Even if you didn’t grow up attending Sunday school, you likely have still heard of Jonah. It’s a riveting tale about an Old Testament Prophet who rebelled against God and was swallowed up by a big fish.
This tiny book of the Bible (Jonah) is nestled comfortably amidst the other prophetic books, boasting only four chapters.
Because of its familiarity, many of us have spent very little time delving into its riches.
It’s easy for us to assume that we know the weight of its narrative and quickly move past its splendors.
If we set our minds to excavate and plunder the mines of God’s word, we will find new treasures in even the most popular scriptures. The story of Jonah is no exception.
In the very first chapter of Jonah, we read that God had instructed Jonah to go to the people of the great city of Nineveh and call them to turn from their evil ways. If they would repent, God would turn his wrath away from them. Instead of obeying God, Jonah sets sail in the opposite direction.
Like Jonah, many of us don't particularly embrace this task given to us by God. Instead of participating in the creation of a flourishing world by aiding in the removal of God’s curse upon a land (Cultural Mandate), we decide instead to descend into the bowels of our vessels of rebellion. Down there, the waves rock us into a perilous rest.
There is a tempest raging outside that we, in our sin, have created. We have decided to ignore it. Jonah and his crew were experiencing a literal tempest, and it was extreme.
The pagan passengers on Jonah’s ship were frantic. Each of them were praying to their own gods; hedging their bets, hoping that perhaps one of their gods might take pity and spare their lives from the treacherous storm.
Where was God’s Prophet during this insanity? To his shame, when the passengers found him, he was in the ship’s hull, sleeping.
The boat Captain offers his rebuke of Jonah, “What do you mean OH SLEEPER? Arise! And call out to your God”.
Jonah then confesses his rebellion to his fellow seamen; the storm was sent by God because of Jonah’s disobedience.
In fury and panic, they ask Jonah what could be done to thwart this merciless wrath. The Prophet dictates that he must be “picked up and hurled into the sea”.
Even in his precarious predicament, he refuses to offer himself up. He must be forced off of the boat, he wasn’t going to go willingly.
After some seemly begrudging cooperation, the seamen do toss him off of the ship. Upon doing so, they ask for God’s forgiveness.
Even their pagan minds understood that human life, Jonah’s life, had value. Though it wasn’t Jonah’s intention, it seems as though the ship’s crew had been brought to conversion by the whole ordeal.
Immediately after Jonah’s body left the vessel, the storms hushed from their raging, and Jonah sank deep into the sea. God sent a large fish to swallow Jonah. There Jonah cried out to the Lord, in his distress he offered prayer and praises to God.
God heard Jonah, and spoke a word of pardon. The fish that God has sent to swallow Jonah was now commanded to vomit Jonah out onto land. Unlike Jonah, the fish obeys its creator.
With a second chance in hand, we would expect to see the Prophet gleefully proclaiming the mercies of God.
To his credit, this time Jonah did obey God’s instructions...kind of.
He did go to Nineveh and warned them of the destruction coming if they would not turn from their evil ways.
En masse, hearts were turned toward the Lord. Repentance and weeping spread over the city, much like the storm that God had created and calmed earlier in Jonah’s tale.
The people of Nineveh were transformed. The King called for national repentance. Everyone was instructed to cry out to Jonah’s God, that perhaps God might relent and turn his wrath away from them. Of course, God is faithful to keep his word. He did spare Nineveh.
Surprisingly, this did not please Jonah. He quickly forgot about the mercy and second chance that God had given to him.
He wanted God to obliterate Nineveh, not deliver them. This was a grave injustice in Jonah’s eyes.
How could God spare the lives of someone outside of His own covenant people? Not only were they not God’s people, but they were enemies of God’s people.
Surely, God had made a mistake. Jonah decided that the best thing to do, now that God had saved the Ninevites, would be to sit outside the city and argue with God.
He was going to be sure that God knew how displeased he was. After all, God was wrong to show mercy on Jonah’s enemies, right?
The heat in that region was scorching. It was very uncomfortable for Jonah to sit in the sun and pout. Jonah brashly proclaimed to God, “It is better of me to die than to live”.
God showed mercy to Jonah once again.
He caused a plant to grow up so its shade would comfort Jonah. This pacified Jonah’s tantrum.
That very same night, God sent a worm to gnaw at the plant so it would die.
The morning came, and Jonah was angry that his shade was now gone.
In a last rebuke, God explains to Jonah how misappropriated his compassion was.
Jonah had more sorrow over the death of a plant (and his comfort), than he had over the possible death of an entire city.
He cared more about the plant than he did for his fellow image bearers.
This was not only selfish and silly, but it was an attack on God himself.
Jonah didn’t feel remorse over the loss of the Ninevites lives or even his own life.
The pagan Seamen experienced more trepidation about tossing Jonah overboard than Jonah had experienced for the loss of Nineveh.
So what does this have to do with you? How does this story speak to us?
Throughout this narrative, God is waking His creation.
He commands the seas, the skies, the animals and the vegetation to act. They all submit to His Lordship. God changes the hearts of pagan sea Captains and even the hearts of His people’s enemies.
The response from Jonah is anger and resentment. Though he had experienced great mercy and resurrection, he felt it unjust to extend the same grace to anyone else.
The ending of Jonah has always seemed a bit odd to me. It hardly seems like an ideal way to end a book.
“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
What do the cattle have to do with this story and why are they the closing thought? What was God trying to say to Jonah?
It’s almost laughable unless we mine a little deeper in an effort to understand.
God’s plan has always been to restore what had been lost back in Genesis. The curses He placed upon the earth and His image bearers would be lifted one day.
The story of Jonah beautifully illustrates this to us. Jonah prefigures the greater Prophet that was yet to come, Jesus. Unlike Jonah, Jesus perfectly submits to God the Father and removes finally the wrath upon those whom God would save. Unlike Jonah would lamented God’s mercy,
It was for the joy set before him that Jesus was able to accomplish restoration.
God is showing us his steady hand, masterfully weaving the redemption tale throughout all of scripture.
God is still waking His creation unto new life.
He is restoring all things to himself (Colossians 1:20).
We are His agents of reconciliation and are given
the same ministry as Jonah (2 Corinthians 5:18).
We are to engage with our enemies and fellow image bearers, calling them unto new life in Christ.
Awake, oh sleeper! What do you mean by your slumber? Arise! And call out to your God. That He might spare us.
The dying world cried those words to Jonah, and they are crying them to you and me today. We don’t need to sacrifice ourselves to calm the storm that haunts them, we only need to point to Jesus’ sacrifice. He has bought peace once and for all, to finally calm his wearied creation.