Jonah: Some Things From Which You Cannot Run Away
Minor Prophets Series (#1)
Probably the most well known of the minor prophets is Jonah. The book which
bears his name is quite different from the other eleven. It's message deals with
Jonah's relationship with God rather than with what he taught. The important
lessons of the book have not so much to do with what Jonah taught others as they
do with what God taught Jonah.
Jonah was an early prophet among the twelve "minor prophets". He prophesied about 780 B.C. during the days that King Jereboam II reigned over Israel. We are informed of this in the historical books of the Old Testament rather than in the book of Jonah itself (2 Kings 14:23-25).
Jonah was very loyal to Israel and despised any enemy of his people. He was especially bitter toward Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh. Before we criticize Jonah too severely for his lack of concern for the Ninevites, it must be remembered that the Assyrians were a very cruel people bent on conquering the world. They had spread much misery, suffering and death among the Israelites living along the northern border of Israel. If something like that occurred along our own borders, you and I would also probably find it difficult to have much concern about the welfare of those causing the trouble. Jonah hated Assyria, and that is the main problem Jonah had with the particular mission that God handed to him. Jonah was told to go and preach in Nineveh urging repentance. Jonah would much rather see them destroyed.
Lessons From the Book
"The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai..." (Jonah 1:1). There are some very important and valid lessons for our own day found in this ancient book. Homer Hailey, in his commentary on the minor prophets, lists five as follows, with our own additional commentary on each point added on:
National sin demands national repentance. Each nation has its own character which continues to develop as time goes on. Sometimes we see nations growing stronger, correcting past mistakes and seeking higher ground. At other times we see periods of national degradation where former ideals and principles are discarded and the nation suffers from moral confusion. Unfortunately, one cannot look at the state of our own nation today without recognizing that extremely negative things are happening to its char acter.
One cannot run away from God. When God assigns a duty that is disagreeable to us, what is our response to be? I am certain that many members of the church are running away from their responsibilities just as surely as Jonah did. They may not be on board a ship headed in the opposite direction, but they state in no uncertain terms by their own inactivity and neglect that they have no intention of fulfilling their obligations to God because they are too busy with other things.
God is able to use all the incidents in the lives of His people for their good and for His glory. Sometimes, good can come from even our mistakes. Today, the testimony of others about how Christians deal with tragedy or personal loss can accomplish much good, if we as God's children show the right kind of thinking at such times. Opportunity begats challenge. At this particular time in Ninevah's history, the people were dejected. The economy was depressed and the Ninevites were looking for answers. It was time to forget the past and grasp the present. Likewise today, when opportunities open themselves locally and around the world, it is time to respond according to our ability to get the work of God accomplished.
The infinite concern of God for life is shown in contrast to the concern of man for the material. Sometimes people get their priorities mixed up. Jonah did. When material gain or loss becomes more important than human well being, then someone has gotten his priorities confused. Much of this type of confusion exists today in our materialistic society (Jonah 4:5-11).
Jonah Runs From His Duty
"'Arise, and go to Ninevah the great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.' But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord." (Jonah 1:2,3).
Jonah certainly underestimated the Lord. If Jonah could find Tarshish, then so
could the Lord! In fact, had Jonah made it that far, he would have found the
Lord was already there! They say you always need a "plan B". Jonah didn't have
one, but it does not matter because it would not have worked either.
The rest of the chapter deals with how the Lord caused a storm to threaten the ship. The seamen began to call upon their gods and Jonah is encouraged to call upon his God as well. It was determined that it was Jonah's God who was displeased with him and that this was the cause of the storm. Jonah informed the crew that the only way to avert disaster was to throw him overboard. They did not want to do so, but as the storm grew more violent they finally relented and gave Jonah the "heave-ho." No mention is made as to whether they returned his fare (I would notice something like this) and Jonah sank beneath the waves.
The storm stopped and the seamen "feared the Lord greatly, and they offered sacrifice to the Lord and made vows." (Jonah 1:16). It was then that a great fish of the Lord's designation swallowed Jonah giving him some rather cramped living conditions for the next three days. The storm was an act of God. It was not a miracle, however, because storms can and do naturally occur. But when the fish swallowed Jonah, and Jonah lived within it beneath the waves for three days; that was a miracle. People cannot naturally survive such an ordeal. Some say this proves the story is made up. I say it only proves the power of God. It should not be surprising that the Creator of all things could make the necessary arrangements, unless one just doesn't believe in the Creator to begin with.
It Is Time To Apologize
"Then Jonah prayed to the Lord God from the stomach of the fish." (Jonah 2:1). Jonah described his pitiful state in the second chapter. He restated his devotion to
God and his willingness to be faithful to God. With this repentance, the Lord directed the fish to expel Jonah onto dry land, and then reissued the command: "Arise, and go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you." (Jonah 3:2). It occurs to me that it would have saved Jonah much grief to have simply obeyed the Lord to begin with, and there is probably a lesson there for us as well.
Jonah Obeys the Lord
"So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord..." (Jonah 3:3). The reaction of the people in the city was remarkable! They responded to Jonah's preaching by repenting of their evil. There were probably several reasons for this. The timing was right in that the people were suffering distress. There had been military setbacks in the north and the war efforts had drained the nation economically. The standard of living had plummeted. Food was becoming scarce.
Also, Jonah was supposed to be dead. He had been thrown overboard many, many miles from shore in the middle of a horrible storm. And now, there he was alive, and calling for repentance. The people listened. The king even issued a decree to fast and to call upon God. Incidentally, historians have discovered evidence of a brief exercise of monotheism in Nineveh about this time. Now we know why. "...for I knew that Thou art a compassionate God..." (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah is not at all pleased with the results of his preaching. He hated Nineveh and felt very sorry to have had a part to play in their salvation. "Therefore, now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better for me than life." (Jonah 4:3).
The Lord reasoned with Jonah, who sat outside the city hoping that maybe God would destroy it after all. God caused a plant to grow over Jonah to give him shade from the hot sun. Then, God caused the plant to die, which made Jonah all the more miserable. As Jonah complained, the Lord pointed out that to have compassion for a plant while at the same time not caring if a huge city of human beings was destroyed was certainly a mix up of priorities! It seems as if many today have a similar set of false standards of value. Human life is expendable but save the trees! It was not right for Jonah and neither is it right today.
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 4.1; January 1997