By Lowell Cooper, Vice-President, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Summary: Outside Ninevah, crushed by his failure, crippled by frustration, Jonah begins to realize that he is called as a co-worker with God.
The story of Jonah ploughed new thought patterns into the theological landscape of Judaism. Jonah drops into history in the midst of a people who differentiated themselves from the world, whose pride appropriated the goodness of God for themselves, whose prejudice locked others outside the circle of their concern. The story of Jonah shatters the narrowness and superiority of anyone or of any group who dares to think that he or it alone enjoys God’s favor. The story of Jonah is meant to crush pride and crumble prejudice.
Scholars and non-scholars have spent long hours persuading other scholars and non-scholars that the story of Jonah is actual history, or that it is a parable, or an allegory. It is possible to devote so much time persuading people to swallow the fish story that we fail to catch the great spiritual drama that unfolds.
Who was Jonah?
Jonah was a worshiper of the Creator. He believed in God, believed in creation, worshipped on the Sabbath, understood right and wrong, knew about the controversy between good and evil, comprehended something of the justice and mercy of God. Jonah could be a member of our church.
Jonah was a strong nationalist. Like his countrymen after the exile, there grew up in him a bitterness towards others. His nation had suffered so much from its enemies. There was no room in his heart, or the nation’s heart, for forgiveness or civility towards others. Humanity had been squeezed into two groups: them and us. Ninevah, capital of Assyria represented Israel’s most bitter enemy.
Jonah was a proud denominationalist. He could fit right in with Seventh-day Adventists who also consider themselves a called people. Like many of us, Jonah believed God reserved special blessings for his group and that somehow the virtue of being called carried with it a subtle sense of superiority.
Jonah deliberately disobeyed God. This indeed is a striking feature of the story. A worshiper of God deliberately disobeys. Some may feel Jonah was timid and that his fear of Ninevites propelled him towards Tarshish. Consider his amazing courage when, on board the ship, he told the sailor to toss him overboard. When he finally got to Ninevah there was boldness and determination in his preaching. No, he was not a coward. Why then did he disobey God?
Jonah was in conflict with God. Jonah’s worship of God brought him to an intellectual understanding of what God was like. He knew God was gracious but he didn’t wish for God to be gracious to his enemies. His intellectual theology had not been assimilated into his emotional life. He worshiped God, he knew God, but he wanted God’s character to be changed.
Jonah fled God’s presence because it was too uncomfortable. He was exposed to God’s searching judgments, and his littleness, his sin, his prejudices and hypocrisies stood revealed for what they were. Yet in God’s presence he would have been a changed man. In God’s presence his prides and his hatreds could have been transcended. In God’s presence he would have found inner healing.
The ultimate absurdity of Jonah’s conflict with God is revealed in the closing scenes of this story: Jonah had pity on a vine that grows up one day and dies the next; but he did not want God to have pity on a city of million Gentiles. Jonah was self-centered. Self-centeredness is a universal tendency. Our primary preoccupation is with ourselves. When any new idea or suggestion comes along, our first reaction is How does this affect me, my position, my future? So it is not surprising that Jonah was embarrassed and angry about the failure of his preaching. It is not surprising that Jonah’s emotional state was determined by his physical comfort (shade) or discomfort (blazing sunlight).
What did Jonah discover about himself and about God?
We really don’t know what happened to Jonah. Did he ever preach another sermon? What effect did the Ninevah sojourn have on him? I would like to think Jonah learned a lot in a moment. Jonah learned these six things:
1. You can run from God but you cannot hide. God is infinitely gracious. You can spurn Him repeatedly yet He entreats with tears. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Matt 23:37). There is a great revelation of God’s character here. Not only would He save Ninevah, but He would also save Jonah.
2. God focuses on the world. The church is not the focus of God’s attention and concern; the world is. Both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy describe how precious the church is in God’s eyes; but let’s not let such statements suggest that God somehow has only secondary regard for the rest of the world.
3. How to deliver a judgment message. I expect Jonah never again spoke in thunderous tones about the destructive power of God. He now spoke with tears in his voice. He realized that God’s judgment messages are meant as entreaties of the most urgent kind, not denouncements of the most violent kind.
Imagine going to the doctor who finds some serious condition in your body. And the doctor exclaims amidst the joy of discovery, In six weeks you are going to die! The doctor I go to had better say it differently. A judgment message from God is very tender because it arises out of the pain and longing of His heart. We who have been entrusted with that message need to speak in softer tones.
4. You can’t depersonalize humanity. Jonah could not see individuals. He saw groups and masses. He saw us and them. He branded them with a label to justify his thinking. Those who lived in Ninevah were not people, but Gentiles. They were heathen. How easy it is to classify people into groups and thereby rob them of their humanity. When you can train yourself to look at groups, you are spared the obligation of seeing people with compassion.
It is easy to listen to a mission appeal for a school or a hospital and toss a dollar into the plate. It is different to know a boy named Emu whose only apparent hope for an education is dependent on you. Life is so much easier when you don’t have to see people as individuals.
Is there a hint of rebuke in God’s word to Jonah: And should not I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? Yes God sees the many, but He sees much more. God sees the many in which He sees the one. But there is even more: God sees the little ones--those who do not know their right hand from their left and who therefore, like cattle, cannot be held at all responsible for the moral state of society. What great encouragement it is to know that God sees even the little ones.
5. There’s a wilderness in God’s mercy. There’s a kindness in His justice that is more than liberty. Jonah had previously worshipped a territorial God. That territory was the land of Palestine. Its people were the people of promise, the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the ones who kept the law and lived by the blueprint. But here in Ninevah he learned that, yes, God was a territorial God, but the vastness of His territory took in everyone and every place. There is no person who was not a child of God. That person may be far from home, he may be on a rebellious trip, but he is still a child of the king. He is royalty.
6. Your special place in the plan of God. Up to this time Jonah saw himself as part of the elect--the chosen ones, and he thought that being chosen meant being a favorite. But outside Ninevah, crushed by his failure, crippled by frustration, Jonah begins to realize that he is called as a co-worker with God. He can say, as did the apostle Paul centuries later, by God’s grace I have a ministry. Jonah understood that being called, chosen, and blessed by God was not an indication of worth; it was an invitation to work. Jonah discovered his missionary destiny. Jonah discovered that God uses broken people for the highest purposes. Man is happy when he has a utensil that remains whole and is saddened when it breaks. God, on the other hand, whose most cherished possession is a man’s heart, delights when it is broken in humility.
Jonah is not just a fish story. Jonah is a drama played out over and over in the lives of individuals and of religious organizations. In this drama we are confronted with our littleness and narrowness, our preoccupation with ourselves. In this drama we are challenged by a great God--to see Him anew, to break out of the shell of our little existence, to catch a vision of the purpose and plans of God, and to rediscover the missionary destiny of His people.