Nineveh (modern-day Mosul, Iraq) was one of the oldest and greatest cities in antiquity. The area was settled as early as 6000 BCE and, by 3000, had become an important religious centre for worship of the goddess Ishtar.(http://www.ancient.eu.com/nineveh/)
The first sentence of the book of Jonah is God’s direction to his prophet to tell Him to go to the city of Nineveh and preach repentance because their great wickedness had come up against Him. God had a plan for Nineveh which involved their salvation and not their destruction. Although he told them he would destroy them in 40 days if they didn’t repent, He also knew they would repent, as did Jonah. How did Jonah know? He was a prophet, he loved God, he knew God, he had spent time living and walking with God. Yet, as close as his relationship with God was, he still chose to reject the call and go his own way. How often do we, his people, likewise choose to secure our own comfort and go our own way rather than follow Him? Even after years of relationship, it is still possible to allow our flesh to dictate the terms. Worse, it is possible for us to decide to block our ears to God’s call and refuse to obey for the simple reason that it doesn’t fit with our world view.
I have found that the closer you get to God, the more your mind is renewed (my favourite passage Romans 12:1-2). The more your mind is renewed the more you see the greater picture from God’s perspective, and sometimes, we don’t like what we see. It is unfamiliar. I think God allows us to travel through countryside which we at least have some understanding of for a while. Then when he knows we are ready for it, he lifts the veil from our eyes a little more and we see the greater picture. Jonah was shown the greater picture and he had a meltdown. It’s easy for us to look at him and scoff. We of course would never behave this way because our maturity is much greater than his. Yet, Jonah was in the know. He was privy to God’s counsel regarding the biggest city in the then known world. It would be as if one of us had been shown what would happen to New York, or London, or Tokyo, before any of the disasters which have been visited upon those towns over the years. Would you be able to deal with that? Would you be able to cope knowing you were the one called to prevent the destruction? And what if one of those cities had been your country’s sworn enemy? Would you want to be the harbinger of doom? Sure, if God was going to follow through. Maybe it would be kind of fun. You would get the fame of being connected with God’s great power and judgement. But Jonah knew, he just knew, God wasn’t going to destroy Ninevah, he knew God’s heart, and he knew God was going to spare them. So Jonah went nah-ah. I am NOT going to be the one to be the bearer of good news to my enemies.
Jonah’s response was the equivalent of going on the witness protection programme; change country, change your identity, fade into obscurity. Joppa harbour was a well known international maritime destination, located north-west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean sea. Jonah decided Spain looked good this time of year and set his sights on Tarshish. David had pretty much settled the question that you cannot escape from God in Psalm 139; “where can I go from your Spirit, from your presence where can I flee, if I ascend to heaven there you are, if I descend to Sheol, there you will be”. Yet Jonah was not in the mood for discussion.
So, Jonah finds a vessel, goes down into the hold, curls up in the foetal position and waits it out. A foetus, or baby, is curled up because he is in cramped living quarters. They don’t start out cramped. We begin as tiny curled creatures and become larger over 40 weeks. This is by the way an interesting connection with a time of confinement and constriction as God forms and disciplines us. Yet, when as adults we choose to go ‘back to the womb’ we are showing a desire to want the safety comfort and above all lack of responsibility that we are called to as adults. An adult cannot go back to the womb. Remember Nicodemus’ concern when he spoke to Jesus about being born again? It is physically impossible. But psychologically, by hiding, choosing unconsciousness (or ‘un-knowing’) we can make an attempt to cease to be while the world unfolds around us. It is a rather cowardly act, and I speak as one who has chosen this form of ‘un-knowing’ many times.
An unusually fierce storm arose. The sailors were experienced, but they were becoming more and more desperate and started praying to their idols in the hope that somebody’s god might have mercy on them. The captain finds Jonah down in the hold and asks him what on earth he is up to? Surely Jonah must have a god reasons the captain, so he too should pray to Him and ask for mercy. Since nobody’s god seems to be answering and they cannot decide whose fault the storm is they decide to draw lots. God ensures that Jonah gets the short straw . Immediately, they begin to question him explicitly about who he is and where he is from. Jonah tells his story and in the process preaches the gospel to these men. Even though he is in self-imposed exile, the gift God has placed upon his life, that of a prophet, is exercised. Here, he is also fulfilling the gifts of teacher, and evangelist as in the process of telling the sailors who he is, he tells them who God is, and why the storm has arisen.
Now while these men are superstitious, they are clearly a kind-hearted lot as none of them want to do as Jonah suggests, and throw him overboard. They know that it would be a quick and sure death. Yet as the storm gets worse, they decide that maybe, since Jonah did offer, they should do what he suggested. Reluctantly they throw him over, and the storm immediately abates. So profoundly affected are they by the resulting calm that they sacrifice to God and make vows. I believe this means that they would have essentially changed allegiances from their false gods who had forsaken them to the One True and Living God. So, not only could Jonah not outrun the long arm of the Lord, but God used Jonah to convert these sailors despite his rebellion against Him. God truly does work all things together for good to those who love Him. And Jonah surely loves God despite appearances.
“Those who regard worthless idols
Forsake their own Mercy.
