I’ve always loved the story of Jonah — not just the part about the great fish swallowing him whole, but the entire story of how God worked in and through his life. It’s a great picture of redemption and of the heart of God.
God called Jonah, who was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about the job he was given. Jonah had the perfect solution; he decided to run away. I wonder sometimes exactly how Jonah thought he could get away from God’s will. Had he read, I’ve asked, the words of Psalm 139 where David wrote about this very problem? Remember those words?
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
I wonder if those words swirled around Jonah with the seaweed and food and muck that I imagine was in the belly of that fish. Jonah was so committed to his flight plan that he chose being hurled into the sea rather than submitting to God’s call on his life.
And there, in the depths of the ocean, he found out David was right. God’s presence was there. So, after having a whale of a few days, Jonah finds himself spit up on dry land. And he goes to obey. But he’s still not happy about it.
He’s not happy because he thinks the judgment God wants him to preach about is exactly what the people of Ninevah deserve. By the way, the city, I learned from Google, was in modern-day Iraq near the city of Mosul. Jonah preached to those people, who were part of the Assyrian Empire, but he wasn’t happy about it. He wasn’t happy with them and he wasn’t happy with God.
Because he knew God wanted them to repent, wanted to forgive them, was waiting on the Ninevites to repent. And they did repent, and God relented.
So, Jonah finds himself in chapter 4, madder than a wet hen. He is angry and, well, pouty. Jonah tells the Lord something like, “See, I told you so. I knew you’d do this.” And then Jonah spouts out an argument that would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. He says, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” That’s in verses 2 and 3 of chapter 4.
Jonah’s words seem ironic for a guy who’d just been given a second chance, who’d been rescued from death after his own disobedience. I, for one, am thrilled that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. I need the grace He offers on a daily or even a moment-to-moment basis.
Jonah’s anger was rooted in his own feelings about these people, his own sense of “justice.” But God gives him a lesson using a plant. Jonah takes shelter under that plant to escape the blistering desert sun and then gets upset again when the plant withers.
God uses that plant to show Jonah His heart. “You’re worried about that plant? You didn’t even make it grow.” (That’s my paraphrase.) Then God gets to the point of the lesson, in verse 11. “And should I not have concern for the great city of Ninevah, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?”
God reminds Jonah that “the city of Ninevah” is made up of people, individuals who are greatly loved by God. He cares for them. He created them in His own image and wants to draw them to Him. God was willing to relent on His punishment of them and is willing to relent on His punishment of us if they (we) repent.
God is telling Jonah — and us through this story — that there’s a wide world out there full of people He cares about. We’re so often focused on the wrong things — on our displeasure or even outright hatred of them or on something like a plant that has sprung up out of nowhere.
We are so easily distracted.
But God wants us to see that the world is filled with people He loves, and He wants to use us to reach them.
At this point in Jonah, I always find myself flipping to the next page to find out, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.” But the Book of Jonah ends there with God’s question to Jonah. I imagine it’s up to us to write our own ending, to decide for ourselves if we’re going to be part of reaching the “Ninevites” of our world or if we’re just going to sit by the remains of a wilted plant with our arms crossed, mad at the world and mad at God, wishing we could just die.
Lord, help me to see the world through Your eyes, to love others enough to help lead them to You.