This has to be a story about God. How else could we explain the seriousness with which the Ninevites received God’s message via Jonah? The warning spread quickly so it didn’t take long for the pompous, yet dreaded, Assyrian king to hear about impending doom if repentance didn’t take place very, very soon. Can you picture him casting off his imperial robes because he feared he could be facing One whose power surpassed his own and that of his god Asshur? The king exchanged glorious garments for scratchy sackcloth.
In God’s kingdom important values are upside down when compared to those of the kingdoms on this terrestrial ball. Notice that in Jonah 3, fasting, sackcloth, and ashes accomplished more than feasting or purple and gold ever could. Military conquests paled in contrast to the humility necessary to recognize the supremacy of Almighty God. The evil king who ruled over man came to the King of Righteousness and in so doing, did not lose his empire but was instrumental in saving it from destruction.
Note that being covered in ashes certainly was not just a symbol to afflict the body, it was to affect the mind with acknowledgment of personal sin. The king developed a conscience against violence – the very thing in which he had previously taken ghastly pleasure.
Psalm 66:18, “If I had cherished sin in my heart the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.” Those heathen Ninevites must have prayed with sincerity and when God heard their hearts cry out for forgiveness, He must also have heard their cry of thanksgiving for His great mercy.
We would never commit atrocities like the Ninevites had notoriously done, but might we gloss over any cherished sins of our own? Might there be self-pity, coveting, gossip, slander, self-righteousness, or greed? Do we come up with easy excuses for being too busy to meditate on The Bible, or for avoiding people who are offensive and annoying? What if WL had a day of fasting in sackcloth prior to our next Communion service? I know where I could get a huge bolt of free muslin fabric . . . . Would that shake up some complacency toward pet sins?
In Matthew 12:41 Jesus refers to Jonah’s experience in a series of confrontations with the Pharisees and other skeptics. He demonstrated great patience as, one after another, they questioned his authority and his origin. They accuse him of “doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” when his disciples picked a bit of grain to eat on the Sabbath.
They asked if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath, just before he healed a man with a shriveled hand. After he healed a crowd of ailing people, causing the crowed to wonder if he, indeed, might be the “Son of David,” the Pharisees accuse Jesus of healing by the power of the prince of demons.
As if all these miracles were not enough to convince an open-minded person, the Pharisees and “teachers of the law” ask Jesus for a sign. It’s like saying, “What have you done for me lately? Their request almost implies that they might believe if he would just perform a miracle as a sign of his messiahship. And what sign does he offer? “The sign of the prophet Jonah.” This reply is more than just a confirmation of the miracle of Jonah and the fish—true as that is. It is a reminder of the message that Jonah delivered to Nineveh and their response in faith and obedience. Jesus says that their response to truth “will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it (v. 41).
It is worth noting, too, that in his answers to the critics, Jesus contrasted Old Testament events and people with the stronger current witness of “something greater than the temple” (v. 6), “Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 8), “here is my servant” (v. 18), “by the Spirit of God” (v. 28), “something greater than Jonah” (v. 41).
Today’s additional reading in Jeremiah 18 makes crystal clear both the authority of the sovereign God and his program for his people. The Creator has the inherent right not just to produce created beings and objects but also to determine their use. As the sovereign Lord, he can determine the “rules,” and he made them clear in the giving of the law and the preaching of the prophets. Through Jeremiah he warns, “Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evils ways … and reform” (v. 11). Poetically, Jeremiah describes the outcome of their failure to repent, “Their land will be an object of horror and lasting scorn; … Like a wind from the east, I will scatter them before their enemies” (vv. 16-17).
Okay, let’s forget Israel for a moment. Are you, like the Pharisees, disregarding or choosing to forget what God has done in your life and asking for “a sign?” Or has he given you a job to do and you’re running the other way? What has been your response to God’s warnings? Is it possible that you have said no to God’s commands (see Matthew 28:16-20)? Or maybe you’ve said Yes grudgingly, but you have not fully committed to daily worship by clinging to worthless idols and turning away from God’s love for you (see Jonah 2:8). As Pastor Bruce reminded us in Sunday’s sermon, “We are always moving toward or away from grace.” Which is it for you? For me today?
In Jonah 3:1, we kind of get a re-start to the book even though we’re halfway through. Remember, the book starts out this way: “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.'”
Now look at the similarities to the beginning of chapter three: “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.'”
