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Jonah has finally done what God asked of him. Jonah preached a message throughout Nineveh and the whole city turned to God. Jonah then sat down and watched what would happen to the city. And, as he said he expected (4:2), the city was not destroyed . . . and Jonah angrily pouts (4:3-5).

God has a way of getting through to his own. He is creative and effective in his communication. When, at first, Jonah was reluctant to give in to God’s call and fled from “before the presence of God,” God got his attention–through a storm and a fish! And Jonah got the message, as we have seen.

Now Jonah seems to be stuck in another rut. His thinking–although somewhat changed from when the story opened–is not fully in line with God’s intentions. So, Jonah is angrily pouting because Nineveh still stands. What is so fascinating–even amusing–is how God decides to speak to Jonah about his attitude. God “appointed” a plant. (It’s the same word that was used to tell of God “appointing” a great fish to swallow Jonah. God is strategically putting things in place to get through to Jonah.)

Here’s how the story closes:

 Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. So the LORD God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.”

Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:5-11)

Obviously, there is a lot in this little section we could discuss, but what is of prime importance is the message God was sending to Jonah. And what was that? Simply put, God wanted Jonah to taste compassion for something that merely “was” and that he wasn’t responsible for. In Jonah’s immediate situation, that was the plant. In Jonah’s bigger situation, that would be the people of the city of Nineveh.

The way God dealt with Nineveh (and, by the way, the way he dealt with Jonah!) was rooted in who God is, anchored in his compassion and his loving-kindness. He treated Nineveh (and Jonah) entirely consistent with his own good and glorious character.

It was just that Jonah didn’t fully grasp the richness and the depth and the expansiveness of God’s great compassionate tender mercies. And missing that, Jonah didn’t understand God rightly, misunderstood what God was doing with him, and couldn’t see the way forward into what God wanted of him with regard to Nineveh.

Huge idea! If we miss what God is like . . . we miss what matters most.

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So, we’ve walked with a Jonah a bit, trying to understand what was going on with him . . . and what that might mean for us and our journey with the living God.

He received a word from the Lord (in chapter one) and did all he could to avoid carrying it out. But we also saw that he was willing to talk about the God of Israel (even to pagan’s who didn’t know God) and to admit that he feared the Lord (even though he didn’t want to do what God wanted) and he was willing to sacrifice his life to save others (even though he didn’t know exactly what would happen if he got thrown overboard).

He ended up getting rescued by God by way of a fish (in chapter two). And we learned something about what Jonah learned while there. He realized that God saved him from drowning (by having him swallowed up by the fish) and he knew that God was preserving his life (although he didn’t know how he would get out of the fish) and he came to recognize in a fresh way that God is the source of all loving kindness (and to turn from that God is to turn from the one who is merciful and gracious and kind and compassionate). And he got spit back up on the shore.

And Jonah ended up going to Nineveh and proclaiming the message that God gave him (in chapter three). He, apparently, only said what God gave him to say (Wouldn’t you after that fishing expedition?!) and he announced that God would “overthrow” the city (which God did, but perhaps not in the way we initially thought when we first heard that announcement) and what God wanted for the city happened (but it might not have been what the good prophet wanted).

And that brings us to chapter four, where we find Nineveh still standing and where we find Jonah a bit distressed:

But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” (4:1-3)

Notice what Jonah admits. He knew the kind of God the Lord was–only he didn’t, apparently, appreciate just what that meant. He anticipated what God might do if the message came to Nineveh–only he didn’t want that to happen, or at least he wanted to forestall it for a while. And even though he was a “successful” prophet (a whole, huge city repented after his short series of “revival meetings!”), Jonah preferred to die.

As we’ve already “discussed” in earlier posts on Jonah, if Jonah was just wicked, hard-hearted and merely intent on the destruction of the pagans in Nineveh, it is altogether surprising that God no where rebukes Jonah for such a God-less and grace-less and wholly unholy attitude. It doesn’t make sense that this man who readily spoke of God to the pagan fishermen, and who offered to have his life forfeit so that they could be saved, was the man who just wanted thousands wiped out because he didn’t like them.

Why was Jonah so upset? He said he knew what God was like and what God would do. So why does that bother him so much? Could it be–as we touched on earlier–that Jonah was hoping not so much for Nineveh’s destruction as he was hoping for an audio-visual display that would awaken Israel, his own people, to their terrible condition?

Part of what nudges me in the direction is that I have come across one other prophet of God who, after marvelously effective ministry, makes the same request of God. Elijah, after confronting the false prophets of the day, asks God to take his life! And why does Elijah do that? Apparently because he didn’t see his own people repenting! He wanted the “object lesson” of the pagans to be the compelling message to his own people . . . and it wasn’t working. So, Elijah throws up his hands and says, “That’s it! I’m done. Take me out of this mess!” And I have a sneaky suspicion that this is the same dynamic playing in the soul of our reluctant prophet here. (You can read Elijah’s tale in 1 Kings 17-19.)

