There aren’t many people that like to be on the receiving end of a lecture. I know my students at school don’t; and Daniel definitely doesn’t like when his mother or myself have to lecture him about one thing or another. There are times that I don’t mind lecturing and other times the blank eyes staring back at me, is quite off-putting. After being asked to speak at my old church one night, I remembered a powerful image that I couldn’t help but see while reading Bible stories with Daniel one night. I knew something that I wouldn’t mind lecturing someone about. Daniel and myself had came across the story of the Jonah and the Whale. The story of Jonah, which is usually cartoonized as a quick Sunday School lesson, is far too deep to be left as just a children’s story. I didn’t realize that the Lord would allow me the opportunity to tell anyone about the thoughts that I had during that nightly reading, but I knew that I should talk about it then and I feel that I should share my thoughts now. With that being said, there are lots of life lessons in the Book of Jonah for children; but the theme is applicable to adults as well. Jonah’s story teaches us about obedience, willingness of spirit, gratitude, compassion and God’s patience and mercy. Some of those attributes go beyond the Christian relationship and should be applied to all walks of life.
1Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
2Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
The now infamous Jonah was a prophet from Galilee and his story takes place somewhere between 780 B.C and 760 B.C. During this period of history, Assyria was a powerful, evil nation and Israel’s most dreaded enemy. The Lord spoke to Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and preach to the Ninevites. (Jonah 1:2) Jonah was supposed to warn the Ninevites to repent or suffer the consequences of their wickedness.
3But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
As you can see, Jonah had other ideas. Instead of heading for Nineveh, he took off for Tarshish, which is in modern day Spain. His motives could have been fear or revenge or quite possibly both. The Assyrians had committed terrible atrocities against the people of Israel: traveling into their midst would have been truly frightening. Jonah also despised the Assyrians and probably would have liked to see God punish them. Yet, Jonah knew God’s nature. He knew that if he preached repentance to the Ninevites, they would repent and God would spare them.
4But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.
5Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
6So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, what meanest thou, O sleeper? Arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
7And they said everyone to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
What is casting lots? The practice of casting lots is mentioned 70 times in the Old Testament and seven times in the New Testament. In spite of the many references to casting lots in the Old Testament, nothing is known about the actual lots themselves. Archeologists have uncovered evidence which could unravel the secret of what they could have been. Archeologists say that they could have been sticks of various lengths, flat stones (or coins), or some kind of dice; but their exact nature is just meant to be a selection method similar to our modern practice of flipping a coin or rock-paper-scissors.
In verses 8-15 Jonah explains to them that he is the one that is causing all of this because he is running from the will of God. He tells them to throw him overboard if they want to be saved. The crew just isn’t willing to just chunk him overboard so they continue to row towards land. BUT nothing that they can do is getting them closer to the land. They finally decide that they have to do the inevitable and throw him in the water, and as soon as they do the water ceases its thrashing. When the water ceased, verses 16 and 17 say that the men on the boat all prayed to the God of Jonah. They made vows while they prayed and made an offering to the Lord. So God used Jonah’s stubbornness to save the men: both their souls and their lives.
Now comes the part that we all remember: the big fish. The original Hebrew words describing the creature are dag gadol which translates into modern English as ‘Great Fish’. Now we can argue all day what swallowed Jonah after he was thrown into the ocean. Did God create a giant fish for this exact moment? Was he was swallowed by the Balaenoptera musculus (aka the blue whale) which is the largest animal known to have ever existed and whose weight has been recorded at an excess of 173 tonnes (190 short tons) and was a lengthy 98 feet long? Was it all a lucid dream that took place as he almost died from drowning? What is important is that Jonah has a revelation while in the literal belly of the beast. The literal ‘low part’ of his life.
Here we see God’s great mercy. He could have let Jonah suffer the consequences of his actions and drown. Yet, God intervenes and spares Jonah’s life. Just like us, we live and we sin. Romans 3:23 says: ‘For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God’. Every single day we sin and God chooses to spare us. God spares us but we complain to God about the consequences of our sins but do we ever wonder how often He has spared us from consequences?
Jonah sat in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. But during that time Jonah prays a beautiful prayer and offers Thanksgiving and realizes that truly being saved means to be in the will of the Lord. When Jonah gets to that point, the great fish swims towards the land and spits up on the land. In Jonah chapter 3, he gets a second chance. God again gives him the word to go to the city of Ninevah and preach. I can only imagine what he looked like. What he smelled like. His skin bleached from being inside the fish, his clothes stunk from being in the belly of the fish, but he traveled on to preach repentance to the evil city. But you can imagine that Jonah was scared. He was walking into a city of his enemies and was preaching a message that is going to be really unpopular. But Jonah does as God instructed him and amazingly the people upon hearing his words, repented. Even the mighty King ordered all the people in Ninevah to fast, put on sackcloth and beg for forgiveness (Jonah 2:1-10). Now to let you know a sackcloth is not something nice. The people of Ninevah truly repented. In those days, in some religious traditions, a sackcloth or cilice as it is called (which was made of coarse cloth or animal hair) and it induced some degree of discomfort or pain as a sign of repentance and atonement. They felt emotionally and physically hurt. They felt fearful of God and turned away from their evil ways, and asked God to forgive them of what they had done. God saw the change in them and spared them.
Many Christians are afraid to talk about their faith. Despite my saying that I am a Christian in this blog on many occasions, I had a moment where I didn’t know if I wanted to write this blog. To share such an intimate part of my Christian faith caused me to have a moment of the fear of the potential judgement of my peers. I am embarrassed by this but instead of just knowing that I need to proceed in sharing something that God had given me; I am moving forward with this info. So is it just fear that would drive someone like me to not want to talk about their relationship with God in certain audiences? Most of the time it is that we don’t want to look foolish or be unpopular. Sometimes going against the grain can give you splinters. Some of us are afraid of standing out and being different. I am embarrassed that I had a moment where I felt that way but I know that there are some people that don’t share the Good news because they are close minded and don’t want certain people to be saved. Some of us don’t want to tell people about their church because they don’t want that type of person coming there. So many people in this world are not saved or have never been told the Good News, simply because we Christians have been too fearful to tell it or because you might not like that particular type of person. We have no way of knowing what someone will decide about Christ; we only have the obligation to tell be a witness for him. Miracles can happen in people’s lives when we share the Word of God with them. By withholding the Word, we are failing in our responsibility. Sorry…getting back to Jonah, there was no city in that time less likely to repent than Nineveh, but when Jonah was finally willing to do as he was shocked to find out that they repented! Nineveh was so huge that it took three days to cross it. Imagine all the lives spared by one willing voice. Think of all the people that would have perished if that one voice had not been there. Jonah should have been ecstatic but you know….Jonah was mad.
2And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
3Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
What Jonah is really angry about is that God has given the gift of salvation to a nation that Jonah finds undeserving. Jonah felt that it was wrong for Jews to be sharing their God with people they considered heathens. It may seem foolish to us that Jonah got mad at God for saving the Ninevites; but think about this: are there people that you resent and would like to see fail? Are there those that have wronged you and you’d like to get revenge on them? This is just what Jonah wanted. He didn’t want the Ninevites getting God’s mercy; he wanted them to suffer. But God’s mercy and salvation is for everyone, not just those we think deserve Him. If only those that deserved His love got it, we’d all be in big trouble. Jonah never does grasp this. He continues to whine about his own condition but feels no pity or mercy for the Ninevites.
God even asks him what good it is doing to be so angry?
5So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
6And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
But that happiness was short lived because God had prepared a worm to come and kill the gourd.
8And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
9And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
10Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
11And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six-score (which equals 120 and some people say that the population could have been as high as 600,000) thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
Thankfully God does feel sorry for us and spares us in spite of ourselves. But what can we learn from this story of man chosen to do God’s will but cannot get over his own hatred to see the beauty in the situation? Well we can look at ourselves. We can compare ourselves to the Ninevites. We are sinners, undeserving of God’s forgiveness…but he saves us anyway. We, as humans, are suspiciously a comparison to Jonah.
Rev. 3:15 says: I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot, I would thou wert cold or hot. 16; So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
The Lord does not like lukewarm Christians. Our ‘church’ as a worldwide entity is full of lukewarm Christians. I regretfully have found myself yo-yoing with the complacency of being lukewarm because its comfortable. A lot of Christians, are just going through the motions. They sit in a service and wait for final prayer so they can go home or go eat or watch their favorite TV show. We become comfortable Christians. Jesus calls us to not be lukewarm but be zealous about God. We don’t need to be judgmental and have anger towards a specific person or type of people. We need to yearn for the people of this world to know the forgiveness and love of our Lord and Savior. We can’t be Jonahs. We need to be Ninevites and despite our past or our sin, we must put on our sackcloth of mourning and ask God to forgive us of us of our sins.
Largest and Smallest Whale image by T. Bjornstad (TBjornstad) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1992293
Featured Image – Jonah is Spewed Forth by the Whale by and attributed to Gustave Doré – from Doré’s English Bible, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10703585
Jonah Preches to the Ninevites by and attributed to Gustave Doré – Doré’s English Bible, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10703612