7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 7

 “Call me Ishmael.”  That’s how Herman Melville began his novel, Moby Dick.  Written in 1851 when most people still went to church, Ishmael was a man who very much wanted to go to sea.  Attending services at Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he listened to a sermon preached by Father Mapple.

Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model for repentance.  Sin not, but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.

Jonah is the name of a book which belongs to a division of books in the Old Testament that we call “the Minor Prophets.”  We call them “minor prophets,” not because their messages are unimportant but because these books are all relatively short – quick reads full of prophecies, usually dealing with death and destruction.  

Jonah is also the name of the book’s major character, the prophet Jonah.  But Jonah was an unusual prophet of God. He was a rebel. He was a bit of scoundrel.  So this little book has the dubious distinction of being the only book of the Bible named after a shifty character.

As a matter of fact, that very fact has caused a lot of debate over the centuries as to the correct interpretation of the book of Jonah. Was he real?  Is his story a work of fiction?  What are the lessons to be divined from it?  The purpose of this brief study is not to rehash all the things Bible scholars love to debate.  I have little interest in how many angels can stand of the head of a pin, and as far as I’m concerned, if Jesus believed Jonah was real and his story was genuine, then that’s good enough for me.  The real value of the book of Jonah is that he is the perfect example of how a modern Christian should NOT behave.  He did what we should never do but frequently do: He ran away from God.  

By the time you get to the last verse of Jonah’s story, you’ll realize that the overriding theme of the entire book is a very simple, yet profound one.  

The LORD is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.  (Psalm 103:8 | NKJV)

And to say that there were a number of very surprised people in the story of Jonah would be an understatement.  All kinds of people of were surprised, from the man himself to the Assyrians to some sailors.  Let’s take a look at a very surprising book of the Old Testament.

The wrong way prophet, chapter 1

But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.  (Jonah 1:3 | NKJV)

Maybe in the history of all God’s prophets, Jonah is the only one to have done this: He fled from the presence of the Lord.  To be precise, God told Jonah to go in a certain direction but the prophet fled in the exact opposite direction.  That took some nerve. But why did he do that?  The answer is simple.  Jonah didn’t like his new assignment from God.  He was told to go to Nineveh and preach to them.  Nineveh was the “heart of darkness” as far as the Israelites were concerned.  It was a huge city-state that was growing into an empire that was well on its way to dominating the world at that time: Assyria. It seems odd, at least at this juncture of the story, that Jonah refused to be obedient to the word of the Lord.  The message would seem to appeal to him, given how much the Israelites, and indeed, other nations, hated the people of Nineveh.

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  (Jonah 1:2 | NKJV)

In the very simplest of terms, Jonah was representative of all the bigotry of his people.  He wanted nothing to do with the people of Nineveh because he, like most of his people, was a bigot.  From our politically correct standpoint, it would be very easy to condemn Jonah and say that surely he should have known better; that the Word of God should easily trump any national or religious prejudice the prophet may be have harbored.  But we should remember that Jonah wasn’t alone in his feeling toward what the New Testament calls “gentiles.”  Recall that even after the stunning event of Pentecost, the great apostle Peter had problems with preaching to the Gentiles.  It took a special revelation from God and some very odd circumstances to get Peter to visit a Gentile named Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him and his whole family.  This incredible experience changed Peter and made him realize something.

And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.  For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  (Acts 10:45 – 47 | NKJV)

It took the Christian church to show the world what happens when people are able to set aside their prejudices and bigotry.  The world likes say Christians are bigoted and prejudiced, but the exact opposite is the truth.

But coming back to Jonah, he had an even bigger problem than preaching to people he didn’t care for.  In the last chapter of the book, the prophet in a moment of surprising honesty, fesses up to the Lord and tells him why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh.

So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.  (Jonah 4:2 | NKJV)

It was really the character of God that kept Jonah from his mission. But more on that when we get to the end of the story.  For now, Jonah bought passage on a ship bound to Tarshish.  But Jonah found out what you probably already know: You can’t run away from God.

