Jonah’s drama, God’s mercy

Jonah 4

So, one might think Jonah would get excited when the whole city of Nineveh repented of their violence and false religions. But no. Jonah was ticked off. Why? Because he decided the God was too gracious, too merciful, too patient, and too loving. He certainly didn’t think so when he was surrounded by digestive juices! But this was Jonah’s problem- and often ours.

Jonah sarcophagus

We tend to think that God loves us for our sakes. We are good, so God loves us. Evil people aren’t worthy of God’s love and mercy. Jonah was so mad he said he would be better off dead (again.) We may not go that far, but do we (I absolutely include myself) truly rejoice when God works in a mighty way for someone else? Someone that we don’t think deserves it? It’s one of the dangers of check-box Christianity: we think that because we perform X, we are more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than someone who doesn’t.


That’s not God’s view. God’s ways are so much higher than ours that we can’t possibly understand His work (Isaiah 55:8-9). Jesus told Peter to focus on his own work and not be in John’s business (John 21:22). As believers, our responsibility is to work out (not for) our salvation and do the work he laid out for us individually (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12-13).

God gave Jonah the object lesson of a plant. When Jonah huffed and puffed his way out of the city, certain that their repentance would be short-lived, God made a plant grow up overnight to give Jonah shade. The plant pleased Jonah, and he sat back to watch the destruction of his enemies. But God then cause the plant to die off and blow away on hot desert winds, which again made Jonah want to die. God then pointed out that Jonah was more interested in the plant than the people of Nineveh. And then we hear no more of Jonah. There isn’t an explanation of what happened to him, but he doesn’t show up anymore as a prophet.

I have to wonder. If his attitude was that the people of Nineveh did nor deserve God’s mercy even AFTER all that God did for him, how could he continue to speak for the Lord? Or maybe he did get himself together and become part of Nineveh’s culture, showing them how to worship God. Could be either. Or neither. Eventually Nineveh is destroyed for good, so their repentance didn’t endure, but God extended every opportunity. He still does.

For those who are believers, the question remains, are we motivated to do the work God appointed for us to do out of love for the Father or out of duty to some invisible check list? Our attitudes do not keep God from working, but they do prevent us from enjoying His work. I don’t know about you, but I would rather be part of God’s work cheerfully and experience the joy that comes in walking with Jesus.

A do-over.

Jonah 3

Chapter 3 starts off in much the same way as chapter 1: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” It’s almost like God says, okay, let’s try this again, a second chance to get it right.

I am so grateful for second chances! Even in teaching, I find I improve so much the second time I teach a lesson or a course. I can reflect on what went right and and adjust what was not as effective as it should have been. God gives us all second (and third and fourth) chances to make things right with Him and with each other. We need to embrace the second chances to restore relationships!

Jonah’s second chance was qualified. The first time God told him to preach in Nineveh because of their evil. This time God told Jonah to speak the words God would tell him. This is the thing about God: He knows our hearts and attitudes and we can’t fake authentic obedience. We can go through the motions, and God will use us to do His work, but there’s a difference between obeying God because we love Him and going through the motions of obedience (more on that later). Jonah did go to Nineveh and he told the people they had 40 days before their city would be destroyed. I find it curious that there wasn’t a specific call to repent and turn to God. It makes me think that the people were trying to find a path to satisfaction or happiness in the ways they understood: pleasure, education, and gods they could see. When Jonah pointed out the end result of human effort, he didn’t have to say “repent” because they recognized the futility of their actions.

image: Public Domain, by Gustave Doré

When the king called on people to repent, even he wasn’t sure that their turning from evil would save them, but he hoped that God would relent and let them live. And God relented, a second do-over.

God is patient and merciful. He will give people second chances to follow Him, no matter who they are or what they’ve done (1 John 1:9).

Jonah: When all else fails

Then Jonah prayed. Jonah 2

What does it take for us to turn to God? Jonah had to book passage on an outbound ship, survive a terrifying storm, convince a bunch of sailors to pitch him overboard, and get swallowed by a great fish where he was tangled in seaweed and looking death in the eyes.

Jonah’s situation was not God’s original plan. Jonah got himself in dire circumstances by his choices. God used the natural consequences of Jonah’s decisions to make Himself known, but it is impossible to run from God’s call.

Psalm 139 says, ” Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” Jonah was in a hell of his own making, but God, in His mercy, continued to hold out an opportunity for repentance, and Jonah finally acquiesced. He had to be completely out of options and even then it took three days for him to admit he couldn’t find a way out.

But he did repent. And found himself able to thank the Lord for His salvation. With a changed attitude, God released Jonah from the great fish (much to its relief, I suspect) and Jonah found himself on dry ground. He was filthy, smelling of seaweed and decay, but he was alive to tell his story.

