1. My Opportunities
When you’ve made a mistake, and you’re given a second chance—an opportunity to rectify what you have or haven’t done—what do you do? When you’ve made a mistake, and you’ve been given the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, and start again, how do you respond? Would you grab that opportunity with both hands, or would you stubbornly stick with what you have done?
Well, I guess it depends upon what you were given a second chance to do. But if it was me, and I was sorry for what I’d done, I would probably grab the opportunity to get it right. Because second chances, opportunities to do things right, as though nothing untoward had happened before, do not come along very often. So, when they do come along, they are opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.
2. Jonah’s Opportunity
And just as we shouldn’t miss them, neither should have Jonah. Because, as we continue our story of Jonah today, we find that Jonah gets one of those opportunities. An opportunity to start again—to start from scratch.
The question is, though, did he grab the opportunity with both hands? Did he use this second chance to start again, or did he muck the whole thing up? Well, that is something that we are about to discover.
B. THE STORY SO FAR
But, first, let us recall something of the events in the life of Jonah so far ….
Two weeks ago, we discovered that Jonah was called by God to go to a foreign country and prophesy against it. And we discovered a number of excuses that he could have given God why he shouldn’t go. We also discovered that Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved, and instead ran away in the opposite direction.
But, if Jonah thought he could escape from God, then he was very much mistaken. So much so, that at the end of the first episode we saw Jonah calling on the sailors to toss him overboard to save themselves. Thus putting his whole life in the hands of God, to either save him, or to let him drown.
And last week, we discovered that although God rescued Jonah by providing a big fish, which then took him back to dry land, Jonah expressed no sorrow for what he had done whatsoever. Yes, he was grateful to God for rescuing him. Yes, he looked forward to worshipping God when he was back on dry land. And, yes, he committed himself to go to Nineveh, should God ask him again. But Jonah showed no remorse for what he had done at all. Indeed, his only sorrow appears to be that he had got caught, and that he been chastised by God. It was not so much sorrow for what he had done, but “Woe is me.”
So now let’s continue the story …
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part Three)
1. Jonah’s Second Call (3:1-2a, 3a)
Now I don’t about you, but it seems to me that there was probably a time delay between Jonah being spewed out on the beach, and him receiving his second call. Perhaps a bit of time to allow him to slip back into ordinary life—to a life more comfortable than what he had just experienced. It would also have been a bit of time for him to consider the ramifications of being disobedient to God.
But God had not finished with Jonah. So God calls Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and to proclaim his message. Jonah is given a second chance. But there’s no hint of any “Here’s your chance to fix up your past mistakes,” or “Do it right this time.” It’s like Jonah’s slate has been wiped clean. God wants him to start afresh, with all the baggage of the past put behind him.
And this time, Jonah gets up and goes. He does what God asks. He travels the 900 kms north-east (as the crow flies)—a journey that would have taken him about a month.
2. God’s Message (3:2b, 3b-4)
And the message he had to proclaim? Well, Jonah wasn’t asked to make anything up. He was simply to declare the words that God would give him.
Now it became quite normal for the prophets to make these sorts of declarations. Indeed, Joel did it before the time of Jonah, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Zechariah all spoke out against foreign nations after the time of Jonah. And the one thing they all had in common, was that they were given the words to speak by God. Indeed, they were probably given to the prophets to write down on a scroll, which could then be read to the people concerned—and it was probably usually read by a messenger.
But that wasn’t to be Jonah’s lot. Instead, Jonah was to go and read the scroll himself—and to read it in the heartland of his country’s most feared enemy.
Now you can imagine that Jonah would have been very nervous. But the task itself was not a difficult one. Furthermore, it was a task, that having got to the edge of the city, was to take only three days—the time required to walk and proclaim the message from one side of the city to the other. Indeed, the same amount of time that he spent in the big fish, and far less time than he had spent in running away.
And, the crux of the message …? Well, that in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed. A message that would have made Jonah very happy indeed.
So that’s what Jonah did. He did what God had asked. However, one does not get the impression that Jonah’s heart was in it at all. After all, we know that even when the task was completed, that Jonah was not happy with the end result.
Now if someone had come to your city and told you it was going to be destroyed, wouldn’t you be full of questions? Wouldn’t you want to know why it was going to be destroyed? Wouldn’t you want to know how it was going to happen? And wouldn’t you want to know who was going to do it? And probably all of that was in the scroll that Jonah read. But wouldn’t you also want to know how you could prevent it?
