Minor Prophets IX: Jonah
Jonah is the most famous minor prophet. Jonah ministered during the same era as Hosea and Joel, during the days of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25) – probably early 8th century B.C. 50-70 years before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. In other words, a really important part of the background to this story is the rising power of the Assyrian Empire, centered in the capital city of Nineveh.
The Text: Jonah is commanded to go to Nineveh, the great and evil capital city of the Empire of Assyrian, and cry out against it (1:1-2). But Jonah flees in the opposite direction, to a port city called Joppa and there buys a ticket to Tarshish (1:3) – perhaps an ancient city in Spain. Yahweh sends a great wind and Jonah is eventually identified as the cause (1:4-8). Jonah confesses the God Israel to the pagan sailors, is reluctantly thrown overboard, and the storm ceases and the sailors worship the God of Israel (1:9-16). Jonah is swallowed by a great fish for three days and three nights where he cries to the Lord and insists that God is his salvation (1:17-2:9). At the Lord’s command, the fish vomited Jonah onto dry ground, and the Lord commanded Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh to preach (2:10-3:2). This time Jonah went to Nineveh, and he announced the impending doom of the city (3:3-4). At this announcement, the people of Nineveh believed God and proclaimed a fast, led by the king and his nobles, holding out for the mercy of God (3:5-9). Because the Ninevites turned from their evil way, God relented from the disaster He had promised, and this made Jonah extremely angry (3:10-4:1). Jonah prays to God and explains that this is exactly why he fled to Tarshish in the first place – because he knew that God is gracious and merciful and relents from doing harm (4:2). Jonah asks God to kill him since it would be better to die than to live at this point (4:3), and when the Lord asks if it is right for Jonah to be angry, Jonah apparently insists that it is since he heads out of the city to wait for the city’s destruction (4:4-5). Meanwhile the Lord prepares a plant to grow up to be shade for Jonah (for which he is extremely grateful), followed by a worm the next day that damages the plant so that it withers, followed by a fierce east wind, and Jonah once again wishes he would die (4:6-8). God once again asks if it is right for Jonah to be angry, and Jonah doubles down insisting that it is (4:9). The book closes with God’s question to Jonah: isn’t it right for God to pity the people of Nineveh just as Jonah pitied the plant that gave him shade (4:10-11)?
What Kind of Man is Jonah?
We know that Jonah is a prophet, but at first glance, he seems a very poor prophet. Why is this prophecy included in Scripture for us? Is it merely an anti-example, a cautionary tale? Or is Jonah just stubborn, a fool, cowardly? There are several clues in the story that suggest more is going on than Jonah merely being a stubborn fool or a selfish prig. First, the word of the Lord comes to him (1:1) and keeps coming to him (3:1, 4:4, 4:9-11). God saves Jonah through the great fish and even the plant providing shade for Jonah suggests that God actually thinks rather highly of Jonah (4:6). God is patient with Jonah. God likes Jonah.
Jonah’s problem is not a faith crisis. Jonah is not doubting God’s existence. Nor do I think it’s fair to accuse Jonah of a purely selfish rebellion. He’s not just lazy or cowardly. His problem is clearly a fierce and fundamental disagreement with God (4:2). And it’s rooted in the kind of God Yahweh is. Jonah quotes Exodus 34:6, and this is perhaps on of our greatest clues to what Jonah is up to.
We actually have a somewhat parallel story in Exodus 32-33 where, following the golden calf incident, God announces that He will destroy Israel for their sin (Ex. 32:33-33:3). Here, God actually offers to continue on with Moses and leave Israel behind, but Moses pleads with God not to leave Israel and offers to die instead of Israel (Ex. 32:32). This is one of the places where we see a picture of a prophet as a “friend of God.” It’s during this episode that God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Ex. 33:11). It is precisely as God’s intimate friend, that God announces the judgment to Moses, and on the same basis, Moses pleads with God, argues with God not to destroy Israel (Ex. 33:12-17). Remember Abraham pleading with God for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18).