But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up.  (Jonah 1:4 | NKJV)

Now, we all know that in a few verses, Jonah ends up in the belly of a great fish.  That’s surprising enough, but something even more surprising happens first.  During the storm, the pagan sailors are keen enough to realize that the storm was caused by Jonah!

Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this?” For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.  (Jonah 1:10 | NKJV)

For his part, Jonah didn’t want these hardened men to be killed on his account, so he told them to just throw him overboard.  He knew the character of God, so he knew God would spare this ship further damage if he wasn’t on board.  You have to hand it to the sailors.  They didn’t want to harm Jonah, at least at first.  But then this happened; a most surprising thing, indeed.

Therefore they cried out to the LORD and said, “We pray, O LORD, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O LORD, have done as it pleased You.”  So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD and took vows.  (Jonah 1:14 – 16 | NKJV)

Somehow, these pagan sailors had more common sense that did Jonah!  They actually prayed to Yahweh, tossed Jonah overboard, and became believers in the Lord, even offering Him a sacrifice.  Yet, in a very real sense, Jonah became their sacrifice.  One scholar noticed this and made an interesting statement.

There is [in the sacrifice of Jesus] a spiritual parallel to the picture of Jonah cast into the sea, as well as a spiritual contrast. The fiercest of tempests is that of the wrath of God against sin; that storm gathered about the Person of our Lord and could only be stilled by His death on the cross. 

Well, Jonah’s supposed death in the sea calmed the storm and the sailors were saved.  Something else to keep in mind.  This was a storm on the sea, meaning there were likely other boats and lives put at risk all because one believer in God sinned against God.  Your personal sin always hurts other people, whether you realize it or not.

Jonah learned a valuable lesson in this chapter.  He boarded the ship and fell asleep, secure in the knowledge that he had escaped the Lord.  But he woke up knowing he couldn’t escape God and that God could easily frustrate the plans of a man.

A fishy story, chapter 2

Everybody loves this part of Jonah’s story, and being swallowed by a big fish is what everybody knows about concerning the book of Jonah.  But, to me, it’s the least interesting part of the story.  While skeptics stumble over the notion that a man can survive in the belly of a fish for some time, I say, “Why not?”  Read this verse carefully and you’ll see why I don’t have any problem with this fishy part of the story:

Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.  (Jonah 1:17 | NKJV)

The Bible says “the Lord had prepared a great fish.”  This was no ordinary fish.  It was a special fish prepared by God for the sole purpose of housing Jonah for three days and three nights.  This was not a whale but a singularly created fish by God.  

People, skeptics and scholars alike, get all hung up on the “great fish” when they ought to get hung up on the fact that God delivered Jonah.  Does it really matter how Jonah was delivered?  I believe exactly what the Bible says – that God created a special kind of fish for Jonah –  but suppose God provided a piece of wood that floated by at the exact moment that Jonah was thrown overboard and that in the dark of the storm and tumultuous sea, Jonah somehow found that chunk of wood and that it kept him alive for three days on the open sea. Is that any less miraculous?  

Chapter two concerns the prayer that Jonah prayed while he was housed in the belly of the special fish.  It’s an amazing prayer, for sure.  At least Jonah had the presence of mind to pray now.  He should have prayed on the ship, but he’s doing it now and that’s good.  And the prayer is a magnificent one.  It’s beautiful – as beautiful as any psalm in the Psalter.  There’s just one problem with it.  It essentially ignores the events of chapter 1 – the whole reason why Jonah found himself in such an unenviable predicament!  Nowhere in this prayer does the prophet repent!

But God, being as gracious as He is, gave Jonah another chance to do the right thing.

So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.  (Jonah 2:10 | NKJV)

Jonah gets the job done, chapter 3

Jonah finally takes steps in the right direction. He heads to Nineveh to preach.  

