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Over the past few weeks, we’ve been in a series called Fix Our Eyes. I’ve been encouraging you to put down your sword and allow God to fight your battles. Last week we started looking at the story of Jonah, and as we did with our other stories, we started at the end.
So, let’s review. In Jonah 4:5-11 it says, “Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’ ‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’ But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, 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?’”
Jonah’s last words are sobering: “I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” How could a prophet of God ever get to that place in his life? Let’s recap what we’ve already learned. God had called Jonah to preach to Nineveh: repent or be destroyed in forty days. But Nineveh’s destruction would have been seen as a victory for Israel, and Jonah hated the Ninevites. Since Nineveh was an evil nation, Jonah probably wanted to see Nineveh’s downfall to satisfy his own sense of justice. After all, Nineveh deserved God’s judgment.
I also encouraged you to reflect on your own life and not allow your political ideology to supersede your theology, your Biblical worldview. Jesus said in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” So, share your views, get out there and vote, but don’t get out there and hate. Jonah hated the Ninevites so much he was willing to disobey God and risk his life to see them destroyed.
Jonah knew that if the people of Nineveh were responsive to his message, God would spare them. And Jonah didn’t want that. So, he ran to Joppa where he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish. But, as we know, his plans were thwarted. While on the ship a great storm arose, and the sailors feared for their lives. Jonah confessed to them that he was running from the Lord, and that he was the cause of the calamity. They tried everything to avoid throwing him overboard, but ultimately, they were forced to follow Jonah’s suggestion that he be sacrificed. So, Jonah sank into the depths of the sea (Jonah 2:5). Then he was swallowed by a giant creature of the deep. I use those terms because some critics argue that the book of Jonah says the prophet was swallowed by a “great fish” (Jon. 1:17), while the New Testament suggests that the creature was a “whale” (Mt. 12:40). Their argument is, a whale is a mammal, not a fish. So, the Old and New Testaments contradict each other. In other words, “Those dopes didn’t know the difference.” The problem with this argument is that both the Hebrew word dag and the Greek word ketos are generic terms that can apply to any aquatic creature. So, there’s no contradiction.
Back to our true story. Jonah cries out to God and is spared: “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (Jonah 2:6-10)
The whale, giant fish, or extinct sea creature throws him up on land. He makes his way to Nineveh, a journey that would have taken more than a month. Jonah entered the great city with a message of repentance that consisted of only five words in the Hebrew text. Translated, it says, “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be overturned.” And shock of all shocks, there was mass repentance—from the king all the way to the average person.
Okay, we need to pause and ask the question, why would the Ninevites repent? Some skeptics have challenged the Biblical account, claiming that the Ninevites were enemies of Israel and would never have listened to some prophet. Also, his five-word call to repentance was less than motivating. Let me share a few factors that may have impacted their response. Before I start, first let me say, Jesus clearly states in Matthew 12:41 that “the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah.” So, if that’s not what happened, you have to call Jesus a bald-faced liar. Besides that, historical records show that the city of Nineveh had suffered severe plagues in 765 and 759 B.C. So, people in that culture would have been wondering why the gods were angry with them. What I’m saying is, the conditions were ripe for Jonah’s message.
I made a reference to my next point last week. The Assyrians had a god named Dagon. He was the fish god. So, if the people were all worked up over why they were suffering from plagues, and all of the sudden a man is thrown up by a giant sea creature on their shores, they might be open to listening to this messenger of the gods. I don’t have time to go through all the information about how long it took for all of these events to unfold, but if we reflect on the story, Jonah most likely found himself on the seacoast of Mesopotamia, because he was in Nineveh soon after he got back on dry land. If Jonah was vomited out on the Mesopotamian coast of the Assyrian Empire, there would likely have been witnesses to this event. In fact, God may have made sure that there were plenty of credible witnesses to his arrival. The extremely dramatic reaction of the Ninevites to Jonah’s message argues that this was most likely the case.
After three days in the belly of a sea-creature’s stomach, the stomach acids likely bleached Jonah’s skin white, and digested off all his body hair. Those who saw the event must have followed him wherever he went. We know from Biblical accounts it wasn’t uncommon for events like this to draw great crowds. They could have followed him as he walked to Nineveh. The crowd would have been waiting with bated breath to see what this “messenger of the gods” had to say.
Jonah’s bizarre entry into Mesopotamia would have given him far greater credibility as a divine messenger than if he had simply obeyed God in the first place. If Jonah had simply gone to Nineveh and entered the city as a traveling Israelite, his message would very likely have been mocked and ignored, and Jonah could easily have been executed. Nineveh was encircled by modern-day Iraq. Imagine today if you went into Iraq or Iran and started sharing the gospel. We don’t have to imagine; just read the stories of those who have. They don’t end well. So, if Jonah just walked in, he may have died, but Nineveh would have remained unrepentant, and that vast city would have been destroyed by God like the city of Sodom centuries before Jonah’s time. What we do know is that later, when Assyria fell back into their evil ways, they were destroyed. Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612 B.C.
So, Jonah said as little as possible to cause the Assyrians to change, because he didn’t want them to repent; he wanted them to die. However, the people who heard what Jonah said immediately brought word to the king (Jonah 3:6) who instantly believed Jonah’s message and acted on it. The king was no doubt told the story of Jonah’s delivery onto the shore by credible eyewitnesses. Why else would the king have taken such swift action?
We also know that Jonah was NOT happy after he preached his lame message to the Ninevites. He sat on a hilltop waiting and hoping God would destroy them anyway. While he was there God provided a vine that grew up over his head for shade. While it was alive Jonah was very happy, but when it died, he once again became, in his words, “angry enough to die!” We know how the story ends, with Jonah disobeying God and wanting to die. But it’s the wanting-to-die part that caused me to dig further based upon what we studied last week.
Jonah wasn’t just rebelling against God because his heart was pure evil, or he was backsliding, or he felt God had wronged him personally—so why? I think part of the answer is found in Matthew 12:38-41. Jesus compares himself to Jonah, and I think his reason was more than just Jonah’s three days inside the giant fish or sea creature foreshadowing Christ’s three days in the tomb. Allow me to speculate. Jonah was a Prophet of God, and he knew that his actions would bring death. He knew that a previous prophet who had disobeyed God’s instructions during the reign of Jeroboam I had died. You can read the account in 1 Kings 13:1-32. Long story short: the prophet faced a lion and he wasn’t Sampson or Daniel.
We may not agree with, or find Jonah’s willing sacrifice legitimate, but I’m not sure we can say his motives were completely impure. C.S. Lewis said, “People are neither totally sincere nor totally hypocritical. Their moods change, their motives are mixed, and they are often quite mistaken as to what their motives are.” I think Jonah falls into this category, and it’s Jesus’ comparison that leads to my conclusion. Jesus was willing to sacrifice His life for our lives. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In a reflection of Jesus’ future sacrifice, Jonah was willing to sacrifice his life for the lives of his people. There are many other similarities between the two, but we’ve run out of time so we will pick this up again…next week.