Summary: God’s love for all people compels us into the deep--not stay in the dock
It’s the Bible story that everybody knows, right? Even unchurched folks can tell you about Jonah. He was the guy swallowed by the whale. A story immortalized in children’s picture books everywhere. A fantastic, bizarre tale of a reluctant prophet, a huge fish, and a pagan city.
Do you remember the story?
God commanded Jonah to go to a sinful town called Nineveh with a stern message: turn or burn. Jonah didn’t want to do it, because no self-respecting Jew would set foot among rank heathens. If I were to make Jonah into a dramatic character, I would do him as Archie Bunker. If you remember, Archie was a conservative, patriotic, God-fearing bigot. So was Jonah. Remember Archie’s opinion of California? He insensitively branded it the “land of fruits and nuts.” Jonah held the same low opinion of Nineveh, the glittery, glamorous capital of Assyria— an area now occupied by Syria, Jordan and Iran.
But being the obedient, dutiful prophet that he was, Jonah swallowed his objections and shuffled off to Nineveh anyway—right? Wrong!
Matter of fact, Jonah heads the opposite direction. He buys a boat ticket for Tarshish and runs away from God. Some scholars believe Tarshish was a port city in Spain—not exactly in the vicinity of Nineveh. Kind of like God telling you to go to New York, and you decide to head toward L.A.
What happens next is a comedy of errors. A fierce storm blows in, the sailors want to know who made the gods angry, and they finally pin the blame on Jonah. Splash! Into the water he goes! Enter the whale—actually, a “great fish,” according to the Bible. He swallows Jonah, who camps out in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights. Then God commanded the fish, and the fish (if you want to use a sanitized version) “spit up” Jonah – or, if you prefer the gross version, puked Jonah up on dry land.
It’s so easy to get hung up at this point in the story. A man living three days in the craw of a fish? Sounds about as realistic as Pinocchio making dinner in Monstro’s belly. But the story isn’t about fish—it’s about fishing.
Fishing? Yes. God wanted Jonah to fish for Ninevites, hook them with a divine message, lower the nets of love and concern. But Jonah wasn’t in the mood to pack his tackle box. In his mind, the Ninevites didn’t deserve good preaching. Weren’t worthy of God’s love. He couldn’t justify wasting his ministerial skills on people who kissed idols, bowed down to materialism and worshiped war. So he ran.
God caught up with Jonah, of course. God’s that way. He will get our attention somehow— whether it’s sending a hungry fish to swallow us up or allowing our pride to devour us until we cry for his help.
Jonah finally obeyed God and held an evangelistic crusade in Nineveh. The response was the stuff of preachers’ dreams. Jonah 3:5 simply states, “The Ninevites believed God.” Like an arrow, Jonah’s message shot straight into their hearts. Even the king repented, ripping his robes and declaring a fast. He ordered that the people wear sackcloth as a sign of mourning for their sins—and went so far as to directing everyone to put sackcloth on his livestock! Ever slip a burlap suit on a cow?