Jonah 1-4: The prophet who hated people.

October 30, 2015.

Daily Reading: Jonah 1-4.

Background: The book of Jonah is the fifth of the minor prophets and tells quite a story of a prophet who tried to run from his call from God. This story is a favorite children’s story, though the version that is told to children is often very different than the actual story found here. From the passage found in II Kings 14:23-27, we can date the ministry of Jonah to the reign of Jeroboam II, between 793 and 753 BC. The book follows the story of Jonah’s call, his subsequent running from the call, the realization of his call and his displeasure in the Lord’s decision. Unlike the other prophets, Jonah seems to be the one that the Lord is teaching a lesson to more so than his audience. There are many lessons we can learn from the story of Jonah, as well as different misconceptions that should be corrected.

Concepts and Connections.

Chapter 1

1. Jonah, a spectacular story: Over the years, many people have challenged the authority and validity of the bible by point to stories that would seem impossible to actually happen. Jonah has been a favorite of critics of the bible everywhere to challenge Christians about the truth and accuracy of the bible. There are even those among Christians who have taken then belief that Jonah’s story is simply an allegory. However, there are several reasons that we should take into consideration to see that this notion is false. First, the book starts out by stating who the main character is and his father. If this were simply a fable meant to teach a lesson, there would be no reason to state the short genealogy of Jonah. Further, as mentioned in the background, Jonah is mentioned as a historical person in II Kings 14:25.

Second, there is no implication in the book of Jonah that any of the events recorded did not actually happen. Indeed, quite spectacular things happen in the story, even beyond the great fish. But miraculous things do not discredit the historicity of a story in the bible, as God is supernatural. God is not confined to the natural laws, for He is above them. He created them, thus He is not subject to them. It is no more difficult to believe that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days than it is to believe that Jesus rose from the grave after being dead for three days.

Finally, it very noteworthy to remember that  Jesus had no trouble believing that Jonah was a real prophet and the events that are recorded in the book of Jonah actually happened. In fact, He used these events to relate them to God’s ultimate plan of salvation (see Matthew 12:38-41). The men of Nineveh were very wicked, but they believed the word of the Lord by the preaching of Jonah. The Pharisees had one who was greater than Jonah, but they would not believe. For this to make any real sense, Jonah had to be a real person and the city of Nineveh had to be a real, wicked place, who had repented at the preaching of Jonah.

2. Running from God: The first half of the book of Jonah depicts a man that is running from God. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh. Since Jonah is trying to run from the task, he heads towards the furthest place from Nineveh he can imagine, which is Tarshish. The signifigance of this decision (why he chose Tarshish) is made clear by looking at a map. Tarshish was the farthest city west that Jonah would have known about, and he runs there to get as far away from the eastern city of Nineveh as possible.

But the Lord pursued him. We often consider Jonah to have stopped running after the storm comes and the men figure out what Jonah had done to anger the Lord, but Jonah is still running. When the men ask Jonah what they should do, he should have said “Take me back, so I can fulfill what I was called to do.” He tells God later that he knows that He is a God of grace and mercy, abounding in steadfast love (Jonah 4:2). If he had decided to stop running, he would have repented and went. But he didn’t. He would rather die than carry out the will of the Lord to save Nineveh; that’s how deep his hatred for Nineveh ran. Remember that Jonah didn’t know that the Lord was going to prepare a fish to save him, this was a death sentence.

But Jonah was unable to run from the Lord. Even when he was thrown overboard, the Lord saved him with through a great fish, and he was spit back up on dry land. God was not taking no for an answer. God did not need Jonah for this task. He could have called any other of His prophets to go speak in Jonah’s place, or even used a different mechanism entirely. But Jonah needed God. Jonah could not hide from the Lord, and this was to his benefit.