The trouble is, we know that Jonah didn’t want to prevent it. He wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed. So, no doubt, Jonah would have read the text of the scroll, as God had instructed. But whether, there was any real interaction between Jonah and the Ninevites on how this destruction could be avoided … well, I think that would have been very unlikely indeed. And, there is certainly no evidence that any kind of interaction between Jonah and the Ninevites took place.
Jonah was not interested in the welfare of the Ninevites. We know that. As a consequence, he probably did his task, but no more. Given a fresh start by God, he did the task, but he did so by dragging all of his past baggage behind him.
3. The Ninevites Repent (3:5-9)
Nevertheless, as soon as Jonah began his three-day walk through the city, the Ninevites responded; they repented of their sins. The Ninevites believed Jonah’s message, and they turned to Jonah’s God. They came to the belief that Jonah’s God was the one who would destroy their city. But were they in any position to express any real belief in Jonah’s God at all?
After all, what did Jonah’s God expect? How could they appease Jonah’s God, in a way that would be acceptable to him? (You know all the bits that are missing in the story—the bits that they needed Jonah to add, so they could respond appropriately.)
But, to their advantage, we know from history that the Ninevites were well known to be open to foreign delegations. They were also known to be open to the religious ideas that those representatives brought. Furthermore, it may have been that Jonah’s message was taken as an interpretation of a current, specific event. In other words, they may have known enough to acknowledge that they had strayed. So they issued a decree, and adopted their understanding of Hebrew practices.
They declared a fast, and put on sackcloth—signs of repentance. And even the king put on sackcloth, sat in the dust, and issued a proclamation for anyone and everyone—man or beast—to respond likewise. As far as the king was concerned, if they turned to God and gave up their evil and violent ways, then maybe God would have compassion on them; maybe he would turn from the planned destruction of the city.
Nevertheless, they were probably still not sure whether their response would cause God to set aside his judgement or not. All they could do, was to humble themselves before God, and hope for the best.
4. Two Very Different Responses (3:10-4:4)
To which, at the end of this episode in the life of Jonah, we find two very different responses.
Firstly, we find God responding by turning away from what he had planned. Whatever inadequacies there were in the Ninevites response, God saw their intent, and he responded to the people with compassion.
And secondly, if you had any doubts about Jonah at all, and the kind of person that he was, Jonah responded by becoming angry. He told God “I told you so. I told you that they would repent. That’s why I didn’t want to come; that’s why I fled to Tarshish.”
All Jonah could do was to be angry that the Ninevites had been saved. He was angry with God. And he was so angry, that all he wanted to do was to die. If that was what God was like—even willing to save Israel’s worst enemies—then Jonah didn’t want a bar of him. Running away from God had been pointless, so death was his only escape.
Now could you get two greater extremes, than the responses of God and Jonah? God had compassion, he wanted everyone to be saved. He even gave Jonah a second chance. But Jonah had very different ideas.
It’s like Jonah didn’t know God at all. Jonah’s vision of God was one that he could live with, and one which made him feel comfortable. But that wasn’t who God was. So, when faced with the real God, it was all too much; it was beyond his ability to cope.
Quite a contrast, then, between the responses of Jonah and God. But then, this whole episode in the life of Jonah is a series of contrasts. As a consequence, I’d like to touch on just a few. Because there are a number of important truths in this passage, which can help us in our walk with God too.
1. The Importance of a Clean Slate
And the first of which, revolves around the idea of having a second chance—another opportunity to do things right. Because Jonah’s second call wasn’t so much an opportunity to fix up past mistakes—as though he could go back in time and undo whatever it was that he had or hadn’t done. This was more a matter of wiping the slate clean and starting afresh. Treating past mistakes as though they had never happened.
When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh the second time, there was no dragging up the past by God. There was no “Fix up your mistakes,” or “Do it properly this time.” No, Jonah was given an opportunity to start afresh, and to move on.
Unfortunately, it was not an opportunity that Jonah grasped. Because whilst God offered him the opportunity to start again, Jonah for his part, insisted on dragging his past along behind him. He hated the Ninevites with a vengeance, and nothing that God could do would ever change that.