And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  (Jonah 3:4 | NKJV)

Nineveh, which the Bible calls a “great city,” really wasn’t all that big, in terms of real estate.  But it was a powerful city, full of wealth and people of great influence.  And yet at the same time, while there was great wealth, there was also great poverty.  We can imagine that Jonah wasn’t all that impressed as he walked around the city preaching to people who were well dressed and well fed at one end of a street and people in dire need at the other.  It was also full of sinners in need of saving. That “great city” became the focal point of God’s compassion, and that’s why He sent a prophet there to preach a strong message of repentance.  Remarkably, the people listened and heeded the call, as did the King, who made a proclamation:

And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water.  But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.  Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?  (Jonah 3:7b – 9 | NKJV)

God saw and heard the sincerity of their repentance.  The people of Nineveh earnestly turned from their evil ways.  Even though they may not have been one hundred percent sure of God’s promise, repentance done in hope and faith always gets God’s undivided attention, and God honored them.  He relented and spared the “great city” destruction.  This brings an interesting aspect of God’s character to our attention.  God is absolutely unchanging in His final purpose for mankind, and His nature itself is unchanging.  However, as people change in their response to Him and His Word, He will change the way He deals with them.  

Something else that even the most casual reader can’t help but notice is this: The sailors, their captain, the Ninevites, and their King were all pagans, and yet they all did something God’s prophet did not.  They all humbly repented before God; they all hoped that God would be merciful, which He was.  

A depressed man of God, chapter 4

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.  (Jonah 4:1 | NKJV)

Jonah knew it all along.  He just knew God would keep His word.  For all his shortcomings – and there were plenty of those – this prophet understood God well.  The people repented and God relented.  And that made Jonah one miserable man of God!

In an irony to top all ironies, we discover something unsettling about Jonah:  His idol was himself.  He preferred God to act in accordance to the god he had in his mind.  The problem was, Jonah’s god was too small, yet too big to see around.  He just hated that God wouldn’t do what he, Jonah, thought He should do, and that was destroy the Ninevites.  

As he had when he found himself in the belly of the special fish, Jonah prayed.  

So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”  (Jonah 4:2, 3 | NKJV)

This prayer got a couple of things right even though there is still a glaring omission.  First, we see that as mixed up as Jonah was, he did understand God.  And that’s more than most Christians today have going for them.  He understood God but didn’t like how He conducted business.  Second, Jonah confessed what he had done.  He owned up to his faithless and rebellious actions.  The glaring omission is that he didn’t repent!  He confessed but didn’t ask for forgiveness.  That is, no pun intended, unforgivable.  It’s like winning the lottery but misplacing the ticket!  Here was Jonah’s big chance to have the Lord wipe his slate clean, and again he came up short.

But God is nothing if not gracious.  He was gracious with the Ninevites and He is now very gracious with Jonah.  Of course the Lord wouldn’t take Jonah’s life.  Instead, He attempted to reason with the man.  

Then the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  (Jonah 4:4 | NKJV)

We should be grateful, too, that often the Lord doesn’t answer our prayers the way want Him to!  Untold disasters have probably been avoided because God held His ground when we prayed.  But again, Jonah shows his true colors.  Apparently the reasoning hadn’t helped, and Jonah sat a way from the city to watch what would happen to it.  The Lord tried another tack with this obtuse man; He will now use a living illustration.

And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant.  But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered.  And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”  (Jonah 4:6 – 8 | NKJV)

Naturally, Jonah was glad that his need for shade was met.  But being glad is not the same thing as being grateful.  Jonah’s gladness was all selfish.  He was glad for the gift, but hadn’t given a thought to Giver.  And when the gift was gone, he was angry and complained to God.  In his selfishness, Jonah missed a very profound spiritual lesson God was trying to teach him.  This is what happens when you look at yourself too much instead of looking to God.  The lesson was a simple one. 

But the LORD said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left-and much livestock?”  (Jonah 4:10, 11 | NKJV)

Jonah was concerned about what happened to an insignificant plant, yet he should have been concerned about where 120,000 ignorant sinners would spend eternity.  The prophet’s priorities were completely out of whack.  The lesson for Jonah, and for all of us, was that God is concerned about everybody.  

The book ends with a question.  We don’t know how Jonah answered it, or even if he did.  How would you answer it?  Father Mapple’s sermon contains another interesting point that will bring this study to an end.

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, and it is this disobeying ourselves wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.




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