The Prophet Jonah

I encourage you to go to right now before you read this article. Go to Old Testament videos and find and watch the Jonah one, about 7 minutes long. Then come back and read this article. It is the best video of all the project videos I have seen and really got me thinking.

Jonah prophesied during the reign of Jereboam II (791-751 BC; a 41 year reign), an evil king of the northern kingdom of Israel (the 14th king of Israel). A short summary is given of his reign. His 41 years were perhaps the most peaceful and prosperous times of the northern kingdom. Apparently Jonah the prophet had predicted that Jereboam II would be successful militarily (he even took Damascus, the capital of Syria) as some sore of savior for Israel to deliver them from their oppression. That was in spite of the idolatry and sinfulness of Jereboam II and Israel, worshipping the goddess Astarte. Read this article about Jereboam II. Amos and Hosea denounced Jereboam II for his idolatry and sinfulness, but Jonah appeared to support him. Jereboam II might have paid tribute to Assyria, which might explain why Jonah didn’t want to go preach to the Ninevites, the capital of Assyria. God had told him to go preach to Ninevah that the city would be overthrown soon (40 days after he finally got there). Jonah was afraid they would repent, and He knew that God was a merciful God and might spare them. He would have loved to see Ninevah overthrown so as to make the northern kingdom even more secure and prosperous. Did Jonah just ignore the idolatry of Jereboam II in the sake of national peace and prosperity? Amos and Hosea could not ignore it, and denounced it. So we don’t get an image of a good prophet in Jonah even before we go to the book of Jonah.

The book brings up more questions in my mind than answers. Why would God send Jonah to Ninevah? Did God not know that he would rebel and get on a ship going in the opposite direction to get away from God? Did God know he would do that but wanted to get Jonah to tell the sailors on that ship about the one true God. They ended up fearing Jonah’s god Yahweh after they threw him overboard and the storm calmed. Did those sailors start worshipping the one true god from then on? Will they be in heaven? Was all this God’s plan to save them? He had told them that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, but apparently had not tried to convert them. What made Jonah think that he could run away from God? He told the sailors to throw him overboard to calm the sea. Was that a noble act or just a selfish, desperate way to end it all?

I wonder what Jonah was thinking while he was in the belly of the great fish for 3 days and nights. He repented of refusing to go to Ninevah as he sloshed in the gastric juices and weeds in the fish’s belly. So the Lord caused the fish to vomit him on dry ground. Meanwhile, he has wasted valuable time. When he finally arrived to preach at Ninevah, his message was 8 words: “Yet 40 days and Ninevah will be overthrown”, so Jonah had delayed several days getting is message to Ninevah. Was that all he told them? Did he not tell them that God was a merciful God who might spare them if they would repent? Did he not try to tell them about his one true God Yahweh? Apparently not. Can you picture him walking through this great city that took 3 days to walk through, crying out this message? He obeyed God by preaching to them, but he doesn’t encourage them to repent.

What caused the king to repent and almost force all the people to repent? Did Jonah have any private conversations with him, telling him about the one true God (I don’t think so since he didn’t want them to repent)? Did the king have any prior knowledge of Jonah’s God? Did God know they would repent and this was just an idle threat, or did He not know how they would respond? If they did not repent, how would that have changed history? Ninevah did not fall until 612 BC, so who would have taken the city in the mid 700’s BC? Does their repentance mean they were saved from their sins and could go to heaven if they remained faithful to Yahweh? If not, then what good would this repentance do, just spare them for a few more years. Nahum will come over 100 years later and predict the fall of Ninevah (which happened in 612 BC), so their repentance at the preaching of Jonah was not permanent. But thousands were saved and, I think, will be in heaven if they stayed faithful to Yahweh. How many such dealings did God have with the Gentile pagan nations? We knew about Melchizadek, king of Salem and priest of the Most High God. He worked in Salem, but that is all we know. Did God have priests like him and prophets like Jonah working with the pagan nations all along to try to save them?

So they repented and God spared them. Jonah becomes angry that God spared them. He prayed, but it was “I knew this might happen and that’s why I didn’t want to come preach to Ninevah. I knew You were slow to anger and merciful (read Exodus 34:1-7 to see these attributes of God as given to Moses), and was afraid they would repent and you would spare them. Just kill me”. How can a prophet talk to God like that? I’m surprised that God didn’t just zap him on the spot. Give him the death he asked for. Instead He asked Jonah if it was good for him to be angry over this, and Jonah did not reply. What could have made Jonah have such an unloving, hateful attitude toward the Ninevites? Is this just the self-righteousness typical of the Jews, thinking they were the chosen race and superior to the pagans? Had Jonah never experienced the saving love of God in his own life that would have motivated him to love his enemies the Ninevites? Or was it his nationalistic loyalty that knew about the horrible cruelty of the Assyrians and just wanted them dead? We tend to think of America’s enemies like that. We just want Isis exterminated and probably spend little time praying for their salvation because we think it is hopeless.