And that’s sad, because wiping the slate clean and starting again is what happens when God forgives us. He gives us the opportunity to let go of the past and to move on. And yet, I wonder how often, like Jonah, we remain stuck in our past, dragging it along behind us. Never really able to truly move on. Unable to forgive ourselves or forgive others. And unable to reciprocate to God’s love, by forgiving others in return.
2. Trusting in the Real God
The second thing about this story, is it raises the question “Does our picture of God, match the picture of God that God has given us?” Because, if Jonah was God’s prophet, but was unable to cope with what God had done, then there was something seriously amiss. Not least of which, was his concept of who he believed God to be.
After all, Jonah may have agreed to accept the second chance that God had offered—to do what God asked, but unlike God, he still hated the Assyrians; he still wanted them dead. He probably feared that if the Assyrians were saved, that they would once again become a threat to his people. But what he lacked was a clear vision of who God really was; he lacked that trust that God knew best. He simply couldn’t accept that God knew far better than he did, what he was doing.
Jonah had his own fixed ideas on who God was and what was right. And nothing that God did was going to persuade him otherwise. As a consequence, God did not meet his expectations and, because of that, his whole world fell apart.
Believing in God as he is, and believing in God as we’d like him to be, are two very different things. And yet, even today, God has been reinvented in so many ways. Indeed, very few people have a clear picture of who God says that he is—the God of the Bible. As a consequence, he is ignored, twisted, changed and manipulated to meet any number of views with which people may feel more comfortable. And his rules are ignored, changed and manipulated to suit too. And, when God doesn’t dance to the many different tunes, is it any wonder that people get disappointed and disillusioned.
The need to trust in the real God—the God, as he has revealed himself—then, is very much part of the message in the story of Jonah. And should he ask us to do something that goes against the grain, then perhaps our first response should not be, “That’s wrong. I’m not going to do that.” But rather it should be, “Is my view of God faulty? Do I need to re-examine my view of who God really is?”
3. God Uses People to do Great Things
Now the third thing about this episode, is that it shows the greatness of God.
God had compassion, but Jonah didn’t. God wanted the Ninevites the opportunity to repent, but Jonah didn’t want a bar of it.
All indications are that Jonah only did the barest minimum, but God used even that do a remarkable thing. Indeed, the whole city of Nineveh was saved. Jonah may have been reluctant; he certainly appears to have been half-hearted. But even with that God was able to use him to do great things. As a consequence, think about what he can do with our efforts too.
After all, how often have we said, “I’m no good at that,” or “So and so would do a better job”? How often have we been less than enthusiatic about carrying out God’s will? And yet the lesson is, that even with all our limitations, God can do great things.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should deliberately only do the barest minimum. Rather, it should reassure us, that no matter what we think of our inadequacies, even with that he can do great things.
4. The Extent of Compassion
And the fourth thing that we can say about this story, is that it illustrates the extent of God’s compassion. After all, the Assyrians had done some terrible things to the people of Israel.
Jonah may have despaired at the task, let alone the Ninevites response, but God was prepared to reach out even to Israel’s worst enemies. As far as God was concerrned no one was bad enough to be beyond saving, no matter what the attiude of Jonah to his greatest enemy.
And I think that says something about who God really is—a God of compassion, one who is willing to forgive all.
But can we say the same? After all, like Jonah, is there someone that we can’t forgive? Or do we, like God, reach out and offer an olive branch to everyone as well?
Jonah, then, even after all that had done before, remained a reluctant servant. Given a second chance by God—even a slate wiped clean—Jonah did what God asked him and probably no more. His heart wasn’t in it. Even with God’s offer to forget the past, he dragged all of his hatred and prejudices behind him. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved at all.
So when they were saved, he was angry. God had let him down. But then his idea of God probably wasn’t a true picture of who God really was at all.
A sad story? It sure is. But it does raise some serious issues for us. Not least of which is “What kind of God do we believe in? Is he the God as he has revealed himself? Or, is he the God that we have twisted, and manipulated to be a God with which we are far more comfortable?
F. NEXT TIME
Jonah, then, not the typical prophet. But let’s not write Jonah off just yet. Because despite everything, God still didn’t give up on Jonah. Jonah was still God’s prophet, and he had used him to save the sailors and now the Ninevites.
But could he teach Jonah what it really meant to be a man of faith? Well that is the topic for next time.
Posted: 16th October 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis