JONAH'S THREE-DAY JOURNEY IN THE FISH
Although there are always exceptions to every rule, for the most part Jonah epitomizes the attitude of the Jew towards the Gentiles. The Romans of Paul's day considered the Jew to be so odious because of his superior, condescending attitude towards non-Jews. This attitude though contrasted sharply though with God's attitude as seen in God's insistence that Jonah go preach to Nineveh so that it would repent and be spared from destruction. It is sad that Jonah and the Jews knew in their hearts that their attitude contradicted God's. When Jonah professed that he worshiped the Lord of the heaven, earth, and sea, he was confessing that God was Lord over all things, including people (Jonah 1:9). His universal lordship implies that He cares for all things and desires only the best for them. Jonah just had a difficult time stomaching God's gracious attitude.
Normally when we come to this part of Jonah's story, we think that God has pursued Jonah by sending the violent storm upon the vessel Jonah was traveling in and that right after the sailors threw Jonah into the ocean God sent the fish to swallow him up in order to save him. Jonah's prayer though while in the belly of the fish shows that this was not the case. Instead, Jonah plunged right down to the bottom of the sea. He speaks of his hair getting entangled in the sea weed at the bottom of the sea. In fact the waves and billows of the sea pushed him right up against the base of the mountains at the bottom of the sea. For all practical purposes Jonah was a dead man. It was only when all hope of living had expired that God sent the fish to rescue Jonah.
One final observation. Our King James Version of the Bible states that a whale swallowed up Jonah. That is not what the Hebrew word for fish means here. Whales are scarcely ever found in the Mediterranean Sea. Instead according to the great German commentators Keil and Delitsch, the fish was most likely a sea shark whose mouth/throat was large enough to swallow a man. This fish is found in plentiful supply in the Mediterranean Sea. Once more, we need to remember though that this was a miracle. Perhaps it was a sea shark. It didn't have to be though since it was a miracle.
JONAH'S PRAYER (2:1-10)
While in the belly of the fish, Jonah utters a prayer of thanksgiving to God for rescuing him from certain death. When the fish swallowed him up and he survived while in the fish, he knew that God was being gracious to him, giving him a second chance.
Look at the way Jonah describes his experience in the deep. His hair gets entangled in sea weed at the base of the ocean floor. The billows and waves thrust him against the base of the mountain. He is certainly done for. Notice though a change in Jonah's attitude. He says that these are not simply billows and waves; they are "God's" billows and waves. Part of the process of repentance is being honest about the things going on in my life. When I rebel against God and refuse to give Him control over my relationships, money, etc., I rationalize whenever things turn sour on me. I refuse to honor God in my relationships, and so whenever somebody disappoints me, I try to control them, or I say, "If I had only done such and such, then this relationship would not have gone sour." I refuse to give God my money. My investments go bad. The bank makes a terrible mistake. My response? I should have put my money in another bank, or I should have invested in other stock. Or I refuse to let God dictate to me what to do with my time, and the result is that I have no time. So what do I do then? I cut out all activities which relate to God. As I still fail to have time, I grasp tighter and tighter to my time. I need to be honest with myself and admit that God is disciplining me for rejecting His lordship over these different areas in my life. The only problem with doing that is that now I have to give Him control over these areas, the very thing I don't want to do.
Look though at the confidence Jonah has in the Lord. Twice (2:4 and 2:7) Jonah states that he will pray to the Lord in His holy temple. Although today we use the word "temple" in a symbolical way to refer to God's presence, it is unlikely that Jonah meant it that way. He probably was thinking of the literal temple in Jerusalem. He is confident that God is going to let him live and that he will then one day travel to the Jerusalem temple in order to worship the God who saved him. Job utters the same sentiment when he says: "Though He slay me, I will hope in Him" (Job 13:15).
Why is Jonah confident in God's grace? Because of his repentance? While that definitely does play a part, the truth is that God is a God of second chances. God did not cast Jonah into the sea in order to kill him. Jonah would have died if he had not repented. Rather God took these drastic measures in order to bring him to repentance, to give him a second chance. Whatever else God is, He is a God of second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. chances. We would be wise to make God a God only of a second chance because it gets harder and harder to repent the more we sin. It is not that God does not want to deliver us; it is that it is harder and harder for us to repent the more we sin. We need to do ourselves a favor and quit resisting the Lord.
