After going through Obadiah, the next book on my list of prophets was Jonah and to be honest, Jonah was a book that I knew very little about. Well, perhaps I should say that Jonah isn’t a book that I haven’t read in many years. Like most people my age, Jonah was one of those books that was read in high school English and it was placed on the same level as the writings of Homer. In high school, we weren’t allowed to think about Jonah’s book in terms of its significance to the New Testament or its place in redemptive history. We were told to look at Jonah as simply another piece of Ancient Near Eastern fictional literature.
There were some in my English class who were rather hostile towards Jonah’s story, whereas most of the students in my class simply interpreted it only as a parable. Those were more or less acceptable views, but it was totally unacceptable (even comical) to believe that Jonah’s story was actually historically true. Looking back at those days, I can see how faulty my naturalistic presuppositions were, but more importantly, I realized that I had allowed my past experiences in a secular English class to affect my view of this book. After reading through it for the first time in many years, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for it.
Fleeing from the Presence of the Lord
In the beginning of the book, Jonah’s call to prophecy is against the city of Nineveh, which was the capital city of the Assyrian kingdom. The Assyrian kingdom was God’s instrument of the judgment for the northern kingdom, but the time comes for Assyria’s judgment due to its wickedness (cf. Jonah 1:2). What is immediately shocking to me is Jonah’s response. I’ve read this book numerous times when I was younger, but it never gripped me of how serious of a sin it is for Jonah to flee from God. As a prophet, Jonah is the mouthpiece of God towards this rebellious people and thus he is the instrument of warning for the Ninevites. Moreover, because of the seriousness of the prophetic call, prophets are bound and obligated to prophecy, whether for condemnation or for hope. As Amos states:
For the Lord God does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy? Amos 3:7-8
Instead of fulfilling his obligation, Jonah actually flees from the presence of the Lord and goes down to Joppa. In reality, Jonah is fleeing towards his own destruction. For the Jews, the nearness of God is considered the “blessing of the Lord”. It is God’s nearness to His covenant people that protects them from their enemies and secures their future. Conversely, it is God’s remoteness that is considered the curse. It is God’s remoteness that indicates that one has been cut off from God and His people. It is God’s curse that is described as outer darkness. Thus, for Jonah, fleeing from the presence of the Lord is to place oneself under God’s condemnation, which manifests itself in the sea storm (cf. Jonah 1:3-4).
As all prophets, Jonah instinctively knows that he cannot flee from God’s presence and the appearance of the sea storm verifies this. Just as Adam is “found” by God when he attempts to hide himself, Jonah is “found” by God in the midst of the sea storm. Another shocking point is that it appears that the pagan sailors are more terrified by Jonah’s actions than Jonah. The sailors are brought to terror when they realize that a prophet is fleeing from God.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them. Jonah 1:7-10
What would cause a prophet to act so recklessly and flippantly towards God? What would cause a prophet to be so unconcerned about the plight of these sailors who are in grave danger because of him? In asking those questions of the text, I’m left to ask myself those same questions of myself. What would cause me to treat God so irreverently and to be so self-centered? What would cause me to attempt to flee from the presence of God? There’s only one answer: sin and our condition in sin. It’s the same virus that infected Adam, which caused him to hide from God, and it is the same sin that affects me. Sin is what causes such irrationality in us. Instead of running to the only one who can cleanse me from my sin, sin causes us to distance ourselves from him. Sin causes us to live in misery under God’s curse rather than running to Him.
In this passage, Jonah claims that he fears God, but his actions contradict his statement. In essence, the curse that Jonah has brought on himself is now affecting these sailors. When Jonah was thrown overboard, he knew that he deserved death because of his disobedience. However, in spite of his disobedience, he remains an object of God’s mercy and steadfast love. Instead of perishing in the tempestuous sea storm, he is swallowed up miraculously by a fish. As the storm subsided, the sailors went from pagan idolatry to true worship. What started out as intense fear for their lives matured into reverent worship to God, demonstrated through the sacrifice and vows (cf. Jonah 1:14-17).