It’s sometimes tempting to tell God our plans and the way we want things to go, but God’s will prevails. Jonah could have stayed clean and avoided his big fish story if he had obeyed God the first time. But, like us, Jonah didn’t understand God’s desire to save the people of Nineveh- people Jonah didn’t like. Whether or not Jonah approved of their politics, music, worship styles, food preferences, and the rest, God told him that they were part of His plan.
God may call on us to do something we don’t like or don’t understand. His ways are so much higher than ours! We are much better off if we obey the first time He says, “Arise and go.”

Jonah: Swallowed and wallowing

Jonah 1:17

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.


Full stop.


Let me think about this. Jonah figures he would be better off dead than to obey the Lord and preach in Nineveh. He did not seek the Lord in this decision, and he did not consider what might happen to the sailors whom he told to throw him overboard. He made decisions based on his own fears. I do wonder why he didn’t jump himself. Why did he need to be thrown by others? God ultimately used that decision to reveal Himself to the sailors, so they at least could be saved.

So, Jonah figures death by drowning is his preferred option. He did not repent, nor did he vow to obey the Lord. But God. In His mercy. Appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah. I consulted a number of commentaries (on Bible Hub) to see what the Hebrew word meant. It means “great fish.” Some of the commentaries tried to explain away the notion, saying it was really a ship with a whale as its sign (that to me is just silly), while others try to guess what kind of fish is might have been (shark? dog fish?) I suspect it was probably some species now extinct, but it really doesn’t matter. One thing is certain: Jonah, expecting death by drowning, found himself wallowing in the muck and bile and partially digested bits of some sea creatures belly!

How often does God allow us to wallow in our sin while preserving our lives, giving us every possible opportunity to repent? His mercy is for our sakes, and also for the work He has prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). When we run from God, we may well find ourselves swallowed and wallowing while God patiently waits for us to come to our senses.

Jonah: the sailors.

Their gods, his god, the God, the LORD.

There is a flow to the story of the sailors of the ship bound for Spain that is worth considering. When Jonah paid his fare and went below deck to take a nap, it was just another day at work. ( aside: How could Jonah sleep knowing he was running in disobedience?) Then, the storm. This was no ordinary storm. These were men used to the open sea, but this one terrified them. They called on their gods. Like many major cities (think Thessalonica), religious pluralism was part of the culture. For them, as for most people, religion was based on traditions, routines, and social norms. It was the thing that everyone did. Their gods were silent, so the captain woke up Jonah (a really sound sleeper) to try a different god, his god.

“What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Jonah 1:6


Jonah refused to cry out to the Lord, even if he did wake up. He was persistent in his determination to NOT go to Nineveh. He had to know that if he called on God he would be required to obey the command to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. His stubbornness led to the sailors to try a new tactic to figure out the weather. They knew this was no ordinary storm and that it had to be supernatural in origin.

Since their gods were silent, the sailors decided to throw the dice to figure out whose wrong behavior caused the storm. The lots fell on Jonah. The God who allowed the storm also allowed the lots to fall on Jonah, once again pointing out his sin. Did Jonah then repent and vow to obey? Nope. He said, “Throw me into the sea,” probably thinking if he was dead the storm would stop and he could still avoid going to Nineveh. He would rather die by drowning than preach to the evil Ninevites. How often to we persist in not loving those around us even when God specifically calls us to share the gospel with them?

At this point, the sailors recognized Jonah as a prophet of the God, and no way would they kill him. They didn’t know the God of Israel, but they recognized his power, and they did not want to displease Him. At this point, they were exceedingly afraid. In desperation, they rowed with everything they had, but the storm just grew worse.

We often think that our way is better than God’s way, especially when His way doesn’t make sense to our limited human minds. Eventually, the sailors acquiesced to Jonah’s command to throw him into the raging waters. They prayed to Jonah’s God for mercy, knowing that Jonah would certainly drown. When the sailors finally obeyed (unlike Jonah) the storm ceased.

Stopped.

Relented.

Calm water for smooth sailing.

That got the their attention. These strong and seasoned sailors turned away from the gods of their culture and recognized the exceeding power of The Lord God. Verse 16 says, “the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”

The sailors started the journey thinking it was just another day at work. The storm made them exceedingly afraid. The Lord demonstrated His power and they responded with exceeding awe, reverence, repentance, and sacrifice.

God will use us, even in spite of our actions, to draw others to Himself. Jonah went overboard, still refusing to obey the Lord, but the secular sailors recognized the superiority of Jonah’s God when they obeyed. This is not to say that obedience is optional; it is not. If we love God we will obey Him. However, God can and does use even our bad choices to allow others to see Him as the Lord.

God moves those who look to Him from exceeding fright to exceeding awe, and all for His Name.

Jonah: Arise and go or arise and run?

