Sometimes it’s hard to sit down and write. I was reluctant today, not because I don’t want to sit down with God’s words, but because I’m afraid I’m inadequate to keep writing about them on this blog. Because the truth is, I am inadequate, and rather than believe that God can use inadequate people, I forget and want to sleep in.
So I can relate to Jonah. He lets his feelings dictate whether or not he’ll obey what God’s said, and even after repenting, he continues to sin. And still, God works in him and through him anyway. God’s not put off by needy people. He fills them, Ps 107:9.
The prophets who spoke God’s words faithfully, regardless of whether anyone listened or not, are harder for me to understand. We’ve been looking at prophets like Hosea and Daniel and Ezekiel and Jeremiah, who gave up their own personal plans–even fulfilling family lives–in order to say what God said. Their mission was to deliver God’s message day-in and day-out to people who for the most part don’t pay attention, let alone repent.
Didn’t prophets have bucket lists? Didn’t they need to find themselves? Didn’t they have a life, for goodness sake? Jonah evidently did. He’s a prophet who believes that what he wants matters more than what God says. When God tells him to go to Ninevah, he runs away, and still God uses him in the end, Jon 1:3.
Jonah lived during the time of Amos, the prophet we’ve just finished with. It was during the days of King Jeroboam, II, a time when Israel was prosperous and strong. The mood among the people is that they’re on top again, like in the days of Solomon, because they’re God’s favorites, his special nation that he’s chosen to bless, (for the story of God from Amos, see https://iwantmore.blog/2020/12/12/December-12/).
But the word from God’s prophets Hosea and Amos has been just the opposite: God’s not pleased. Israel’s used their prosperity and peace for self indulgence and idolatry. They oppress the poor in order to get rich quick. They only pretend to worship God’s way. Rather than being God’s favorites, they’re under God’s judgment. They’re about to get kicked out of their precious promised land and carried off to Assyria, (for a story of God from Hosea, see iwantmore.blog/2020/12/08/december-8/).
It’s in this day that God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah, the capital city of Assyria, this enemy nation, and tell the people to repent or he’ll destroy them. But Jonah doesn’t. He finds the next boat going in the exact opposite direction, to Tarshish in Spain, the farthest port on the Mediterranean Sea trading route, (NIV Study Bible notes).
I can understand his not wanting to go. For one thing Ninevah is so big, it takes three days just to travel through, Jon 3:3. It’s also where the Assyrian king lives, and as such, is the center for Assyrian culture and power. Jonah would be a lowly Jewish prophet from a lesser nation coming into town unannounced and preaching doom-and-gloom on a street corner.
But this isn’t why he doesn’t want to go. Jonah doesn’t want these Assyrian pagans to repent. He wants them to get God’s wrath, not his mercy. God’s mercy is reserved for Israel, after all, his special people. They’re the ones with the covenant promise. They’re the ones with the fabulous temple. They’re the ones who’ve descended from the famous deliverer, Moses, and the ancestors who traveled through the wilderness, (NIV Study Bible notes).
After all of their tradition and history with God, surely he’s not going to start saving the heathen? Jonah’s so proud of his privileged position, he’s downright jealous at the thought of sharing it, and he determines that he won’t. “God might save ’em, but he’s not using me to do it.”
Jonah tells God, “That is why I was so quick to flee 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,” Jon 4:2. It’s because God will forgive and relent that he doesn’t want to go preach. He doesn’t want to be an agent of God’s forgiveness for unrighteous sinners, ones that have been breathing down Israel’s neck. It’s like God asking a survivor to go preach repentance to their attacker. Not happening.
Somewhere along the way, Jonah–and all of Israel with him–has gotten the idea that salvation had to do with a person’s doing religious duties. Even though they’re living decadent, immoral, and idolatrous lives, they’re still tithing at the temple. They think what God wants is simple, after all: sacrifices and offerings. “We got this.”
But self-righteousness lies. It makes us forget our need for grace at all times.
Saving the Gentiles in Ninevah would mean that salvation isn’t about anyone’s privileged position because of do-gooding or race or family bloodline. It would have to be based on God’s goodness and grace–his righteousness. This is a piece of humble pie Jonah can’t bite. This is why he jumps on board a ship and settles down for a long trip.
Rather than asking God to change his heart about his call, or wrestling with God about why he wants to save the world, Jonah tries to get away from God. Self righteousness doesn’t just tempt us to believe lies, it tempts us to pride and to hate, to nationalism and extremism and racism, and to running in exactly the wrong way.
It also makes us stupid.
