When you’ve been asked to do something, and haven’t done it—and you know you should have—how do you feel? When you know that you’ve done the wrong thing—or not done the right thing—how do you respond? And, what-is-more, what do you expect will happen next?
Well, if you’re anything like me you might feel guilty; you might have a heavy heart. You might even feel sorry, and wonder if there is any way you can make up for what you have or haven’t done. You might even wonder or fear whatever consequences are going to come your way. After all, the things that we do, and don’t do, often have repercussions. And they are things we have to live with.
2. Jonah’s Repercussions
And as I was thinking about that this week, and as we continue our journey with Jonah today, I couldn’t help wonder about how Jonah felt—what repercussions he expected to face for doing the wrong thing, by running away. I wondered how he expected God to respond.
And today’s episode in the life of Jonah is quite revealing.
B. THE STORY SO FAR
But first, let us recall something of the story of Jonah so far …
Now last time we discovered that Jonah was called by God to go to a foreign country and prophesy against it. And we discovered a background of three possible excuses he could have used, why he shouldn’t go.
Firstly, the Israelites were not used to going to other countries to share their faith; people were expected to come to them. Secondly, the Assyrians, for which Nineveh was the capital, were the Israelites most feared and hated enemies. And, thirdly, it had not been the practice for prophets to go and prophesy in foreign countries. So, three quite understandable excuses.
But on top of that, we discovered that Jonah just didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. He wanted them to be condemned. And that is the reason he gave for running away.
However, what we also discovered, was that if Jonah thought he could escape from God, then he was very much mistaken. God demonstrated that he was everywhere, and he showed Jonah that he was just as concerned for the lives of the sailors, as he was for Jonah and for the lives of the Ninevites.
And at the end of the first episode of the story, we found Jonah calling on the sailors to toss him overboard. Thus putting his whole future in the hands of God, whilst saving the lives of the sailors.
And this is where we pick up the story …
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part Two)
1. God to the Rescue (1:17, 2:10)
Because what God did next, was to rescue Jonah from the sea. Indeed, he saved Jonah. He provided a great fish to swallow him—to prevent him from drowning. And that fish then carried him for three days and three nights back to dry land, where Jonah was vomited out onto dry land.
2. Jonah’s State of Mind (2:1-6)
Now having said that God physically rescued Jonah, is one thing. How he did it, is another thing altogether. Because apart from Jonah having to face up to the consequences of his actions, there’s a strong element of chastisement in this part of Jonah story—a bit of tough love—too. Jonah had strayed in his relationship with God, and God knew that it was going to take a lot to have any chance of getting him back on track.
So Jonah was made to suffer a bit. He was tossed up and down by the waves. So much so that he believed he was on the point of death. And it was only then that he was confronted with a big fish, which swallowed him, and in which he had to live for three days and nights. It would not have been a pleasant experience, particulalry if we remember something else of the background of Jonah.
Because at the time, the Israelites were not noted as being great sea-faring people. Indeed, the sailors in the first part of the story were more likely to have been Phoeniceans than Israelites. (Which tends to indicates something of the desperation and determination behind Jonah’s unwillingness to do what God had asked.) But more than that, the Israelites had this myth of a Leviathan—a great fire-breathing armour-plated sea monster. A serpent that is documented in the book of Job (Job 3:8; 41:1) and in Psalm 104 (104:26), both of which pre-date Jonah. And Isaiah (27:1) and Psalm 74 (74:14), which come much later.
What Jonah faced in the sea, then, was probably his worst nightmare. And there is no doubt he would have had a torrid time. And there in the fish, he would have had a lot of time to think. Particularly about what he’d been asked to do, how he had responded, and how close he had come to death.
So much so, that he was later able to recall, praying to his maker (1). The trauma of sinking in the water, thinking he would drown, and calling out to God for help (2). Considering that his rescue had not been immediate, but that God had allowed him to feel the effects of his rage (3). Then, how even when he felt banished, that in some way he expected to see God again (4). And how even in his darkest hour, when his life was ebbing away, God had come to his rescue (5-6).
3. Jonah’s Vow (2:7-9)
Indeed, at his lowest ebb, he remembered God, and prayed to him in the heavens (7). He acknowledged that God was the God of the universe, and that any other way was simply nonsense. And he vowed never to run away again, and (presumably once safe on dry ground) that he would once again sing God’s praises and offer God sacrifices (8-9a). And he acknowledged that only God had the power to save (9b).
In many ways it’s an impressive psalm. And yet, even in his prayer there is something seriously missing. And that is, that he expressed no sorrow for what he had done. Indeed, he didn’t mention running away at all.
Now, one of the things I like about the Old Testament, is its refreshing honesty. It tells stories, warts and all. And today’s part in the story of Jonah, shows us a character who has far more flaws than you would expect in a man of God. He’d already shown a reluctance to do what God had asked. Indeed, he’d run away rather than go to Nineveh. And yet, even after God came to his rescue, he expressed no sorrow for what he had done.
Jonah, then, a bit of an enigma. But then, isn’t feeling sorry for oneself, rather than being sorry for what one has done, a character trait that is all too familiar even today.
