Jonah is such an important piece of writing for believers – especially in these times. The four chapters give us a picture of real man who was called by God to serve up the message of God.
Jonah was a prophet, a man chosen to tell about God and His ways. He came to know God’s ways very well — so well that when the mercy message was given to him to deliver, he refused.
The book’s place in the canon of Scripture has been questioned, largely because the miraculous fish tale is allowed to wag the opinions of so many. Here, I think we find the humor of the Lord at work. This thing happened; I totally believe that it happened simply because Jesus references it (see Matthew 12:40). That’s enough for me.
Perhaps, you believe that Jonah’s story did not happen. Still, can you get yourself out of the fish’s belly and see what this book says about God and the people He chooses to use?
The Problem of Prejudice
Jonah was a man who, like many men and women, had a grievance. He had an issue with his Lord and decided a vacation to the coast of Spain would be better use of his time than leading a citywide evangelistic crusade. Jonah had no issue with the crusade; he had spoken for God in other settings and witnessed the Lord’s work (see 2 Kings 14:24-26). This assignment, however, Jonah found unbearable, not because of what God had asked him to do, but because of the people God had asked him to speak to.
Jonah’s problem was prejudice. He knew the merciful, faithful nature of God well enough to foresee what could happen in Nineveh. By his preaching, the people would turn, and God’s mercy would be set in motion. The city, its people, and its king would be spared. It was the last thing Jonah and the people of Israel wanted.
Nineveh was not a nice place and the Assyrians who lived there were, by historical accounts, merciless, ruthless warriors. Conquered princes were paraded through Nineveh’s streets in cages; one leader’s head was hung up in the garden of the king’s palace. This metropolis was the center of an idolatrous culture with a temple dedicated to the fertility goddess Ishtar.
With these details, we have a frame of reference for the prophet’s attitude. Jonah’s hatred for the residents of the city proved stronger than his connection to God and to God’s calling on his life. Through the story of Jonah, the Lord targeted the heart hardness that had seeped into Israel’s culture.
Chosen to Love
The big message of Jonah is this: God’s chosen people are chosen in order to share the Good News of His reality and His longing that all would draw near to Him. Or, as Jesus would later teach His disciples, “Love your enemies; pray for those who despitefully use you; don’t retaliate, turn the other cheek.”
These kinds of principles were far from the hearts of the children of Israel at this time. The nation had enjoyed worldwide prominence and unrivaled prosperity during the reigns of David and Solomon, but it was now divided and in rapid decline.
Jonah’s days of service were from 780-760 B.C., during the administration of Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom. Assyria had just begun to oppress and control the region. Israel was feeling the heat, both practically and prophetically. The government was a mess and various disasters — drought, earthquake, famine — were visited upon the territory.Jonah soon learned – in the belly of the fish – that God is everywhere. Click To Tweet
Elijah, Elisha, and Amos along with Jonah and others spoke for God and provided proof of their inspiration and authority accompanying their words with signs and wonders. Still, the kings and their people refused to turn to the Lord and suffered consequence after consequence. And, yet, this people still identified themselves as special, viewing themselves as the people set above all other peoples. They clung to the truth, an eternal truth, that they were the chosen of God — Yahweh’s sons and daughters. But the knowledge of that truth did not produce humility of heart and dedication to giving glory to God.
Rather than rightly relating to the Lord, an attitude of supreme patriotism ruled in their mindsets — even as they adulterated themselves in bowing and making offerings to the false gods and goddesses they found among the nations bordering them. After all, God had never let them down, and they ignored the evidences of chastisement. They were blinded to the world mission for whom God has designated them. They were oblivious to signs of coming judgment. Happy days would be there again. They just knew it. They were so deceived and so wrong. This was a people imprisoned by their pride and their complacency.
How did God address this national crisis? He gave Jonah a job to do. The prophet was God’s man for the moment. God saw something out of order in HIs man and in His people. This had to be made right.
The prophet ran from God’s mission; he thought he could find some place outside the presence of the Lord. This was impossible. He soon learned – in the belly of the fish – that God is everywhere. And, Jonah learned that God still purposed to use him.
Jonah got vomited up at Nineveh and preached the message. The people of the city – great and small — turned to the Lord. Disaster was averted. Precisely, the result Jonah expected from the God of all mercies. He then sat down and sulked about the turn of events. But the surprise growth of a large gourd and the shade it provided soon gave Jonah a happy space. That is, until a worm’s work left the gourd withered and we find Jonah glum again.
The Ninevites are alive and the gourd is dead. And Jonah is hot and bothered in an argument with the Lord about it all. Then, the story just ends with God posing some questions to His man:
God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant? And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:9-11).
God Reaches to All
This story is in our Bibles to get us to think. It ends as it does, I believe, so that we will consider just how to think about things and people. Jonah opens our understanding to so much about us, but more importantly these chapters tell us so much about God and His loving kindness toward us and others. He knows that we are dust; He is intimately acquainted with our weaknesses. In the end, I think that Jonah did taste and see that the Lord was good to him, to his people, and to all the world. After it was done, the prophet felt compelled to tell his story as only he could tell it.
Jonah reveals the God of all grace who is reaching to the wildly wicked and also to the decidedly disobedient. The Lord has us all on His heart.
For more about Jonah’s story, check out “Be Believers First,” a message preached by Brian Lange, a pastor and missionary from Greater Grace Church in Baltimore.Jonah reveals the God of all grace who is reaching to the wildly wicked and to the decidedly disobedient. Click To Tweet