Here was God’s prophet, one who believes in him and has made prophecies that have come true (see 2 Ki 14:25), also believing he can get away from God. As he told the ship’s captain, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land.” But he’d also told the men on board that he was running away from the Lord, Jon 1:9-10. This is the insanity of sin…and it greatly encourages me.
But first, the story.
Jonah boards a ship and finds a place in the hold below where he falls into a deep sleep, while a violent storm kicks up outside. God sends “a great wind on the sea” and the sailors begin to pray to their gods and throw cargo overboard to lighten the load, but it doesn’t help, Jon 1:3-5.
The captain finds Jonah and tells him, “Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.” The sailors cast lots to see who’s to blame and the lot falls to Jonah. They ask him what they should do with him, and he tells them to throw him overboard for, “I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you,” Jon 1:6-12.
At first they try rowing back to land, but they can’t, and the sea grows wilder. They pray that God will forgive them for taking Jonah’s life and say, “Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.” They put it on God and throw Jonah in, “and the raging sea grew calm.” At this, the men are overwhelmed with fear of the Lord, Jon 1:13-16.
God provided “a great fish” to swallow Jonah, and he stays alive inside for three days and nights. Jonah’s prayer in the fish tells us what he experienced in the ocean: God–not the sailors–had “hurled [him] into the deep,” where “all your waves and breakers swept over me.” He thought he was as good as dead, “from the depths of the grave,” when he called for God’s help, Jon 1:17-2:4.
“The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down…,” but Jonah thought of God and prayed for help “when my life was ebbing away,” and God “brought my life up from the pit,” Jon 2:5-7.
Inside the fish, Jonah’s humbled and repents, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” What was Jonah’s idol? He doesn’t say, but it’s hinted at in the next verse, “Salvation comes from the Lord,” 2:8-9.
Jonah doesn’t control who gets invited to repent and believe. That’s God’s business: salvation comes from him. Jonah’s just experienced a miraculous deliverance, one he couldn’t do for himself. Thank goodness that salvation of any kind–physical or spiritual–doesn’t depend on Jonah or anybody else.
I’m intrigued by the idea that when I hang onto an idol, I forfeit grace that could be mine. When I settle for something worthless, I don’t also get the grace I’d have gotten in its place–like God’s smile, like his “attagirl.” I give up his grace for something that can’t fill me.
The fish vomits Jonah on dry land, and God tells him to go to Ninevah again. This time, he obeys and proclaims that God will overthrow the city in 40 days unless they repent. From the king to its animals and everyone in between, “The Ninevites believed God,” and declare a fast, put on sackcloth, and repent.
Talk about fast.
God sees how they turned from their sin, and “he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” Afterwards, what does Jonah do, celebrate? Nope, he gets mad, Jon 3:10-4:1.
Never mind that God’s just done arguably the most amazing miracle ever for one single person by saving him inside the belly of a fish (Daniel’s lions comes to mind as another). Never mind that he’s just repented of his “worthless idol,” as in who gets to choose whose included as God’s kids. Never mind that God’s given him another call and a fresh start as a prophet for Ninevah. Never mind that he’s just preached a sermon worthy of the repentance of more than 120 thousand Ninevites, with a 100% turnaround. Never mind all of this, because Jonah gets mad, Jon 3:5, 8, 10; 4:11.
What happened to the guy who just exclaimed, “Salvation comes from the Lord”? Didn’t he believe what he said in the fish? This is where Jonah shows his humanity best–his ongoing need of repentance and faith for the very same idol he’s just repented of. Like the folks he preaches to, Jonah needs his own sackcloth and fast.
He’s forgotten his own forgiveness, his own need for grace. He’s fallen back into believing that salvation has to do with who’s earned it. He’s mad all over again that these pagans are getting a shot at God’s goodness and glory, not his wrath and gory.
Jonah says this is exactly what he knew God would do because he’s “abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” And Jonah decides he’d rather die than live like family with folks who don’t measure up, “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live,” Jon 4:1-3.
So God asks him, “Have you any right to be angry?” Does he have a right to be angry about who God forgives and lets live? Does Jonah measure up? Jonah doesn’t respond to God’s question in the text, but goes outside the city instead and builds a shelter in the sun to wait and see what happens. I’m guessing he’s still hoping to see Ninevah get dumped on with fire and brimstone. As God provided the fish, here he “provided a vine” that grows up, and Jonah’s finally glad, Jon 4:5-6.
When I’ve got a child-whiner who’s failing to see my grace, my tendency is to withdraw it and create an empty space, “”I’m sorry you don’t like supper? How about an empty plate?” But this isn’t what God does: he gives Jonah more grace, he increases his shade. God doesn’t point it out, either–another grace.
