Something scary happened this morning. I read through the book of Jonah for my Bible reading. (That’s not the scary part.) As I was reading, I was noting several similarities between myself and Jonah, as well as the men at sea with him in a certain part of the classic tale. (That’s the scary part.) So here are some things that stood out to me as I read through this book.
We all know how the story goes. But what I find interesting is that the very first action we see from Jonah is disobedience toward the Lord.
Jonah 1:1-2: The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” We see that God has issued a decree. He has given Jonah a command, and an explanation – He’s not just sending him on a blind mission. Go and preach against it, its wickedness has come up before the Lord.
v.3: But 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.
[blink] Really? God says “Go”, to which Jonah replies with, “No”. Notice though that God doesn’t strike him with lightening or kill him on the spot for his defiance. He lets him go his own way, He allows him to disobey. Jonah had some time to think this through as he fled. He could have stopped, turned around, and fulfilled his command. I wonder if he was feeling extremely guilty, or if he was completely hard-hearted about the matter as he fled.
How often does God give us a command and we reject it? How can we criticize Jonah for his act of disobedience when we do the same thing?
The next thing I notice is that first we have these sailors on the ship during the storm, crying out to each of their gods in fear, and then suddenly they’re praying to the Lord, making vows and offering sacrifices. Why the sudden turn of events?
v. 11: The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So [the sailors] asked [Jonah], “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down before us?”
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him.
Think back to the story of Gideon, when he demanded a sign of the Lord. We are born people of sight and not of faith. Seeing and believing is far easier than believing in things that you cannot see. They saw this amazing thing take place – they threw this man overboard, who was running away from his God, therefore causing the storm, and his God was so powerful that He stopped the storm. Talk about a miracle. How often do you think we would “greatly fear the Lord” if He would show us obvious miracles such as that? Does this not say something about our faith in and fear of Him now?
Here’s where Jonah gets his consequences of disobedience. Not only is he thrown overboard into a wild sea, but he’s swallowed by a huge fish. Notice though, God was merciful in allowing him to be swallowed by the fish. He spared Jonah’s life by allowing this to happen, instead of letting him drown, or actually be torn apart and killed by sea life. I know that being swallowed by a huge fish isn’t exactly what we would think of when we picture an act of mercy, but this sheds a different light on the hard times in life. When we’re going through a hard time, what if it’s actually a big fish, mercifully sparing us of something far worse? It doesn’t mean it’s pleasant, but sometimes God shows mercy to us in ways we don’t always imagine, much less see as acts of mercy at the time.
God goes even further to demonstrate His mercy by hearing Jonah’s prayer, and causing the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. This is more of the act of mercy we would picture – being saved from our hard time.
Then, the Lord repeats His command a second time. I picture that like a gentle slap in the face: “Remember, that thing I told you to do earlier? You wanna go down that same route again, or just do as I asked you to do before?” Jonah 3:3: Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh…
Chapter 4 starts to reflect my true self more, sadly. In Jonah 3:10: When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened. (Another act of mercy, anyone? I mean, these people’s wickedness had come up before God, for crying out loud, it sounds like they deserved said destruction…) But in 4:1, it reads: But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (To which I might add, Jonah’s reply is not recorded.)
First, Jonah gets angry that destruction has not come to Nineveh. Then he starts making excuses to justify his fleeing to Tarshish. He then ends his complaint with a cry to die. Sounds like something I would do. I would have been up “at a place east of the city” (v.5), waiting to see what would happen for it. I would get mad that these people that I had fled from, then eventually braved, were not being destroyed. I would want justice.
V. 5: Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he had made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. (Interjection: Me, being very happy for a shady tree on a Texas summer afternoon.) But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?”
And here is where the book just ends. We don’t see if Jonah feels remorse and guilt over his actions, or if he stays stubborn and resentful. But we do see that God uses object lessons. Just as Jonah cared for the plant, God cared for Nineveh, and for far greater reason. The cold, hard truth is that Jonah simply didn’t care. That’s easy for us to say about his situation. We look at it, shake our heads, and say he was stupid to act that way. But how many times have we been more concerned with our own personal comfort, provision, and needs instead of the needs of hundreds or thousands of others whose needs far surpass our own? How can we point the finger at Jonah, when we’ve repeated his same foolish mistakes so many times ourselves?
I love this story; it shows how someone who believes in God still makes stupid choices, acts foolishly, pays the consequences, and God still loves ‘em and shows them mercy. I am a Jonah. I have disobeyed God, ignored His acts of mercy and focused on the negative rather than the positive, and cared more about myself than meeting the needs of His people. I am one of the men at sea – I believe things far easier when I can see the proof, the evidence, and the miracles. We strive to live like Jesus, but so often fall into living like Jonah!