I’m making my way through the books written by the minor prophets in the Old Testament. I just recently finished the old familiar story of Jonah. Although I’ve read it before, there was one thing that stood out to me about this book that I hadn’t realized in previous reads. Jonah is the only book contained in the prophetic books that is more about the prophet than it is about the prophecy.
Yes, we learn that God had a message for the Ninevites. Jonah was to go there and preach against them and their wickedness. That takes us to verse 3 in Chapter 1. Then, for the rest of Chapter 1 and all of Chapter 2, Ninevah and its people are no longer the focus, Jonah is.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the story but here’s a quick recap: Jonah decides to go in the opposite direction of where God was sending him. He hops on a ship that is setting sail for Tarshish. After confessing to them that he was running from his God, he goes below deck and falls asleep. Meanwhile, a violent storm threatens the ship and everyone on board. In a panic, the crew begin praying to their gods for help. Eventually they cast lots in order to determine who is responsible for this horrific storm. All signs point to Jonah. When the captain and crew confront Jonah they ask him what his story is, where he’s from, what he does for a living and who his God is. Jonah tells them, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9)
The crew was terrified. If it was his God who made the sea, clearly Jonah had done something to tick Him off. They then asked him, “What have you done?” Jonah had already told them that he was running away from his God but he didn’t confess anything further. What he did tell them, was the only way to calm the sea was to throw him into it. These unbelieving crew members were now even more terrified. The last thing they wanted to do was to tick off Jonah’s God even more by throwing His prophet into the sea and to certain death. They did everything they could, including trying to row back to shore, but the storm just grew stronger. Finally, in desperation and with great fear and reverence for Jonah’s God, they cried out to Him and asked Him not to hold them accountable for what they were about to do. They threw him into the sea and just as Jonah had said, the sea grew calm. At this, the crew members worshipped God and made vows to Him.
We know what happened next. In God’s infinite mercy, He allowed Jonah to be swallowed by a great fish. God didn’t take his life, He saved it. Chapter 2 is Jonah’s prayer to God. From inside the fish, Jonah prays to God thanking Him and praising Him for His mercy. Jonah was alive! He was praising God for saving him from drowning in the sea. For three days and three nights he was in that fish. And what a wake up call that experience was. Here are the last few sentences of his prayer:
“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” (Jonah 2:8-9)
And in verse 10 we read, God caused the fish to spit Jonah out on shore.
In Chapter 3, we get back to the people of Ninevah. It’s almost like the book starts over. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” (Jonah 3:1-3a)
Now Jonah’s on track. He’s being obedient to what God has called him to do. We learn that Ninevah is a very large city of more than 120,000 residents. It takes Jonah three days to get through the whole city delivering his message. His message was clear. They had 40 days before their city would be overthrown.
The people of Ninevah responded immediately. The word says from the greatest to the least they repented. When the King heard the news he declared a fast. Everyone, including animals, were to fast from food and water and be clothed in sackcloth. He himself took off his royal robes and wore sackcloth and sat in ashes as a symbol of his repentant heart. He hoped that their actions would be enough to cause God to turn the impending destruction away from them.
And God did just that. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (Jonah 3:10)
Oh, how I wish that was the end of the story. Jonah went off track, got back on track, delivered God’s message and Ninevah was saved! A great story with a happy ending. But alas, that’s not the end of the story. Sadly, once again the story changes its focus back to Jonah.
“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. 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, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?‘” (Jonah 4:1-4)
We now find out the real reason that Jonah fled to Tarshish in the first place. He did not want the people of Ninevah to be saved. Ninevah was the Assyrian capital. Unlike the other prophets, Jonah wasn’t prophesying to his own people of Israel or Judah, but to the Assyrians. He wanted to see the Assyrians punished for their evil deeds not rewarded for their repentance.
