The Book of Jonah in the OT begins in a familiar prophetic fashion with the word of the Lord coming to his prophet Jonah. But after that point it’s like no other book in the Bible. Jonah is not at all into God’s call on his life and so he runs from God. When God tells him to go east, to Nineveh, to tell the people that they must repent from their wickedness or be destroyed, Jonah decides to go west, heading down to Joppa. He pays his way on a ship going to Tarshish, as far from Nineveh as possible, but as Jonah learns you can never run from God. God calls a wind to thrash the boat and Jonah is willingly thrown overboard. The story should end at this point with the seas claiming Jonah’s life, but God provided a great sea creature to swallow him. Jonah spends 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the fish (obvious biblical theme). During this time Jonah cries out to God in a prayer that becomes the quintessential example to us of how to pray if we find ourselves in the belly of fish (I hope you never experience that). When life is falling apart and we are desperate and all alone pray like Jonah prayed in chapter 2. God directed the great fish to release Jonah by vomiting him out onto dry land. Eventually Jonah is obedient and takes God’s message to the people of Nineveh. After Jonah preaches, the people immediately respond to God and repent. The repentance, the turning from their evil and wicked lives, starts on the street level and reaches the king. The king also repents, steps down from his throne, takes off his kingly garments, puts on sackcloth, the clothing of a servant, and gives up his evil ways.
When one sinner turns their life over to God the very angels rejoice in celebration. What about when a city of 120,000 evil, violent, corrupt people repent? It must have been party time among the angels. The champagne was popped, party favors handed out, balloons blown up, a big band rocking the heavens over this mass transformation. You would imagine that Jonah must be thrilled that God used him to bring about such mass conversion. This was a good day for a prophet of God. You would be mistaken.
I AM JONAH
Jonah’s true heart is revealed. He couldn’t care less for the men, women, and children of Nineveh. He wants them to go to hell, not be saved.
If truth be told – I am Jonah and you are Jonah. Jonah’s struggle is our struggle. We are convinced we are different but really, we think life is about us. We are thrilled that God has saved us, restored us, and forgiven us. We find great comfort in knowing that God is preparing a place for us and that we will never experience the devastation of separation from God. We know that God desires us to have concern for those who don’t know him, (The modern-day people of Nineveh) but our actions more than not are more in line with Jonah than I want to admit. Our attitude often says, I don’t care if people are living wasted lives on the fast train to devastation. Life is about me.
Perhaps you think I am being harsh or maybe exaggerating. I’m not so sure, stay with me to the end of the Jonah story. Jonah believed the people of Nineveh deserved to be destroyed. They tortured their enemies, skinning them alive, they worshiped false gods, they hated the Hebrew people. They had a classic, “The only good Hebrew person was a dead Hebrew” mentality. In fact, they deserved to be utterly destroyed by God and Jonah’s attitude would have been the prevalent attitude of his day. Let the people of Nineveh, those corrupt, spit-in-the-face-of-God psychopaths, burn.
I don’t like to think that I am like Jonah but I am. I struggle with the scandalous nature of God’s Grace and yet it is God’s Grace that sets Christianity apart from the other world religions. God Grace, his mercy to people like me who don’t deserve it, his love and patience, the fact that he paid the price and I can receive hope and forgiveness, though I am undeserving, is a religion for the foolish, but it is right. Philip Yancey writes, “God shattered the inexorable law of sin and retribution by invading earth, absorbing the worst we had to offer, crucifixion, and then fashioning from the cruel deed the remedy for the human condition. Calvary broke up the logjam between justice and forgiveness. By accepting onto his innocent self all the severe demands of justice, Jesus broke forever the chain of ungrace.” In the Jonah story we are beginning to see the heart of God who sent his son Jesus Christ to pave the way so that all people have an opportunity to come to him.
Jonah is so much like the son who stayed with his dad in Jesus’ classic parable about the prodigal son. In Luke Jesus tells a parable about a son who wishes his father dead by asking for his inheritance. He gets his money and squanders it on prostitutes and the best short term pleasures the world can offer. He finds himself broke, desperate, feeding dirty animals, eating their food. He returns home hoping to be welcomed as a servant, not as a son. The Father, though, receives him as a son and throws a grand party. But the son who was faithful all along, the Jonah in the story, does not attend the party choosing to stay in the field. Jesus says:
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'”
I am too often in my heart like the older brother when I should be more like the father who was in fact the one most hurt, yet ran and embraced the younger son. It’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s not about what we think is fair, or what we believe God must do, or what we think people need to do or not do. It’s not up to us to determine who is in and out of the Kingdom of God. God can handle that. I can’t. It is about God, his desires, his grace, his compassion. It is about a God who desires all to come and know him. Peter writes:
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
That is the heart of God revealed in the book of Jonah. It’s a heart that Jonah could not grasp.
For Jonah it was all about his comfort and rightness even over the eternal destiny of others. They deserve death so God should just give it to them. What a punk, loser, self-absorbed prophet Jonah was. It’s easy to pick on Jonah but I am Jonah. God has smacked me over the head with this truth. I remember when my TV suddenly died, really died. The smelly, smoking kind of death. A sad day for my wife, but a great day for a guy who finally wanted to explore the world of modern televisions. I did my homework, joined consumer reports, called friends, became business card buddies with the guy at Best Buy. I learned everything I could about the current television industry. I searched websites, and visited stores. During my journey into television heaven I also was setting up one of those blue pools in my backyard for the kids. It was old, leaky and didn’t work, so I found a new pool to set up. But after I put the water in it, to my utter frustration it, too, had a leak. I became obsessed for days over my TV and pool. Honestly, nothing else mattered. That’s when God hit me over the head. I was reading and praying early one Sunday morning before worship service and instead of focusing on what God was going to do that day, the lives that God desired to transform, I was thinking about televisions and pool holes. It was at that moment I realized I was more concerned over a stupid TV and pool than people. A biblical truth that I knew nailed me. You become what you do. If I spend all my time focusing on ridiculous possessions, that becomes my heart. Or as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” I was like Jonah, more concerned with my own comfort and priorities than God’s.
At the end of Jonah’s story God is using his creation to soften the heart of Jonah (Read it!). Jonah, you didn’t create the vine, plant it, pull the weeds, you did nothing to receive it, and it was a gift from me to you. It was a quick temporary fix to your discomfort. Now contrast that to Nineveh. I created them, they are people in my own image. There are women, children, old and young who are part of that great city. They are evil and corrupt, they don’t know their right hand from their left. In other words, they are naive about my ways and they needed someone to tell them about the covenant keeping God of all creation. God even mentions the cattle, wow. You care about a plant – what about all those animals that will also die along with the people? God ends this story with a question for Jonah to ponder. The story just ends messy with no clean conclusion and no repentance for Jonah. Should I not be concerned about that great city?