Of course, we know that in-between those verses Jonah ran away from God, fleeing the opposite direction and abandoning his prophetic duty. But after his time inside the fish, Jonah was spit out and God speaks to him a second time. If I were in that situation, I would have probably said, “Fine, forget you, Jonah! I’ll get someone else to do it.” But what does God do? He sends Jonah. The same guy who ran away the first time. The same guy who would pout after preaching the second time. That is the guy whom God gives the command to a second time. God, in His mercy, gives Jonah a second chance. God shows His grace to Jonah (who, by the way, is happy to receive it), and He will in chapter three show His grace to the Ninevites too (though Jonah isn’t as happy about that).
And note here the zealousness with which God desires to reach the nations: God is passionate about sending people so that His glory might be proclaimed. This is a theme that occurs all throughout Scripture. In Genesis 1 God gave Adam and Eve the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). In Genesis 12 God sends Abram and tells him, “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). This is a common theme in the prophets, too, as they are spokespeople for God. God came to Isaiah and sent him (Isaiah 6:1-8); God came to Jeremiah and sent him (Jeremiah 1:4-8); and God came to Jonah and sent him (Jonah 1:1-2, 3:1-2) – and this happened numerous other times with numerous other people as well.
And guess what? God is still passionate about sending people so that His glory might be proclaimed. That’s the very last thing Jesus commanded his followers before leaving this earth, in fact: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). God is a sending God. And He sends all of us.
And what is the motivation for this? The grace of God. See, Jonah didn’t want God’s grace to be shown to his enemies, but he was fine with it being shown to him. He should have been dead after running away from God the first time, yet God sent a fish to save Jonah. So while inside the fish, he prays and thanks God for saving him. As Bruce pointed out yesterday at WL, Jonah didn’t deserve to be saved – and neither do we. But God shows His grace to us anyway, and this should motivate us to follow Him. As Jesus would say, he who has been forgiven much loves much, but he who has been forgiven little loves little.
So I want to leave you with three questions to ask yourself today as you contemplate and pray regarding today’s reading:
Life on planet Earth can be the pits. We may descend into disappointment, be destroyed by despair, drown in difficulty, experience the dust of death. There are many examples of people facing the depths of darkness. Tough times can suck the life out of us.
Maybe you remember this story from a previous WL blog. Werner Groenewald and his wife Hannelie with their two teenage children felt called to leave their home in South Africa and move to Afghanistan. Why? To pour out God’s love on the hurting people in this dangerous country. Looking back on their years there, Hannelie said, “Werner changed so many Afghan’s lives through his example of living and through his teachings. Surely, we had to count the cost for Christ. Anything could happen to us, anytime.”
And it did happen. On November 29, 2014, Taliban radicals attacked their home and killed Werner and their two children along with two Afghan nationals. Hannelie, who was not at home at the time, said, “What happened to me is one of the most traumatic events that can take place in someone’s life – to lose your husband and two teenage children in a single terrorist attack. My heart aches to have been there and to hold them and try to protect them against the merciless bullets that tore their bodies apart. My whole life as I’ve known it was changed in five minutes.”
Many of the Psalms are cries from broken hearts like Hannelie’s. Sixty-seven of the Psalms are laments, even as the book of Lamentations is an extended lament. In the midst of deep despair, what do we say, what do we do? Should we try to cover up our pain and pretend everything is fine? What did the Psalmists do?
Faced with tough times, the Psalmists freely unloaded their hurt in avalanches of poetic expressions: I am being torn apart by a lion; an enemy is trampling my life to the ground; tears have been my food day and night; all your waves and breakers have swept over me; O Lord, why do you hide yourself in my times of trouble? I am a worm not a man; I am poured out like water; all my enemies whisper together against me.
But the Psalmist did not stop there. The typical pattern of lament Psalms is for the Psalmists to agonizingly move from what their hearts felt to what their heads knew. Yes, God would throw out a life-preserver: “You are a shield around me, O Lord” (Ps 3:3). In Jonah’s case, his doom—becoming food for a huge fish—actually became his life-preserver—being delivered from the storm and returned to dry land.
Hannelie Groenewald put it this way: “As a family, we lived for Christ, and my husband and children died for Christ. From a human perspective, it doesn’t make sense. From an eternal perspective, it was gain, and God will be glorified in this. I know I have to focus on the gain and not the loss. Satan tried to steal their lives and my joy; he murdered my family. But he forgot that God always has the last move.” Yes, God always has the last move, as Jonah discovered!
APPLICATION: When circumstances crush us, one of the best things to do is read the Psalms. As C. S. Lewis noted: “Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems, as lyrics, with all the licenses . . . of the emotional rather than logical connections.” Lament Psalms are designed to speak to our hearts, offering life-preservers for the lifeless.
The story of Jonah resumes INSIDE the belly of the fish. If you didn’t know how it ended, this sure looks like the end. Jonah is effectively dead, or will be in a day or two.
