Between Obadiah and Micah, in the so called “minor prophets” of the Old Testament, is the really small – yet full of teaching – book of Jonah. I would like today to have a look at this.
1. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah….”
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fair and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord”
The Lord called Jonah and gave him a specific mission: to go to Nineveh and cry out against it. However, once he heard it, he went to the opposite direction: to Tarshish. Later, in chapter 4, we find him justifying his behaviour as follows:
“So he prayed to the Lord [after he saw that God wouldn’t finally destroy Nineveh] and said, ‘Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents for doing harm.”
Though Jonah knew the will of God, he didn’t do it. Because he didn’t believe that God would finally destroy Nineveh, he went to the opposite direction. As Jonah, so also we: many times when God’s will does not fit with our logic, mind and plans, we refuse to do it. We may in fact even shift the responsibility to God for this : “all would be well, if God had given me this, or if He had done that, or if He hadn’t refused me the other.” What we essentially say is that: “It is God that is wrong, not me”.
So, Jonah left. He went to Joppa and there, after he found a ship he boarded on to go to Tarshish. So also with us: when we don’t like what God is saying we bring out our alternative plans. The ships that will take us to what, we believe, is the land of promise. But….
2. “But the Lord…”
So here is Jonah in the midst of the open sea heading towards Tarshish. However, not for long:
“But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up. Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came to him, and said to him, ‘What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish.”
It was the Lord that caused the mighty tempest on the sea. If you are heading toward Tarshish, do bear in mind: tempests are coming. As we will see the Lord didn’t bring the tempest to punish Jonah, but to return him. God is not indifferent when we take the wrong path, but He corrects us, though His correction may do mean tempests.
Despite the fact that the sea was grown very heavy, our friend went into the lowest parts of the ship and was sleeping, first spiritually and then physically. The mariners were praying to their idols, and Jonah, a prophet of the true God, was sleeping! But the captain would not agree with this behaviour. “Wake up man! All people are up and praying and you are sleeping? Wake up and pray too” Yet, despite the fact that all were praying, God would not remember them or better, would not ……. forget them.
“And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.’ So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah”
What Jonah started as only a trip, was about to end as a real tragedy. First the tempest and now the lot. God made the lot to fall on our friend. You cannot expect nice and peaceful trips when you are travelling far from the will of God. You cannot sleep peacefully in the lowest parts of your ship, when you are running opposite to where God wants you to go. A tempest will arise, and the world – the mariners – will come to wake you up. “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world”, says the Word in I Corinthians 11:31-32.
So, the lot fell on Jonah, and the poor mariners that were suffering so much, fell on him too.
“Then they said to him, ‘Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ So he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, ‘Why have you done this?’ For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?’ for the sea was growing more tempestuous. And he said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me.”
“For I know that this great tempest is because of me”. At last, Jonah confessed, taking responsibility for what was happening. “I am the one that is responsible for this trouble.” This is the first, very necessary, step. When you run against God’s will and the tempest arrives, low your head and take your responsibilities. It is not God or His will the problem. It is not the weather or your bad lack. The only that is responsible for this is your disobedience. Jonah, confessed. “I’m sorry. I’m responsible. Throw me to the sea and it will become calm.” No longer he was hiding in the lowest parts of the ship, but he did what he should have done from the beginning: he took his responsibilities. Jonah’s disobedience affected many: all those mariners were victims of his disobedience. Similarly, our disobedience may affect others around us. Others may also have to fight against the waves created by our own disobedience. LET US ASK FOR THEIR FORGIVENESS. LET US TAKE OUR RESPONSIBILITIES.
So, our friend confessed his error. The mariners didn’t throw him immediately into the sea. They tried hard to return to the land but with no effect. Then, after they prayed to the Lord, they finally had to throw him into the sea.
“Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried out to the Lord and said, ‘We pray, O Lord, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.’ So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the man feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows.”
Who could expect it? The sun was probably shining when Jonah set off from Joppa. It would be a nice trip to Tarshish, just enough not to go to Nineveh. Who would expect that it would end with our friend alone in the open sea? However, once Jonah was thrown into the sea, God immediately ceased the tempest and started His plan to rescue him. The tempest your disobedience may cause may be very strong. You must however abandon the ship you boarded on to sail away from God. To do this you need to repent. And then, despite the fact that you will be in the midst of the open sea, God will save you. He will command the tempest to cease and He will send to rescue you. The purpose of the tempest is not your loss but your return. In the case of Jonah here is what the Lord did:
“Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly. And he said: "I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, and He answered me. "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; all Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple. The waters surrounded me even to my soul; the deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God”
While in the ship, when even the idololaters were praying, Jonah was sleeping. But not now. Now he was praying fervently, assured that God had heard him. He now knew that God was in the story. And Jonah carries on:
“When my soul fainted withing me, I remembered the Lord; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.”
Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, exactly the time Jesus Christ was “in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). As the Lord “didn’t see corruption” (Acts 2:31), so also Jonah’s life was “brought up from the pit”. As the Lord died and was raised from the dead after three days and three nights, so also I believe it happened with Jonah: he died and after 3 days and 3 nights helived again – his life “was brought up from the pit” – thus becoming a sign (“the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39)) of what would happen with Christ.
“So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land”
Finally Jonah returned where he started. His disobedience cost him a really tempestuous story. Our disobedience will also bring tempests. However, when we return we will have learned our lesson very well, as it also happened with Jonah: the second time God commanded him to go to Nineveh, he no longer changed direction. The tempests we may suffer, are not without good. If there is repentance from our disobedience, the end of the tempest will find us different people: we will no longer want to go to Tarshish. We will no longer rebel against God because we don’t like His will, or because it is not what we expected, but we will bow our heads and will say, “Yes Lord. Your will be done. You are Lord.”
So, the fish vomited Jonah onto the land. Imagine how tired he must have been. Usually this is how we feel after such tempests: tired, weary, feeling we can do nothing. Strangely as it may seem, this is I believe exactly the point where we should be – though not the point the point where we should stay. The old man is broken. We can no longer say: “I think and I want…. I decided it. I will go to Tarshish” The old man is now broken. The pride and the selfishness that govern it, are crushed. And this is the stage where the Lord finds Jonah the second time: after the tempest, after the crushing of his own disobedient plans, he is now ready for the fulfilment of the plans of his Lord.
3. Jonah: the second time
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and preach to it the message that I tell you.’ SO JONAH AROSE AND WENT TO NINEVEH, ACCORDING TO THE WORD OF THE LORD.”
The disobedience brought the tempest, the tempest brought repentance which then was followed by obedience. Jonah finally went to Nineveh and preached what the Lord had told him:
“Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day's walk. Then he cried out and said, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish? Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
The purpose of Jonah’s prophecy was not to simply foretell the fall of Nineveh. God had him preaching this message TO WARN the people of Nineveh of what would happen if they didn’t repent. If there was no repentance, in forty days they would be destroyed. After hearing the message the people of Nineveh “believed God”. They proclaimed a fast, they were covered with sackcloth and cried out to the Lord to change His decision. “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.” I imagine all were glad with this. The people of Nineveh had returned! All…. apart from our friend Jonah:
“But it [the fact that God didn’t destroy Nineveh] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry”
The reason Jonah was greatly disappointed was because he didn’t see his prophecy fulfilled. If Nineveh was destroyed but his prophecy was fulfilled, he would probably have no problem! He was not satisfied with the fact that he did what God had told him to do i.e. to go and preach against Nineveh, but he also wanted to have part in what the Lord would do after his preaching. Turning to us: are we satisfied with doing what God has told us to do or we go beyond it and we want to also have part in what is God’s job, i.e. in what GOD will do with that He has told us to do? It is not our job what GOD will do. Our job is to just do what God has told us to do. When God’s job becomes our job then there is a problem: if the things do not come as WE have planned them, then we feel disappointed and we may even be furious with the Lord. “I’m mad at God. I did what He told me and nothing seems to happen. I had told you God that this is a lost story. I have done so much for you – I travelled all the way to Nineveh - and you let me down. It is better for me not to live any longer.” That’s how Jonah behaved and that’s how we behave sometimes.
“So he prayed to the Lord, and said, "Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!"
The one that is fully subjected to the will of God does not have personal plans and agendas with what is God’s job. He does what God has told him and he is fully satisfied with it. But Jonah was not. What did the Lord do about it? Verses 4 to 9 tells us:
“Then the Lord said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah's head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, "It is better for me to die than to live." Then God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "It is right for me to be angry, even to death!"
Three times we see the Lord commanding animals plants and winds. Jonah was once again in disobedience. If the old man is not broken, we will want to make God to apologise when our plans are not fulfilled. Our faith and our attitude will be determined by the winds and the … plants. When the old man is still standing, we will raise ourselves against God, complaining and becoming even furious with Him. But the Lord didn’t leave our friend as He does not leave us.
“But the Lord said, ‘You have had pity on the plant for which you have not laboured, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?”
Much of Jonah’s interest was on himself: HIS prophecy, HIS shade, HIS head. When something of this was not as it pleased him, then he became angry. When you are too concerned about yourself, you will not be able to understand the plan of God in its totality, for you will always put yourself and your comfort as the focus. Only when the old man is broken, you will be able to understand the majesty of God and what He is really doing. Otherwise you will consider God as your servant instead of you being His servant.
The book of Jonah shows what God did with the disobedience of this prophet. Jonah’s problems were problem we may have as well: disobedience, egoism, anger, personal plans developed regardless of the will of God. All these are but products of the old man, whose breaking is necessary if we want to see the new man released. How much comforting it is that God used Jonah despite his shortcomings. How comforting that He does not abandon us in our ways, but as a Father is coming to take us from where we are wrongly going, even if it is needed to command a tempest in our life.
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives." If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.”