1. My World
If I were to ask you about your world, how would you describe it? Would you describe it as something which revolves around you, or something which revolves around others? Is it something about which you like to have total control, or is there some flexibility in the way that things are allowed to evolve?
And when things in your world don’t go your way, how do you react? Do you pout and become sulky, or even become angry? Or do you take it on the chin, try to see if there is any merit in what has happened, and move on?
For me, I think I’m a bit midway. Because it’s always good when things go your way—the way you think they should. On the other hand, I’m realistic enough to know that’s not what’s always going to happen. Indeed, I can accept the idea that I’m not always going to be right, and that sometimes things just won’t go my way. And when they don’t? Then that’s when I need to evaluate whatever it was that had happened—that was different to how I would have liked it to be.
2. Jonah’s World
Now we probably all have our own little worlds to some degree. And when things don’t pan out as we think they should …? Well we probably all have our different ways of coping.
But, as we continue the story of Jonah today, we come face to face with a man who was incapable of coping when things went wrong; he was incapable of adjusting, or even thinking beyond himself. Which is why, when things didn’t go his way, he threw a tantrum. As a consequence, God had to give him an object lesson, to show him how wrong he really was.
B. THE STORY SO FAR
But, first, let’s recall the events in the life of Jonah so far ….
Three weeks ago, we discovered that Jonah was called by God to go to a foreign country and prophesy against it. We noted Jonah’s background, and a number of excuses that he could have given God why he shouldn’t go. And we also discovered his own statement, wanting the Ninevites to be destroyed. Indeed, it was the reason he gave for running away.
But, if Jonah thought he could escape from God, then he was very much mistaken. So, he called 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.
Two weeks ago, we discovered that although God rescued him, by providing a big fish, Jonah was not sorry for what he had done. Jonah may have expressed his gratitude to God for saving him, he may have committed himself to worship God when back on dry land, and he may have committed himself to go to Nineveh should he be asked again, but Jonah expressed no remorse for what he had done at all.
And last week, we saw God giving Jonah a second chance to do what he had asked. We then saw Jonah go and do the task, resulting in the Ninevites repenting of their sins and turning to God. But, despite Jonah being offered a clean slate by God, an opportunity to start again, we also saw Jonah dragging all his past hatred and prejudices with him. And he got angry with God; he didn’t understand him. So clearly for Jonah, God was not the God that he wanted him to be at all.
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part Four)
And now, the conclusion to the book of Jonah …
1. Jonah’s Temper Tantrum (4:5)
… Because throughout the story, Jonah had learnt nothing. God had rescued the sailors from their sins, and he had rescued the Ninevites. God had revealed himself to be, not just the God of Jonah or even of Israel, but the God of all creation. And yet, all Jonah could do, was to go out of the city, make himself a shade, and wait to see what would happen to the city.
Now clearly there is a problem with that. Jonah knew that the city had been saved—that’s why he’d got angry. Why, then, did he go out of the city and wait for it to be destroyed? What was it about God and the Ninevites he didn’t understand? He clearly didn’t want to believe God’s decision to save the Ninevites. And just how long did Jonah expect to wait?
Well presumably since God’s message had been that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days, then that was how long Jonah expected to be there. So, it was going to be a bit of a wait. But even Jonah wouldn’t have known for exactly how long. After all, the term “forty” in Hebrew thinking didn’t necessarily mean a literal “forty” days, but rather “a long time.” Nevertheless, we find Jonah sitting there, waiting for the city’s destruction (which in this case was not going to happen.)
2. God’s Object Lesson (4:6-8)
But God hadn’t given up on Jonah even now. He loved Jonah. So, he chose to serve Jonah an object lesson in compassion.
Now the shelter that Jonah had built was clearly inadequate. So God provided a vine to give Jonah some shade. Now Jonah didn’t say, “I don’t deserve it,” he simply accepted it. And indeed, it made Jonah very happy indeed.
What Jonah didn’t understand, however, was that it was an illustration of the compassion that God had for all his creation. Jonah hadn’t deserved God’s compassion, but he had provided the vine anyway. In the same way, the Ninevites hadn’t deserved God’s compassion, but he had rescued them too. God was treating Jonah and the Ninevites exactly the same. What right, then, did Jonah have in accepting God’s compassion for himself, whilst rejecting God’s compassion for the Ninevites?
Then, to illustrate his point further, God provided a worm to eat away at the vine so that the vine withered and died. That then left Jonah with only the inadequate shelter that he had made himself. And with the subsequent scorching east wind, Jonah baked in the sun, to the point that Jonah grew faint and wanted to die. In other words, it was God’s illustration of lack of compassion. The very thing that Jonah had had for the Ninevites. And if Jonah had been consistent, he would have realised that that was the very thing that he deserved.