It seems highly likely that Jonah is engaged in a similar sort of argument with God. And the fact that he quotes from Exodus 34 goes a long way toward proving that (4:2, cf. Ex. 34:6). And when we look a little closer, the parallels are rather striking. Moses’ argument is that Israel is God’s special nation (Ex. 33:13, 16), and God’s special presence with His people is proof that they have this status. Moses pleads with God to meet with him, to show him His glory, as proof that God isn’t going to destroy Israel and leave (33:17-19ff). Thereafter, God would come down and meet with Moses in his tent and talk with him, and the face of Moses would glow brightly (34:29-35). And even though the people couldn’t bare it, they at least saw the glory of God in their midst.
It’s highly likely that Jonah understood his commission to preach to Nineveh as a sign of God’s coming departure from Israel, a sign of His blessing departing from His special people, going to the great rising empire of Assyria instead. Like in Exodus 32, northern Israel had a golden calf problem. This is the specific sin of Jeroboam II. And standing in the grand tradition of Abraham and Moses, Jonah would rather die than see God’s glory depart. Jonah is no fool; he doesn’t actually believe that he can outrun God or hide from God.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in Jonah is his prayer in chapter 2. Jonah seems to start badly, recover slightly, and then end up almost in the same place he started, in a sort of protest against God. From one angle, we might wonder how seriously we should take his prayer. He doesn’t seem to be a very enthusiastic evangelist thereafter. Is this a false repentance, a “foxhole conversion”? Fine, God, I’ll do anything you want, just get me out of this mess! On the other hand, this is high poetry, and his prayer seems so sincere, so personal, and ultimately testifies of resurrection life and salvation belonging to the Lord (2:7-7). But how do we relate this prayer to what follows? How is Jonah’s heart of praise consistent with his anger about the outcome of his preaching? One possible answer is that it simply isn’t consistent, and that Jonah is just really moody. But I don’t think that gives enough credit to Jonah (or God). Another possible answer is that Jonah believes that “God’s salvation” means that He intends to listen to Jonah. It may be that Jonah’s praise is completely sincere and yet Jonah hopes that this means that God intends to save Israel and destroy Nineveh after all. God didn’t have to save Jonah, and when Jonah sucks in that clean air on that Mediterranean beach, perhaps he takes that as a sign that God has heard him and is going to save Israel – and that would seem to mean that Nineveh has got to go. This at least gives a bit more coherence to Jonah’s “mood swing.”
But what Jonah doesn’t understand is that God’s mercy is bigger than he thinks. He thinks that if God saves Nineveh it will mean the destruction of Israel. If God’s blessing goes to Nineveh it will necessarily be taken away from Israel. But the picture that God is trying to communicate to Jonah (and to Israel) is that His mercy is big enough for all of them. His mercy can and will save them all. This is what the converted sailors mean. This is what the great fish represents. You can actually see this pictured in the word “great.” It’s used in Hebrew 14 times, in 1:2 and 4:11, referring to the “great city,” and the center is the “great fish” (1:17) and the “great city” (3:2). In other words, this word “great” is like a number of laces, and when you trace the laces though all the “greats,” a picture starts to emerge. The vocabulary suggests that we should see the great storm and the great fish as related to the great city. The great storm is terrifying and dangerous, but what does God do with the great storm? He turns the “great” and godless fear of the pagan sailors into a “great” and godly fear of Yahweh and they worship Him (1:10, 1:16). We see a parallel to this in Jonah’s own emotional state: he goes from a “great” anger about God’s mercy to Nineveh (4:1) to a great joy over the plant that provides him shade (4:6). Just as God uses the great storm for the salvation the sailors, and a great fish for the salvation of Jonah, God points to the great city of Nineveh and says He can bring His salvation out of that too. If He can use a great storm and great city for good, then He can use the great city of Nineveh too.