Jonah was so disgusted with God showing them mercy that he wanted to die. The same man who was so grateful that God spared his life when the sea was ready to swallow him up, is now wishing he was dead. The guy who proclaimed that he would sacrifice to God with shouts of praise, and tell the world, “Salvation comes from the Lord,” now wanted no part of God’s message of salvation. He would rather die than see Ninevah saved.
Jonah’s time in the fish may have made him obedient to God’s calling, but it did not put his heart in alignment with God’s will. He experienced God’s mercy from certain death first hand. It got his attention. It made him obedient. But it didn’t change his heart to want to share that same mercy with those whom God wanted him to share it with, those whom he may have consider enemies.
What I took from this reading of Jonah was what a contrast it is to the other prophetic books of the Old Testament. While we get glimpses into the lives of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and the others, much, if not most of their books are about the messages that they delivered. The focus is on what God had to say to His people then, and to His people now. It is about what God was accomplishing, or wanting to accomplish through the calling He had placed on each prophet’s life. But Jonah is different.
The book of Jonah is really about Jonah. We’re almost distracted from the fact that God was able to use Jonah in such a powerful way! The entire city of Ninevah, more than 120,000, repented! The men aboard the ship that Jonah was on when he was fleeing to Tarshish turned to the Lord! God did miraculous things even through Jonah’s disobedience. But Jonah and the book written about him is so focused on Jonah. It’s like we’re thrust into his shoes and our focus becomes our circumstances. Our human nature is on display in stunning technicolor and what we see is that we only want God’s mercy to extend to those whom we like, not those whom we dislike. We’re reminded of our short-sightedness. How quickly we forget the big picture of our calling and focus instead on our own discomfort. We have our fickleness reflected back to us like a mirror. How our vows to the Lord to dedicate our lives to His message and calling conveniently slip our minds the moment we’re inconvenienced. Ugh! Let’s face it, Jonah is us!
Seeing his story in contrast to the other prophets I have read in these past several months, it made me think: If God were to write a book about my life would it be about the message He wanted to tell through my life and my obedience to Him, or would it be more about me? Would it tell the many stories of Him stepping in to save me when my disobedience and my own will took me in precisely the opposite direction of where He wanted me to go? Or would it be about the fact that others would come to know Him through the calling He placed on my life? Would it be about the advancement of His kingdom through me, or in spite of me?
God knew how much we need to see ourselves reflected in the pages of scripture. Jonah is just one of the many examples of His ability to work through imperfect people. He will accomplish His will in spite of us! Praise God for that! But my prayer for each of us, as believers, is that the book written about our lives will be more about His kingdom, His message for the world, and what He was able to accomplish through us, WITH US working in tandem with Him. What a privilege it is! He doesn’t need us, He wants us. He wants us to have the experience of working with Him in carrying out His will in the world. Just as His Son had that experience, He wants it for us too.
My friend, may you experience the joy of carrying out that calling! May all of us keep our focus on Him and His calling on our lives and not get swallowed up by our circumstances or our human nature.
Lord, I thank you for Jonah and for the fact that you allowed us to have his story as a part of your Word. What a reminder to us of our own failures. Thank you, Father, for your graciousness, your compassion, your slowness to anger, and your abounding love for us and for the world. God, you SO LOVED THE WORLD, that you sent your Son, Jesus. Oh Father, the fact that you desire us to help you deliver that message to the world is unbelievable. After the number of times we’ve gone the opposite direction, foolishly put our own lives in peril, had bad attitudes, been selfish with the Good News that we ourselves have received, and simply have just whined about our minor discomforts. Lord, that you still have a purpose for each of us, have gifted us to be used to further your kingdom, and to share your love with others is beyond the depth of our understanding. But, thank you, Lord. Thank you for your patience. Father, may all of us, have a story that reflects more of your goodness than our failures. We love you, Lord. Stir in us to fulfill the calling you have placed on our lives with enthusiasm and fervor. May our lives be a light and a witness to others, pointing them to you. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.