So he goes out of the city and refused to rejoice with the people. He is angry and builds a shelter to shield him from the sun that was bearing down on him. God sends a rapid growing plant to grow and shelter him and he is “extremely happy”. But God sends a worm to eat the plant and he is back in the burning sun, more angry than ever. He again wishes to die. God again asks him if he should be angry. This time, Jonah responded and said that he did have good reason to be angry. God had given him a little visual aid lesson and he refused to accept it. God asks him how he could have compassion on the plant that died and yet not have compassion on the people of Ninevah. In Micah 6:7-8 God calls on Israel to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Jonah missed on all 3 points! Does God still work like that, giving us little visual aid lessons to try to get us to change our bad attitudes? What kind of a prophet is this that he has such an unloving attitude? Can you imagine a preacher who has 50 people come forward to be saved and he is angry because they are all from a race or social class that he despises? Balaam became corrupt for the money that Balak the king of Moab gave him in the incident at Peor, but no money seems to be involved in Jonah’s bad attitude- just bias, prejudice, and hate. Have you ever noticed such prejudice in a nice white, middle and upper class, church? Eyebrows get raised when several guys from the local drug recovery ministry visit the Sunday morning service, or when some poor looking different race people visit. Churches tend to have their own little in house ministries that cater mainly to their own members’ needs and wants, built around sermons and speeches and trips to water rafting or eating out places. I’m glad to be a part of a group that serves breakfast and groceries to about 150 poor people of all races every Saturday morning. But there is still that temptation to look down on them because of their social class. James 2 condemned social class prejudice in the church, a rich and poor issue.

What makes you “extremely happy”? Is it, like Jonah, things that make for your personal comfort, or is it letting God use you to help and save others? I love my prius, my recliner, my house, my hobby, my hot water, my AC in the hot summer, etc. But God is thinking about saving those Ninevites in a foreign country. God is thinking about human trafficking, child prostitution, children dying from a lack of health care and clean water, refugees in camps in war torn areas, the aids orphans, children raised in the cycle of welfare and slums, the lost Hindu, Muslim, and atheistic countries. But do I care about those whom God loves? Will I go or send money to help those groups? Do our churches focus on spending contributions to help those groups or to keep the flock comfortable so they will pay off the buildings and pay the staff.

So how does this story and book end? Job had a happy ending. Job repented and God restored his blessings. But Jonah? Nothing. We don’t know if Jonah ever changed his bad attitude. I think it would have been recorded if he did. We don’t know if he just went back to prophesying to Jereboma II but had to tell him that their enemy would not be overthrown after all. Twice he wished to be dead, so maybe he just quit being a prophet and went into a state of depression and anger. Why does the book end in silence? Probably because Jonah left Ninvevah without a response, still angry. But is there a lesson for us? Maybe God wants you to put yourself in Jonah’s place and ask how you would respond under similar circumstances. Has God ever tried to humble you, to give you an attitude adjustment, and yet you just keep resisting? Your pride, bias, lusts, whatever keep you from repenting and changing? You pray wen you get in the belly of a fish, but you don’t change your attitude. Maybe you are at a critical point in your life as you read this article. How will your story end?

Jesus mentioned both Jonah and Ninevah in Matthew 12: 38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a [ak]sign from You.” 39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a [al]sign; and yet no [am]sign will be given to it but the [an]sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Did this miracle of Jonah in the fish for 3 days really occur? Many say it did not; even some preachers say it did not. But Jesus said that it did and that’s enough for me. The main reason we know stories and miracles in the OT really happened is because Jesus referred to them. The revival in Ninevah would be comparable to the Great Awakening in Europe and America. Jesus said that he would be in the earth for the same 3 days and nights as Jonah was in the fish. Was Jesus in the tomb a full 72 hours? No. But the language loosely applied doesn’t demand that. We might say that we are going to the beach for 3 days, and get charged for 3 nights stay even if we don’t stay the full 72 hours. I wonder if God purposely chose the length of Jonah’s stay in the fish to match the time Jesus spent in the tomb? Did God look that far ahead?

I’m surprised that the Jews collected this book in the OT canon. It casts a bad image on Jonah who apparently was a respected prophet back in Israel. It shows the self-righteousness and unloving attitude of one of their prophets, probably reflective of the attitude of most of the Israelites. But Jonah was accepted as a true prophet and that was the test for adding a book to the canon. It is safe to say that they never doubted the veracity of the story of Jonah in the fish.I wonder who Jonah told about this story. As I said in the beginning of the article, this book brings up a lot of questions that really get me thinking. I hope the book makes me do some soul searching about my own attitudes and actions. How about you?

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