As children growing up in church we are told some amazing stories. And those stories come with powerful overarching themes presented as the lesson we are supposed to learn. For example:
- Noah and the Ark: God’s Promise – Genesis 5:32 – 10:1
- David and Goliath: God’s Strength and Provision – 1 Samuel 17
- Daniel and the LIon’s Den – God’s Protection – Daniel 6
- Peter Walking on the Water – Trusting God – Matthew 14:22-33
These are just examples, many other lessons can be pulled from each of these, and myriad other, stories in Scripture. But how often do we go back and revisit these stories? All too often we rely on our memory of these simplified stories. And we base our theological understanding of God on vague, childhood memories and understandings.
If we would take the time to revisit these stories we often find they are far deeper than we remember. And because of our increased life experience, wisdom and understanding we learn new things about the story, about God and about how it applies to our own life.
I learned this several years ago when listening to a sermon series on the book of Jonah. The series broke the story down examining each bit and there were parts of the story I had no memory of, either because they had been left out or simplified, or I’d simply forgotten.
Most people remember the story of Jonah. God told Jonah to take a warning to the people of Ninevah. God was angry with them for being wicked and was going to destroy them. Jonah took God’s warning, went down to the dock, boarded a ship, and travelled … in the direct opposite direction.
Once the boat got underway a great storm rose up and the sailors grew afraid. Remember these are men who spent their life on the sea, so it was no gentle storm. They cast lots to determine the cause, and discovered it was Jonah. They then threw him overboard, the storm calmed, and a great fish swallowed Jonah. Three days later Jonah was spat out of the fish onto the shore of Ninevah where he, wisely, decided to follow God’s order and gave the warning to the people.
I can remember being taught this in Children’s Church accompanied with the following parable:
“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. ‘Which of the two obeyed his father?’ They replied, ‘The first.’”
Matthew 21:28-31a (NLT)
Here Jesus gives two examples, telling two sons to both go work. The first says he won’t go, but repents and goes. The other says he will, but never does. This, together with the story of Jonah, was presented to show our actions are more important than our words. To show obedience is in what we do, not what we say.
BACK TO JONAH
Jonah is like the second son in this parable. Let’s look at the beginning of his story.
“The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Get up and go to the great city of Ninevah. Announce my judgement against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.’ But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord.”
Jonah 1:1-3a (NLT)
God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and Jonah did begin moving – similar to the second boy in the parable. However, like the boy in the parable, Jonah did not go where God told him, instead he headed in the opposite direction.
WHY DID JONAH RUN?
If we look at what history records, Ninevah was the capitol of the Assyrian empire. These were brutal, violent people and Jonah knew God was merciful. He tells us exactly why in the fourth chapter.
“This change of plans greatly upset Jonah and he became angry. So he complained to the Lord about it. ‘Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tashish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.’”
Jonah 4:1-2 (NLT)
Jonah knew God and knew what would happen if he was obedient. If he delivered the message and they responded properly, repenting of their evil ways, God would have mercy and spare them. And Jonah did not want them spared. He did not believe them worthy of mercy.
And before you get all high and mighty, looking down on Jonah for such a harsh opinion, examine yourself. Have you never looked at someone and considered them unworthy to receive mercy, compassion or grace? Have you ever been commanded by God to give a message or do something, but decide the person wasn’t worthy to receive. Have you never looked at someone begging for food or money and decided they didn’t deserve either? Have you ever refused to forgive someone because you said what they did to you is not worthy of forgiveness?
God is the only who can rightly say a person is not worthy to receive mercy. And yet He gives it freely and without restraint. When we utterly rejected Him He sent the prince of heaven to face utter rejection, humiliation and torment. Even more than the torment man could heap on Him, He bore the sin of the entire world. Under the load of sin even God could no longer look upon Him.
We complain when someone just says something bad about us, Jesus torment was the utter rejection of both God and man. And even still He showed mercy without hesitation, He extends grace without falter, He gave forgiveness without a second thought.
Here’s the beautiful thing about the story of Jonah however. God was not surprised when Jonah ran away. He was not taken by surprise. And even before Jonah left God was already directing the weather and the fish so they would collide with Jonah at the moment he needed them.
One of my favorite moments in the story of Jonah is the prayer he offers while in the belly of the fish. It is a prayer I try to remember when I find myself failing to be obedient to God, when I discover I’m heading in the wrong direction, knowing if I’d been obedient in the beginning I could have avoided the trouble of being consumed by the salvation I would need.
Here is his prayer:
“Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish. He said, ‘I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble, and He answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead, and Lord, you heard me! You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. The mighty waters engulfed me; I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence. Yet I will look once more toward Your Holy Temple.’ I sank beneath the waves, and the waters closed over me. Seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O Lord my God, snatched me from the jaws of death! As my life was slipping away, I remembered the Lord. And my earnest prayer went out to you in Your Holy Temple. Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to You with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.”
Jonah 2 (NLT)
WHAT ABOUT OUR NINEVAH’S?
I was reminded of the story of Jonah recently as I was meditating on the things God has been saying to me. Like the word God sent to Ninevah through Jonah, the thing God is saying to the world I can influence are good things. But like Jonah, saying and doing the things God is asking will cost me something. It will cost me time and effort, yes; but it will also cost me my comfort and control – or at least the illusion of control I think I have over my life.
There may be a financial cost, but even greater will be the social cost. I may lose friends or family who disagree or don’t understand. There may be cost to my reputation and my carefully constructed facade I present to the world around me.
Our Ninevah is whatever God is asking us to do. We may not understand it, we may not like it, but the truth is if God wants it done it will be accomplished. And either we can be obedient and participate in seeing His will accomplished in the world around us. Or we can run and be consumed by the very world we are trying to use to protect us from Him.
Any time God speaks to us and asks us to do something, if we choose to ignore or reject it then the thing God asked becomes a Ninevah to us. And God will send storms and giant fish to bring us back to repentance and obedience.
So we can run and struggle like Jonah did, or we can learn to obey and see the fruit without the threat of shipwreck, drowning or consumption from our disobedience.
WHAT HAPPENED TO NINEVAH?
If Jonah had not repented in the fish he likely would have died there and it would have been the end of his story. Instead he got to see likely the greatest national revival ever:
“When the king of Ninevah heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:
‘No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change His mind and hold back His fierce anger from destroying us.’
When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, He changed His mind and did not carry out the destruction He had threatened.
Jonah 3:6-10 (NLT)
I DON’T KNOW WHAT GOD WANTS
The easiest way to hear God’s voice is to read His word. These are His words given to guide and teach us. One of the most important commands He gives is recorded just before leaving Earth, so in the event you still feel you can’t “hear” God, let me redirect this message from Him direct to you:
“Jesus came and told His disciples, ‘I have been given all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”
Matthew 28:18-20a (NLT)