Here’s one of those characters in the Bible that models for us what NOT to do. First of all, when God calls Jonah to go and speak one simple message, he takes off in the opposite direction. Don’t miss the blatancy of his defiance. Jonah could have just sat in his house, crossed his arms and said “no.” But instead he up and leaves. He runs off to another city and hops a boat to one of the most remote places he can think of. What exactly was the point of this ridiculous behavior? Apparently Jonah thinks God will get tuckered out trying to chase him that far. Or maybe he’s hoping to get lost in the crowd.
Jonah’s nonsensical behavior indicates his theology has a few holes in it. He seems to feel God is some limited wimp who can be overwhelmed by how fast a mortal man can run. The lack of reverence is glaringly clear. How did Jonah get in such a state? Well, we know that reverence for God is the key to wisdom. Simply put: when we stop fearing Him, we become idiots. Things which make no sense at all start sounding quite logical to our dulled minds.
Jonah’s foolish behavior shows that he’s been harboring a rotten heart attitude towards God for some time. A man doesn’t get this defiant overnight. Nonetheless, for reasons of His own, God is determined to use this little brat to accomplish His purposes. We all know this part of the story: Jonah hops on the boat, a nasty storm comes up, he ends up getting tossed overboard and God brings along a big fish to swallow him whole.
Now at this point many people think Jonah turned over a new leaf and got right with God like a repentant prodigal son. But that’s not quite what happened. First of all, it takes Jonah THREE DAYS of sitting in intestinal juices to even consider breaking down.
And Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. THEN Jonah prayed to Yahweh his God from the stomach of the fish… (Jonah 1:17-2:1)
This man takes “stubborn” to a whole new level. Put yourself in his place: sitting in the creepy dark insides of some huge monster that you only caught a fleeting glimpse of while you were choking on salt water. Now this thing is swimming around the ocean and every time it opens its maw you’re getting hit with new waves of icy ocean water containing wriggling, squirming things that you can’t see in the creepy dark. Would it take you seventy-two hours to crack? In those horrific conditions, plenty of us would crack in less than seventy-two seconds. How did Jonah get himself in this hardened condition? He has obviously been working at it for quite some time. This fellow isn’t going to submit to God’s Authority until it is his last possible option. But after three long days and nights, he finally cracks.
“Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head… While I was fainting away, I remembered Yahweh, and my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple. Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from Yahweh.” (Jonah 2:5, 7-9)
Did you catch the reference to idols? This is a strange time for a man to be casting pearls of wisdom about the dangers of idolatry unless he is voicing his own convictions. Perhaps Jonah has been dabbling in the worshp of false gods and this is how he’s gone so far astray. It wouldn’t be the first time God worked through an idolater.
Here in the slimy dark, Jonah offers God a deal: “Save me and I’ll vow to make sacrifices to You.” How generous. And how human that Jonah should try to impress God with giving Him what He should have been getting all along. But this is how we talk when we’re desperate, and Jonah was desperate.
“Then Yahweh commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.” (Jon. 2:10)
Don’t bother with the theories of indigestion: this fish spat Jonah out in response to God’s command, not natural causes. Throughout the Bible, God reminds us that He is in total control of every aspect of His creation.
Now that God has Jonah’s full attention, He repeats His earlier orders: tell Nineveh they’re going to be wiped off the map in forty days. We’re told Nineveh is a huge city. We’re also told Jonah walks through it for one day’s worth of distance declaring his brief message of doom. The Ninevites put Jonah to shame with the speed of their repentance. Suddenly everyone’s wearing sackcloth and a city wide fast has been proclaimed. Turns out the king has heard about Jonah’s miraculous emergence from a huge sea beast and there’s no doubt in his mind that a Deity of supreme power is speaking through this prophet. The king is so scared that he even makes the animals join in the fast, ordering them to be dressed in sackcloth.