9 But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord.”
Jonah 2:8,9 (NKJV)
I find it interesting that Jonah goes from voluntarily taking the foetal position as his defence to being forced into a foetal position in the belly of the fish. He refers to his plight as being in the ‘belly of Sheol’ and ‘in the pit’. Since Jonah seems to enjoy being hidden from sight and sleeping in order to avoid his responsibilities, he is forced to stay in that position for three days and nights. Noah’s time in the whale is marked by repentance and worship of God, and after those three days, he is vomited out onto dry land and given a second chance. He takes it
I am reminded of a visit by Barry Maguire at my local church when I was in my early twenties. He preached on Jonah, and he gave a compelling yet amusing verbal illustration of the scene where Jonah, having spent three days in the pit of a fish’s stomach, his hair and body bleached from the stomach acid of the fish (do fish have stomach acid?) crawls and stumbles into the city gates of this massive city (the equivalent of New York probably in today’s parlance since it was three days walk across) and screeches out “repent”. He would have looked like ‘the thing from outer space” and the guilty Ninevites would have fearfully repented.
Ninevah was a city which, like the city of Ephesus worshipped a demonic entity. Ishtah is linked to to the Greek goddess Artemis which is also linked to the Egyptian goddess Isis and all of these are linked to the title ‘Queen of Heaven’ which is also another name for Jezebel. Essentially we are looking at a form of high goddess worship which had overtaken the ancient world and held them in bondage. God wanted them to be free from their links to these demonic idols so that they could worship the one true and living God. Now Jonah’s obedience to God, however churlishly he carried out this obedience, caused that great city to repent from their wickedness and to cry out to God. The king himself caused the whole city, along with the animals to be covered in sackcloth and ashes. Interestingly, God’s compassion extends even to the animals as he mentions them at the end of chapter four. This is the kind of compassion which I see Jesus extending to the woman who was bent over for 18 years. He tries to reason with the Pharisees and asks them to consider her plight, in the same way he tries to reason with Jonah. “Think of It” he urges them. Only a man, and God, moved in his heart and mind to the plight of this woman would encourage the hard-hearted Pharisees to try and put themselves in this woman’s shoes. “Have empathy” he cries to them.
15 The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite![a] Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? 16 So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” 17 And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him
(Luke 13:15-17 NKJV)
This is the same cry he gives to Jonah.
10 But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”
(Jonah 4:10-11 NKJV)
Jonah has pity on himself, but does not pity a city of millions of people for whom God has great mercy and empathy.
So this is really a story of a man who is not willing to do the will of God because of his own personal proclivities. Eventually he recognises God’s sovereignty and again cries out to Him for mercy. Yet when God shows mercy to a city of non-Hebrew human beings because they likewise have cried out to God, he becomes angry and believes he has a right to be angry.
Jonah’s hostility and tantrum throwing in chapter 4 is quite a different response to his fear of commitment in Chapter 1. His first instinct is to hide, his last to blame God. I believe these two apparently different reactions are actually seated in the same problem; rebellion. A man who makes excuses for himself (which actually sound very spiritual and humble) such as “Oh, I couldn’t do anything like that, I am not qualified or experienced enough” is really saying “I don’t want to do that”. This may not be what we want to hear, but I know from my own bitter experience that this is in fact the truth. I have chosen to say ‘no’ to God in the past because I didn’t think I was cut out for that kind of work. I have run away, hidden under a rock and decided it just wasn’t me.
Incidentally, hypochondria is another manifestation of this little mind game. Proverbs 22:13 tells us that the lazy man complains he can’t go out because there may be a lion in the streets and he will be killed. We come up with all sorts of other ‘serious’ reasons why we can’t do what the Spirit asks us to do. “I am too weak”, “I am not well enough”, “I am not experienced enough”. You fill in the blank. In fact, we rarely say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). It is amazing what the human mind can invent when we are confronted by our deepest fears. Jonah was called by God and suddenly developed a pressing need to visit Spain. Had he been there before? Was it the climate, the food or the fact that it was very far away in completely the other direction? I imagine a modern day Jonah going to the nearest international airport, looking up at the arrivals and departures board, picking a destination which he has never even heard of and sounds pretty foreign and lacking in modern comforts and going there.
“Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”
Not only was Jonah in the pre-natal frame of mind in the first chapter of this book, but in the last chapter he still wants to opt out of life, this time by death. He wants God to take his life. I have never heard such melodramatic twaddle before! Oh wait. Yes I have. That was me. This is another form of blaming God. You made this happen. I didn’t ask to be born. You have to now kill me so that I don’t have to face the humiliation of having my reputation tarnished by all these Ninevites becoming believers! How embarrassing! What would the other prophets think!
I believe that we in today’s church often choose our own interpretation of God’s work for us rather than wait on God and hear his word. Some of us would like to be prophets, but we are really not gifted that way. Many young men, and now perhaps even some women, go to bible school, get trained as church leaders and then go out and start churches, many without a direct word from the Lord to do so, yet their elders and leaders lay hands on them and ‘send them out’ with their blessings but have not spent the necessary time in prayer to find out whether these ones are actually so called.
How important is it for us not just to assume a position but to know God’s call on our lives. How much more important is it for those who have been called not to run from that call, but to follow it wholeheartedly. And for those who have been functioning in their calling (and God bless those who do, it is a narrow and hard road), even that history does not preclude you from the influence of our flesh which would rise up and say “Did God really say?” Which as we know is the means Satan uses to cause us to not only question what we think God has said to us, but to question the loving caring Heavenly Father as well.
A true believer doesn’t want to grieve the Holy Spirit. We all have times when we struggle with God’s direction for our lives. Yet, if we are honest, we will know that when God calls us, he also gives us a desire to follow. The call God placed on Jonah was a huge task. Ninevah was probably the biggest city in the known world at the time, and Jonah was being asked to proclaim the word of God to them in person. Was he ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or was he just more concerned about his reputation? Whichever it was, we will never know how the conversation ended in chapter 4. I hope and pray that we will know better how it will end in our own hearts.