Caution: this book is so weird. The first time we hear about the prophet Jonah of Israel (God’s people) is during the reign of King Jeroboam II, Israel’s worst king (2 Kings 14). Jonah prophesied over Jeroboam that he would have favor in battle and win back a lot of Israel’s northern territories. God spoke through another prophet, Amos, reversing what Jonah said (Amos 1-9), proclaiming that Jeroboam would lose that territory because he was such a bad king. Already we can see that something is up with the prophet Jonah. The other big name in the book of Jonah is the country of Nineveh, in Assyria.
A little history behind the Assyrians: Then Pul king of Assyria invaded the land (2 Kings 15:19). Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria… deported the people to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29). Shalmaneser king of Assyria marched against Samaria and laid siege to it (2 Kings 18:9). Invaded, to take by violence. Deported, to remove a country’s inhabitants from their homeland. Laid siege, to surround a country and cut it off from food and water until the people die. The Assyrians had made life horrible for the Israelites for years.
The book of Jonah is a literary work of art in many ways. There are these stereotyped groups of people, the good and godly Israelites and their prophets, the evil and bad Assyrians and their kings. But no one in the story acts according to what would be expected of them. It’s satirical and rebellious almost in and of itself because of how backwards things seem to go. A prophet hates God for loving his enemies who end up worshipping God (including the cows) after an involuntary, one-sentence warning. What? Usually in the prophet books we are hearing God’s words through a minor or major prophet. The book of Jonah is a story ABOUT a prophet, and it is through this story that we are actually called to use it as a mirror for ourselves. The questions that God asks Jonah, we are called to ask of ourselves. How do we feel about the fact that God loves the people who hurt us and has mercy on them like He has for us? This book challenges everyone because there is always a part of us that can’t cope with our Father showing compassion to those who haven’t shown compassion to us. But it is through Jonah that the true thoughts of our heart are revealed and the true greatness of God’s love for all is on display. The same love that changes our enemies changes us.
I just want to call out one of the biggest distractions when reading this book. Was Jonah really swallowed by a fish or is this just a story? (The word whale was never used originally.) For some of us, these discussions and arguments are fun, and for others they are stressful and anxiety provoking. No matter where you fall on that spectrum or if you don’t know where to fall, please do not miss the point. Don’t let that question and whether your answer is right or wrong keep you from really hearing what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you through these scriptures. That would be an even bigger loss than having to live in a fish for 3 days.
The God of Surprises
The first chapter of Jonah is full of these opposing and contradicting situations I mentioned earlier. God tells Jonah to go east to convict the Ninevites of their evil against the Israelites. Jonah gets on a ship going West to Tarshish, the farthest from the East that you can possibly go at this time. Contradiction number 1: Jonah, the prophet of God, runs from God. Once on the ship, a storm comes, so Jonah decides to go to sleep (nice one, Jonah) while the sailors try to save the ship. Contradiction number two: the godly prophet avoids the fact that he has caused this storm and avoids helping the situation, while the “ungodly” pagan sailors do everything they can. They figure out the storm is because of Jonah. They wake him up to ask why this is happening. He tells them who he worships, and they already know he is running away from his God. Contradiction number 3: the sailors are baffled that Jonah would run away from the God who has made the land and SEA by getting on a boat, while Jonah ironically should have been the first to that conclusion. Jonah’s suggestion is for them to throw him into the sea to stop the storm. Contradiction number 4: instead of taking responsibility for causing this storm himself, the man of God suggests they kill him, selfishly putting the blood on their hands. Why doesn’t he just jump overboard if he knows this will stop the storm? Contradiction number 5: the pagan sailors refuse to kill him at first and try to row back to land, continuing to show their humility and selflessness against Jonah’s pride. Contradiction number 6: the sailors end up being the first people to pray in this story. They pray to God while throwing Jonah over, asking not to be held accountable for doing so. Contradiction number 6: after the storm calms by committing, what they assume, is murder, the pagan sailors come to know, fear, and make sacrifices and vows to the Almighty God. The Lord provides a fish to swallow Jonah. Contradiction number 7: Jonah doesn’t die from this.
What are all these contradictions pointing out? One, we definitely can’t put people in boxes. No matter how “of God” or “not of God” someone may seem, at any moment he/she could respond contrary to that assumption. This means we are all susceptible to temptation, and that even the most “ungodly” people are highly capable of unselfish and worshipful acts. We tend to see people in dualistic terms (good, bad, end of story). What are ways that you have tended to put yourself, others, and God in a box? How can you challenge those boundaries? What experiences created those boxes in your mind and heart? How does this impact the ways we see people we think of as far from our standard of Christianity? Two, our God is the God of surprises. At this point in the story of Jonah, things seem really confusing from everyone’s perspective, except maybe the fish I guess. Who or what God chooses to work through and why will often not make the most sense to us or the eyes of the world. What are ways that God is surprising you right now? What are the things in your life or the lives of those around you that don’t seem to make sense at this stage? Where could God be going in those situations given just this first chapter of Jonah?
I’ve noticed something in Jonah’s prayer from within Mr. Fish in chapter 2 that is common in my own life. God never fails to humble me. Ever. Jonah was called to preach to the Ninevites so they would repent from their violent and destructive ways and turn to God to save them. But Jonah himself has only been rebellious up until this point in his own book. “You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.” This is a humble reckoning. But God doesn’t end there. Because Jonah is aware of his sin and brokenness, he is better able to confront the Ninevites on their own stuff. By the time he gets to Nineveh, he’ll have just been thrown up by a fish, so truly what is he gonna have to brag about at this point? “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.” Sometimes we need the pit to finally be woken up to how far we have run, and it’s from this place that we are truly able to show others the goodness of God, not because of how together we have it, but because of how much we all need Him. What pits have you been in? Are you in one right now? How do you think God has/will continue to use pits in your life and for others?