Also notice that a second chance is being extended to one of God's people, even to a prophet who should not have needed a second chance. Many times we think that God won't give us a second chance because as Christians we should know better; however, if God gave a prophet a second chance, how much more will He give us a second chance.
Why does Jonah have this confidence in the Lord? He claims that "those who worship idols (vain things) do not receive the Lord's grace" (2:8). In other words, he is not saying that God is not gracious. He is saying that if a person does not receive God's grace, it is that person's own fault. God by nature is gracious. Many times He has to discipline us severely to make us want to receive that grace; however, that is for our own good. The greatest fear I have is that God won't discipline me whenever I am not experiencing His grace. The worst thing that can happen is for God to let us alone to live mediocre lives--and be OK with it.
Knowing that he is in the midst of a rescue operation, Jonah vows that he will offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving for saving him. Now this is not a form of manipulation like many of us do. I saw a movie one time in which a man was drowning far out from shore. He promised God that if He saved him, he would give Him everything he had. He got stronger and stronger and swam closer and closer to shore. The closer he got there, the smaller the percentage of his belongings he was going to give to the Lord: first 90%, then 80, then 70, etc., until finally when he got out on the shore, he was going to give God just some change in his pocket. Jonah though is not manipulating God here because God is already rescuing him. Rather, he is going to sacrifice to the Lord because he is grateful for what God has already done for him.
Why make a sacrifice whenever your heart is already grateful? It is because your actions either enhance your attitude or make it more real. Can you imagine loving somebody and never telling them that you do? One day you get up the courage to tell them, and what happens? The love you already feel for them grows by leaps and bounds. Never kiss your wife and see what happens to that love. You may love her; however, either you've severely limited that love or else you destroy that feeling of love. In the same way my gratitude towards God should have tangible expression.
It is by no means an accident that we promote the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering during the month of December. It is Christmas time in which we celebrate and give thanks to God for His gift to us, the gift which has led to our salvation. How can we show thanks? By giving to an activity in which God's gift is even extended to more people. This is not the only way that you can give thanks to God in a tangible way; however, it is a great way to do that.
In our household this Christmas, we've determined the amount we are going to spend on each other for Christmas presents. I've asked each person to give 10% of that amount to the LMCO. (We lavish so much stuff and toys upon us that I don't think we're really going to miss that 10%. Many of our children have so many toys that they basically trash the toys they already have. They don't value them the way we did growing up when we had a lot fewer toys.) It is up to each individual in our household to determine if he or she will allow that 10% to be given; however, I feel that is a worthy challenge for my family which allows even the children to be involved. It is also a tangible expression of our gratefulness to God for His gift to us.
PREACHING TO NINEVEH (3:1-10)
After the fish spits him out upon the land (most likely near Joppa where he had embarked on his disastrous journey), Jonah heads NE to Nineveh to preach God's word to the people. Jonah remarks that Nineveh literally was a great city to God. This means probably 2 things. First, it was a large city. The Hebrew literally says that it was so large that it was "great to God." In other words, it was so large that even God considered it to be large. It was a God-kind of city. Second, it probably means that because it was so large, it was important to God for it to be saved. It is true that the death of one person is a tragedy; however, the death of over 120 thousand people is truly horrendous. We shudder at the video of Saddam's men torturing other people; however, we are sickened when we discover that he most likely annihilated 500,000 of his own people. The death of one person on 9-11 would have been sad; however, we were outraged whenever we realized that 3,000 people died that fateful day. This is a vast city, and God does not want it destroyed, if at all possible.
As we think about how we can reach the lost, we need to remember that the lost share the same humanity we enjoy. There is a wonderful passage in Shakespeare in which Shylock, a rich Jew says:
I am Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means. warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene 1.
In other words, the ones we neglect, the ones we refuse to share the gospel with are going to experience an excruciatingly painful existence after Judgment Day, real people like you and me, the difference being that we've had the chance to respond positively to the gospel. (It is ironic that the Jews who so despised others had the tables eventually turned upon them to where they then became the objects of disgust.)
