The story of Jonah is one of the most well known stories in the bible. Even people who don’t read the scriptures know the story of Jonah. At least the fish bit and lets face it we all have our own fishing story’s. The story of the one that got away or the one we caught get bigger each time we tell it. Even the real ones can seem amazing like a friend from Rotorua who caught a record weight marlin while fishing in an aluminium dingy. He had to call for help from a bigger boat because they were being dragged way out to sea by the fish they had hooked. Even I am not above telling fish stories. I mean last time I went out fishing here in the Bay I caught well over three hundred fish. I was of course out with a commercial fisherman and it was in his huge net. Having said we know the story of Jonah I wonder if we know the challenging message that the prophet has to tell.
Children from every language and culture know the four words ‘tell me a story’ the fact that the book of Jonah is a narrative a story is what makes it memorable. It also makes it unique among the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The others are usually a set of oracles in poetic form with only small sections of narrative about the prophet’s life actions and even impact. But Jonah is the story of one complete episode from the ministry of the prophet.
The book of Jonah is one of the twelve or Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. When we use the word Minor it doesn’t mean less important rather it means smaller books as opposed to the longer books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. At our Wednesday night study group I used this quote from a book called Turned On to illustrate that smaller does not mean less important.
Lord’s prayer: 66 words
Gettysburg address: 286 words
10 commandments: 179 words
Declaration of independence: 1 300 words
Pythagorean theorem: 24 words
Archimedes principle: 67 words
US government legislation about the sale of cabbage: 26,911 words
Mark Driscoll tells us that the Jews read the book each year at Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when they remember their sins and after reading it their prayer of repentance is ‘we are Jonah”. This helps us to consider how we should look at this story as well.
The big question we bring to the story with our twentieth century minds is did it really happen? We could go into some depth to look at the details and facts to satisfy our scientific mind set but if we focus on this we miss the meaning and the message. Yes there are some fantastic elements to the story, a storm that comes out of nowhere to buffet a boat carrying Jonah and calms down when he is thrown over the side, a great fish that swallows Jonah saving him from drowning, even more amazing perhaps is that a solo Hebrew prophet can cause such a great and important city like Ninevah, at this stage one of leading cities if not the capital of the Assyrian empire, to repent and mourn their misdeeds. These may amaze us but none of these elements amaze Jonah in the story what is amazing to him, what is hard for him to comprehend and causes his anger is the great mercy and compassion of God, that God could show mercy even to Israel’s enemy in the way he does. What shocks him as he looks back and reflects on this is that he could have more concern and compassion for the demise of a plant than the possible destruction of a city of well over one hundred thousand people.
The opening two verses of the book set the scene for the whole story.
God calls his prophet Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and to prophecy that it will fall in forty days. Jonah does not want to obey God’s call so he tries to run away... heading not to Nineveh in the east but as far west as he can.
The story told has two main characters, God and Jonah. Like all scripture God is the main character; it is first and foremost his story. YHWH, The LORD is the one who initiates the action; he is the one who is at work in the world and whose very character is at the centre of what happens in the narrative.
Jonah is a prophet called by God to be his messenger. We know that he lived and ministered in the northern kingdom of Israel in the middle eighth century BC. Apart from this book that bares his name he is mentioned in 2Kings 14:25; where as a result of Jonah’s prophecy king Jeroboam II extends the borders of Israel. He is very much a nationalistic prophet in Israel. In contrast to this Amos and Hosea who were ministering at the same time in the Northern kingdom pointed out Israel’s injustices and idolatry.
We are presented with many different attributes of God in this book.
He is seen as the sovereign God. The word great appears 17 times in the book of Jonah. We have the great City of Nineveh, a great wind, a great storm, and YWYH Israel’s God is seen as being greater than all these things. He judges the City, in a reverse to Jesus calming the storm the wind and waves obey God by rising and raging at his command. By their reaction to the storm the sailors on the boat are aware that this storm is not a natural occurrence but of divine origin. The wind and waves also quieten down at God’s command as well. Even a giant fish in the deep sea is obedient to God and is the agent of his grace and rescue to the drowning Jonah. God is able to use the sailors drawing lots to point to Jonah as the one who is the cause of the boats problems.
