Category Archives: Jonah

Jonah 3 & 4 – Jonah’s Anger at the Lord’s Mercy Ignores God’s Character

So . . . . Jonah’s learned his lesson, right? Sort of, as we see in Chapter three. The Lord tells him a second time, and probably with the stench of fish guts all about him as a reminder of what a rebellious little soul he is, to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” So Jonah goes, and for three days preaches the message of the Lord that judgment is coming to that great city. And his worst nightmare happens:

The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

Even the king himself repented, and commands the people to repent in hope that God may relent and not bring destruction on the city. Then Jonah’s second worst nightmare happened:

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.

Why would such a great people in mass repent at the word of a Hebrew prophet? There has to be both supernatural (God caused it, moved the hearts and minds of the people), and natural explanations. There had to be some knowledge among the people who the Hebrews were, and who their God, this Yahweh was. What’s fascinating is that while these pagan peoples ended up repenting, at least for the moment, Israel never did. Could that be what animated Jonah? Look at who the king was when Jonah was alive.

23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboamson of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.

The prophets’ job was to speak God’s word of warning to God’s people, and those who listened were few and far between. Jonah knew that. Was he afraid these pagans would do what God’s people were not willing to do? Chapter 4 doesn’t give us the answer, but this speculation is good as any other. And what was Jonah’s response to the Lord’s mercy? Joyous celebration that so many people’s lives were spared? Hardly:

But Jonah was greatly displeased and 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?”

It’s it amazing that the Lord didn’t turn Jonah into smoldering ashes right then and there? But what does the Lord do? He asks him a question! Could Jonah have any justification for his anger? Most certainly not! But clearly he saw the Assyrian empire as a threat to Israel, and maybe that’s why he was angry. Why would God spare Israel’s enemy, must have been roiling in Jonah’s mind. But all people are God’s creation, and ultimately his covenant promises will extend to the whole human race. And all of them, all of us, every last one, are his enemy. We find the heart of the gospel in the Lord’s mercy shown to Nineveh.

But Jonah’s still not convinced that judgment isn’t coming because he goes outside the city, makes a shelter and sits there waiting “to see what would happen to the city.” Then the Lord makes a vine grow up over the shelter to cool Jonah off, and Jonah’s real happy about that. Then the Lord sends a worm to destroy the vine, and a “scorching east wind” to make Jonah real uncomfortable, and Jonah wants to die: “It would be better for me to die than to live.” Jonah is so funny! What a bad attitude you have, Jonah! Then the Lord asks him another question:

“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.”

One thing you have to love about Jonah is that there is no BS in him. He’s completely honest with the Lord because, well, what else can you be before the all-knowing Creator of the universe? Unfortunately most sinners (all?) think they can BS the Lord. Then the Lord lectures Jonah, that he had nothing to do with the vine growing or dying, so what right does he have to be angry. And the book ends with a rhetorical question:  “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” The Lord is the sovereign Creator and judge of the universe, and as Moses said long ago, he cannot do wrong, “upright and just is he.” So, unlike Jonah, we trust God’s character. We proclaim with Abraham that in all things: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” So the takeaway from the little book of Jonah?

We can trust the character of God (his goodness, love, justice, etc.) even when we don’t understand what’s going on, and most especially when we don’t like it!



Jonah 2 – Sometimes It Just Takes Being in the Belly of a Big Fish!

Chapter 2 starts with a prayer:

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.

It’s amazing how being terrified will focus the human mind. No more running for Jonah. Instead of trying to get away from the Lord, he knows he has no choice but to seek him. His first words make this apparent: “In my distress I called to the Lord.” Jonah could have called to the Lord in his distress from the boat, like the other sailors called to their gods, but his distress was not great enough. In fact, as we saw in the last chapter instead of praying he went into the bottom of the boat and fell asleep. He was oppressed and depressed, but not in distress. But difference. The former looks inward to self and it’s own desires and wants, while the latter simply looks to God and trusts him for whatever salvation comes from his hand.

It’s interesting too that Jonah is confident God will not turn him away. He says the Lord “answered” him, and “listened” to his cry. Even though he knew he had rightly been “banished” from the Lord’s site, he says confidently, “yet I will look again toward your holy temple.” In verse five he basically says I was a dead man, drowning with no hope of recovery, then:

But you, Lord my God,
    brought my life up from the pit.

“When my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple.

It took his life ebbing away from him to remember the Lord. It’s best if we don’t let it get to that point, but some are more stubborn than others. Even for the non-stubborn, the Lord must show us our absolute need for him because we are always inclined toward self-sufficiency. Or inclined to think we somehow deserve his favor or good breaks in life.

