Looking at Jonah
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
The book of Jonah is very short. It is about Jonah, who was around at the time of King Jeroboam the second, fairly early on in the history of Israel. It tells the story of Jonah being sent to the people of Nineveh, but it isn’t really about the message Jonah gave. In fact, all we know about what he taught to Nineveh is one sentence: “Yet 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” There are two fairly obvious themes in Jonah: the repentance of Nineveh, and the repentance of Jonah. In the course of the book we see both repenting, and we see both being forgiven.
There is another theme, a less obvious one. Sometimes God is accused of not reaching out to anyone other than Israel, and that if he really wanted people to follow him he should have approached other nations. Jonah shows us that God did reach out to at least one other nation, Nineveh, and that nation responded. It was, however, only in Israel that the devotion to God lasted for any length of time.
In the first chapter of the book we read about Jonah being given his instructions, and how he disobeyed them. Chapter 1, verses 1 to 3.
Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
“The Presence of the Lord” seems to be a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. Jonah was in Jerusalem, and he was told to go to Nineveh, to bring them to repentance. But Jonah disobeyed. He went in the opposite direction. Why did he do that? Maybe he was afraid? Or it may have been for some more patriotic reason. Nineveh was an important city in the Assyrian Empire, possibly its capital, and at the time of Jeroboam the second Israel was prospering and the only real threat was the Assyrian Empire. Maybe he thought that by not preaching to Nineveh it would be destroyed, and the Assyrian threat would be lessened. But whatever the reason he ran.
Remember that. Jonah had been given a direct message from God, and he deliberately disobeyed it. Jonah had sinned very seriously. But God was still prepared to forgive him.
As we know, Jonah was on a boat, which was caught in a very bad storm, and his shipmates threw him into the sea to calm the storm.
Now sometimes we can concentrate too much on the main characters in a Biblical story. Lets have a quick look at the men on the boat.
Jonah 1, verses 14 – 16:
Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee. So they look up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
The men on the boat cried unto God. And after throwing Jonah overboard and the storm was calmed, they came to believe in God. God uses his prophets in many ways. These men became believers as a result of meeting Jonah. Interesting, isn’t it? God was able to use Jonah’s disobedience to call sinners to repentance.
Anyway, back to Jonah. Chapter 1 verse 17, and Chapter 2:
Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly.
Jonah is really fairly stubborn, isn’t he? It seems he only prays after being inside the fish for three days. This is another thing worth remembering. Jonah took his time about praying. He should have prayed as soon as the ship was in the storm. One would have imagined that he would have been praying as he was being thrown overboard. But it isn’t until after three days inside the fish that he starts to pray. God still listens to the prayer, even though it comes from a man who disobeyed a direct commandment, and even though it is very late.
God is prepared to work with Jonah. Jonah was undoubtedly a servant of God, but Jonah wasn’t perfect when he started his mission. God didn’t cast him away because of that. He put Jonah through a set of experiences that strengthened his faith.
None of us are perfect. Yet, just as God worked with Jonah, God works with us. We all sin, but God is forgiving. Although following Christ should mean living as he did, following Christ also means knowing that we can’t, and that God forgives our failings. You don’t wait until you are perfect to follow Christ. You start when you realise that you are imperfect.
God responded to Jonah’s prayer or repentance, and he was vomited up onto dry land. We aren’t told where he was vomited up, but it is actually quite funny. We know Jonah started off in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is about 500 miles from Nineveh. That would be a substantial journey today, but when he would have been travelling on foot or on an animal it would have taken a very long time. Certainly weeks.
After being deposited on dry land again Jonah is given his instructions to preach again. Jonah 3, verses 1 t0 3:
And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.
Jonah gets the message, and he does as he is told this time. He sets out on the three day journey to Nineveh.
Three day journey? It’s a bit closer than 500 miles away isn’t it? Even though he was trying to run from Nineveh, Jonah ended up closer to Nineveh than he had been when he started. That is really quite funny. God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh, and when he resisted he got sent there anyway. Does God have a sense of humour? It certainly seems like it.
There is also something else. Jonah started out by trying to run from God, and he ended up closer to God than he had been. God used Jonah’s disobedience to call the men on the boat, and he was able to use Jonah’s disobedience to strengthen Jonah’s faith. The importance of that cannot be underestimated. God worked with the disobedient Jonah, and Jonah’s call to preach in Nineveh was as much for Jonah’s sake as for the people of Nineveh.
Anyway, Jonah is on his way to Nineveh. Well, he’s actually been on his way ever since he left Jerusalem, but for the first time on his journey he is willingly on his way to Nineveh.
Jonah 3, verses 4 to 10:
And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
Jonah had a fantastic response to his preaching. The entire city repented. Can you imagine how amazed we would be if the entire city of Belfast followed Christ? Jonah was obviously sent to Nineveh because God knew that the people there were willing to repent.
A short reading from Jeremiah 18, you don’t need to look it up. Jeremiah 18, verses 7 and 8:
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh wasn’t to tell them they were going to be destroyed. It was telling them they would be destroyed if the did not repent. The did repent, and they were not destroyed. God offered them forgiveness, and they availed themselves of that offer. A warning was followed by repentance which was followed by forgiveness.
Jonah didn’t understand. Poor Jonah. He thought he could flee from God, and he couldn’t. And he has misunderstood the message he was carrying. He didn’t realise it was a warning. He found his own forgiveness acceptable, but he didn’t like the others receiving the same generosity that he had. I think that is a clear warning to us. We can accept that God forgives our sins, but sometimes we find it difficult to accept that God has forgiven others. Apart from Christ there hasn’t been a single sinless person ever, and we should be prepared to accept the forgiveness God gives to others as well as the forgiveness God gives to us.
Jonah misunderstood the message he was given, and he found it difficult to accept that others could be forgiven. Yet God still does not abandon him. Once more God works with Jonah.
Chapter 4, verses 6-11:
And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
What is the message here? Well, Jonah was angry that the gourd, the tree had been destroyed. It was something that he liked, and something that gave him pleasure, but it wasn’t something he had worked for.
Look, God is saying, I like Nineveh, it gives me pleasure, and I worked for Nineveh. I have put effort into that city. Look at how much the demise of that tree has upset you. You didn’t make it. You just used it. Imagine how I would feel if I had had to destroy Nineveh.
Now that is the point when we leave Jonah. We don’t know if Jonah ever understood this last message, but I think it is likely he did. After all, the book is about how God works with individuals and nations, and if Jonah still did not understand then I believe God would have continued to work with him.
We have seen Nineveh repenting and being forgiven. We have seen Jonah repenting and being forgiven, and we have seen God continue to work with Jonah. We can draw confidence from both of those themes. We can repent and be forgiven, as Nineveh was. We can repent and receive forgiveness as Jonah did, as I have done, and everybody in this room has done, and still not be perfect as Jonah was not, as I am not, and I suspect everybody in this room is not.
But God still works with us. It is not perfection that God requires, merely knowledge of our imperfection and the desire to do something about it.
The more I read Jonah, the more I see in it. It isn’t just a little book with a little story. It is a little book, but there is a lot of teaching there. I just want to comment briefly on one more thing.
We could be forgiven for thinking that God only sent his prophets to Israel, and we could be forgiven for thinking that this was unfair, given that Israel was so disobedient. Of course, God didn’t only send prophets to Israel. Jonah was sent to the Assyrians, and the Assyrians responded, at least in Nineveh. That response didn’t last. After a few generations the Assyrians had reverted to their old ways. The reason why it appears that God only sent prophets to Israel is because, disobedient as the nation was, Israel was the only nation that responded to God over a period of several generations. Certainly there has been a continuous line of faithful Jews from Abraham to the time of Christ. After Christ of course, the line of the faithful continued through the Christians as well. We don’t hear so much about the prophets to other nations because there wasn’t so much success with them. It is not that God only spoke to Israel, it is that Israel was the only nation to listen. And just while we are thinking about God’s interaction with the non-Jewish world, I want to give you this thought. The people of Nineveh repented very quickly. Doesn’t it seem very likely that Jonah was not the first prophet sent to them? Doesn’t it seem likely that Jonah was sent to bring them back to God rather than introduce them?
To conclude then: the book of Jonah shows us three things.
- God forgives repentant individuals.
- God forgives repentant nations
- God calls out to all who will listen, not just those from a particular background.