The Gospel According to Jonah. Part One
The book of Jonah is the fifth in the collection called the Minor Prophets; it records the Prophet's interaction with God after the instruction to go to Nineveh, the repentance of the Ninevites and the Prophet's displeasure at God's forgiveness. Rather than a fully developed prophecy, it is an account of the experience of a prophet— more events than sermon.
It is a message different from other books of the Old Testament in its portrayal of God as interested in other nations apart from Israel; it also discusses the themes of God's purpose and human will; judgement and forgiveness all in the context of the super abounding grace of God.
With only four chapters, the book divides into four major parts: first, God's Commission and the Prophet's Disobedience (Jon1:1-17); second, the Prophet's Repentance and God's Deliverance (Jon2:1-10); third, God's Commission and the Prophet's Obedience (Jn3:1-10) and the fourth part is the Prophet's Annoyance and God's Correction (Jon4:1-11).
The Prophet Jonah the Son of Amittai was one of the few Prophets from the Northern kingdom of Israel where he had a fruitful ministry to his people the Israelites (see 2Kings14:25-27) thus it must have been quite a surprise to him when the Lord commissioned him with a message to the Assyrians in Nineveh. His was the first case of an Isrealite prophet sent to proclaim God's message to the Heathen.
It is very important to consider the content of the message God intended the Ninevites to hear; the message was prompted by the overt wickedness of that people. The figure of speech used here is an hyperbole— the wickedness of the inhabitants of Nineveh is described as terrible enough for it to have filled the city, risen up as a fume and ascended to God's throne. They are an especially wicked and degenerate people.
It was to these people that God sent his prophet to go proclaim a message of judgement against; warn them of impending destruction and stimulate their consciences, perhaps they will repent of their evil ways and turn to God.
But the Prophet would have none of that; rather than packing his bags and heading towards Nineveh situated five hundred miles east of Israel, he went in the opposite direction! Jonah joined a ship bound for Tarshish in the farthest west from Nineveh located more than two thousand five hundred miles from Israel!
This cannot be an issue of mistaking God's intended audience or using the wrong transport while hurrying to get to Nineveh as fast as possible. In the words of scripture, "Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord...". Jonah was trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and Nineveh and he knew what he was doing.
For anyone not familiar with the social and political context of Israel and her neighboring communities especially when this happened, such a one may find it difficult to understand Jonah's motive for disobedience; Assyria (of which Nineveh is the capital city) was a wicked, proud and idolatrous nation which for a long time had threatened Israel's existence, thus in Jonah's patriotic mind, they were deserving of judgement and destruction, hence he was not going to be the Prophet that offers them the opportunity to repent and be saved.
Jonah knew his God— the One who revealed Himself to Moses as merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth (Exod34:5-7, Joel2:13, Jon4:2). The prophet recognized that in the proclamation of judgement to Nineveh is also a proclamation of salvation from God who is quick to forgive.
Not only was Jonah trying to be as distant from Nineveh as much as he could, he was also trying to run away from God's presence! Coming from a prophet, nothing could be more ludicrous; perhaps Jonah thought if he left Israel (where God's presence was peculiarly manifest) running to Tarshish in the South of Spain will keep him away from the prophetic voice of the Almighty.
As Jonah was soon to learn, there is no escaping God's presence for no sooner had the vessel left for Tarshish than a mighty storm arose. By stating that God sent the storm, the writer is very much aware of the sovereignty of God over nature and how God divinely orchestrates situations and circumstances where the disobedient encounters God's grace and mercy.
It is to be noted that this was no ordinary storm as the sailors who must have been used to storms at sea were terrified and had to seek help outside of themselves. According to their customs, they prayed to their gods to no avail and had to lose their cargoes in a bid to lighten the ship.
In the midst of the storm, Jonah was however sleeping! Oblivious of the danger he is causing, he was in the inner recesses of the ship having a good nap perhaps dreaming of the good time he was going to have in Tarshish away from the insistent voice of God and free from the prophetic responsibility he had towards the Ninevites (see Ezek3:17-19).
When they noticed that in spite of all their efforts, the storm was not abating and their lives were still in danger, they cast lots to know who exactly was responsible for the storm; interestingly, God used this primitive method to reveal the culprit as Jonah, run-away prophet of the Most High God. (See Prov16:33)
To Jonah's credit, he revealed to the people his identity and the reason for the storm; by stating his faith in Jehovah who is the sovereign Creator of the heavens, the earth and the sea he distinguishes between the one true God (of Israel) and the false gods of the heathen. Since the port where they all boarded the ship was in Israel, Jonah's friends must have heard about the God of Israel particularly how he delivered Israel from Egypt with an outstretched arm and here they are, with a front seat view of his power over nature!
Scared out of their wits, fearing perhaps the destruction of their lives as a result of boarding the same ship with a run away prophet thus having to partake in his judgement they listened to Jonah who told them to throw him into the sea so they can be saved (and so God can find another prophet to send to Nineveh) and they after trying so hard to return to land so no one will perish and finding no headway, they threw him overboard and immediately, the storm was calmed.
Surprised at the immediate change in the situation, they recognized God's power over the raging sea and worshiped God. Meanwhile, God had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah thus saving him from sure death and preserving him for a continued prophetic ministry. This concludes the first episode in the ministry of Jonah to Nineveh.
1. The book of Jonah teaches us that Jehovah God is not a territorial deity but a God who is concerned about everyone everywhere — Jew as well as Gentile, religious as well as wicked. The picture of God seen in the book of Jonah is of an Almighty Creator (Jon1:9), the Universal Lord (Jon1:2) and Gracious Redeemer (Jon1:17).
2. It shows practically the truths of Jeremiah23:24 and Psalm139:7-10; no one can escape from God's presence and sooner or later, everyone will have to respond to the reality of that presence. Since God is concerned about everyone everywhere and all of us are responsible to God, then the righteous God can be trusted always to judge sin, wickedness and unrighteousness.
However Jonah shows us that in the message of judgement is hid the kernel of God's grace; it means that if God informs us of impending destruction, it is to the end that we may escape it! So repentance is not the prerequisite or the condition for receiving God's mercy and grace, repentance is receiving God's mercy and grace! Said another way, repentance is not what makes grace available and salvation possible, it is grace that makes repentance possible and salvation a reality!
Jonah knew this and in his nationalistic narrow-mindedness, he does not want Nineveh to as much as catch a whiff of the Grace of God; he would rather die than give them an opportunity to be saved.
Prophet of God though he was, Jonah was a "grace-hoarder" who believes that people ought to do something or be good enough to deserve Grace— he was the Old Testament, self righteous 'Older-brother' type who cannot wrap his mind around grace offered to the unworthy. The Scandal of God's grace offering to the Ninevites a way of salvation.
The question we must answer then is are we Jonah-types? Do we rejoice that the Love of God extends to the whole lot of humanity — sinful, wicked, violent and wrong and that includes us? Do we recognize that we are as undeserving of God's grace as the next fellow and it is in the fact that none of us is worthy of God's grace that God has made it available to all of us free of charge? Then finally, do we realise that we who have received Grace ought also to live it, proclaim it, minister it and extend it?
My prayer is that we will be able to answer and say a confident,'absolutely!'.