Summary: The story of Jonah is a satiric masterpiece. The book of Jonah is unique in that it humorously recounts the adventures of a prophet who struggled against his divine commission. This really is a handbook on how not to be a prophet.
Opening Statement: In his book, True Heroism in a World of Celebrity
Counterfeits, Dick Keyes writes that a celebrity is "one who is famous and well publicized," well known "apart from how they became known. Celebrity itself is indifferent to moral character," he adds. One can be famous "but still a thoroughly obnoxious person and menace." Keyes then contrasts celebrity with true heroism. A hero is someone who excels at something we prize and inspires us to try to emulate his achievements. But
this definition is incomplete, he says, because some of the people best at getting others to follow them have been dictators like Hitler and Stalin.
To distinguish heroes from these kinds of people, we have to include a moral dimension. We should identify as heroes, Keyes says, only those who "show qualities of moral character."
Transition: We’ve been doing this in our "hero/heroine series." The storytellers of the Bible selected details by two criteria when writing about people: they give us positive models (heroes/heroines) to follow and negative examples (in some cases, tragic heroes) to avoid. Today, I want us to look at a negative example to avoid. Ironically enough, it has to do with a reluctant Jewish prophet who refused to let go of his prejudices.
Title: The Story of Jonah - A Tragic Hero With a Fatal Flaw
Theme: The story of Jonah is a satiric masterpiece. The book of Jonah is unique in that it humorously recounts the adventures of a prophet who struggled against his divine commission. This really is a handbook on how not to be a prophet.
Proposition: God exposes the absurdity of human prejudice and bigotry as it is embodied in Jonah while God Himself emerges as a God of universal mercy.
Background: Jonah and some of his fellow countrymen had this idea that God was the exclusive property of Israel. They refused to accept the universality of God’s grace, especially when it meant extending this grace to the Assyrian city of Nineveh. The Assyrians were cruel and heartless people who thought nothing of burying their enemies alive, skinning them alive, or impaling them on sharp poles under the hot sun. The events of Jonah occurred before the Assyrian invasion of Israel in 722 BC. 2 Kings 14:25 places a very patriotic Jonah prophesying about expanding the borders of Israel under the reign of Jereboam II. The prevailing conditions under his reign are interesting. Politically, Israel was inclusive, trying to form alliances with other nations to ward off any attack from a larger nation, namely Assyria. Religiously, Israel was exclusive, believing that God really didn’t care about other nations besides Israel which prompted the people to be very antagonistic toward other nations.
Key Word: The story of Jonah has a very simple plot in FOUR successive chapters.
I. Jonah’s Flight (ch.1) "But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD… (1:3)."
A. Explanation: Unlike other prophets who proclaimed their messages from the safety of their homelands, Jonah was called to go to Nineveh. He didn’t want to preach to them, much less go there. Jonah thinks that he can run away from God and the obligations of his prophetic office. Bad things happened when he chose to go west toward Tarshish when God said to go east to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh 550 miles away to preach repentance to this pagan nation.
B. Illustration: For Jonah, going to Nineveh would be like a Jew who lived in New York during WW II going to Berlin to preach to Nazi Germany.
C. Exposition: He get’s on a ship, a storm approaches that the sailor’s interpret to be some kind of divine act, Jonah is awakened, confesses that he’s the problem, and he’s pitched overboard at his own suggestion. As a result, the whole maritime crew is converted to Jonah’s God. It’s amazing how God even has us testifying to Himself in our times of disobedience.
D. Observation: Note the downward motif: "down to Joppa, down into the ship to lay down, down into the sea, down into a great fish and down into Sheol." These are very "unideal" experiences. Are you getting the picture that disobedience doesn’t pay? That going south-west when God say’s north-east is a bad idea? Jonah is borderline suicidal. He has a subconscious death-wish.
E. Notation: The irony intensifies when Jonah continues to talk the language of religious orthodoxy in the very act of denying his prophetic office. Look at verse 9: 1:9 He said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the land." He’s quoting a very familiar, popular theological cliché in the Bible (Ps.121:2; 146:6; Ex.20:11; Neh.9:6). Later on in chapter 3 he once again quotes a theological formula that occurs in nearly verbatim form six other times in the Old Testament (Ex.34:6; Ps.86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Neh.9:17): 4:2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "Oh, LORD, isn’t this just what I said when I was in my own country? This is why I took the initiative to run off to Tarshish, because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to wrath and abounding in loyal love, and one who relents concerning disaster. Jonah’s problem is not theological. In fact, his theology is impeccable. He knows how to mouth the right words. But he can’t stand the fact that they are true. His problem is not theological; his problem is prejudicial. He couldn’t stand the fact that God might show compassion on a people like the Assyrians. Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because he knew God so well. He could not comprehend how God could blot out generations of iniquity by one sudden change of heart by one generation.