24. Jonah

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 24.  Jonah

Mt 12:39   He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Talking about analogies is talking about similarities and comparisons. I’m not quite sure if Jesus’ reference to Jonah is an analogy or just a simply comparison, but whatever it is it is a graphic illustration, a word picture. The whole subject is provoked by the Pharisees again: Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” (v.38) to which Jesus gives the reply above. If you were in the crowd listening to this interchange you might now be thinking, “Jonah? What is that about?” and so he explains.

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (v.40) Er… pardon? Take the two parts of this. First Jonah. Most of the crowd would have learned about Jonah when they went to synagogue as a child. It is a sufficiently graphic story that it is made for children so, yes, Jonah the fleeing prophet had been thrown out of a ship in the middle of a violent storm and was saved by God from drowning by being swallowed by a large fish which, three days later, spat him out on a beach. (Jon 1:17, 2:10) For three days, to all intents and purposes, Jonah was dead. It was a miracle that he survived and was ‘vomited out’ three days later, to go on and preach to Nineveh. He is a picture of ‘resurrection’.

Which brings us to Jesus. We should not take the three days and three nights as three periods of twenty-four hours because by Jewish reckoning it included at least part of the first day and part of the third day, which was enough for this claim to have been perfectly fulfilled. So what was Jesus doing? He was comparing Jonah’s three days and nights of ‘death’ with his own, what would be happening to him. At that time, no doubt, the Pharisees would be nonplussed with no idea of what he was referring to, but rather than show their ignorance, they remained quiet.

The fact that there were prophetic scriptures that referred to death and resurrection possibly had not been recognized until Peter preached it on the Day of Pentecost when he quoted from Psalm 16:8-11 with, “you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” (Acts 2:27) which he then spelled out with, “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” (Acts 2:29-32)

Jesus follows up this interchange with a challenge and a warning again using examples and comparisons: “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 one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.” (v.41,42) In this double reference he first of all uses the way Nineveh repented when Jonah preached to them, and then how the Queen of Sheba come with great humility accepting the wonder of Solomon’s reign and God’s blessing on him and on Israel (see 1 Kings 10:6-9). Taking these two illustrations, he uses them to challenge them about their lack of response to him.  If the Queen of Sheba responded positively to the wisdom of Solomon, and the men of Nineveh responded positively to the preaching of Jonah, how much more should the people of Jesus’ day have responded to him, who is infinitely greater than Solomon or Jonah!

Again, hidden within those two illustrations there was the implied challenge to first of all repent (as Nineveh had done) in the face of Jesus’ teaching, and second, to acknowledge the wonder of his ministry and all that God was doing through him, as the Queen of Sheba had done with Solomon. It is the challenge to any person who is confronted by Jesus’ ministry. It is utterly unique in human history and should at the very least raise interest in the human mind, and then a quest to look further until coming to a point of acknowledgement that Jesus was who he said he was, the Son of God who had come to take the sins of the world – including mine! And that should lead to repentance.

Then the further and further we observe the wonder of Jesus’ ministry, the more and more should we be filled with wonder and awe. Why doesn’t that happen? The blindness of Sin. If it happens in only a small degree in us, we need to pray, “Lord, please open my eyes that my heart may be moved by the wonder of these things.”  One of the most terrible things on earth, must be the sight of those who come, see, observe, and turn away unmoved. Utter blindness!

Yesterday we quoted William Barclay. Let’s finish with some more of his quote:  Suppose we love great music; suppose we get nearer to God in the midst of the surge and thunder of a great symphony than anywhere else. Suppose we have a friend who does not know anything about such music. Suppose we wish to introduce this friend of ours to this great experience; we wish to share it with him; we wish to give him this contact with the invisible beauty which we ourselves enjoy. We have no aim other than to give this friend the happiness of a great new experience. We take him to a symphony concert; in a very short time he is fidgeting and gazing around the hall, obviously completely uninterested and clearly bored. That friend has passed a judgment on himself; he has no music in his soul. …This is so with Jesus. If, when a man is confronted with Jesus, his soul goes out in a thrill to that wonder and beauty, that man is on the way to salvation. But if, when he is confronted with Jesus, a man sees nothing lovely then he stands condemned. 

49. Jonah

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!

16. To Jonah

“God turned up” Meditations: 16 :  To Jonah

Jonah 1:1-3 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish.

Jonah has always appeared a bit of a joke figure to me. I’m sorry, but that’s just how he’s seemed. I mean, God turns up and tells him to go somewhere and hold an evangelistic campaign, and he goes off in the opposite direction.  He “ran away from the Lord.” Now it’s pretty clear that Jonah never read Psalm 139 or if he did he never took in what it said: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psa 139:7-10)  Here’s a primary lesson that is worked out in Jonah – you can’t run away from God!

But perhaps the biggest question that might arise in our minds when we first come across a book like Jonah, is why did God choose Jonah when He knew he would be such an unwilling vessel. I mean the same was true of Moses! So why does God choose such characters? There may be a couple of answers.

The first one actually is very obvious. God doesn’t look on the individual as they are now; He sees what they can become and what they can eventually achieve. We look at ourselves and simply work on the limited resources that we consider we have and completely forget that when God turns up and is there for us, suddenly our resources are completely unlimited!  We look at ourselves and think we haven’t got the strength, stamina or courage to say boo to a goose, but God looks at us and, as the psalmist said, He knows us through and through and He knows that there is more in us (and especially with His help) than we realise. The truth is that both Jonah and Moses achieved the end goal! They may have objected bitterly, but they both got there in the end.

I think a second reason might be to do with what Paul alluded to when he wrote, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Cor 1:27-29). I confess I would really like to feel strong and wise, but much of the time I feel weak and foolish. If that’s how you feel, you’re the sort of person God wants to take and use. We’re just pitted jars of clay: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7) He is glorious and He delights in revealing Himself through vessels of clay!

There’s something else we perhaps take for granted in this encounter with God and it is hidden within those simple opening words of this little book: The word of the LORD came to Jonah.” I have to suggest that Jonah already was a man who had a relationship with the Lord and who also heard from God – and knew that he heard from God. That later distinction is important because, as I’ve often said in these meditations, I am sure many of us hear God but don’t realise it is Him speaking.

No, Jonah heard the message and knew it was from God which is why Jonah upped stakes and hot-footed it in the opposite direction. He wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t heard God. We much prefer to just stay where we are minding our own business. But Jonah suddenly remembered somewhere else he needed to be and so caught a boat in the opposite direction. If you have never been aware of the Lord speaking to you, it is unlikely that He is suddenly going to call you to go on some hair-raising mission for Him. He builds up to stuff usually, and He speaks again and again to encourage you. Oh yes, Jonah knew the Lord!

But there is another big issue here to be considered. It is of God who brings nasty stuff into our lives to get His way, because that is what happens in this story. On his boat on the way to Tarshish, Jonah suddenly finds they are being buffeted by a major storm that threatens to sink the ship. He knows this is God getting his attention. It’s an amazing story because, grumpy little prophet he may be, he’s more concerned for the ship and the crew than he is for his own life – and perhaps he knows deep down that somehow – just somehow – God will turn up again to save him. And He does in the form of a big fish! What a taxi!

If God knows it just needs a little turning of the screw to get you under way and into the right place for blessing – He’s not averse to turning the screw! He’s more concerned to bless you in the long-term – and others as well. He won’t abandon you in it and His grace will still always be there for you, but He’ll still use difficult circumstances to get you to your potential! And when you get there don’t, like Jonah, grumble about it, just realise the wonder of what He has achieved.