How do you feel about the great heroes of the Bible? Elijah in towering power, calling down the fire of God on Mount Carmel. Moses in majesty, leading the Hebrews through the Red Sea on dry ground. Every felt like you could do that? Nah. Well, I was in a Sunday school class last week where the lesson was on one of the more quirky characters in the Bible, Jonah. I got a lot more out of it than I ever have before and I’ll try to share some here.
Let’s face it, at times God seems to ask or just tell people to do things that can appear to be absolutely crazy and wrong. “Take thy son, whom you love, and go sacrifice him on the mount.” (Genesis 22:2) “Except you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) Or, one of my favorites, in Acts 10 when the Apostle Peter sees the sheet full of unclean animals let down to him and he hears a voice commanding him, “Arise Peter, kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13) Peter vehemently refused saying, “Not so Lord…” So it happened three times.
Somehow, it seems like the Lord just barely got Peter to go along with this. Evidently with reluctance, he went with the Romans to Cornelius’s house. It went against every bit of Jewish training and tradition he’d received and here the Lord was telling him to go contrary to it. Somehow Peter just barely avoided completely defying God. And as a result the gospel was shared for the first time by the Early Church with the non Jewish peoples.
But what about Jonah? Jonah not only said no to God, he got up and headed the other direction! He was already a prophet of God but the Lord’s instruction to him to go to the world capital at that time and preach repentance to it just was utterly out of the question as far as Jonah was concerned.
Was Jonah struck dead? Did God get discouraged? Nope. In fact it’s one of the most amazing stories in the Bible. Jesus even referred to it Himself saying how that, “as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so the son of Man would be three days in the heart of the earth.“ (Matthew 12:40) You could make some kind of case to say that God let Jonah experience something of hell. Jonah got to have his way but he really suffered for it, so much so that for all intents and purposes Jonah died in his sins.
But he didn’t. God had a much greater plan for Jonah and it was being accomplished. There are those famous words of his from the belly of the whale as he there prayed and quoted the Psalms of David. At length, realizing his terrible mistake and the sins of his heart, he said “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” (Jonah 2:8) What incredible truth in so few words.
Even though he was a man of God, Jonah must have had some major things in his heart, “lying vanities”, which kept him away from the mercy of God. Until it seemed utterly too late. But it wasn’t. There in the whale’s belly Jonah said, “Salvation is of the Lord”. (Jonah 2:9) And, one of the most astounding miracles in the Bible, the fish vomited him onto the shore.
End of story? Not by a long shot. Jonah still had the call of God. “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” (Romans 11:29) He still had what God had told him to do. Only now, he was about as chastened, humbled and emptied of himself as perhaps any man ever was. Sometimes God’s way up is down, it certainly was in Jonah’s case. When God can get us out of the way, then He has a change to work. But as long as our will is not surrendered, it’s almost impossible for God to use us.
Jonah then went to Nineveh and declared God’s message, “Forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4) What happened? They repented! Evidently the king and the people of this leading city and country of that day in the Middle East, Nineveh and the Assyrians, repented in sackcloth at the preaching of Jonah. What an event that must have been, it’s not an often occurrence at all in history. God had to have a man so utterly humbled and broken like Jonah to deliver the message. And evidently the Lord’s message and Spirit really came through Jonah so much that it brought that people to repentance. And the message of doom that Jonah preached was somehow rescinded.
I never thought of it much before but I think it wasn’t just Jonah’s message that did it but his testimony. Have you ever thought of that? How do you think it went with the Ninevites and the king there himself when word got around that “There’s this Jewish guy here who is saying the God of the Jews told him that in 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed. And he’s saying that he didn’t even want to deliver this message from God. But a giant fish swallowed him and then spit him out so he’s here now to speak for God”. Jonah would have been like a living miracle walking among them.
So Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes. And do you know how Jonah took that? Well it sounds like he went off and sulked that it seemed like he’d gone to all that trouble for nothing. What an incredible story of the mastic, forgiving, powerful love of God. First of His extreme long suffering with his unruly, self-willed prophet and then to change His mind and rescind His threat of judgment when the Ninevites greatly repented. What a lesson that we don’t hear much about. What an incredible, amazing, unfathomable God we have.