Jonah was much like the hapless player who ran without being aware of his bearings and scored for his opponent. But Jonah was not only running in the wrong direction, he was running from the wrong Person as well. Jonah's book is unlike any other prophetic book. It focuses on one particular mission that God gave to Jonah. The reference to Jonah in 2 Ki. 14:25 gives us some insight as to the messages he brought to Israel while Jeroboam II was on the throne. But the message God gave Jonah to bring to the great pagan city of Ninevah caused Jonah to do something we have no record of any other prophet doing- disobey! Instead of heading southeast to Ninevah, Jonah boards a ship and heads in the opposite direction to Tarshish (Jon. 1:3). Some have speculated that Jonah had a good reason to fear going to Ninevah. The Assyrians had quite a reputation! They were powerful and aggressive, showing no mercy to their captives or nations who rose up against them. It appears that Jonah had also succumbed to the general mindset that God's only concern was toward Israel. It was hard for him to understand that God's mercy could be extended to anyone outside the Covenant community. But as Jonah learned, you can't run from God, nor can you change the recipients of His message. When He says, "Go to Ninevah!" it's best to go!
Many have portrayed Jonah as a whimpering and distraught man as he spends three (most likely gruesome) days and nights in the stomach of the fish. But a careful reading of chapter 2 shows that Jonah understood exactly why he was there and that it was God's way of saving him. The situation seemed hopeless, but Jonah's prayer is full of hope and he is resolved to follow through with the mission God has set before him (Jon. 2:1-9). God calls Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah and Jonah obeys (Jon. 3:1-3). Jonah is shocked to see the Ninevites respond to his message. Some historical factors may have attributed to this. A series of weak and ineffective kings had removed some of Assyria's glory and might, a serious plague swept through the land in 765 B. C. killing many, and a total eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763 B. C. causing more fear and panic. In ancient times all these components would have been considered to be connected to the spiritual world. Jonah's appearance and message made sense in light of all these factors and the people responded. True to human nature and still clinging to the last of his narrow way of thinking about God's compassion, Jonah is bothered that the Ninevites actually repent (Jon. 3:4-4:1) and God forgives them! Once again, God teaches Jonah about Himself through the natural world (Jon. 4:5-11) and the story of Jonah comes to a quick and unexpected end.
We know that Jonah must have been a gifted speaker to have had such a great impact on the city of Ninevah. But we do not have a record of anything else he said. However, Jesus makes mention of Jonah in reference to Himself (Matt. 12:30-41) and confirms that Jonah's preaching did indeed have a tremendous impact on the people of Ninevah. I think we have a tendency to focus on Jonah's faults and by-pass how greatly God used him in spite of them. I like what Leon Wood wrote in this regard, "God means His call when He gives it; He even provided a special "submarine" ride for Jonah to bring him to respond to the call properly". How well do we listen to God's call? How well do we obey His commandments? Personally, I don't think I fare any better than Jonah! But oh how I would love to be like Paul, who when given a vision by God to go in a direction different than the one he had planned, listened and obeyed (Ac. 16:5-12). Jonah is a great encouragement to me. I know I don't always listen to God. I know I often limit Him in the way He works in people's lives. But Jonah's story demonstrates to me that God loves me enough to get me back on track when I'm not listening to Him. I hope Jonah's story encourages you in that way too! Now, go to Ninevah!
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 6/28/2015