We too are under the same truth. We can reject the Lord, we can run from Him, we can ignore Him- but we will never be able to escape His presence. And this should be encouraging. The Lord does not easily give up on us, even when we are in rebellion. Now, that is not to say that His righteousness will not punish the unrepentant wickedness of man, but God is not about condemnation right now. He is about redemption (see II Peter 3:9)

God doesn’t want anyone to be lost. But He has given us a choice, just like He gave Jonah a choice. Even when Jonah did go to Nineveh to preach, he didn’t seem happy about it. And when they repented and the Lord turned away from His anger as Jonah knew He would, Jonah was not happy at all. The whole book ends on a question because Jonah is still trying to run from God! But God was still pursuing Jonah.

3. You can preach the truth but still be in the wrong: Jonah was very sound theologically (see Jonah 1:11-16). He knew who God was, he had a relationship with God and he was a prophet of God. When the men on the boat ask him which god he served, he laid down an authoritative answer that was completely true. When he was in the belly of the fish for three days, his prayer was composed of verses of the psalms. And when he arrived to Nineveh, he preached the message of the Lord, and they repented. Yet in all these things, Jonah’s heart was never in the right place. Sure, he preached the truth, and people even responded to the truth that he preached, but Jonah himself never responded to the truth.

Today, we need to be careful to examine ourselves that we are right on the inside, regardless of how right we are on the outside. Your theology can be completely and utterly true, but if your heart isn’t in the right place, it does you no good whatsoever. If you don’t preach the truth in the right way, what have you gained? Probably nothing. Consider the words of Paul in I Corinthians 13:1-3. Sometimes the next section of this passage is what the focus is for many sermons and lessons, but these first three verses are absolutely vital. Paul is saying that it doesn’t matter where your faith is or how strong your theology is, if you don’t have love, it is all worthless. There is more to theology than just being right. Yes, having a sound theology is important. But if your heart is not in the right place, it means nothing.

Chapter 2

Jonah’s prayer: As Jonah is in the belly of the great fish for three days, he he prays a very interesting prayer from which we can learn a few lessons. Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of this pray is the thanksgiving he gives to the Lord throughout. Jonah had been running from the Lord, preferring to die even than answer His call, but now that he sees that he cannot run, yet is in a desperate situation, he prays. But he does not pray for forgiveness, necessarily, nor does he necessarily repent in his prayer. He thanks the Lord for hearing his cry, and glorifies the Lord, even in the dire situation he is in. Let us remember that the Lord is ready to hear His children when they cry out to Him. Further, what is interesting about this pray is the amount of scripture that is used in it. In every verse of this prayer, an allusion or quote from a psalm is made. It is worth pointing out that Jonah was well versed in scripture, and was ready to recite the words of God in prayer from memory. From this we can see the value in memorization of scripture and the encouragement to use scripture in prayer. This is perhaps one of the few things we can actually take a positive lesson from in Jonah’s actions in this story.

Chapter 3

1. The word of God is for all, even our enemies: The interesting thing about Jonah that we don’t always see is that Jonah was a missionary- a missionary who hated the people he preached to. The people of Nineveh were evil and gruesome. They were a bloodthirsty people who’s acts towards their enemies (such as Israel) are almost unspeakable. Yes, Jonah hated these people, but he did not hate them without a cause. However, this cause did not justify his hatred.

The men of Nineveh were wicked, but they repented of their sin and God turned away from His anger, just as He has always done. This is a truth that crosses time and culture. Jonah said “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Does that not embody the full character of God throughout the bible? Jonah was sent to preach to a nation who were not God’s chosen people (far from it) in effort that they might repent and be spared. This is the same thing we see in the New Testament (see Matthew 28:18-20). We have been given the commission to go out and preach the gospel, baptizing all people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. All nations, all men. That does not mean only in nations where Christianity is a prominent religion. That means all nations, including those who are hostile towards Christianity. Including our enemies.

Nineveh was a wicked nation. Jonah and no reason not to believe that he would be killed in a gruesome way as soon as he stepped foot in the city and told them they were all going to perish. That was not an easy message, and he was sent to one of the toughest crowds that you could imagine. But this message was for Nineveh, for God was offering His grace. Today, the message is for all. We would do well to remember that. God doesn’t need us to accomplish His will. But He does want us.

