. He answers their questions and tells them who he is and what he does, which terrifies them all the more.
Read Jonah 1:10-16
So, the prophet of God is running away from Him and all of this happens. The sailors must be beside themselves. “Why?! Why would you do such a thing? We don’t want to die; how can we stop this?!” Jonah realizes and admits that the storm and all the associated consequences of it are his fault so he tells the sailors to pitch him overboard and the storm will cease. The thought of possibly killing a prophet – even a disobedient one – by throwing him overboard is not one the sailors wanted to immediately entertain so they opted to try rowing even harder to get back to shore. It was no use. They offered up a prayer to the Lord and tossed Jonah into the sea. The change was immediate, which left the sailors awestruck and worshiping. Jonah’s life, however, was about to take a weird turn.
Read Jonah 1:17 – 2:10
Jonah spent 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a fish – possibly a whale, the text isn’t definitive – and he had a lot of time to think about his predicament. We don’t really know what he experienced while inside the fish – did he think he was dead or dying? Was he going to be there forever? Was God still with him? At some point he must have felt some assurance that God would deliver him from this and he reached a state of legitimate repentance and he prayed to the Lord and worshipped Him. Then the Lord had the fish vomit him out on dry land. I can only begin to speculate what that truly must have felt like.
There are two parallels to Christ in this event. Jonah was in the fish three days in a state of death before being expelled back into life; Jesus was dead for three days and resurrected. Jesus refers to this event specifically in Matthew 12:38-41 and also advised that the only sign this generation will receive is the sign of Jonah – repent from your wickedness.
Read Jonah 3
God calls Jonah to do the work set before him a second time. I find great comfort in this, as it means that when we make our own errors and missteps in this life and faith or choose to ignore what we have been called to that God still wants to use us if we operate in true repentance. Repentance is not just saying the right thing, but includes action and evidence that a change has occurred. Jonah obeys the call of the Lord and goes to Nineveh, a city which would take three days to circumnavigate, and he delivers the message that God has for them – I see your wickedness and your sin and will bring judgement upon you in 40 days time if you do not repent.
As we’ve already pointed out, this is not Israel, and these are a pagan people that has done some exceedingly gruesome things. The judgement of the Lord against them would be justified and the language used for the impending destruction is the same that was used in reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. The difference in this case is that the Assyrian people, from the king to the lowest servant, heeded Jonah’s warning, dressed in sackcloth and ash as if in mourning, and fasted. They prayed that the Lord would be merciful and relent. The Lord saw this and turned away from His anger.
Does this make Jonah a false prophet? No. While we only get the specific core of his message to Nineveh, the impending destruction, there is always a call to repentance. It implies that the judgment is what will occur if there is no repentance. It also didn’t last. Within 150 years, this judgement ultimately came to pass and Nineveh was destroyed.
Read Jonah 4
Jonah is furious with this turn of events. He can’t believe that they have actually repented and he cries out to God that this I why he ran away and didn’t want to give this message. He didn’t want to be effective and he wanted the Assyrians to be judged and punished. He hated them. It’s a rather interesting picture of the great pride that existed in many of those in Israel and Judah in regards to their station as the chosen people. They were chosen by God to be set apart and an example to the nations and peoples around them of what it means to rightly serve the one true God; it was not give them a sense that they were superior. God is demonstrating that He sees all peoples and is concerned for them all – He sends Jonah to the enemies of his nation to deliver a message of judgement and repentance. It also shows that His mercy is for all people, not just the Israelites.
Jonah’s angry response and God’s questioning shows that it’s ok to experience anger and to express that anger to Him, but we will ultimately have to contemplate Hi question back to us – “Is it right for you to be angry?” Truly meditating on that question and the attitude of our heart will lead us to the realization that it is not right, but a response to our lack of understanding and we will have to repent.
Jonah still holds on to some measure of vanity that the Assyrians did not truly repent and the city will still be destroyed so he camps outside the city and he waits. While he waits and is baked in the sun, God prepares a plant with leafy foliage that grows up and shades him from the heat. He’s happy for the plant and for the relief it provides him. When the worm eats away at the stalk of the plant and damages it, it withers away and Jonah is again at the whim of the elements and he is angry again and mournful of the plant. God asks him again, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Jonah again expresses his anger and the Lord points out how he cares for the destruction of the plant – which he had no vested interest in and had provided no effort into making it grow – so how could God not care about all of the people in Nineveh, made in His image? How could He not want to see them repent and accept the mercy He offered?
I think that we can run the risk of falling into the same kind of thinking that Jonah had. We can let our personal prejudices hinder us from doing the work that God has called us to. We might be called to exhibit mercy to people that we don’t think deserve mercy. It might not be something so extreme, but we might be scared that we can’t accomplish a task that we feel is too daunting. We forget that if He has called us to something that He will be with us and will provide the means and the strength to see it through. It means that when we do make a mistake and choose to run rather than follow that we need to repent with our words, our thoughts, and our actions. He is slow to anger and full of loving kindness, and He is ready to use us still when we come back onto the right path.