“Do not let any man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let them cry out earnestly to God. Let every man turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Then perhaps God will relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” (Jon. 3:7-9)
This king is serious. He’s not trying to soften God up with promises of future sacrifices and songs of thanksgiving. He’s humbling himself in the most visual way he knows how. God is very pleased.
When God saw their deeds and how they had turned from their wicked way, He changed His mind and did not carry out the destruction which He had said He would bring upon them. (Jon. 3:10)
Don’t miss the significance of this. It’s one of our core theological beliefs about God that whatever He says, He does, and that His prophesies and promises can always be counted on for total fulfillment. Yet in reality God is far too wild to be confined like this. God is bound by NOTHING, not even His own words. Here we see a future-knowing God declaring He will do something when He knows the whole time that He won’t actually do it.
Now we come to the last chapter and suddenly the shallowness of Jonah’s fish belly prayer is revealed. Although he himself was mercifully spared the horrors of being melted by intestinal acids, our reluctant prophet goes into full brat mode when he finds out that God has decided to spare the people of Nineveh. Now that he’s being forced to come to this hated city, Jonah wants to see a show of fire and brimstone. When he finds out that God has changed His mind, he is seriously annoyed.
This greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He complained to Yahweh and said, “Yahweh, isn’t this what I said would happen when I was still in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish! I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness—One who relents concerning calamity. So now, Yahweh, please take my life. I’d rather be dead than alive!” (Jon. 4:1-3)
Notice how Jonah tries to repaint his rebellion as a noble effort to stop others from experiencing God’s mercy and kindness. Nice. Next he tries to dump the blame on God for his own foul attitude. His horrible little speech ends with an overly dramatic plea to be killed. Clearly Jonah expects God to see the obvious: it’s simply unbearable to live in a world where Yahweh is merciful to people.
At this point, it would be quite reasonable for God to reduce Jonah to a pile of smoldering ashes. Yet in an admirable show of self-restraint, He simply asks: “Is it right for you to be so angry?”
Snivels isn’t getting the message. Instead, he finds a nice high point where he can look down on the city then he sits down and watches, hoping to see plumes of smoke rising from piles of carnage. God has already said that He’s no longer going to trash the place, but our little brat just can’t accept that answer. He waits. In the sun. It’s very hot. Once again God gives Jonah the total opposite of what he deserves and causes a little plant to grow up and shade him. Jonah is quite pleased to see that the universe is once again revolving around him. He must have sat out there aiming poisonous thoughts at Nineveh the rest of the day for we’re suddenly told it’s dawn of the next day. Now God is finally done with this ridiculous sulking. It’s time for Jonah to get up and get over himself. God sends a worm to attack the plant and it dies. When the sun rises, He causes it to beat on Jonah’s defiant little head and then He causes a scorching wind from the east to come and cook him. It doesn’t take long for Selfish to get lightheaded. Once again he goes into drama overdrive.
Then when the sun rose, God made a scorching east wind blow and caused the sun to beat down on Jonah’s head until he became faint and pleaded with all his soul to die, saying, “I would be better off dead than alive!”
Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry about the plant?”
“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!” (Jon. 4:8-9)
Hm. It sounds like someone needs to spend more time in a fish.
This the last we hear from Jonah. God closes the curtain on the scene with one last comment:
“You’re concerned over the plant, which cost you no effort; you didn’t make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn’t I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left — not to mention all of the animals?” (Jon. 4:10-11)
We’ll never know how Jonah responded. It’s probably just as well. His apparent repentance in the belly of the fish has turned out to be little more than lip service. Here at the end of the book, it’s clear that Jonah’s heart is still very far from God.
Jonah hated the fact that God was merciful towards people he personally disliked. He didn’t approve of God calling on him to do something he didn’t want to do. He wasn’t interested in serving or helping or thinking of anyone else except Jonah. He was a selfish, immature, irreverent little brat. Study his story. Study the man. Then ask God to help you never be anything like him.