Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 49. Jonah
Jonah 4:2,3 I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah is a delightful little book. It is simple and straight forward and although it is in the middle of a lot of other books filled with prophecy, this one has none as such for us; it is a story about a prophet! It has four parts and four corresponding chapters and each one reads like an episode out of an old fashioned radio drama, ending with a sense of, “Wow! What’s next?” I’ve chosen the two verses above as our highlight verses simply because there is such an inconsistency in them which is seen again and again in the story, that they sum up Jonah and reveal him as the very human and fallible figure that he is.
To see the context of these two verses we need to scan over the story. Chapter 1 might be titled, “Jonah does a runner and rues the day”. In that he hears a prophetic word from the Lord (1:1,2) that he is called to pass on to the occupants of Nineveh, he is a prophet. Nothing else about him or his time-period comes from the book but he is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 indicating he was a recognized prophet somewhere about 780BC. It is written as historical narrative.
However prophets are just human beings and this one doesn’t like the sound of this call. It is a call to go to Nineveh which was on the Tigris in the north east but instead he catches a boat heading West (1:3). Now it is a funny thing about us human beings. We know the truth but somehow we often fly in the face of it. For instance Jonah knew all about God, as we’ll see later, and he would know that God is everywhere and you can’t escape Him, and yet Jonah tries to do just that. You can’t run away from God!
The other thing about God is that He knows best and He loves us and wants the best for us, even if we have to go through tough times to reach it. So he sends a storm, not just any storm, but a perfect storm, so that the ship even threatened to break up (v.4), and each of the pagan sailors start crying out to their pagan gods (v.5). Jonah, however, is down below, sleeping the sleep of the just – or perhaps the sleep of the exhausted escapee! The captain wakes him (v.6) and the superstitious crew start drawing lots to find out who is the cause of this storm (v.7) and, lo and behold, the lot falls on Jonah. Interesting!
They ask him who he is (v.8) and he then confesses his testimony: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” (v.9) To cut a long story short, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard if they want to save themselves (v.12) which is a remarkably sacrificial approach really. This goes against all their beliefs but they eventually do it and so in the middle of the night, in the middle of the most horrendous storm out at sea, Jonah ends up overboard. End of story. Well, not quite: “the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” (v.17) End of chapter, end of episode 1 of our radio series. Tune in next week to see what happens!
If episode 1 was filled with action, episode 2 has none except Jonah praying inside the fish, glimpses of which are quite enlightening. Speaking of his plight as a result of what the Lord had done, he declares, “I said, `I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.” (2:4) Now he must have written this down some time after the events and whether it is true that that was what he said, or what he later felt he ought to have said, the fact is that he knew that resurrection, was one of the thing of which the Lord was capable. In the awfulness of the insides of this fish he had prayed: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” (2:7) and then added, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.” (2:8,9) Great!
That is quite remarkable for he speaks about God’s grace that is available to believers and as a believer in repentance mode, he will know God’s salvation. At which point, “the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (2:10) End of chapter, end of episode 2. What will happen now?
Now a bedraggled and, no doubt, a wreck of a man who is past caring, goes to Nineveh, proclaims the message of repentance and the city repents. Easy. So, as the previous episodes had concluded with an act of God, so does this one: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10) End of an action packed and highly dramatic episode. End of story.
Well, not quite. Jonah, we said, is a very human prophet and he is now fed up. Come on Lord, you could have wiped out this miserable bunch of pagans in this city (4:1,2). Why did you bother with them? Why did you bother sending me? Because you clown they wouldn’t have repented and been saved and been changed if you hadn’t brought God’s message to them!
Jonah, possibly still a bit overwhelmed by what had happened to him, isn’t thinking very clearly. He states what he knows about God from the books of Moses: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (4:2b) Well, yes that is true but He only ‘relents’ when there has first been repentance and for repentance to come, someone has to face them with the truth.
But Jonah, so often a bit like us, gets caught up in it and forgets the very basics: God IS love and in His compassion isn’t looking for destruction. As Ezekiel said, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23,32) [That ought to have been a highlight verse in Ezekiel, if not in the Bible!]
So the Lord gives Jonah a little lesson as he sits in the shade of a vine outside Nineveh later. The Lord made a worm eat at the roots of the vine and it died – and Jonah got angry. And thus we come to another highlight of this book: “the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:10,11) i.e. we get upset about really minor issues. We need to get refocused to come in line with God’s heart; He gets upset over lost people. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Lk 19:10) Us, and the people around us!