Portraits: Jonah

In his warning to the church in Corinth about the danger of idolatry, Paul used the disastrous examples of Israel under the Old Law in 1 Corinthians 10.1-10 – of Israel’s idolatrous worship of the calf, of their sexual immorality, of testing God, of grumbling and complaining – before concluding with this observation:

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction,… (v.11).

Paul desired his audience at Corinth – and future readers – to understand the value of examples. Human history is most often written in episodes, that is, in small snippets of events that took place within the general lives of millions of people, the overwhelming majority of whom have never had anything written about them. It is in these episodes that the great successes, and the great failures, of history are recorded, while 99.99% of the rest of the actions of men go unrecorded and, largely, unremembered.

But this series focuses on the episodes – and more specifically the episodes of notable characters in Bible history, and what we may learn by what is “written down for our instruction.”

Jonah appears in scripture during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.). He was sent to Nineveh as a spiritual envoy – the Assyrians were to be warned of their judgment at God’s hand, and urged to repent. To say Jonah was reluctant would be to overstate the obvious, but we can learn valuable lessons, because here was a prophet who complained when his mission was a success!

Jonah was reluctant

Given a specific mission from God, Jonah balked initially.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.  – Jonah 1.1-3

Though God called Jonah to take a message to lost people, he rebelled against God. We might take note that this was God’s mission, His decision – God is concerned about lost people, no matter how desperately depraved they may be by our judgment. In this case, Assyria was especially depraved. But God knew something Jonah didn’t – that they could be turned.

Jonah attempted to escape, but God had other ideas. We cannot escape God’s gaze, our thinking and behavior is always evident to him. And so God stopped Jonah, in a rather extraordinary way. As Jonah fled via boat, a storm arose, and Jonah – knowing he was the cause – actually rescued the other men on the boat by having them throw him overboard. Where he was, of course, swallowed by a great fish. (Jonah 1.4-17)

We ought to learn… When God calls, He expects us to respond in obedience, even if what He calls us for seems daunting and undoable. We must remember: God always seeks what is best for those who love Him.

Jonah was penitent

Finding himself in the belly of a fish (and remarkably, still alive), Jonah remembered who sent him on this mission.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2.1-9

There weren’t just a lot of other possibilities – this had to be the work of God, and Jonah knew it. He had been saved from likely murderous sailors, and almost certain drowning. He gave thanks – something we ought to realize every moment, that God’s care for us is absolutely essential. God used this situation to teach Jonah a lesson, just as He uses trials and circumstances to teach us (James 1.2-4).

Affliction led to prayer – a recognition of how messed up life can get when we try to direct ourselves (Proverbs 3.5-6).  But, happily, there is nowhere we might find ourselves that we cannot reach God’s ear – even from the belly of a fish, or the belly of Satan’s lair. God’s ear is available. Desperation should never make us doubt God.

Jonah brought forth the fruits of repentance

God offered a reprieve – Jonah was re-commissioned.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. – Jonah 3.1ff

This was a people completely depraved – immoral, child sacrificers, cruel, ruthless, merciless – the last people anyone would have thought would hear God’s call. And yet Jonah’s message was a spectacular success – even the king repented, and encouraged his subjects to, as well. Their repentance stood in stark contrast to Israel. It was a stinging rebuke to God’s people, who refused to repent, and who were only a few short decades from extinction as a people.

We learn the true nature of repentance – a change of heart, and subsequently, behavior. Repentance isn’t about saying “sorry” to God. It is about changing our lives. God’s correction brings people back to Him, back to an active life for His cause, and a rejection of behavior He abhors. Assyria seemed the most unlikely people to repent, yet many did. Often the ones we think the most unlikely, see their lives clearly. As Paul noted to the Corinthians prior to their conversion, “such were some of you…” (1 Corinthians 6).

Jonah learned of God’s love

Here’s the real story of this book. The repentance of Nineveh angered Jonah (Jonah 4.1-4). He was angry because God did not punish Assyria – He was, instead, punishing Israel. Sometimes we don’t understand why God allows wickedness to prosper, because it doesn’t seem just or fair. We are blinded just like Jonah.

In this final chapter of the book, Jonah was sulking, and he left the city and sat in the desert to the east beneath a shade that God planted for him. The Bible says this plant was provided “to save him from his discomfort.” It was hot, there was a hot wind blowing. But the literal translation of this phrase is, “to deliver him from his evil.” The plant was destroyed by heat and wind, and Jonah was angry. He wanted God’s pity and mercy. But God wasn’t trying to save Jonah from the sun, He was trying to save Jonah from his sin.

Like many of us in the West, I fear there is a proud, arrogant nationalism that seeps into our thinking. I’m not talking about American exceptionalism – on the world stage, by human measure, that’s indisputable. I’m talking about the fact that, before God, there is nothing exceptional about any one of us. We are only exceptional because God makes us that way through the blood of His Son.

The lesson Jonah learned was that his personal disdain for non-Jews led him to believe that Israel would be given a pass when they behaved like Gentile nations (like Assyria). Jonah would rather the Assyrians all die, than that they repent and turn to God. His was a heart like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal (Luke 15). It would have been alright with him if his younger brother had died, because he deserved it. His was a heart like the Pharisees when Jesus ate with sinners (Matthew 9). It would have been alright with them if Jesus had simply told these sinners that they were all going to hell.

Personally, this story hits home with me. I have had opportunity to travel a decent amount in my life, both in the U.S. and abroad. I have encountered quite a few people who are without – home-less, job-less, health-less, friend-less… and thankfully I have been able to help some of them in some small way because God has blessed me (for whatever reason, I know not). There have been times when I have prayed, “Lord, thank you that I had an opportunity to help this helpless person – thank you for loving a man or woman like that.”

And then it hit me. Do I presume that it is harder for God to love someone like that – someone who has made a mess of their life, who is cast out, who is homeless, who would hardly be missed if they died? And do I presume it is easier for God to love someone like me – a disciple, one who is adequately clothed, acceptable in polite society, well-educated, well-employed, prosperous, loved by family and friends, who would be greatly missed if I died? Dear reader, ponder which of these characterizations sent Jesus to the cross.

May grace reign in your lives through righteousness.

– Bo Couchman

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