We also see a just God. Seeing the great evildoing in the great city and bringing judgement. God is just in perusing Jonah, who is described in 2 kings as his servant, for his wilful disobedience. Maybe some might call this a vengeful and angry God.
But at the heart of the story is the fact that God is a compassionate and loving God. The LORD sends a fish to save Jonah from the deep. He calms the seas once the ships crew have thrown Jonah over the side. When they return to the shore they worship the LORD for saving them by offering up a sacrifice.
Even God’s call to Jonah to go to Nineveh is an act of compassion. One of the difficulties with translating the scriptures from their original language is that the ambiguity of the Hebrew or Greek is not captured in English. The Hebrew word used to describe what was happening in the city of Nineveh that most translations render evildoing or wrongdoing can also mean difficulties. So what has caused God to send Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of coming judgement was not only the evildoing in the city but the difficulties they were going through as well.
Historians have found evidence of political weakness and instability in Nineveh at the beginning of the eight century BC. God’s warning of coming destruction galvanises the leadership and the people to repent from their evil ways. It causes the king to do something about the condition of his city to make some reforms and changes.
The other main character is Jonah. From beginning to end in this book we don’t get a very good picture of Jonah. He is a prophet who runs away from God. He is the only example of a prophet to do this in the Old Testament. Amos when questioned about why he keeps bugging the people of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom says ‘when the LORD says prophecy, who can but prophecy’. Others like Jeremiah may have questioned their call or their ability but with God’s strength they went and did what God commanded but Jonah runs.
Why he ran is crucial to understanding Jonah.
IS it because he’s scared to do what God wants him to do? No.
Does he worry about getting a negative response from the people of Nineveh? No. In fact you get the idea that Jonah would have liked to be ignored by the people of the great city. He’s angry that they might responded to God’s word and repented.
Is it that he did not know God well enough? No. He knows God’s sovereignty When he is confronted by the storm on the boat He proclaims himself to be one who serves the LORD who made heaven and earth.. He knows what God would have him do in that situation. Note it is Jonah who tells the crew to throw him overboard. They are reluctant to do it. I even wonder if he through he could really get away from God. Maybe he just wanted to put it off long enough so that Nineveh wouldn’t have a chance to repent.
In Jonah chapter 4 verse 2 we finally hear Jonahs reason for running. It is because of his knowledge of God’s compassion that he ran and is angry with God. He says he knew that God would be compassionate to Nineveh. In sending him to warn them he was giving Nineveh the chance to repent. God wanted to and does show compassion on Israel’s worst enemy that. Jonah is fiercely nationalistic; he had been used by God to improve Israel’s position in the world but can he let God show love to Israel’s enemies? NO
He says “no” to a compassionate God. Even as he goes and does what God has asked him he continually says No to a compassionate God. He is unable to rejoice that the people of Nineveh while not turning to worship the LORD have repented of their evildoings and so have been speared. He’s angry with God.
In this story I can’t help but hear the word’s of Jesus ‘love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you or Paul’s summery of Jesus teaching in Romans twelve ‘Do not return evil for evil but overcome evil with good.’ I cannot help but hear the assertion of the gospel from the first letter John while we were God’s enemies he sent his son Jesus Christ into the world to pay the price for all we had done wrong.
The question this book has for us is, How are we saying 'no' to God’s compassion. How do we limit it? We maybe made in God’s image but I wonder if we don’t also carry around a picture of God made in our image. That God loves the people who are acceptable to us. That are like us and that God is not compassionate and loving to those who are outside our group or our picture of who is acceptable. How do we respond to the call of our loving and compassionate God to go beyond our boundaries and borders with his love? The call to love our enemies, to love all people and tell them of his love? Yet it’s as we stretch ourselves to go beyond our boundaries we will encounter more profoundly more fully God’s compassion.