But before he dies, his prayer is recorded. Some of it is quoting from Psalm 42. Before you “dive” into Psalm 42, look at Psalm 42 verse “zero.” Psalm 42 is written by the Sons of Korah. Who were they? They were Levites in charge of the gatekeeping of the Tabernacle. They challenged Moses in Numbers 16. (Num 16 was my Bar Mitzvah reading when I was thirteen.) God makes a dramatic example of Korah’s rebellion. The earth splits open under their feet, and the Sons of Korah and their tents and their families are all swallowed up by the earth (Num 16:31-35).
Pretty spectacular! Makes being swallowed by a giant fish comparatively normal! This looks like the end of their line, BUT (like Jonah) this was not the end. In Numbers 26:9-11 we learn that not all of the Korahites died, some of them lived and continued to serve the Lord as Levites, in fact they lived to write many of the psalms (especially Psa 84). They were “uniquely qualified” to write about being swallowed up, so it is natural and fitting that Jonah should quote them, not just some random psalm!
Yeah, there is many a story woven together from the big tapestry, even in verse zero of the Psalms.
Both literally and spiritually, Jonah was drawn out of deep waters. In Psalm 18:16, David uses this water word picture to represent God also pulling him out of adversities – but not to then coast along on peaceful seas.
Disney’s Timon and Pumba sang, “It’s a problem-free philosophy: Hakuna Matata.”
Sometimes we pray for our journey through life to be safe and fulfilling. But sometimes we pray, in general, that we want all we do and say to honor God. Do our lives reveal sincerity in pleasing Him instead of ourselves?
I read two lengthy and eloquent commentaries on Psalm 18; one written by John Calvin and the other by Charles Spurgeon. These treatises on David’s intimate relationship with God stirred me deeply. I had to wonder if these theologians would diagnose the most significant problem of the church today as apathy toward God and His Word. So I’ll share some personal thoughts to ponder with you.
In Psalm 18:1 David declares his love for the Lord and it’s out of that intense love that the rest of the psalm pours forth strong poetic language about God’s power and also confident assertions that God would continue to be David’s immutable rock, his deliverer and protector. We say we love God because that’s what we believe is true even when we can so easily give greater allegiance to our personal goals, agendas, and reputation, or to what we (sub)consciously feel we deserve. Pet peeves often flourish in such an environment and satisfaction escapes us.
Since we know nothing can separate us from God’s love and that we can do nothing to merit it in the first place, it can be tempting to take advantage of grace and lay a Christian veneer over values very similar to those held by the world’s morally good people.
Spurgeon, said, “How happy a thing to receive fresh mercy with a heart already sensible to mercy enjoyed, and to anticipate new trials with a confidence based upon past experiences of divine love.”
Calvin commented on David being God’s servant. “We may not expect to be exempted from all trouble when we follow the call of God, but may rather prepare ourselves for a condition of warfare painful and disagreeable to our flesh.”
This chapter in the astonishing story of Jonah is just part of God’s amazing plan (see 1:17 and 2:10). He arranged it all. The facts of the story are beyond dispute; Jesus confirmed them in the New Testament. But what may be missed by the casual reader is not the physical flight of Jonah, but his spiritual journey.
There’s nothing quite like a near death incident in one’s life. Your world comes to a screeching halt, but you are still conscious. Whether or not your whole life flashes before you in an instant, you know instinctively that you are about to meet your maker and you’re not ready. In that moment you call out desperately, “I’ll do anything you want, God; just get me out of this!”
That is exactly Jonah’s dilemma. But he asked for it! “Throw me overboard,” he told the sailors. “I’m the reason for the trouble we’re in, and I know how to get you out of it.” Pastor Kip suggested that Jonah was thinking this would be a good way for him to get out of his assignment to tell the Ninevites about God’s grace. Now, as he sinks slowly to the “roots of the mountains” (v. 6), he realizes that he’s really not ready to die, and he begs God for another chance. So, he prays. It’s a very short and somehow confusing “foxhole” prayer.
“Those who cling to worthless idols, forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed, I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation belongs to the Lord’” (2:8-9).
What’s he saying? Why, at this moment—from the belly of a great fish—when he’s about to die, does Jonah’s cry for help make such a profound statement? Why doesn’t he just say, “Okay, Yahweh, save me and I’ll do it?”
Do you recall Pastor Kip’s first message in our series on worship? As he hugged himself, he gave us the answer to this question. When you and I are hanging on to our “worthless idols” – no matter what or who they are – there’s no room for the grace, mercy, hope, forgiveness, or steadfast love (various translations here) of God in our lives. As long as we are worshiping our own false gods, the idols we’ve made for ourselves, we cannot worship Yahweh and He cannot save us by His grace.