Jonah 1:1-16

If you want action, Jonah is the story for you. In the first 15 verses Jonah hears from God, runs from God, gets on a boat with sailors who served many gods, sleeps through a storm, gets caught in his disobedience, and gets tossed overboard.

At the same time, God is also active. He calls Jonah to go to Ninevah, watches Jonah run the other way, sends a terrifying storm, causes the lots to fall on Jonah, and reveals himself to the sailors who abandoned their old gods and “feared the Lord exceedingly” (v. 16).

Jonah started near-ish the Mediterranean Sea (the second from right bulls-eye in the map above). Nineveh is the far right bulls-eye. Tarshish is the far left, on the coast of modern Spain. So, the Lord tells Jonah to arise and go. That’s the first time Jonah is told to arise. He arose, but ran the other way, trying to get as far away from God’s call as possible.

The second time Jonah was told to wake up was in the middle of the storm. He was running from God in disobedience AND in the middle of a massive storm and he was asleep??? But, evidently his mind wasn’t worried about the consequences of his actions, and the ship’s captain had to wake him up. “Arise,” he said, “Call out to your god and maybe he will listen.”

Jonah was told TWICE to arise and neither time was he fully compliant. The first time he ran; the second time he played dumb. This is a prophet acting this way; he knew the Scriptures better than most. He knew all the stories of God knowing the hearts of people and not being fooled by them. Still, he somehow thought he could play Survivor with the Almighty: outwit, outplay, outlast. Spoiler alert: he didn’t win.


We might look at Jonah and wonder how or why he could think the way he did. We might even judge his disobedience. But I know how easy it can be to run the other way or play dumb when God leads me to do something I really don’t want to do or am afraid of doing. We all do. We who are believers are just as knowledgeable as Jonah, but we can also act like Jonah until we are caught, reprimanded, and sent on our way. We may not be physically tossed in the ocean, but we feel that terror. The question becomes, what do we do with that feeling?

Jonah: The setting.

Jonah

Jonah opens with the Lord telling Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). What was so great about Nineveh and why was God interested in it in ~750 BCE?

Archaeologist Henry Layard’s image of Nineveh.

Nineveh was one of the most beautiful cities of the ancient world. Archaeologists believe that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually in Nineveh. King Sennacherib made Nineveh the capital of ancient Assyria, building roads and canals throughout the city so there was adequate water for both citizens and agriculture. Situated in Iraq near modern-day Mosul, its walls were covered in lime and the city was surrounded by a double moat. It would reflect the sun from both walls and water, so it would shine across the desert. At this time in history it was known for its warriors, education, and art. And its taxes. (Always taxes) Later it would add a massive library of 30,000 clay tablets, including tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh. The primary gods were Ashur and Ishtar. It was a prosperous city, its wealth coming from its place as a crossroads of east and west.

As I dug into the history of Nineveh, I began to think that the city represents all the major cities of history. It was absolutely a real place, and Jonah’s story is recognized by all three major religions in the region still. A version of the story is told in the Quran , interpreted as a call to patience in adversity. Jewish people tell the story on Yom Kippur, the solemn day of atonement. In Christianity, the Syriac Orthodox church holds a three day fast as they remember Jonah and seek reconciliation with God and with each other. Jonah’s burial site was in Nineveh until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2014. Archaeological digs continue there, in spite of almost total devastation.

The monument of Jonah’s tomb before it was destroyed

Nineveh was not a Jewish city, so sending a Jewish prophet there seems curious. Moreover, the inhabitants of Nineveh were hostile to the Jews, which explains why Jonah resisted God’s call to go. The kings (most famously Sennacherib) were cruel warriors who enslaved those whom they captured and those who did not bow down to them. They levied taxes on their own people, the people they conquered, and any merchant passing through the city or its strongholds. It represented plurality and secularism, two attributes common in the modern West.

I imagine Nineveh was like San Francisco or New York City. Government sponsored massive public works, focused on a humanistic center of progress, and promoted absolutely intolerant of anyone who might challenge their superiority. These cities are centers of tourism and wealth, beautiful on the surface, but just below the gleaming surface lurks the ugly reality of corruption, rot, and death. So, in a sense, Nineveh is a metaphor for any place, ancient or modern that turns priorities upside-down. Instead of seeking the welfare of the people, city leaders focus on adding to their power by shining the outside image so that no one notices the evil that happens in the darker corners.

With that in mind, I am beginning to understand why Nineveh. Knowing history, the city was one of the greatest in the Assyrian Empire, but is now little more than dust. It was headed toward destruction by the activities of its elite when God woke up Jonah and told him to preach to the people there.

There are plenty of places filled with people headed toward destruction in the glittering cities of the modern world. God still calls his people to go and preach repentance and make disciples. The question becomes, when is a city too far gone for God?