Summary: God's will will be done whether we are willing or not.
The Reluctant Missionary: Jonah Preaches to Nineveh
The story of Jonah and the whale is a favorite story at Vacation Bible School. Children are drawn with the fascination of the idea of being swallowed alive. It also addresses the natural fear children have of the unknown. A story like this helps children arise above this fear. If Jonah could overcome being swallowed by a whale, then they can face scary things in life. I suppose there is some truth in this, but this is hardly the purpose of the book. We really need to dig deeper into the book and find the fullness of the message.
To understand the lectionary text from Jonah 3 this morning, we need to get some further information. First of all, Jonah was from the region of Galilee in the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 850 BC. This makes him the earliest of the minor prophets. In that day, the great power of the world was the nation of Assyria, whose capital city was Nineveh. Assyria ruled its neighbors by what is known as the carrot and stick approach. If the nations submitted and paid Assyria tribute, then there were some benefits, at least to the ruling classes of these client nations. If these nations did not submit to Assyria, then terror would be brought upon that nation. Both Israel and Judah saw both sides of Assyria. Part of the submission was to acknowledge the gods of Assyria as being superior to the gods of the client nations. Some leaders in Judah like Ahaz made these accommodations. But Jonah, as an Israelite who served Yahweh, the idea of serving the Assyrian gods was an abomination. Jonah utterly hated the Assyrians.
Yahweh came to Jonah and asked him to go to Nineveh and preach there. He was to decry the wickedness of the city. This was to be done by Yahweh, the God of Israel. Jonah would be risking his death by a gruesome form of execution known as impaling by proclaiming such a message to Nineveh. But the fear of this was not Jonah’s motivation. This is not revealed at the beginning of Jonah, though. If one were to look at it, Jonah’s response to get on a ship to Tarshish which was as far as one could go in the known world from Assyria, one would think that Jonah was afraid of what the Ninevites would do to him.
Jonah was afraid of something, though. As the Israelites were not a sea-going people, the idea of escaping by a boat to another Gentile land with a crew of Gentiles. Jonah was willing to suffer the terrors of the sea and being received by those in Tarshish rather than to obey Yahweh. But the LORD intervened in Jonah’s journey. He created a great storm, so great that the ship was in danger of sinking. The sailors were terrified, each one of them crying out to his god. But Jonah was not made afraid by this. While the storm raged, he was sound asleep in the boat. The sailors could not understand this any better than the disciples of Jesus who saw Jesus asleep in the boat when they were in danger. Both Jonah as well as Jesus had to be awakened and be told of the danger. Both Jesus and Jonah were rebuked by words to the effect that they did not care that everyone was about to die. Even Simon, the son of Jonah (Bar-Jona) joined in the rebuke of Jesus.
Neither was Jonah afraid to be cast into the stormy waters. He did not care about living or dying. Without the intervention of Yahweh, he certainly would have perished. Even when the storm abated when Jonah was cast into the sea, he hardly could have swum to safety, if he could swim at all. The text says that Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. The skeptics point out that this was impossible. The only fish big enough to swallow Jonah would have been a whale. But whales of the necessary size are not found in the Mediterranean. It is easy to get these weeds wrapped around one’s head, as Jonah states it. But God is God, and he prepared a great fish. It wasn’t a “fish” of the kind naturally found in creation. If man wanted to rescue Jonah from the water, the great fish they would have prepared is a submarine. How much greater is God than man.
Jonah spent three nights in the fish’s belly. Jesus relates the story of Jonah to His own death and resurrection. Then Jonah was restored to land, the land where creatures lived and not fish. Jonah had his own She’ol experience. He had passed from death to life. After he was vomited back on land, Yahweh came to him again and told him to go to Nineveh and preach. So Jonah went and preached “Yet forty days and this city will be overthrown. Contrary to human expectations, Jonah was not arrested and executed. Jonah actually would have preferred this in a strange way. Instead the city of Nineveh believed the message, and everyone from the king down to the common beast fasted and showed the signs of true repentance. They believe that Yahweh would spare them if they repented. The prayers of the Ninevites was answered, and the city was not destroyed. Like the Gentiles sailors, the Ninevites had more fear of the LORD than did Jonah. Not only this, but they had a better understanding of Yahweh’s mercy than did Jonah.