Summary: The story of Jonah tells the story of God rescuing Jonah, not FROM a whale, but BY a whale. It tells of God reaching out to one of the cruellest people in history, the Assyrians. And it prefigures the story of God reaching out to us, through Christ.
GOD SAVES JONAH, NINEVEH, AND US
We’re in a series ‘Bible Stories for Grown-Ups.’ Today, we’re looking at the story of Jonah. I’m going to assume most of us are fairly familiar with the story of Jonah and not spend time revisiting it. I’m going to look at the story under three headings: the individual, the city and the world.
The book of Jonah is much more about God’s dealing with Jonah as an individual than it is about God dealing with Nineveh. Certainly, Nineveh is part of the story. But there’s much more in the book about what God says and does to Jonah than about what he says and does to Nineveh.
The background to the story is that God cannot tolerate the Ninevites’ wickedness. God wants to call them to repent, but if they do not, he will destroy them. He will call them to repent by sending his prophet, Jonah. But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. That creates our story.
Why does Jonah not want to go to Nineveh? The Assyrians were bad people and they were Israel’s enemy. No one really goes to enemy capitals to tell the enemy to repent, and the Israelites of Jonah’s day certainly weren’t in the habit of doing that. Jonah is probably the only prophet who God sent to a foreign people in a foreign land with a message of judgement. But that isn’t Jonah’s reason for not wanting to go. We find the reason at the end of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4. Jonah makes it to Nineveh. The people repent. Then what happens? I’m reading from 3:10:
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, GOD RELENTED of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But IT DISPLEASED JONAH EXCEEDINGLY, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.’
Jonah was afraid God would relent! We might think it would be great if God relented! But to Jonah, it was all wrong. The Ninevites were terrible people! They should be punished. Surely any other result would be a miscarriage of justice! And Jonah has a point, doesn’t he? God MUST be JUST.
God needs to deal with Jonah. God had told him to go to Nineveh and instead, he’d set off for Tarshish. He had deliberately and knowingly disobeyed God. Our relationship with God doesn’t survive if we do that.
Most of us, if we see someone drifting away from God and disobeying him, don’t do a lot. But God is not like us.
Jonah is now on his way to Tarshish. God caused a storm. The sailors threw Jonah overboard. God sent a whale. Jonah ended up inside it. Inside the whale, Jonah had a spiritual experience. Facing death, Jonah came back to God.
It looks very much as though God didn’t arrange the whale as a means of transport for Jonah back in the direction of Nineveh. The whale was God’s means of saving Jonah. God orchestrated the crisis to bring Jonah back to a proper relationship with him.
Jonah then does what God asks. But he still isn’t happy. He’s thinking, ‘These Ninevites should have been punished! God should not have shown mercy!’
The book of Jonah ends with Jonah sitting on the east side of Nineveh and God speaking to him. God knows that Jonah isn’t happy and he’s trying to help him to see why he had to be merciful to Nineveh.
What lessons can we learn from the way God dealt with Jonah?
One lesson we can take from this is relevant to mission. Maybe we’ll think: we’re really not good enough. We should remember that Jonah was pretty flawed, but God called him.
Another lesson relates to disobedience to God. Jonah was disobedient when God told him to go to Nineveh. But the principle applies to any kind of disobedience. God cared about Jonah and he wanted to get him back on course. But God’s measures were painful for Jonah. God sent a storm. Then he sent a whale! Maybe God will tell us to go somewhere or do something, but, like Jonah, we don’t want to. Then we should think: do we fancy a session in a whale?! The way God dealt with Jonah gives us a clue as to what God might do if WE disobey God. If God was willing to engineer a crisis for Jonah to draw him back to himself, he might do the same for us. Actually, if God does put us through a painful experience like that, we might even say ‘thank you’ to him. We might reflect on the fact that he’s on our case, and willing to give us a second chance, as he did for Jonah.