At the very end, God points Jonah to his pity of the plant that provided him shade (4:10), and God says that if Jonah can pity the plant, then God should pity the great city of Nineveh. At first glance, this seems a little strange. Did Jonah “pity” the plant? The text actually says that Jonah rejoiced a “great” joy (4:6). In other words, we should understand God’s pity or compassion as something akin to a deep, exceeding, refreshing joy – the kind of joy Jonah enjoyed under the shade of the plant. And the point is that the plant also represents Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire. The text says that God caused the plant to grow in order to deliver Jonah from His evil/displeasure (4:6). Just as God used a “great” storm and a “great” fish to bring salvation, God can turn the “great evil” of the wicked Assyrian Empire, Israel’s enemies into a “great joy,” a refreshing shelter and shade.
Let me give you an example of how we are tempted to think this way sometimes. Imagine two people who are good friends who then have a falling out. And let’s say that one of them really sins against the other rather egregiously. It’s a high handed, scandalous sin, and let’s say that the fallout is pretty messy. There are rumors about what did or did not happen, and even though there’s professed repentance, the sin has left everybody reeling and raw. The temptation we have is to think that God’s grace needs to be parceled out very carefully – maybe 60/40 or 80/20 or 90/10 depending on who we think is hurting more, depending on who we think needs it more. And we have a couple of temptations: one is to think that we should primarily give grace to people who appreciate it. Don’t cast your pearls before swine. Don’t waste God’s grace on somebody who doesn’t seem to be getting it. And so maybe we throw one of the parties a few bones, a few token niceties, so we can’t be accused of bitterness, but we reserve most of our pity, most of our compassion, most of our grace for the one we think will appreciate it more. Jonah thinks God is wasting His grace on the wicked city of Nineveh. And in the end, Nahum is going to tell us that Nineveh reverts to its wicked ways and God judges them. Is that a waste of God’s mercy, God’s grace? On a pagan nation that apparently only converts for a little while? Do you hold back grace from those you think are less deserving? From those you think just don’t get it? From those you think will squander it?
But the other temptation, the one lurking below the first is that we think that extending grace to one party means that the other isn’t getting as much or that showing grace and mercy to one of the parties is in some way a breach of loyalty or justice to the other. That’s what Jonah thought was happening. We are tempted to think the same thing. We are tempted to think that God’s mercy is a zero sum game, that there is only so much to go around, only so many pieces of the pie. Like Jonah, we’re tempted to think that God’s mercy isn’t big enough for Israelites and Assyrians; it isn’t big enough for the kinds of big sins that cause great pain. And we come up with sophisticated theology trying to protect God’s reputation, trying to protect His grace, but this is all an elaborate cover for our pride. And it’s ironic since we’re standing up to our necks in His grace. Did Jonah have a right to be angry? After God’s insane kindness and grace to him? Absolutely not. And neither do you. Are you angry with God that somebody always seems to get away with sin and you always get caught? Are you angry that somebody else seems to have it better than they deserve? Are you angry that God’s hammer hasn’t fallen yet? Stop. Look up. Where are you? God has had mercy on you. Why should He not be patient with others? Why should He not pity the nations, even your enemies?
Jesus & Jonah
I suspect that Jonah is right about what’s going on in at least this: there is a kind of judgment going on when the prophet is sent away to another nation. But the whole point of the story is to provoke Jonah and Israel to jealousy. In some ways, you might think of this as the inverse of Hosea – only God is not actually being unfaithful. But He is trying to get Israel’s attention. Perhaps if God saves a wicked city like Nineveh, perhaps that will awaken Israel to God’s greatness and God’s mercy. Perhaps Israel will wake from her stupor and remember that the gods of the nations are nothing. Even the Assyrians are calling on the name of the Lord!
It’s significant that Jesus points to the “sign of Jonah” as the chief sign offered to Pharisees who doubt who He is. The sign clearly includes the fact that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, but Jesus also notes the repentance of the city of Nineveh (Mt. 12:41). He says that the city of Nineveh will rise up in judgment on that first century generation in Israel. In Luke, Jesus says that Jonah was a “sign” to the men of Nineveh, and Jesus himself is a greater sign to the men of Israel. In other words, Jesus is suggesting that first century Israel is in some ways worse than Nineveh. Their hearts are much harder.
But what does God do with hard hearts? What does He do with disobedient men? He hunts them down, breaks them down, and raises them up to new life to become instruments of His mercy. I suspect that Jonah did in fact learn this lesson eventually. It was slow in coming, and Jonah was really wrong to be angry about God’s mercy. But who told this story? Who wrote this story down? Probably Jonah. The book ends so open-ended, with a question – shouldn’t God have mercy on the great city of Nineveh, even their livestock? I suspect that those words slowly sunk into Jonah, and after some time, he finally realized what it all meant. That if God was this relentless, if God was this stubborn, if God was this merciful – how could He not remember His mercy for His people also?
If God likes something about Jonah, I suspect that it’s his fierce loyalty, his fierce love of his people, his fierce concern for God’s reputation and glory in the world. Won’t this look bad? Won’t this look like you’ve forgotten your promises? That you’ve broken your promises? Won’t it look like your aiding and abetting an evil and wicked empire?
In the last few weeks there has been a great outpouring of concern for Christians in northern Iraq, particularly in the city called Mosul where certain Sunni Muslims, known as Isis, have exerted their influence over the city and marked the homes of Christians giving them an ultimatum to convert to Islam, to pay a heavy tax, to leave or else die. Stories have circulated of murder and rape and theft, some people being stripped of their cars and luggage and belongings even as they attempted to flee the city. You may have noticed the Arabic letter “nun” showing up in images and facebook profiles this week – this has been done to show solidarity with the Christians of Mosul who have been profiled and persecuted. “Nun” is the first letter of the Arabic word Nasara, the word for Nazarene, referring to Jesus of Nazareth. Like Jews in Germany marked with the cross of David, Christians are being targeted and marked with a symbol of condemnation and disdain. The striking thing particularly for us this morning is that Mosul is the modern city of Nineveh. In fact, it is the traditional location of Jonah’s gravesite – which some are reporting was blown up in the last few weeks as a part of the Isis terrorism.
Of course, we too stand with our brothers and sisters who name the name of Jesus, and we lift them up to our God pleading for Him to remember them in His mercy, to spare their lives and protect them from these evil men. But part of the scandalous mercy of God, part of the sign of Jonah displayed in our Jesus – is that God loves these Sunni Muslims carrying out these atrocities too. God pities them in their slavery to sin and death and demons. God’s mission is not only to save those who already know Him, but to save those who do not, to save those who hate him, to forgive those who murder and abuse and rape His own children.
Jonah’s name means “dove,” and it doesn’t seem like an accident given the significant instances of doves around water. A dove brings back the olive branch after the flood indicating that the waters have receded, and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove at His baptism. This is why in Christian symbolism a dove represents both the Holy Spirit and peace. And this is what we hold to one another; this is what we offer the world. Peace. We offer them the sign of Jonah, the Great than Jonah, Jesus of Nazareth who loves more fiercely than Moses, who is more loyal than Jonah, and whose perfect life was offered in place of Israel, in place of clean cut church people, in place of Islamic terrorists, in place of wicked Ninevites. He went down into the grave. He was swallowed up by death for all those who deserve death and on the third day, broke death open from the inside and made a way of escape. And now this message of peace is for all people, for all nations, for all sinners. We speak peace to nations, we speak peace to our enemies, we speak peace because God has had mercy on us. We speak peace because the flood of God’s wrath has already passed over us in the cross, and now God is making a new world where Jesus is our peace and reconciling all things in Himself.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
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