By Mike Willis
From a child, I have been told the story of Jonah, the prophet who was swallowed by a whale. I must confess, however, that for years that was about all that I knew about Jonah. Jonah lived sometime prior to the reign of Jeroboam II (780-753 B.C.), king of Israel. Among the things which he did was to prophesy of the prosperity of Israel under Jeroboam (2 Kgs. 14:25). The book of Jonah records another facet of Jonah’s work – his commission to go to Nineveh.
Israel and Judah were able to expand their borders under the reigns of Jeroboam II and Uzziah respectively because of a decline in the power of Assyria. Between 841814 B.C., Jehu, king of Israel, was forced to pay tribute to Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, as the Black Obelisk records (it shows a picture of Jehu bringing tribute to Shalmaneser). After Shalmaneser, Assyria suffered a period of decline. Their loss of power allowed Israel and Judah to expand their borders. It was probably during this period, the period during which Assyria was suffering a decline, that Jonah was commissioned to go to Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria; Assyria was the major nation opposed to Israel in that day. To be sent to Nineveh to warn her of an impending judgment of God with the hope that Nineveh might repent of her sins and avert the judgment of God was the last thing which an Israelite prophet would want to do. The nationalism of the prophet would cause him to look forward in anticipation to the downfall of her enemy. The sending of Jonah to Nineveh would be comparable to sending a man from the John Birch Society to warn Moscow of impending judgment unless they repented.
Running From God
Whenever the message came to Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry against it” (1:2), Jonah ran away from God. He rebelled against God’s commandment and fled toward Tarshish on a boat. Jonah’s sin was no different from that of any other sinner before God; he simply rebelled against one of God’s commandments (1 Jn. 3:4). Though his sin was somewhat more obvious than the rest of ours is, it was no different in nature.
Frequently we today run from our responsibilities in the same way as Jonah did. Whereas Jonah was given a commission to go to preach to Nineveh and refused to go. we have been given the commission to take the Lord’s gospel into all the world. Many of us are refusing to take God’s message to a lost and dying world in the same way that Jonah refused to take the Lord’s message to the lost and dying city of Nineveh. His rebellion before God in many respects resembles our own.
Being displeased with Jonah’s conduct, God sent a great wind which produced a terrific storm. Jonah could not run away from God so easily as he thought that he could. The storm raged so strongly that the sailors had to throw all of their cargo overboard; indeed, Jonah’s sin endangered the lives of many men. Finally, the sailors sought the cause of the storm. By casting lots, they found that Jonah was the one who was causing them this trouble.
Jonah realized another truth at this point; he realized that his sins would find him out (Num. 32:23). Then, he confessed his sin to the sailors. They sought without avail to save the ship and Jonah. Finally, in order to save themselves they were forced to throw Jonah overboard.
Running Toward GodIf the first section of the book of Jonah might be termed “Jonah’s Running From God,” the second section might be termed, “Jonah’s Running Toward God.” Having been cast overboard, Jonah began to sink into the depths of the sea. For him, death seemed certain. He sank to the bottom of the ocean destined to die in his rebellion against God.
But God, in His mercy, prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. In the belly of the large fish, Jonah repented of his sins, confessed them to God, and “ran” toward God. Chapter two records Jonah’s confession of his sin and praises God for the mercy which he showed to his rebellious prophet. God accepted Jonah’s prayer and commanded the large fish to vomit Jonah out on dry land.
Running For God
Again, the commandment of God came to Jonah. “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee (3:2). Because Jonah had rebelled against God on one occasion did not make him forever useless to the Lord. After he repented, he could once more be used in the work of the Lord. Consequently, Jonah went toward that great city and preached the word of the Lord.
He preached, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). The people in the city hearkened to the prophet’s warning. From the least of them to the greatest, they turned from their sins. Even the king of Nineveh heard the prophet’s message and commanded that all men cease from practicing evil and do what was right. Thousands of wicked people repented at the word of the Lord. Jonah should have been overjoyed at the success which his preaching had. But, he was not.
Jonah’s Sorry Attitude
Jonah was a Jew. He wanted God’s favor to be shown exclusively to the Jews and certainly not to be shown to the Assyrians, the enemies of Israel. Consequently, when God decided not to overthrow the city of Nineveh because they had repented, Jonah was exceedingly displeased and became very angry (4:1). He said, “I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (4:2). Jonah expressed his reason for running away from obeying God’s commandment in the first place. He figured that when Nineveh heard the commandment of God that they would repent and the city would not be overthrown. He wanted to see the city overthrown and, consequently, did not want to take the message of the Lord to Nineveh.