It’s interesting that twice Jonah says that he looked and prayed toward the Lord’s “holy temple.” To the Hebrew mind, the temple was where God’s presence dwelt. It was where the people’s relationship with a holy God was established established and sustained (through the priestly sacrificial system). Contrast this to what he says next of the contrast to the pagans:

“Those who cling to worthless idols
    turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
    will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
    I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

My older NIV version puts the second half of verse 8 this way: they “forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” Jonah knows that life is one big either/or. There is no place in between the true God of love and grace, and idols. If you don’t worship the living God, you will “cling to worthless idols.”

And if anyone understands that last phrase it is now Jonah. Who but the God of nature, the creator of all things, could rescue him from the sea by a very large fish. The reason we know our salvation is secure, why we don’t have to live in fear, is because it “comes from the Lord.” That is why we seek him because it is not of us! It does not come from us, or our decision, or our will. It is why finally we now look to where God’s presence was ultimately manifested in judgment and salvation once for all time, in Christ. The temple Jonah refers to points to him, our only and ultimate confidence before God.

And with this repentance, the Lord has the fish puke (vomited in the text) onto dry land. Now for the hard part.

Jonah 1 – You Can Run But You Can’t Hide

What a fun little book is Jonah! This poor prophet doesn’t come off very well, like so many other characters in the Bible. Which is one of the myriad reasons that lend it credibility, and why I trust that the stories I read in it actually happened. Human nature being what it is, man filled with vanity and pride would never make up stories that make him look so unrelentingly terrible. And it is unrelenting. Jonah is just another in a long line of people in Scripture who act just like humans would act.

The book is only four chapters, but there is a lot packed in that short space. It starts with identifying who the prophet is:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai

To put this into historical context we read about this same Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25:

He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

This was during the time of Jeroboam II, another of the wicked kings of Israel. The time would be before Israel, the northern kingdom, fell to the Assyrians, so it’s likely in the 700s BC (the northern kingdom’s capital, Samaria, was taken by the Assyrians in 722 BC). This verse says Jonah was a “servant of the Lord,” but in the book that bears his name he doesn’t come off as a very good servant.

In chapter 1 Jonah gets his famous call from the Lord:

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and the largest city in the world at the time. So what does Jonah, the servant of the Lord, do in response to the Lord’s command? He hightails it in the exact opposite direction! He boards a ship sailing for Tarshish. Neneveh was due east, and Tarshish due west in what is modern day Spain. It says he did this “to flee from the Lord.” Some servant.

Of course the Lord is not so easily “fleed.” He creates such a violent storm on the sea that the sailors fear for their lives. Important for the redemptive-historical context of the story, each one “cried out to his own god.” Idols, which are literally nothing, versus the living creator God? No contest. But Jonah wants nothing to do with all this, so he goes below deck and of all things falls asleep. What kind of person does such a thing? Probably a very depressed person who will do anything but face the music. Like I said, what a servant.

So the sailors cast lots to see who is to blame for this mess, and of course it falls to Jonah. So the sailors ask him all sorts of question, and I love his blase but accurate response to the question, who are you:

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

The idea of God as Creator was foundational to the Hebrew mind, and was drilled into the people from the earliest age. The first words of the Hebrew Bible start with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” And throughout their Scripture we find the constant contrast between this Creator God, Yahweh, and idols which are nothing more than created stuff. They have no power. They are simply pieces of wood or metal, and figments of human imagination.

So the sailors plead with Jonah to find out what must be done to save them. He had already told them he was running away from the Lord, and now this was being done to them. So Jonah says if they toss him into the sea, they will be saved. They don’t want to do it, and try to row back to shore, but to no avail. They pray to Yahweh asking for forgiveness for killing this man, and throw him over. Instantly the sea calms. (Jesus did the same thing, as his disciples asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” This man, Jesus, is Yahweh!) But instead of dying we read of the unique way the Lord decided to save “his servant”:

17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Of course skeptics instantly think this is a fairy tale, but why would the writer having shown so much honesty about the rebellion of the Lord’s servant, all of a sudden make up some fantastic scenario about a fish swallowing him? If he’s making something up and wants people to believe it actually happened, the last thing he would make up is a huge fish swallowing the guy. No, he would say something was floating by and Jonah grabbed onto it, something like that.

But it is the Lord who saves, and not we of our own effort. That is the moral of the story. And Jesus said it was also “a sign” of his being in the belly of the earth for three days. He allowed himself to be swallowed up by death in the earth that we, like Jonah, might be saved from our own rebellion. Even if it’s kicking and screaming, the Lord will have his way with us, and thank God the Father for that!