2. There is power in the word of God: Notice what Jonah preaches to the men of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That was it. Or at least, that’s all we know about. There was no call to repent. There was no talk of God being a loving God. There was no hint that the people of Nineveh still had a chance. This is made evident in verse 9 as the King of Nineveh says “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” It seems that Jonah didn’t imply such. This wasn’t because Jonah was ignorant to the fact that God was merciful. We know that he knew what God would do if Nineveh repented from what he says in the next chapter. But he didn’t tell them what God would do. This makes complete sense, because Jonah hated these people and didn’t want them to repent, even when he was preaching to them. He wanted them to perish.

But then something amazing happened. The men of Nineveh repented. Not because Jonah used flattering words. Not because Jonah was even a particularly good preacher. Not even because the message was pleasing to the ears. But it was the word of the Lord. The men of Nineveh believed the word of the Lord. Consider what the officers who were sent to arrest Jesus said when they came back to the Pharisees empty handed (see John 7:43-46). They were amazed at the word of the Lord.

God doesn’t need us to defend Him in the sense that we must convince someone that He is real or else He isn’t. God is. And He has the full means of defending Himself. We are given the privilege to spread the message of good news, and one of the best ways to spread this message is through His words and not our own. There is so much power in the word of God, and we need to recognize it and utilize it in our evangelism efforts. We will not be disappointed if we do.

Chapter 4

1. Jonah ran out of hatred, not fear: In our children’s stories of Jonah it is often implied that Jonah ran away because he was scared of the people of Nineveh. Though the people of Nineveh were indeed the enemies of Israel, and they did do very ruthless, gruesome and frightening acts to any who opposed them, this was not the reason that Jonah ran away. The reason he ran away might actually surprise us. Jonah ran away because he knew what God was doing! He knew God wanted him to preach to the city of Nineveh that they were going to perish in 40 days in effort to give them an opportunity to repent and have God turn His anger away from them. Jonah knew God would do this, because he knew the character of God. And he couldn’t stand it. He would rather run to the opposite side of the world then have any part in saving Nineveh. He would rather die than preach to Nineveh, not because he was scared, but because he hated them that much. This comes out all through the story of of Jonah. He runs away. He sleeps on the boat instead of praying to God. He asks to be cast overboard instead of going back and doing the will of the Lord. And even when he preaches to Nineveh, his message is still filled with harshness and hatred! Jonah’s hatred of these people is evident in his story, and it seems that the main audience that God is trying to teach a lesson to is the prophet himself as opposed to the wicked nation he was sent to. Let us learn from the story of Jonah, and from words of Christ, to love our enemies to the point where we bring the good news of salvation to them (see Matthew 5:43-48, 28:18-20, Luke 6:27-36, Romans 12:14-21).

2. The story of Jonah is left open ended: As a continuation of the last point, after Nineveh repented, Jonah didn’t change his mind, but rather asked God to kill him because he was so angry. The story in no way ends in joy for the prophet of the Lord, but in anger. You should read chapter 4 closely, because it is filled with Jonah’s whining and complaining. Jonah does not grow a love for the people, but is still mad at God for sparing them. He did not think this was the right thing to do. But God did not give up on Jonah just yet. One of the most interesting things to me about the book of Jonah is the end. The book ends on a question that God asks Jonah. The question, though somewhat rhetorical, is never answered. The book just ends. In context, God had caused a plant to grow up over Jonah to give him shade in a very sunny place, and then caused the plant to die to teach a lesson. This is how the Jonah responds and the book ends- on a question. Jonah cared more about the plant then he did the people of Nineveh. There was no rejoicing from Jonah when the people repented. There was only deep frustration. Let us consider the final question from God and tune our hearts to His grace and mercy.

Tomorrow’s Reading: Acts 1-4.

Learn from the word.

-Walter

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