God asked Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry?” (v. 4). If there was anyone who had no reason to be angry with the Lord for extending mercy toward sinners, it was Jonah. Of all people, Jonah should not have resented the grace of God being given to sinners. He himself had so recently been the recipient of it. When Jonah was the one who was destined to doom because of his sin, he wanted God’s grace. When Nineveh was destined to doom because of sin, he wanted God to withhold His grace. Jonah had no reason to be angry with God for extending his grace toward sinners. Yet, his attitude resembles in many ways the attitude of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:28-32) and the attitude of the laborers in the vineyard who bore the heat of the day toward the laborers who were hired in the eleventh hour (Matt. 20:116). Hence, God moved the correct Jonah’s attitude.
Jonah left the city of Ninevah and went on a nearby hillside to see what God would do with the city. There he sat, awaiting the destruction of the city. He built a booth to protect himself from the weather. God prepared a gourd to come up and grow exceedingly rapidly to provide shade for Jonah. Jonah rejoiced. That night, God prepared a worm to kill the gourd and destroy Jonah’s shade. Then God sent a vehement east wind which was so hot that Jonah fainted and wished himself dead. Then, God spoke to him. “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand people that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle? (4:10-11).
If Jonah could pity a poor plant, surely he should have some pity on the babies in the city of Nineveh (those who could not discern their right from their left hands) who would suffer in the overthrowing of the city. Yet, Jonah’s attitude was rather typical of the Jewish nationalists who wanted God’s grace to be withheld from every nation except Israel. The disposition which Jonah manifested needed to be rebuked.
Lessons To Learn
1. The universality of God’s love. God, even under the Mosaical age, loved men of all nations. His love was not reserved for Israel alone. He has always cared for men of every nation under heaven. His love which was manifested toward Nineveh is testimony of His love toward all sinners. Our great God wishes that all men be saved (2 Pet. 3:9; Ezek. 33:11).
The lesson which Jonah had to learn was the same lesson which the early church had to learn through God’s use of several miracles. The revelation of this message was most explicit at the conversion of Cornelius where Peter stated, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no greater respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10: 34, 35).
The universality of God’s love toward all men has been a lesson hard for men to learn. Just recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) inserted in their doctrine the right of black men to equal standing in the kingdom of God. This came nearly three thousand years after God gave His revelation through the prophet Jonah and two thousand years after God sent His message through Peter. Indeed, some men are slow to se the universality of God’s love. Some brethren in the Lord’s church still manifest some of the same attitudes toward their fellow man as did Jonah; frankly, I can see little difference in white (or black) supremacy and Jewish supremacy.
2. The attitude of men toward others. We should not only learn the lesson of the universality of God’s love and grace but also learn a lesson about our attitude toward other recipients of God’s grace. Some of us seem to manifest something akin to a spirit of Jonah. We should not try to get a franchise on grace and monopolize it, dishing it out sparingly to those whom we think are worthy recipients of it. Just because some man does not live on my social level, does not share my values, and otherwise differs from me should not be reason for me to take the gospel of God’s grace to him. He is a person created in the image of God in just as much need of God’s grace as I am. I should rejoice in his opportunity to be saved even as I rejoiced in my opportunity for salvation.
What happened to poor Jonah? We can only conjecture although I do think that we have some rational basis for these conjectures. “The prophet rather abruptly drops the curtain, draws a veil over his further life’s history. Naturally we ask, Did Jonah repent of his stubborn opposition to the universality of God’s grace? Jonah does not answer this question directly. But his silence on this point and the entire tenor of his book speak louder than words. Jonah would not have written so frank and self-humiliating a confession of his sin if he had not been sincerely repentant and had not hoped to preserve and save others from similar bigotry and grumbling. `By the very act of penning it (his confession), Jonah at once merges out of his former character and appears in our view not merely as a prophet, but as a remarkably humble and noble-spirited saint’ (Huxtable in The Bible Commentary, VI, 582). Particularly the conclusion of his book corroborates this view. At last he no longer finds fault with God’s ways. No longer does he voice his anger and displeasures with the universality of God’s grace. God’s revelation of His fathomless pity embracing all His creatures, cattle as well as men, young as well as old, Gentiles as well as Jews, this revelation has melted Jonah’s icy heart” (Theo. Laetsch, The Minor Prophets, p. 243).
Perhaps a more pertinent question for us than “What happened to Jonah?” would be, “What will happen to us as we meditate on this revelation of God’s love for all men?” Will we run for God to take the message of His grace to all sinful men or will we be content to contain God’s grace in our own little group of friends?
Truth Magazine XXIII: 6, pp. 99-101
February 8, 1979