Forsaking our Only Hope
Meanwhile, Jonah rejoices in God’s miraculous salvation in his prayer. Because of his disobedience, he incurred God’s curse on himself, but now he is under God’s protection. In attempting to flee from the presence of God, He is brought near to the immediate presence of God. Jonah prays
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight;
yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
In his prayer, Jonah realizes that he is brought to the very brinks of death. He had done nothing (nor could he do anything) to deserve being rescued. He was helpless in his state and thus, his salvation was by grace alone. Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish and his entire ordeal has brought him to a very important conclusion: those who regard vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love (cf. Jonah 2:8). Jonah’s ordeal proved to the sailors and to his fellow idolatrous Israelites that the gods of the nations are nothing and that the true God is the only true hope of faithfulness and steadfast love.
As God’s covenant people, Jonah’s experience directly applies to us as well. There is no other hope outside of God. There is no other source of steadfast love and salvation. As Jonah indicates, idols are nothing, but mere vanity and lies, and those who serve them (and are deceived by them) forsake the God of mercy and comfort. All who pursue the vanities of this life and follow the dictates of our indwelling sin and carnality to the neglect of the will of God and His commands are in the same position as the sailors who called on their god in the midst of a storm that the true God created. Their pursuit is futile and they have no hope besides Christ. Consider the words of the Psalmist concerning the gods of the nations:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
In this account, Jonah attempts to flee from the Lord and the Lord finds him. He then is placed in a helpless position, but God protects Him miraculously. Then Jonah is vomited out on dry land. Needless to say, Jonah is correct when he declares salvation is of the Lord. (cf. Jonah 2:9)
The Gift of Repentance
After being vomited out on dry land, Jonah heeds the Word of the Lord and goes to Nineveh to preach a word of judgment. First off, it’s an act of mercy that God would send a prophet to city as wicked as Nineveh. Many other nations, such as Sodom, Tyre, and Sodom, perished without hearing a prophet (cf. Matthew 11:21-24). This indicates that God had a distinct purpose in sending His prophet to Nineveh. More incredibly, Ninevites wholeheartedly repented after hearing Jonah’s message of repentence (cf. Jonah 3:6-9) . To symbolize the true nature of their repentence, every man from Nineveh wore sackcloth, which was composed of a very coarse cloth of goats’ hair that caused them to feel some pain. This served as a constant reminder of their sins and wickedness and what they have renounced.
I believe that Nineveh’s example of repentance serves as a example of the true gift of repentance. First, true repentance requires a sobering look at oneself and one’s sins. When the king of Ninevah heard Jonah’s message, He did not ignore what was said, but rather He arose from his throne and removed his robe. This mighty king of the Assyrian empire humbled himself because he saw his true state. Second, true repentance is built on the memory of past sins, in a sense. True repentance requires a clear memory of how truly wicked we are. It should cause a distinct pain within us so that we know why we renounced our sin. When we remember that we have been purified from our past sins, then we will produce good works in keeping with repentance (cf. Matthew 3:8). We are reminded here that God is truly compassionate towards all who truly repent and come to Him.
At first glance, it’s shocking to see Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s wholesale repentance, but Jonah’s attitude is similar to the rest of the Jews in the New Testament. Like many of the Jews in the New Testament age, Jonah believes that God is free to save any, as long as they are not Gentiles. Jonah forgets that the LORD is God of all nations, not just Israel, and He has compassion on all mankind. Jonah forgets that the purpose for calling Israel to Himself was so that the nations would be blessed through them. This is a theme that is repeated often in the gospels, the prophets, and throughout the New Testament. This is the “mystery of Christ” revealed to Paul, namely that the Gentiles who repent and trust in Christ are fellow heirs with the Jews (cf. Ephesians 3:1-6).
Going through this book, I’m reminded of the great themes that we see throughout the book: the effects of sin on our nature, our helplessness before God, and God’s compassion towards us as sinners. Jonah’s story serves as a warning to those who hide and flee from God, namely that their sin will find them and they will not go unpunished. However, it serves as a great encouragement towards the most wicked of sinners. If God can have compassion on a people as wicked as the Ninevites, then how much more compassion will He have for needy sinners? If God will accept the repentance of those who have committed such atrocities as the Ninevites, then is there any sin that separates us from Him if we come to Him? In this story, we see the exactness of God’s judgment and the generosity of God’s grace towards undeserving, needy sinners.