Now do you think that was a pretty rough thing for God to do? Then you’re probably right. But Jonah needed an object lesson on compassion. He didn’t deserve God’s compassion any more than the Ninevites. But God was consistent. He had compassion on them all. What right then did Jonah have to receive God’s compassion, but want to deny it to the Ninevites?
Jonah was a man of double standards. He was quite happy for God to look out for him. But he wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed. He needed to be taught a lesson. So here was God saying, “See how you feel with your double standards. You don’t deserve my compassion any more than the Ninevites. See what it’s like to not be treated with compassion. Why should I have compassion on you and not them?”
3. The Debate (9-11)
But even with the object lesson, Jonah still didn’t get it right. Because the story ends with a debate between Jonah and God about Jonah’s anger, and God’s heart-felt need to have compassion on the people of Nineveh.
And at that point, the story suddenly stops. There’s no neat ending. There’s no wrap up of events. And there’s no comment about what Jonah did next.
Now over the years there has been a bit of a debate about the ending. Has something been dropped off the end of the story? Was there a chapter five, as some have suggested? But I don’t think so, because the Bible is like that. It tells you what you need to know—it makes it’s point—and then invariably goes no further. It doesn’t always expand on the things that you and I might want to know.
And in this particular case, leaving the relationship between God and Jonah deliberately unresolved, is very pertinent. And why? Because although the story is about one man—Jonah—the story is also about the attitudes that were prevalent in Israel at that time.
Leaving the end hanging as it does, then, serves to be an open challenge to its readers on the topic of God’s compassion. It served as an open-ended challenge to the Israelites after Jonah’s time, and it serves as an open-ended challenge for us too.
So, what is it that we can learn from this short passage today?
1. The Dangers of being Single-minded
Well, the first thing is, the danger of being single minded—of having our worlds revolve around us. Of being so focussed in our own little world, and on who we think that God is, that we give ourselves no room to move.
After all, Jonah got angry and threw a temper tantrum when he didn’t get his own way. He went out of the city, sat down and waited for its destruction, even though he knew that God had already saved it. Indeed, Jonah was so bound up in his own little world, and in his defective view of God, that he just couldn’t accept that he was wrong. And yet he was very wrong.
Of course, Jonah’s problem, was that he had the wrong idea about who God was in the first place. He believed that God was the God of Israel, and that God’s sole purpose was to care for the Israelites. But then Jonah was a prophet of his time; he was a prophet at a time when Israel’s borders were being restored, and a time of Israel’s increasing prosperity. As a consequence, he allowed the political and social situation of the time to colour his thinking. He’d fallen into the trap of making God in his own image.
And that should set alarm bells ringing for us. Because how many people today are so engrossed in their own little worlds—worlds that centre around them? How many of us have a view of the world, and God, coloured by the political and social thinking of our time? How many people have a view of God which is rigid—which is made in their image—and does not match the God of compassion that we have described in the book of Jonah?
There are problems with being single-minded—even for Christians today. And that comes out very clearly in the book of Jonah.
2. Lessons from God
The second thing that this passage teaches, is that God wants us to know him. Indeed, he wants us to be on the same wavelength as him. And, as part of that, he wants to teach us about himself, and about us. And he is not beyond using object lessons when we stray from the faith too.
Of course, in the case of Jonah, God had tried many different approaches. The storm was supposed to bring Jonah back to his senses. So too was the big fish. Even Jonah’s second call was an attempt to bring God’s idea of compassion into his life. But when all that failed, God provided a simple object lesson to show him his inconsistencies and prejudices. He grew a plant to shelter Jonah, and then he took it away.
Now the problem is that even with that simple lesson, Jonah still didn’t pick up on his own double standards. He just didn’t seem to want to be taught. And, sadly, we know that in the history of Israel, readers of this story also had the same problem.
But is learning about God and ourselves a problem for us today too? After all, God still wants to teach us. Indeed, he has even provided a book, people, other helps etc. to help us in the task. But not only that. For just as God engaged himself in the life of Jonah, to try to turn his life around, so he engages with us to teach us too. Indeed he has given us his Holy Spirit to help and guide us. Nevertheless he is not beyond giving us object lessons too.
So how do how we see our world, and our God? What do we need to be taught in order to see him as he really is? What lessons do we need? And what object lessons will God send our way, when we wander from the path?
The story of Jonah shows us that God wants us to be his people. And that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to keep us on track.
3. God’s Mission
And thirdly, as if we need to be reminded, this story illustrates God’s compassion for all. He wants everyone to be saved. He wants everyone to have a relationship with him.