Haven’t you, at times, felt those kinds of feelings? You see someone “getting away with” stuff that you just know is not right. If you love him, you really want him to wake up to what he is doing. And your care for her might keep you from hoping the worst for her, but you would really like to have some example of the potential trouble she is headed for. (Think . . . your friend who has developed an over-the-top smoking habit . . . and he’s not listening to your suggestions . . . so you not-so-subtly forward him emails with reports of the latest–and grossest–reports of what smoking can do.)

What would it be like, instead of hoping that horrible examples would draw someone toward life, that we would adopt the posture that it is the kindness, the grace, the mercy, the compassion, and the goodness of Jesus that truly makes him attractive to those who need him?

 

Have you noticed that when we are committed to a particular way of thinking, that we can easily overlook whatever is in front of us  . . . if it doesn’t line up with what we are already committed to? That tendency is one of the reasons why I think it’s so very important to come to passages of Scripture with a real willingness simply to read any and  all that is there . . . and to hold loosely my pre-conceptions.

I’ve already thought out loud a bit about this problem with regard to Jonah . . . and the tendency to read his story with the idea that he is a bigoted, reluctant prophet who didn’t want the Ninevites to know the true God. As I’ve said, I don’t think that reading of the story does justice to what we find in the book nor what we know to be true about Jonah situation.

In chapter three we come to another one of those places where, if we aren’t careful, we can end up misreading the story . . . and then drawing wrong conclusions about Jonah . . . and about ourselves.

Jonah has been “deposited” on the shore by the great fish. And he is now going to carry out God’s plan for him. We read:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (3:1-4)

Now for those of you who know the story of Nineveh, you will recall that the people of the city turned from their sin and turned to God (3:5-9) and God, ultimately, did not destroy the city (3:10). Given that, what do we do with Jonah’s “proclamation”?

Some people don’t even bother to think about it. They say, “So Jonah preached and the people repented!” But notice what Jonah “proclaimed:” “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Some people suggest that maybe that bigoted and hard-hearted Jonah didn’t actually preach the message God wanted him to; he was supposed to preach a message of “Come and repent,” but he didn’t. But God did the right thing anyway by relenting of the judgment that was to come upon Nineveh. But notice that everything said about Jonah in these opening verses lead us to believe that he is doing exactly what the Lord told him to do. (And that makes sense seeing that the last time he hesitated to do what God said he got swallowed by a big fish!) Some insist that there is a missing component to Jonah’s message. What Jonah proclaimed was intended to be understood “conditionally;” that is, Jonah’s message was “Unless you repent then Nineveh will be overthrown in forty days.” But if that is what Jonah proclaimed why couldn’t the author simply have told us that?

What if Jonah really did proclaim exactly what God intended him to say, and what if what Jonah proclaimed really was the infallible word of the Lord for the people of Nineveh, and what if the text tells us specifically what Jonah announced? Maybe our tension with the situation has to do with how we are reading the text.

Jonah announced that Nineveh was going to be “overthrown.” There are times in the Old Testament when that word does appear to mean overthrown in terms of destroyed or attacked (as in Genesis 19:21, 25, 29). But there are some significant occasions where the word is used to speak of a dramatic change of heart (as in Exodus 14:5 and Judges 20:39, 41 and 1 Samuel 10:6, 9).

Is it possible that what Jonah prophesied actually came to pass? Within forty days the whole city was “overthrown”–all the inhabitants underwent a dramatic change of heart and turned to the Lord.

This may seem to be such a small point in the midst of this rather complex story, but it does appear to me that if I read the text this way a couple of important ideas come into focus.

First, I have to be careful when I hear (or share) what I think the Lord is saying. It is important that we recall that God always says what he means, even if we sometimes misconstrue what he says because of our assumptions or our own interpretation of what he “meant.” Whether this is in the setting of “hearing from the Lord” or in personal study in Scripture, there is a difference between what the Lord actually says and what I sometimes assume it means.

Second, I don’t think I have to rescue God from what he says. Even in a case like this situation with Jonah where some feel that there is a problem, we don’t have to help God with. (We don’t have to rescue God from the dilemma of concluding either his prophet Jonah is a false prophet or what God told Jonah just didn’t come to pass.) I think that God’s word will always come to pass just as he intends it. All that I have to do is make sure that I really pay attention to what he says.

Maybe Jonah was exactly right in what he proclaimed in Nineveh after all. He simply announced what God told him to say. And that was enough.

If we aren’t going to misread (and up misapplying) Scripture, we will have to learn to come to familiar passages with a willingness to hold loosely what we “already know.” It’s not that all the insight we think we already have is wrong, but if we aren’t careful we can end up only seeing in texts what we already think . . . and Bible reading becomes boring and minimally life-changing.

That’s part of the problem that we have in reading something like Jonah. So many who have never read the book have already heard something about Jonah and what the story is all about. So, when they do come to the text, they skim through it, never really paying attention to the details that we are given, and they leave the reading only confirming to themselves what we have always thought.