Jonah had to come to the end of himself and his ideas about who is and who is not worthy of God’s grace before he could realize that very salvation himself. Yahweh said it, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Are you “clinging to some worthless idols”? Have you “forfeited the grace” that you need? Who are you worshiping? We must check our own hearts. Who is on the throne? Self? Other interests or pursuits? Or is it the one true God? “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him” (Romans 12:1, NLT)
— JBD (Credit to GMD)
Last week we began our study in the book of Jonah by looking at chapter one, and today we’re going to take a general overview of this chapter and the book as a whole – especially as it pertains to what Jesus had to say about Jonah in the New Testament.
See, the story of Jonah would have been startling to a Jewish reader. It would have been inconceivable that Yahweh, the God of the Jews, would send His prophet to preach in Nineveh, in Assyria, Israel’s biggest enemy. I imagine many would have reacted just like Jonah did in chapter one: he turned and ran the other way. As Kip pointed out at WL yesterday, the reason Jonah ran was because he didn’t want God to show grace and mercy to Israel’s enemy. Jonah thought Nineveh was beyond grace.
But later in the book, after Jonah reluctantly goes to Nineveh (which required him getting swallowed up by a fish in the process), Jonah preaches judgment… and Nineveh repents! And because of that, Jonah throws a fit (4:2). That’s the story of Jonah in a nutshell, and Jesus references this story a couple of times – perhaps most significantly in Matthew 12:38-41. So today let’s come at the story of Jonah from a little different direction – from the perspective of Jesus. What did he think about the story? What was his interpretation? And how did he use it?
I think there are five things worth pointing out from Matthew 12:38-41 regarding Jesus’ view on Jonah:
(1) It’s a true event (vv.40-41)
Jonah is one of the easiest stories for critics and skeptics to attack today because of the seeming implausibility of a guy getting swallowed up by a fish and surviving for three days, only to be spit out again. While that does indeed sound crazy, it is not so crazy to suggest that the almighty God of the universe, who created all things, can do miracles. The story of Jonah is true, and the way Jesus uses it makes clear that he regards it as having actually happened: he takes Jonah’s being in the fish three days and three nights (v.40), and the repentance of Nineveh, as real events (v.41).
(2) The repentance was genuine (v.41)
Because Nineveh didn’t exactly become known for their devotion to Yahweh in the years following Jonah, it might cause some to wonder whether Nineveh actually repented, since repentance requires not only an admitting of wrongdoing but also a turning from sin, but in all honesty it is far more questionable whether Jonah’s repentance (in chapter two) is genuine than Nineveh’s repentance. And the words of Jesus make clear that Nineveh actually repented: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah…” (v.41; emphasis mine). The whole point Jesus is making here is that Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, yet Israel doesn’t even repent at the preaching of Jesus! Nineveh’s repentance was genuine.
(3) It’s a rebuke to Israel (v.41)
Just imagine this message to the Jewish leaders Jesus is talking to: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it” (v.41). Wow! These are the religious leaders being told that this evil, pagan nation will condemn them at the day of judgment! And why? Because Nineveh repented whereas Israel did not. But even more than that, Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah; Israel isn’t even repenting at the preaching of Jesus. This message is a striking rebuke to Israel over their lack of repentance and faith.
(4) To show himself as one greater than Jonah (v.41)
In the culmination of this teaching about Jonah, Jesus says, “and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (v.41). This seems to be the point that Jesus is making in the passage as a whole: I’m better! He talks about how Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, and he’s greater than Jonah! He talks about how the Queen of the South came to see Solomon’s wisdom, and he’s greater than Solomon! The point being: how much more should his current audience be seeking his wisdom and repenting! See, Jesus uses Jonah as a foil to himself in many ways: Nineveh repented at the preaching of a finite, human man who wasn’t exactly an eager messenger but rather one who wanted to see his audience destroyed. Jonah ran from God’s will because he didn’t want to see his enemies saved; Jesus followed God’s will perfectly because he wanted to see his enemies saved. Jesus is greater than Jonah. So if these pagans believed Jonah, how much more should these religious people believe Jesus?
