A Fleeing Prophet
Best known -least understood:
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Book of Jonah is probably the best known yet the least understood book of the Bible. The story is taken merely as an entertaining big fish story. But the Book of Jonah is much more than a story of a man and a great fish. This book is a profound illustration of the mercy and grace of God. The Book of Jonah illustrates God’s love and concern for gentiles as well as for Jews.
A fable or a real story?
Some scholars believe that the Book of Jonah is nothing more than an allegory. They believe that the book contains some spiritual lessons; however they do not believe that the story actually happened. In other words, they feel that it is not a true story.Because of these superficial attitudes, the true message and power of this book have been obscured.
Nevertheless everything written in the Book of Jonah is a true historical fact. Jesus Christ himself referred to the story of Jonah as something that actually took place.
As a picture of his death and resurrection on the third day Jesus cited Jonah in Matthew 12:39-40. Jonah is also mentioned by our Lord in Luke 11:29-32.If Jesus believed Jonah was a true event, then you and I should do too! We can trust that everything written about Jonah is a true and accurate story.
On a ship bound for Tarshish:
Jonah (meaning dove) the son of Amittai, became a prophet in 793 BC and ministered in Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II. God commanded Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and warn the Assyrians of imminent judgment because of their wickedness. But Jonah, reluctant to see Nineveh spared, makes his way to Joppa (meaning beautiful), a seaport, and took a ship bound for Tarshish.
Joppa was an ancient city situated about 35 miles NW of Jerusalem. Because it possessed a natural harbor, it was for centuries the seaport of Jerusalem. Nineveh was toward the East. Jonah decided to go in the opposite direction– as far West as he could.
Cast into the sea:
But on the way came the great storm. Jonah’s disobedience endangered the lives of the crew of the ship. We must always remember that we have a great responsibility to obey God’s commands because our sins and disobedience can hurt others around us.
While the storm raged, Jonah was sound asleep below deck. Running away from God apparently did not bother his conscience. But the absence of guilt does not always mean we are doing the right thing.
Relying on their superstition the crew cast lots to find out who is responsible. Their system worked because God intervened to let Jonah know that he couldn’t run away. Jonah knew that the storm was his fault, but he didn’t say anything until the lot fell on him. By trying to save Jonah’s life, the pagan sailors showed more compassion than Jonah.After Jonah was cast into the sea, the ship’s crew saw the storm calm down. The pagan sailors prayed to God and vowed to serve him. It may be painful, but admitting our sins can be a powerful example to those who don’t know the true God.
Not a whale but a great fish:
Jonah was cast into the sea because the terrifyingstorm was his fault. A great fish which the Lord had prepared came and swallowed Jonah. It is wrongly said that a whale swallowed Jonah. It was not a whale but a big fish sent my God. The event is portrayed as a miracle and should be understood that way. In fact, the whale is not a fish, it is a mammal.
A prayer of thanksgiving:
Misreading the text of the second chapter of Jonah occurs frequently because of the readers’ failure to pay attention to details. This chapter is not about Jonah asking God to deliver him from the belly of the fish. This chapter is a prayer of thanksgiving and not deliverance. Obviously Jonah was not in a position to bargain with God. Instead he thanked God for all he has done for him. We too can praise and thank God for what he has done for us, for his love and mercy both in the good times and the bad times. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before it disgorged him on the sea shore.
A wicked city repented:
God re-commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah went, reluctantly. From Jonah’s or human point of view, there are good reasons why Jonah thought the people of Nineveh deserved to be punished. As a prophet Jonah might have also known that the Assyrians would eventually conquer the Northern Kingdom known as Israel and his people would suffer at their hands.
Nineveh was the capital city of the vast Assyria Empire. It is located about 500 miles northeast of Israel. For a period of 300 years (911-609 BC) Assyria was the greatest political power in the Near East. They worshipped many gods and goddesses but their kings were their favorite deities. Archaeological discoveries indicate that warfare was an essential aspect of the Assyrian way of life. They waged wars on other nations not so much as to extend their dominion but to destroy and plunder. They built huge monuments to commemorate their victories. Drunkenness was a severe social problem.Prostitution flourished openly in the streets as well as brothels called “houses of pleasure”. Medically they relied heavily on magic and incantations. The daily life of the ordinary and common citizens was devoid of meaning.
Jonah came at last to Nineveh, calling out that in forty days God would destroy the city. Ordinarily prophets with this kind of messages don’t get much of a reception. They are laughed out of town or worse. But the unexpected happened. The city repented, from the king to the last person, and the judgment of God was stayed.
Jonah knew God too well:
It is incorrect to assume that Jonah had a very primitive idea of God and that he thought if he could get out of the land, he would get away from God. Jonah knew God too well and that is why he tried to flee.
Jonah 4:2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Into the heart of God:
The Book of Jonah ended abruptly. We are not told whether Jonah changed his attitude toward the Ninevites or not. But the book takes us right into the very heart of God…
Jonah 4:11 “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Jonah hated the Ninevites, but God loved them and want them to change their evil ways of life. Jonah hated the wicked people of Nineveh and was unhappy with God because God spared them.
There is a Jonah in me. There is a Jonah in you. Take a moment to reflectupon your own Ninevites. There are people who you cannot love. Just like Jonah you would rather see them punished by God for their sinful ways or for hurting you in some way. But those very people are the image of God like you and I and who God loved.Christ died for them too. 1 John 4:21 clearly states that love for God and love for our neighbors are inseparable. The one is not possible apart from the other. Those who love God cannot refuse love to the image of God that meets them in their fellow human beings.
Note: The repentance of Nineveh saved it from destruction for nearly 100 years. But apparently they returned to their evil ways. Nineveh was completely sacked by the combined forces of the Babylonians and the Medes in 612 BC, and has lain in ruins to this day.