I want to really pay attention to what is here, in Jonah. And that’s a big part of the reason that I have come to conclude that the common picture of Jonah as a bigoted, somewhat racist, reluctant prophet who simply didn’t want pagan Ninevites to come to know God is an entirely inappropriate picture. It just doesn’t fit with what I see in the text. (As I hope has become clear in the previous posts about Jonah.)

As we’ve seen, one of the critical moments in the book is the prayer Jonah prays in the belly of the great fish (chapter 2, discussed in “Jonah: What He Learned in There). For me, the heart of what Jonah learned is captured in 2:8 (which I paraphrased as): Those who turn from the living God and set their hearts on false gods abandon the very source of the faithful loving kindness they need.

To understand why this is such a critical insight for Jonah (and for us!) we need to keep in mind when and where Jonah lived. He was a prophet in Israel. He was a prophet during a time when the people of Israel were turning from God and were embracing the pagan idolatrous practices of the nations around them. (He’s mentioned in 2 Kings 14; that helps us locate Jonah in the setting of the day.) He feared God (Jonah 1:9), he understood God’s sovereign work in the world.

There is one other thing that becomes clear in reading Jonah carefully. He believes that calamity comes as God’s judgment for wrong doing (as witnessed by what he tells the sailors about the storm they are facing in 1:9-13).

So, given these pieces of the puzzle, why is the insight in 2:8 so critical to Jonah? I would suggest that Jonah is struggling with the sin of the nation Israel. And I would suggest that Jonah’s thought is that the best thing God could do to bring them to an awareness of their sin is to send judgment. (Which according to 2 Kings 14:25 God hasn’t yet done.) And I would suggest that be forestalling Nineveh’s repentance (by refusing to go and preach to them), Jonah was hoping that a display of God’s wrath would bring people to repentance.

This “reading” of Jonah seems to fit the culture setting Jonah lived in, seems to correspond with what I learn about Jonah from the book, seems to resonate with the way so many people think. We, also, believe that for real repentance to come people need to “be taught a lesson.” We think that God’s wrath is what leads people to turn to him, but the apostle Paul (and, I think, Jonah) tells me that it is “the kindness of God that leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

What did Jonah want? He wanted God to show himself . . . in wrath. He thought that would bring the desired result. But what Jonah learned in the belly of the great fish is what everyone who comes into relationship with the living God comes to know: The basis of our life with Him is his amazing and overwhelming faithful loving kindness. What Jonah wanted was for God to show himself. And God wanted to do just that. God was just different from what Jonah thought!

 

Clearly, Jonah learned something significant while in the belly of the great fish. And what he learned was the impetus for his praying. In chapter one he is fleeing from the presence of the Lord, intent on not doing what the Lord was asking of him. In chapter three he is spit up on the shore and in conversation with the Lord, heading to Nineveh to do what the Lord was asking of him. In chapter two we listen as he prays. And what Jonah prays helps us understand what he learned . . . something that resulted in him being spit up and sent on his way.

As you read through the prayer in chapter two, it’s clear that Jonah is looking to and resting in the Lord. He expresses his gratefulness for God’s rescue (by sending a fish to swallow him!). But tucked away in that prayer is a simple admission that seems, to me, to be the heart of what Jonah learns while hanging out in that dark, dank fish holding tank.

Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness. (2:8)

This sentence is just a few words; and most of the words are open to a little nuanced understanding. As I have wrestled with the language that Jonah uses, I’ve come to see a few things.

Jonah is talking about those who turn from the one true and living God and focus on “vain idols.” He doesn’t simply define false gods as false gods; he says that they are vain, futile, worthless. And he says that those who look to those who are not the true God abandon “their faithfulness.” They forsake, abandon, give up on . . . choose your phrase. The idea is being detached from. The most interesting part of the phrase is found in the last two words: “their faithfulness.”

The last word “faithfulness” is the word that the old King James rendered “faithful loving kindness.” That’s a word that describes God’s disposition to extend grace and love to those who are the objects of his mercy and to persevere in caring for them. When Jonah speaks of forsaking “their” faithfulness, some take it to mean that in some sense Jonah is saying that if you turn to false gods you are leaving your own commitment to be faithful. But that doesn’t fit with what seems to be the sense of Jonah’s prayer–where the focus is on God and what he is like and what he does. The other way to understand “their faithfulness” is to see it as referring to “the faithfulness they experience, the faithful loving kindness that comes to them from God.” And that is what I think Jonah is saying . . . and seeing.

In other words, Jonah realizes, in the belly of the great fish that . . .

Those who turn from the living God and set their hearts on false gods abandon the very source of the faithful loving kindness they need.

In the next post (or two) I will try to unpack why I think that insight is so critical to Jonah’s journey. But at this point it is sufficient to recognize that even in his reluctant resistance what Jonah does experience from God is his faithful loving kindness . . . and Jonah sees that. It was God’s gracious and tender care for Jonah that resulted in his not being abandoned to a watery grave. And in the belly of the great fish Jonah sees more clearly than ever before that whatever else is true about this God this is what matters: God is the very source of grace and mercy and kindness and loving care.

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