(5) As a validation of his message (vv.39-40)
The religious leaders wanted a sign. That’s what started this whole conversation (v.38), but Jesus tells them that the only sign they will receive is the sign of Jonah (v.39). What was the sign of Jonah? Well it’s hard to know for sure, but it is likely that Jonah would have borne some semblance of his experience in the fish: perhaps he was smelly, perhaps his skin was tainted by acid, etc. Point being: Nineveh likely could have seen clearly a sign that Jonah had been in the fish, which would have provided validation to his message. And what provides validation to Jesus’ message? Perhaps that’s the clue as to why he says what he does in verse 40: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Think being in a fish for three days and nights before being spit out is a cool sign? How about a guy being dead for three days and nights and then rising again! The resurrection is the greatest and ultimate sign.
And guess what? People saw the resurrected Jesus and still didn’t believe. But that’s not surprising; the religious leaders weren’t truly looking for a sign because they wanted a reason to believe; they were looking for a reason to disbelieve and discredit. In fact, they had earlier accused Jesus of doing a sign via the work of Satan (v.24)! Again, though, it’s not surprising. Remember what Jesus said in his story in Luke 16:31: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” The problem isn’t with signs, it’s with the human heart. That’s the same problem the Ninevites had, it’s the same problem the religious leaders had, and it’s the same problem we all have: our hearts are wicked and do not believe. We are solely dependent upon the unmerited and undeserved grace and mercy of a great God. And the good news: God is full of grace and mercy to his enemies, which is displayed most gloriously through the death and resurrection of Jesus to save his enemies.
While it’s clear that Jesus is God’s divine Son (the perfect representation in human form of the holy and gracious Creator of the universe) . . . and that the Bible wants us to stand in awe of Jesus (Prince of Peace, King of kings, Savior of the world) . . . maybe it’s not clear why Jesus made some scary statements. Or perhaps we forget that he did. Read the following examples from the climax of several of Jesus’ parables and see what you think.
Why did Jesus say such things? The best way to find out is to read the full context of the parables. But we would also need to read the books of the Old Testament prophets. For we must not forget that Jesus himself was a Prophet. And the condition of the people in the days of the OT prophets was similar to the situation of the people in Jesus’ day. In both cases, those who were called to be Chosen People were not acting like it. They were not faithful Law-abiding and Covenant-conforming citizens of God’s kingdom.
So where does Jonah fit into this scenario? The answer comes in Matthew 12 (and the parallel passage in Luke 11). Jesus was rebuking the Jewish leaders (“you brood of vipers”—Matt 12:34), and He used the story of Jonah and Nineveh to underscore the inevitable judgment coming on those who refused to accept Him as their Messiah.
Wow! But what does that suggest about the primary point of the story of Jonah?
One of the principles of correct interpretation is for Scripture to interpret Scripture. In which case, consider this: the only references to Jonah in the New Testament are in the context of judgment. And did you note that judgment is all over the story of Jonah?
So it seems likely that the point of God sending Jonah to Nineveh was really a message for the Chosen People. If the Gentiles would repent so readily, what was wrong with the Jews?
APPLICATION: Contrary to what many people think, God has a limited tolerance for sin. Yes, he tries time after time to call us to holiness, but eventually His justice requires judgment, as evident in Jesus’ chilling words. And be sure of this: It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31). May we never hear the rebuke of the people of Nineveh!
If you met a man who drove up in a horse-drawn black buggy, and the guy had a full dark beard and no moustache, and he wore plain clothes with a broad-brimmed hat, and you noticed that he had buttons but no zippers, and his last name was Yoder, what ethnicity would you think he was? Pretty good guess you’d go with Amish and pretty good chance you’d be right. There is a certain look and custom that goes with the ethnicity.
In the same way, Hebrews then and now had certain dress requirements (tassels on clothing corners (Num 15:38), full sideburns (Lev 19:27), prayer shawl on, wearing tefillim (Deut 6:8), and so on). The Joppa sailors were well-traveled, and departing from Joppa in Israel they would certainly have been able to recognize a Jew on sight. For them to ask Jonah in 1:8, “Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” meant that Jonah was ditching all semblance of even outward obedience. It is equivalent to an Amish person who completely goes off the wagon and not only cuts off their beard, but wears baggy jeans and a hoodie as well. Jonah was not only fleeing God, he was fleeing his identity.
In 1:12, Jonah says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.” There are a couple of ways to look at this:
1) Jonah had repented and trusts God to save him from drowning
2) Jonah had repented and sees drowning as his fair punishment
3) Jonah had NOT repented and would do anything to make sure the Ninevites never hear and get saved.
It does not record Jonah’s motives, but I think it is #3. He (maybe) thinks that if he commits suicide, then SURELY the Ninevites will have no one to warn them and then they will perish (which he thinks they deserve.) Boy, that is determination to do them harm! Jonah WANTS to die in order for the people of Nineveh to also die. Makes me think twice about wanting to name my kid Jonah! At least from what we see of him so far…