Jonah is associated with the giant fish, a reluctant prophet of hope to the enemies of his people.
In chapter 4, Jonah’s suffering acts as foil to the nature of God’s compassion.
At the end of chapter 3, the narrator noted God’s mercy towards the Ninevites, holding back the well-deserved judgment they had earned, because they had genuinely “turned back from their evil ways.”
You would think this would have been cause for reverent thanksgiving from Jonah, his heart swelling at the display of God’s nature,
“The Lord, the Lord,God’s revelation to Moses, Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
Instead, Jonah experienced severe disappointment when God showed grace to the Ninevites. From Jonah’s point of view.
1. The enemies of God’s own people were blessed.
2. Because Nineveh had been spared, the Assyrians, would remain a threat to Israel.
3. To be a prophet, one had to have a perfect track record in fulfillment of prophecy. God’s mercy discredited Jonah, who had preached with certainty and finality.
Jonah had placed his hopes in another aspect of God’s nature—a narrow interpretation of God’s justice and righteousness.
The Lord, the Lord,
a God . . .
by no means clearing the guilty,God’s revelation to Moses, Exodus 35:6-7 (NRSV)
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.
Hoping against this hope, that Nineveh would be destroyed anyway, Jonah refused to spend even one more day in the city. He had walked the full length and breadth of it, proclaiming his eight-word prophetic sermon, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” and now he was done.
Yet, to Jonah’s horror, all of Nineveh had become believers in God, every home including the palace would have been open with joy to God’s great prophet, who had brought words leading to salvation for them.
But instead Jonah went into the harsh desert to build his own shelter.
What would an evangelist ordinarily do, if an entire people group was turning towards God in repentance and regeneration?
Begin teaching them the Bible, teaching them prayer, encouraging them in the Lord, training them in discipleship.
Instead of raising up these newly reborn people to spiritual maturity, Jonah despised them, rejected their salvation, and once more walked away from God.
There are two items to note here.
- Jonah had repented of his rebellion against God’s commission, but he had not repented of hating the people God loved.
Unconfessed sin is going to harm whatever a person does for the Lord.
- Jonah’s first flight was to Joppa.
Jonah’s second flight was to the desert.
Jonah had a habit of running away from God.
Habitual sin will occur in your life and mine without us even noticing, until we determine to deal with the habit.
Man, when I wrote that down, just now, I felt deeply convicted. A whole cluster of questions rose to mind.
- When have I abandoned the work God has given me, because God did not carry through the way I expected God to?
- When have I gotten discouraged or disheartened because God did not follow my timetable?
- When have I reneged, because keeping a promise was starting to cost me a lot more than I had anticipated?
- When have I backed out, because God apparently seems to be doing the opposite of what I had been pinning my hopes on?
- When have I shut a project down, because doing it God’s way is requiring sacrifices and suffering I was sure I would not have had to endure if I had just done it my own way?
- When have I secretly not liked, not respected, or otherwise looked down on the very people God has called me to serve?
Jonah had a picture of God in his head, one in which God not only treated God’s own holy people preferentially, but also indulgently.
By that I mean, Jonah knew the sins of his own people. He was there in the king’s court, privy to the politicking and excesses given to any ruling regime. He also knew of the people’s proclivities, towards worshiping other gods in the high places, towards treating the Sabbath with casual disregard, misuses and abuses of God’s Law that toed the technical line, but turned a blind eye to the spirit of the Law.
Yet, Jonah expected preferential treatment, nonetheless.
By the same token, Jonah held his enemies within a two-dimensional view. None of God’s grace, compassion, nor fatherly care was to be reserved for those outside of Israel. It was already more than enough that the disadvantaged and noncitizens within Israel were to be treated so well!
We have buzzwords for that today, in-crowd thinking, us-and-them. Prejudice. And it is clearly nothing new!
Without being mindful, it is easy to think about spiritual things through the lens of our culture’s mindset and worldview. In Jonah’s day, it was culturally and societally supported to hate certain people groups, such as the Assyrians, and to assume God hated them too. This hearkened back to the very roots of Exodus, when God placed the indigenous people groups within Canaan under the ban—Herem or cherem (Hebrew: חרם, ḥērem).
Perhaps it goes even further back, to the prophecy, blessing, and promise God gave to Abraham, and the patriarchs after him.
I will make you into a great nation,God to Abraham, Genesis 12:2-3 (NRSV)
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Jonah was going to be a reluctant student of God’s way of seeing the whole earth.
Count how many times the word bless shows up in those two verses above! This is the balance with God. Blessing whenever possible, and judgment only when unavoidable.
[Ninevites | Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]