So Jonah and the big fish … what can we learn from this part of the story today?
1. God Saves
Well, the first thing is that even when people of faith are disobedient and make some dreadful mistakes, God may still be willing to come to their rescue.
God may have been angry with Jonah, but he rescued him by providing a big fish to take him to safety. And if God could do such an amazing thing like that for Jonah, imagine what he could do for us. Indeed, imagine what he has already done for us, not least of which is to send his son to come and die for our sins.
As people of faith, we may find ourselves in trouble because of our own disobedience to God. But even so, God may not necessarily discard us; he may well come to our rescue just the same. And, indeed, you may well be able to think of a time when God asked you to do something, and you didn’t do it, but God came to your rescue anyway.
2. God Disciplines
The second thing, that this story teaches, is that God disciplines his people. Because apart from allowing us to face the consequences of our actions to some extent, he is not beyond the idea of “tough love,” to get his people back on track either.
When God rescued Jonah, he didn’t just make things easy for Jonah; he didn’t just whip him off to safety. He didn’t just stop the wind, and gently tow the boat back to Joppa. Instead, he made Jonah go through “hell” (excuse the expression), as part of his rescue.
But he didn’t do it because he was vindictive. He didn’t do it to force Jonah into doing what he wanted. He did it so that he could show Jonah how wrong he was. And he did it to give Jonah what he needed, in the hope that Jonah would repent, and turn his life around, so it was pointing in the right direction.
After all, as we read through the Old Testament, we’re told time and time again that God is not interested in punishment for punishment sake. But what he does, is that he places unrepentant sinners in the positions they need to be in, in order for them to respond with faith. So, if Jonah needed a bit of tough love, then that’s what he had to give him. And if we need a bit of tough love, then that is what we can expect from him too.
Yes, sometimes God uses gentle methods, but othertimes he knows we need something a little stronger. And in Jonah’s case he needed to be very rough, because, as we’ve just seen, Jonah wasn’t prepared to accept that he was wrong in running away at all.
3. The Need for Repentance …
And that leads us to the third thing that we can learn—the need for repentance. The one thing lacking in Jonah’s prayer.
Because, yes, Jonah was grateful for being saved from the sea. And when the chips were down, he demonstrated that he wanted to live and not die. But sorrow for what he had done? Well that seemed to be beyond him. And I wonder, sometimes, how often we aren’t sorry for the things we have done either.
After all, repentence and turning our lives around are at the heart of the Gospel. And yet how often do we disobey God? How often do we not do as he wants? How often do we come up with a number of excuses why we shouldn’t do what he asks? And how often do we then meekly continue on, as though we’ve done nothing wrong.
Repentence and turning our lives around are at the heart of the Gospel, but I wonder how seriously we consider them to be part of our continuing walk with God.
4. … Not “Woe is Me”
And that, of course, leads us to the fourth thing that this passage teaches … that lack of repentance is often accompanied by the attitude, “Woe is Me.” Being sorry for ourselves, as though what we are facing is not our fault—even when it clearly is.
After all, the only lesson that Jonah appeared to have learnt, wasn’t that it was wrong to disobey God, or that it was wrong to try to avoid the things that God wanted him to do. Rather it was about how uncomfortable God had made him when he caught up with him.
It’s the “me, me” attitude that is so often heard today. People who are not sorry for what they’ve done. Yet they feel sorry for themselves, for the punishment they are facing. It’s the “it’s not might fault” attitude, when clearly the person had a choice, but doesn’t want to take responsibility for his or her actions.
Now if you were God, and if you had pursued Jonah to go to Nineveh, wouldn’t you have given up on him at this point. Wouldn’t you have found someone else? I think I would. But then where would that have left Jonah?
And if that had been me who had been disobedient, would I have wanted God to abandoned me? No! I think I would have wanted God to pursue me, and to pursue me, until I got it right. And, you know, that’s precisely the picture of God that we get throughout the book of Jonah—constantly pursuing Jonah.
Jonah’s psalm, then, in not one to be proud of. It is more “woe is me” than “sorry.” Because, yes, even after he was swallowed by the big fish, he may have been thankful to God for saving him. He may also have resigned himself to carry out the task that he’d been given (if he was asked again). But, the one thing that it doesn’t do, is to express sorrow for running away.
Now we can smile at Jonah, but is Jonah’s story, our story? Has God asked us to do something, which even now we are refusing to do? And is it that we are stubbornly resisting, or have even convinced ourselves that we are right in taking our stand? And are we not the least bit sorry, for taking that stance?
Because Jonah’s story, is not just Jonah’s story. Indeed, in many ways it is the story of everyone who has stubbornly refused to do God’s will. And isn’t that the point of retelling the story, even today.
F. NEXT TIME
Now lest we get too despondent about Jonah, there is a positive side to the story. Jonah does get a second chance (which will examine next time).
But that doesn’t mean that Jonah expresses a willingness to go, or that he carries out the task with enthusiasm. In many ways, he just went through the motions. And yet, even with that, God was able to use him to do great things.
Posted: 8th October 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis