My "friend" Jonah
This weekend took us all over the map in Michigan and brought us into the path of some old friends and made some new ones along the way. One of those "friends" was actually a man I've never met but have read his story many times. Saturday, as Randy drove along the highway, I read the book of Jonah. Interesting man, Jonah. His story is only four chapters in the Bible, and if you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so. Some people think the tale of Jonah and the whale (big fish) is a myth. But here's what I learned from the story that I believe is real.
The first thing that struck me was how much God was involved in Jonah's life. Jonah was a prophet of God, but even prophets don't always proclaim the message God has given them in the way He intends. Jonah was one of those prophets who is best known for running away. Except anyone who has had any true dealings with God knows you can't outrun Him.
But what I found interesting about Jonah's story is how much God loved him, in spite of Jonah's disobedience, and what lengths God would go to just for him. Jonah put an entire ship of sailors in peril when he boarded a ship bound for the opposite direction God told him to go. When God sent a raging storm against that ship, Jonah admitted that he was the cause. God caused a storm just to get one man's attention. In the process, God used that storm for good to show those unbelieving sailors His glory. When the sea finally calmed, the Bible says those sailors offered sacrifices and vows to Jonah's God. (And none of them died, by the way.)
If you know the story, you know that the solution to calming the sea was for those sailors to throw Jonah overboard. They didn't want to be responsible for Jonah's death, even though he had caused their troubles. But Jonah insisted they toss him into the sea and at their compliance, he went sinking into the deep.
In Jonah's own words, he said, "To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever, but you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God." (Sounds like he went to the very bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.)
But God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah up so he would not drown. Seems to me that you would suffocate in the belly of a fish, which is why I don't think this was a whale. I think "God provided" a special fish just for Jonah. He cared that much about the man.
Another way God showed his love for Jonah was to give him a second chance to do the right thing. This time Jonah obeyed. He preached to his enemies about coming destruction, telling them to repent. Then he sat down outside the city to wait and see if God would destroy them. (I think this was his secret wish.)
A third thing God did for Jonah was to create a vine that shaded him from the blaring sun. It grew up overnight, just for Jonah. To his credit, Jonah was "very happy" about the vine. Maybe he even felt a hint of gratitude for God's provision?
But the next day God sent a worm to destroy the vine, which brought Jonah's anger (which he'd had from the beginning) to the surface again. He was so angry, he wished to die. Have you ever felt that way? I think if we're honest, most of us can relate to feeling at one time or another like our life no longer has purpose so why bother? Hopefully, we don't allow our thoughts to stay there. But that's where Jonah's thoughts were leading him.
But God, in His great kindness and mercy, finally spoke to Jonah, not about his obedience or disobedience. Not with another word to give the people of Nineveh, but with gentleness, he confronted Jonah's attitude. I love how God words it here:
"You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"
Stop and think about that response a minute. I could be wrong, but as I read this it seemed so applicable to us today. For don't we as a culture do the same thing Jonah did? We hear all kinds of messages from those who would have us save the vines (the environment), which was made for us to use and care for, but not worship. And yet we also hear messages from those who put little value on the innocent lives of the unborn or small children who "cannot tell their right hand from their left."
Perhaps that phrase was a metaphor for all of Nineveh, showing their spiritual darkness. But what if there were over 120,000 children young enough to not be able to tell their right hand from their left? Innocents. Children and animals (cattle) are the things God mentions in caring for this great city. He didn't want the evil deeds of the adults, the violence, the immorality, the pride, the greed, to corrupt the young. So he gave Nineveh a chance to repent.
And in doing so God was teaching Jonah a great lesson that we would also do well to heed. God cares about the details of each of our lives. And sometimes He singles us out to do something great for Him, if we will obey. He was also showing Jonah that His love could reach even to Jonah's enemies, to those who were by their innocence not old enough to choose right and wrong. Were the children really Jonah's enemies? Were the animals Jonah's enemies? But if God destroyed the adults, who would care for that many children? God cared about the city and wanted Jonah to do the same - even if Jonah didn't like the people he was preaching to.
Running away from God's purpose got Jonah thrown out of a boat and swallowed by a big fish. All in an effort to get him to change his thinking and recognize that God wanted him, perhaps even needed, Jonah's obedience to save a city.
God's love is great and His reach is long. What lesson can Jonah's story teach you?