The content of Jonah's message implies that God wants Nineveh to repent and be saved: "In 40 days God is going to destroy Nineveh." First, if God did not want them to repent, why doesn't He just destroy them immediately? Why give them a 40-day warning? Most likely to give them time to process the message and truly repent. Second, if God just simply wanted to destroy the city, why did He send Jonah in the first place to preach judgment to the city? It was because He hoped that Nineveh would hear the word of judgment and repent.
Jonah does a 3-day tour of the city preaching this message. It produces the desired effect God wanted it to have--the city repents. The people go into mourning for their sins by donning sackcloth in place of fine clothes and by pouring ashes upon their heads. News of Jonah's message reaches even the king who likewise repents. In addition to donning sackcloth and ashes, he calls for a general fast. The people are not to eat until they have truly repented. (Fasting seems alien to us; however, in the Bible fasting was a significant way in which a person humbled himself before God to show that he had truly repented of his sins. When Saul, later known as Paul, discovered on the road to Damascus that he had been persecuting Jesus all along, he fasted for 3 days. Actions either confirm our attitude or enhance our attitude.)
The king though calls for a fast not only for himself and the people but also for the animals. They too were to don sackcloth and not eat anything. The king hopes that God will look upon the crying out of the animals as a form of prayer, crying out for God's mercy. This too may seem bizarre; however, very seldom is God's judgment strictly localized. We do not live in a vacuum. Our sin taints those around us. If God poured out wrath upon the city of Nineveh, the animals in the city would likewise be affected. For this reason the king brings the animals in on the acts of repentance.
Notice that both in this story and in the story of the captain and the sailors that Jonah highlights both the king and the captain. So much attention many times in the Bible is focused on leaders, either kings, priests, or fathers, etc. The reason is that leaders set the tone for the groups they represent. We have seen this operating in our own country. Too often people say that they vote for presidents on the basis of their ability to provide a strong economy. People usually vote their pocketbooks; they claim that presidents have nothing to do with affecting the morals of our country. That is simply not true. After the 90's a survey was taken to guage the morality of the nation's youth. They discovered that attitudes towards sexual morality shifted during the 90's among this group. This group aligned its attitude towards sex to agree with the president's. Just recently another poll was taken among America's teenagers, and it discovered that their attitudes recently have become more conservative morally. The reason given was the high moral standard of the present leader of our nation. Surely out of 300 million people we can always find a leader who is both competent and moral. If one of the 2 though has to be sacrificed, it should be competency.
This same dynamic functions within the church and within the home. Pastors are to a large part responsible for the spiritual condition of their church, while dads are to a large degree responsible for the spiritual condition of their homes. When presidents, pastors, and dads fail in their responsibilities, they greatly hamper their countries, churches, and homes. What is even better though is that whenever these people rise to the occasion, they positively affect their countries, homes, and churches.
God looks upon the response of the Ninevites and relents from His decision to destroy them. Once more notice how the Gentiles come out looking better than the representative of God's people, Jonah. Whenever the Ninevites heard God's word, they responded positively to it, while Jonah had fled away to Joppa for Tarshish. Whenever the sailors correctly understood God's actions and prayed to him, God's people were sleeping beneath deck. There are those out in the world who will respond positively to the message of salvation God has entrusted to us to deliver. It's just up to us to deliver that message.
Finally, some OT scholars brush off this story because they claim that in the long run Nineveh did not repent. In fact she became so wicked that God destroyed her in 605 BC. The truth though is that the story of Jonah occurs around 780 BC, 175 years before Nineveh was destroyed. Nineveh's response delayed God's wrath for close to 200 years. That is significant. Also, it is true that simply because one generation accepts the Lord does not guarantee that succeeding generations will do the same. I have a distinct feeling that Americans living in the 17 and 18 hundreds in this nation would be appalled at the spiritual state of this nation. Their actions did not lead to our moral chaos. One generation, the generation of the 60's, rejected traditional American values, and we most likely will reap what the 60's sowed unless something drastic changes our nation. Don't blame the America of 175 years ago for our present mess. Blame this present generation. Whereas those Ninevites escaped judgment because she repented, God still extends this offer of deliverance to us as well.