But at dawn the next day, God comes back and “provided a worm” that chewed the vine and made it die. Then he “provided a scorching east wind,” so that the sun blazed and Jonah felt faint. God’s teaching time includes a little loss of shady grace. Jonah felt so wretched and angry, he wanted to give up and die right on the spot all over again, Jon 4:7-9.
God asks him a second time, “Do you have a right to be angry?” Before, God asked Jonah if he thought he was right to be angry about the people God chooses to save. Now God’s asking Jonah if he’s right to be angry about the plant God chooses not to save and the heat he lets him feel.
In both cases, Jonah’s anger answers God’s question. If he’s angry with what God does, it’s because he thinks he’s got rights to what he wants–like the death of a city, like the life of a vine.
God’s question about Jonah’s anger exposes his heart, the one that says, “I deserve grace. I know what’s best. I should be in charge.” This is the forgetful, presumptuous heart, the one that thinks it measures up. It hates grace and mercy and bending a knee. Like the Pharisees, it says, “I can be good enough. I don’t need.”
God’s response is a surprise. He doesn’t smite or remind who’s God and who’s not. He kindly explains the lesson of the vine: “you’re concerned about a vine you had nothing to do with. You care about a passing plant, a vine here today and gone tomorrow. But Ninevah has more than 120 thousand people in it that I care about. What’s more, these are people I’ve created, who I love. They’re like little kids who can’t tell their right hand from their left,” Jon 4:10-11 (paraphrased).
God points out there are a lot of his animals in Nineveh, and he cares about them, too. Destroying the city and its people would mean that even its animals would perish. The Ninevites were so wicked they got God’s attention, and he sent Jonah to tell them to repent. But even they had the sensitivity to care that their animals were covered in sackcloth and spared, Jon 3:8; 4:11.
Jonah doesn’t. He’s sitting back at a safe distance, waiting to watch the judgment show from his shady shelter.
But dying isn’t what God has in mind. He doesn’t want anyone to perish, whether Jew or Gentile, man or beast. God’s heart is that all people would repent and believe and be saved. 500 years before Paul and Peter figure it out, God’s already demonstrated his plan through Jonah. He sends one Jewish man to bring salvation to the great city, not just to his own tribe and clan. Sound familiar? Ez 18:32.
This is the part that encourages me:
Nobody wants to “forfeit grace,” and yet we do. God sees. He knows. He’s the father who has grace piled up by the trailer load. He loves his enemies so much that he even cares about those who don’t know their right hands from their left. And he sends them a self righteous Jew to tell them what to do, who needs his own makeover, too.
God’s family includes folks who get a clue and then turn around and drop it, who step up and fall down, who repent and need to repent again for the very same thing, who mess up and get angry and forget who they are and who God is and still get grace. This encourages me because I do these things, too. Jonah sets a low bar for me before a compassionate, loving and gloriously gracious God who reminds me that he’s enough, he’s got the good stuff.
I don’t get why you’re this way, God, the one who’s concerned about those who don’t know you, the one who patiently corrects those who do. But I’m glad this is who you are: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” If you were concerned about Nineveh, surely you’re concerned about all cities, too. Jon 4:11.
Our college student is living at home this year. I’m tempted to scold about the dishes left lying around and the bathroom that’s never cleaned, but God shows me a different way to be: to kindly instruct, to keep said instructions to 58 words or less (I counted God’s to Jonah), and to give a lot of grace.
God knows I need it, too.
This psalm is about the gift of unity. It’s like precious oil–soothing and softening, utterly delightful. Precious.
I looked up where Hermon and Mount Zion are, two mountains near Jerusalem. In reality these mountains aren’t close enough for sharing dew, so if it’s happening, it’s because God’s done it, (Tim and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus).
And I see how true a picture this is of unity. The natural bent of every heart is away from God and one another. It’s for dis-unity. So unity is only possible if God intervenes. It’s his blessing when it comes. It’s life giving, “even life forevermore.”
It’s God who makes me more glad about a happy son than a clean bathroom.
“How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity.
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.”
My take away today is God’s glory that takes fallen people and shapes them to do things they cannot do on their own. There’s no doubt who got the glory for the Ninevite’s turn around, surely not the prophet who despised them.
God can use anyone to speak his words, even those who need his words more desperately than the folks they speak them to. Jonah should have been a better example of God’s love than he was, but no matter. God’s used even donkeys to speak for him, Nu 22:30.
God’s glory doesn’t shine brightest in the knowledge, wealth, and abilities of his people, but through their poverty, their disability, their dependence, their brokenness, their need. It peeks through cracks, it inhabits those who fast, it fills the empty slap full.
This is what Mary knew, who glorified God because, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Lk 1:53.
Thank you God for all these words to me.
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