Setting Israel up as a beacon to the world, where people were attracted to them because of their faith, didn’t work. It should have worked. But Israel, at the time of Jonah, was a nation where God was only God in lip service. They had chosen to go other ways. So, if God’s beacon didn’t work, then he had to find another way. So he sent a messenger, a prophet, to Nineveh. And what was at stake was a hundred and twenty thousand lives—none of whom knew God.
Now it doesn’t take much for the implications of this story to be understood. When this story was told to the people of Israel, it would have been seen as a radical departure from all that had gone before. An indication of the need to change. The people were being asked to rethink who God was, and to be prepared to go out and share the loving compassionate God with those who didn’t know him.
As a consequence, for us, who live in a very similar situation—who live in a country, and a world that doesn’t really know who God is—the implication is for us to do the same.
God wants to embrace all people. He wants us to be like him—compassionate. He wants us to be willing to outreach God’s love to all people. But it’s not something we can do well, if we are so single-minded that we don’t know who God is, or if we are unwilling to respond to the tugs and pulls of God, and refuse to learn from the object lessons that he sends our way.
Jonah, then, was a man of prejudice and double standards. But he was also a man of his time. Yes, in some way he was a man of God, but he wasn’t the man of God that he should have been. Indeed, he really didn’t have much of a grasp of who God was, and he was so single-minded that he wouldn’t be taught—even by God.
What was important to Jonah was himself, his own people, and no one else. He was very nationalistic; his views were coloured by the political and social situation with which he lived. So yes, he was probably the right person to prophecy the restoration of Israel’s borders (2 Kings 14:25-26), but he struggled with the idea of God’s compassion.
But are we any different? How wrapped up in our own little worlds, and how single-minded are we? Indeed, when it comes to showing God’s compassion, how enthusiastic are we in revealing God to the world?
F. SUMMARY OF JONAH
Now for the last four weeks we’ve been looking at the book of Jonah. And, as we’ve discovered, Jonah is a particularly interesting character. He is certainly not what we might consider to be a typical prophet. So much so that we could question whether he was really a prophet at all.
But despite his inadequacies, God was able to use him to deliver his message, and to save the sailors and the Ninevites. There were also times when he did listen to God—times that are not recorded in this book, but which had the welfare of his own people at heart. So, Jonah may not have been the prophet that he should have been, yet God was still able to use him.
And the purpose of the book of Jonah in the Bible? Well it’s probably because it illustrates God as a God of compassion—a God who wants to save everyone. And it does so, by demonstrating the huge gulf between God as he really is, and God as people think him to be. Thus, it provides a challenge for us to see God as he really is.
But one final thing, before we leave Jonah. And that is his name. Because Jonah means “dove.”
Now in the bible, doves are associated with Noah, who released a dove from the Ark to see if the waters had receded (Genesis 8:8); King David wished for the wings of a dove so he could escape—so he could fly away (Psalm 55:6); Solomon called his lover a “dove”—a term of endearment (Song of Songs 5:2). And for us, we use doves as symbols of peace.
But language can be problematic. Indeed, even today the meaning of words change. Because the prophet Hosea, shortly after the time of Jonah, described Israel as a dove. But then he qualified it, as “single-minded and without sense.” (Hosea 7:11a) A description which describes Jonah to a T.
Jonah then, was a man of his time. Someone who was so wrapped up in the politics and culture of his time, that he couldn’t see God as he really was. Indeed, he was so single-minded that even God had trouble breaking through.
But that’s Jonah, what about us? Where do we fit into the scheme of things?
You know, there are great similarities between Australia today and the Israel of Jonah’s time. The dangers of being wrapped up in our own worlds—with our culture, and our limited view of who God is—remains the same. Indeed, even today, we can be so engrossed in our own little worlds, and our own image of God, that even God has a hard-time breaking through.
Even today, many who acknowledge God’s existence, only pay him lip service. Many only see him through the lens of our political and social situations. Most have changed him into something with which they are more comfortable. So, as a nation, we don’t do what God asks. Indeed, we are usually heading in the opposite direction.
So, when a storm hits, or we face disaster, as a nation we don’t respond to God either. We dismiss it as “An act of God,” a bit of bad weather, or simply explain it away. We certainly don’t learn from any encouragements or lessons that God might send our way.
And that is the value of stories like Jonah. Because the book of Jonah provides a challenge to that way of thinking. It asks us to revaluate our view of God, and to take an active part in showing his compassion for all mankind.
So, is our God a God of compassion? Is our God someone who wants everyone to be saved? And, if he is, where do we fit in the picture? How willing are we take our part in telling others about God today?
Posted: 22nd October 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis