So we left yesterday morning with a few questions to consider…
How does a servant of God start running in rebellion? How can you be so wrong and still be at peace? How can you have the right words and pray so passionately and have the heart to flee from God? How can you be a prophet, seeking to hide from the Presence of God?
Essentially, we want to find out how Jonah, a prophet of God, developed a heart to run from the God who had called him. And we need to know! Understanding how the slope got so dang slippery will remind us to avoid it altogether- even when it looks temptingly manageable.
We ended the conversation yesterday with Jonah freshly spit up on land. He prayed some impressive prayers for a man who had very recently been in deep rebellion.. not to mention he did it from the belly of a large fish. The Lord heard his prayer and commanded the fish to vomit him up.
Chapter 3 begins by stating that the Word of the Lord came again to Jonah… and guess what? No great surprise… its the exact same Word the Lord spoke to him that sent him packing the first time. Just like we cannot hide from God, neither can we run from obedience. I mean, technically, you can run. The problem is, you’ll keep rounding the bend and finding yourself in the same dilemma. Just like you cannot do algebra before understanding basic math, there’s no way to circumvent the maturation of faith.
So the Lord tells Jonah again to go to the great city of Ninevah and to proclaim to the people there that because of their wickedness God planned to overthrow them in 40 days.
Now, way back in the first chapter when God tells Jonah to do this and he runs, my first inclination was to assume that Jonah was scared of the people. And that’s probably my inclination because I would be scared to go to a “great city” (big, important, lots of people, and by the way, wicked!) and to proclaim that Word. But is that the reason Jonah took off? Hmm.. let’s see…
Well this time Jonah goes to the city and says what God has told him to say. And what is the result? Is he run out of town, tarred and feathered? Laughed at? Mocked? Beaten nearly to death?
“So the people of Ninevah believed in God and proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth [in penitent mourning] from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came to the king of Ninevah [of all that had happened to Jonah, and his terrifying message from God], and he arose from his throne and he laid his robe aside, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published throughout Ninevah, by the decree of he king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed nor drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and let them cry mightily to God. Yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence in his hands. Who can tell, God may turn and revoke His sentence against us [when we have met His terms], and turn away His fierce anger so that we perish not.” (Jonah 3:5-9)
Yeah… can you imagine that? It would be like you going to a large city in your own state (for me, thinking about Cleveland or Cincinnati or Columbus) and walking around proclaiming the wrath of God and then the mayor hearing about it and proclaiming a city wide fast. I mean, I could be wrong, but I cannot think of another time in the Old Testament when even the animals were subject to mourning and fasting. This king and these people are serious about repenting and they want God to know it. They throw themselves on the mercy of God and find Him to just that- merciful and willing to relent.
Can you imagine a day of ministry like that?!?!? Wouldn’t you just be skipping around in Ninevah, hugging people and weeping at the sheer beauty of God’s heart? Wouldn’t you be reflecting on all that God has saved you out of and forgiven you from? I mean, you did just run from God and get swallowed by a massive fish and not only live to tell about it, but get to keep your position as mouthpiece of God!
Well I guess that depends on where your heart is…or rather what’s really in your heart. The same sun that melts butter will harden clay, right? The sun reveals the properties in a substance. And in a similar way, the Presence of God is a like a mirror, demonstrating to us what we’re really made of.
Jonah leaves the city not rejoicing and thanking God, He leaves angry. In fact as its recorded he was “exceedingly displeased and very angry”.
Remember those flowery prayers from chapter 2? Well the words sounded like God, but Jonah’s heart was far from Him. When he was desperate, Jonah came across humble and sorry. But when push comes to shove and God is God and Jonah is a servant not the judge with the gavel, Jonah’s prayers get a lot more honest…. and prideful.
“I pray you, O Lord, is this not just what I said when I was still in my country? That is why I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness and [when sinners turn to You and met Your conditions] You revoke the [sentence of] calamity against them.”
This is one of those times I am glad the writer plainly told us “But this displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was very angry” because if I just had read the accusations he was making of God in that prayers, I might have made the mistake of thinking he was praising God. Know what I mean? Wouldn’t you think that God’s merciful nature would bring about praise instead of offense?
But Jonah had offense in him and the Presence of God revealed it. Jonah didn’t even try to hide it. He was mad that God relented. He was mad that those people in Ninevah were not getting the sentence he apparently thought they deserved. He wasn’t moved by their brokenness toward the Living God. He didn’t weep for joy at their repentance. He was so focused on their former wickedness he couldn’t see straight.
Remember how I told you to consider if Jonah ran from Ninevah out of fear..? Well he didn’t. He ran from it out of puffed up self-righteousness. He was willing to fling himself overboard a ship into a raging sea and lose his life instead of taking part in the salvation of that particular city. Now, that’s a heavy offense. And he felt okay about it too, didn’t he? I believe the word ‘justified’ applies here. He got on that ship and went to sleep soundly and ignored everything going on around him, knowing full well God was after him, because he really thought he was that right about Ninevah. He was so offended at the lovingkindness of God toward a people he hated, that he was fully willing to lose his life and take others with him rather than to bend his will under the mighty hand of God.
And he was so absorbed in pointing the finger and being angry on his own behalf, that he forgot it was that same long suffering of God that had saved his own stubborn life. It hadn’t yet be penned, but someone ought to have left Jonah in on that speck/plank analogy.
Jonah goes on to say he wants to die (drama king). The Lord asks him plainly, do you really have the right to be angry? And the indignant Jonah, who sounds a lot like a spoiled teenager at this point, grabs his stuff and sets up camp a little bit further down the road. Can’t you just imagine him? Arms crossed, brows furrowed, staring off in the distance at the city, hoping to see something horrible befall it… and just as mad as a hornet?
The Lord is mindful of him and is still trying to work an understanding into his stiff-necked servant…
– Side note: this is the point when I start wondering if God saved Jonah from the large fish not to preach to the people of Ninevah (he could’ve raised someone else up), but because the Lord was unwilling to let him go to a watery grave in outright rebellion? what do you think?-
… so the Lord causes a plant to grow up quickly and give shade to the brooding Jonah. And Jonah is thankful for some relief from the heat. And then the next day the Lord causes the plant to die. And then just to make sure Jonah was again provoked into revealing his true self and getting a chance to repent, the Lord made the day especially hot and miserable.
Jonah proves that the offense is really in him and not just due to one isolated set of circumstances by reacting in just the same way to the dead plant as he had the people God forgave: He told God he just wanted to die. And God asked him the same question again: Jonah, do you really have the right to be angry? Jonah retorts back to God… yes I do have the right to be angry! in fact, I have the right to be angry enough to want to die! (if there had been a door nearby, Jonah would’ve been slamming it, guaranteed)
The end of the book doesn’t record what Jonah said to God’s final response and I’d like to think its because he finally realized he had nothing to say. God points out to his whiny, sniveling servant that he cared more about a dead plant than 120,000 people. And you know what else? Jonah didn’t make the plant grow and he couldn’t keep it alive- it wasn’t his. And neither were the people in Ninevah. He didn’t put breath in their lungs- they weren’t His either. If he couldn’t have compassion on them, at very least he should’ve bent his will under God’s knowing that each one of those souls were the creation and possession of God.
Offense isn’t something that comes from circumstances as much as its something that is in us. Offense is stirred up when someone violates what we perceive to be “our rights”. Circumstances just reveal to us that we’ve got the potential to elevate our needs and wants and conveniences over others….
…and we can be so justified in holding on to those offenses and building a case to support them…can’t we?
Okay, I will just speak for myself: yep.
When I was growing up my parents knew this couple in our community. They had all worked together and then for awhile it seemed like they were following us from church to church, causing problems and splits in communities of believers we had joined first. They said rude and unkind and untrue things about my parents. They created competition at work. They found every possible way to get under my parents’ skin to oppose and irritate them.
And it worked. We would drive by their house and observe whether things looked like they were going well or not. We’d hold in our hearts the idea of toilet papering them or some other nonsense. When I went to buy a house, I learned one of their sons had just lost a house in a foreclosure. I wasn’t happy about it, but I thought “that figures” with not a hint of compassion or concern. I would drive by their house as an adult and still get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes I would fantasize about telling them off for all they put my parents through, you know, ten years ago.
Can anyone say offense?
You know what, before I throw Jonah under the bus, maybe I should admit I see myself in some of that door slamming, arm crossing, spouting off without thinking.
Who knows? Maybe someone in Ninevah lied on Jonah’s parents.
A month ago my mom came home and told me she’d seen that woman in the grocery store. She and her husband had gone through a painful divorce after he was uncovered in an extramarital affair. Her children were doing okay, though the oldest one had already been married and divorce and lost a house. She cried when my mom reached out to hug her. And as my mom told me this, I heard a change in my mom’s voice. I heard Jesus in her words, “you know, I really should drop some food by at her house and ask her if she wants to get some coffee sometime.”
My mom was on to something in that moment…and by something, I mean the heart of God. It is one thing to have all of the right words, the “Christianese” if you will, but its a whole other thing to have a humble heart. We can see why Isaiah would say of God’s people “…These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…”.. because it is so much easier to give God lip service than it is to actually follow Him!
We may not all be able to relate to the cute storybook retelling of Jonah and the big fish, but I am betting that darn near all of us can relate to his nursing of that personal offense.
In the New Testament Jesus wasn’t bashful about saying that following Him has a lot do with dying… our own dying. He said that true believers pick up their own cross, die to their own will/desires/plans/thoughts/judgments/opinions/perceptions/etc/etc and follow Him. Period. And following Him is no cake walk. And the dying? It doesn’t feel good.
But we can either sit outside the city, wishing God would judge like we think He ought to, and hold on to the offense hardening inside us or we can rejoice in the long suffering of God, being mindful of what we were and what He delivered us from, and feel joy loosing within us.
I think I’ll take my lumps, swallow that suffocating pride, and go with the latter. You?