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.