You know it, right? That story, everybody knows it; guy, giant fish, three days, he survives. That would be the capsule version of the story of Jonah. Most people I know have some version of this tale in their head, even if they are not a practicing Christian. This story shows up in bible camps and children’s devotionals regularly, it is a fantastic tale! But there is much more to this Biblical lesson than meets the eye, as well as a grown up lesson about the nature of God himself.
Though many regard this story as a parable of fantasy, the prophecies and words of Jonah are regarded as fact in both Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. Jonah was a known minor prophet. Although the most attention getting part of his story is the “fish part” the biblical texts preceding and following that part of his story are really of much more import. Jonah’s tale begins when God addresses him and gives him a “prophetic assignment”. He is to go to Nineveh, a city of over 120,000, deep in sinful behavior, and tell them that God is not pleased with their current actions. For reasons we’ll discuss later, he refuses the assignment and attempts to escape God by hitching a ride on a ship that is going to Tarsus. He is soon identified as the source of angry waters and the ship being in peril, God is not happy with him! In a noble gesture he volunteers to be thrown into the sea to spare the lives of the others on the ship. He is tossed, the storm calms. You know the fishy part that comes next. After being expelled from the denizen intact, Jonah stops arguing and heads to Nineveh to complete his original assignment. The city is huge and in one of those “pre-figurement” moments of scripture we are told that it takes him three days to cross it while delivering his message of repentance. He has more success than he counted on, and when his message reaches the King there is a royal order for all, even the animals, to be covered in the trappings of sackcloth and ashes. Success, the people have heard the will of God and the whole city is converted. Pretty impressive especially for a “minor prophet” and one who did not want the assignment in the first place! Typical of his contrarian nature Jonah is not really what you would call happy about his achievement. He even remonstrates with God and complains loudly that this is why he didn’t want to come here in the first place because he knew that God was merciful! Yikes! Johan is actually “honked off” that the city repented and God withheld his intended punishment. He pouts, not unlike a spoiled child who didn’t get his way, and tells God; “And now, Lord, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jon 4:3)
His reaction to the completion of his work is to leave the city immediately and strike out a short way into the dessert. He continues his temper tantrum and he remains within view of the city because he is really waiting to see Nineveh “blow up” as God originally intended. This is kind of odd behavior for a prophet, right? Jonah was a Hebrew and his assignment to the Ninevites was simply an insult to him and his religious pride. The people of Nineveh were widely known pagan, idol worshipers. Jonah simply considered it beneath him to be asked to go and preach to them, he was a racist in the strictest sense of the word!
As Jonah remains entrenched in his prideful attitude God sends him an unexpected gift. In the middle of the burning dessert, a green plant with shady leaves springs up to shade and comfort him. For a day Jonah is so delighted with the plant that he forgets his anger. The next morning God sends a worm to consume the plant and Jonah quickly resumes his pout, this time over the plant. God asks him why he is angry over the plant. After all, he did nothing to plant it, raise it and sustain it. Jonah doesn’t get it and responds; “I have reason to be angry… angry enough to die.” (Jon 4:9) There’s that hyperbole again, high drama because he didn’t get his way.
Couldn’t this story have been written yesterday? Today’s culture deifies our wants beyond all other considerations. We are taught that we must have, we should have and if we don’t get, we “will die”. In other words, we actually deserve to be angry. But Jonah’s reaction deserves a closer look because of his circumstances. He was a man of God, he actually had direct dialog with God. He was a declared prophet charged with doing the work of the Lord. He actually heard Gods will and didn’t like it!
If you have been working hard on your spiritual walk and really do hear God’s will for your life have you gotten to a place where you actually believe that anything that you think and feel is within the “justice of the Lord” because of who you are? Are you sometimes aggravated at the people that the Lord asks you to minister to? Jonah really wanted those pagans gone because he hated them. Are you someone who does the work of the Lord reluctantly and hope that it turns out the way you wanted it originally because “those people” deserved it? Do you insist on holding grudges against people whom you know that God has forgiven? God’s grace was so great that he was even worried about the critters who lived in Nineveh and what their fate would be if the city didn’t repent: “And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention that many cattle?” (Jon 4:11) Do you stubbornly cling to prejudices and angers because you “deserve to be mad” in a particular situation. Do you actually hear the Lord and see examples of his great compassion while missing those opportunities for yourself because you are too busy telling Him that if He doesn’t “fix it” according to your specifications you deserve to be mad? Take a fresh look at your attitudes and the way that you work for the Lord. Even if you are someone who has had a prayer and service discipline for years, it is still possible for you to wind up out in the burning dessert with no shade, even though you still hear God talking!
Check out more of Kathryn’s work @ www.atravelersview.org
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