(August 26, 2019) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, shares on the most misunderstood book in the Bible…
The book of Jonah is probably the best known book in the Old Testament – but for all the wrong reasons! Most people think of it as a pleasant bedtime story for children about a man who fell off a boat and was swallowed by a whale. A few days later the whale spat him out and he walked off into the land of happy-ever-after.
But that is not what the book of Jonah is about. Its message is much more interesting, challenging and radical than that. In fact it is one of the most revolutionary books in the Old Testament!
Background to the story
The story of Jonah is set around 2700 years ago and the people of Israel believed that they were in an exclusive relationship with God who loved only them. They had a kind of exclusive and territorial mentality about Yahweh.
God chose Jonah to ‘shake their world’!
Yet we do not actually know much about him. We know that his name means ‘Dove’ and that he came from a town near Nazareth. He was given an unenviable task – to go to Nineveh, the oldest and most densely populated city of the ancient Assyrian Empire which was also considered to be one of the wickedest cities in the world and its people were known for their ruthlessness, cruelty, child sacrifice, sexual perversion and witchcraft.
1. The reluctance of Jonah
(i) Jonah’s call
God’s call to Jonah was personal and specific – ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me’ (1:2).
Nineveh was just under 1000 kms away from where Jonah lived. It would have been the last place in the world that Jonah wanted to visit. He had no love at all for the Assyrians who were regularly threatening his people and he hated Nineveh and all that it represented. The very thought of going there would have sent shivers running up and down his spine.
(ii) Jonah’s reaction
It didn’t take Jonah long to make a decision. In verse 2 we read that he received the call and in verse 3 we find that he made up his mind about precisely what he has going to do about it: ‘Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.’
God said, ‘Go’ and Jonah said, ‘No!’ The reluctant prophet immediately put his own plan in place, and it was a very simple one. Get as much distance as possible between himself and Nineveh! Go as far as possible in the opposite direction! Go to Tarshish (identified as a location in Spain and thought to have been the furthest west you could go – about 4000 kms away!).
Jonah implemented his escape plan by first heading to Joppa, where to his undoubted joy he found that, coincidentally, there was a ship about to sail to Tarshish. And also, coincidentally, he had enough money with him to pay the fare.
(I make this comment in passing – do not always consider coincidences as proof that you are in the will of God. Sometimes God does place unexpected opportunities in our way to enable us to follow his will but at other time coincidences are just coincidences!).
The journey across the Mediterranean Sea was not all that Jonah hoped it would be. First there was the terrible storm which terrified even the seasoned sailors. To his credit he decided that for the sake of everyone on board, he was prepared to sacrifice his life, so he said, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you’ (1:12).
But God hadn’t finished with Jonah and he has ways to get us to do things that we would never have dreamed of. And in his wildest dreams Jonah would never have thought of what was going to happen to him next. We read, ‘But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights’ (v17). I’m sure Jonah thought that this was to be the end of the story – inside the belly of a fish!
(iii) Jonah’s repentance
While he waited for death to claim him Jonah had time to reflect on his actions.
140 years ago the great Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon preached a sermon called Man’s Extremity, God’s Opportunity. It wasn’t a sermon about Jonah, but it could have been. Spurgeon said, ‘Do you seem to feel in your heart the working of the Spirit, as if even now he would take you away and cast you into hell? Blessed be the Lord if you have come to such a place as that! Your extremity is God’s opportunity! The difficulty all along has been to get to the end of you, for when a man gets to the end of himself, he has reached the beginning of God’s working!’
Jonah was in a place of extremity – he really had got to the end of himself. He had been brought to a place where his ‘No’ to God had changed to ‘Yes.’ And he declared to God, ‘What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord”’ (2:9). Then we read, ‘The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.’
Next we read, ‘Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time’ (3:1). Don’t miss those words, ‘a second time.’ One of the things I love about God is that he offers second chances – and more.
- Sometimes we as men and women don’t embrace that principle.
- Someone may do something to offend us or hurt us and our response may be, ‘Well, that’s it. I’m not bothering with him (or her) again.’
- Or we may have depended on someone to do something for us and they didn’t do it, and we say, ‘That’s the last time I’m trusting that person again.’
- Sometimes we find it hard to forgive.
- Sometimes we don’t believe in giving second chances. But thank God that he does!
Paul had to learn the lesson of the second chance. When he and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey, Mark went with them as a helper but during that journey he deserted them and returned home. Paul was not happy! When he and Barnabas later discussed a second missionary journey, Barnabas suggested that Mark go with them, but Paul refused to give Mark a second chance.
But at some point Paul had clearly reflected on that refusal and had reconciled with Mark. Some years later, when he was in prison in Rome awaiting execution, Paul wrote ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Timothy 4:11).
God gave Jonah a second chance and we read, ‘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’ (3:2-3).
2. The response of the Ninevites to the message
The amazing thing is that Jonah turned out to be a powerful evangelist!
Revival hit the city! As a result of Jonah’s preaching the people of Nineveh were so convicted that they cried out to God, repented of their sins and discovered his grace, mercy and forgiveness.
What a challenge to today’s preachers to be more challenging in their preaching! Can you imagine what would have happened if Jonah had changed the message, even slightly, to make it more acceptable to the Ninevites? Nothing! No revival. No repentance. No salvation. And the book of Jonah would not be in our Bibles.
3. The response of Jonah to his own preaching
Most preachers would have been euphoric if their preaching met with such a response, but not Jonah!
(i) Jonah was furious at his ‘success’
Chapter 4:1 opens on a totally unexpected note: ‘But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.’ Greatly displeased? Angry? The whole of Nineveh had turned in repentance to God and Jonah was furious!
And in his fury he lambasted God and said, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? 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’ (v2).
We see now why Jonah really did not want to go to Nineveh. He didn’t want to preach to the people of that wicked city because he actually knew what God was like and that there was a very strong probability that in his abundant mercy and love God would forgive them. And that was the last thing Jonah wanted!
(ii) Jonah threw a hissy fit
In disgust with God and with a bad tempered display of sullenness, Jonah left the city and in verse 5 we read, ‘There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.’ He was probably still hoping that God would change his mind and actually rain fire and brimstone on Nineveh! It didn’t happen!
Then God provided Jonah with a fast growing plant whose shade would provide protection from the hot sun. But the next day the plant quickly shrivelled and died. Jonah’s protection from the sun was gone, and again Jonah was mad with God who tried to bring a bit of perspective to Jonah. God said to him, ‘You are concerned about a plant?… I am concerned about Nineveh and its 120,000 people’ (See 4:10-11).
Quite deliberately the book of Jonah ends with that question as if waiting for an answer. What is the answer? That the reconciling love of God is universal!
4. The reconciling love of God
- The message of the book of Jonah was so revolutionary and provocative because it challenged the people of Israel to rethink their theology concerning exclusive claim on God.
- The fundamental message of the book of Jonah is that God’s reconciling love is universal, and that was such a radical idea that blasted to pieces Israel’s preconceptions and misunderstanding of God’s love for all mankind – even the Ninevites!
In the New Testament we see the outworking of the message of God’s reconciling love. It was to the Pharisee Nicodemus that Jesus declared, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3:16-17).
God wants to reconcile us, sinful men and women – and children, to himself. That was the message of the book of Jonah and it was also the message and the mission of Jesus Christ!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Recommended are his enlightening Grace Revisited and Looking for Answers in a Confusing World; also Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org