Jonah 1:1-3, 3:1-5, 4:1-5
The year was 1995. It was six years since the Berlin Wall was ripped down. Michael Moore produced and directed a movie called Canadian Bacon. The story begins with a U.S. president, played by Alan Alda, realizing that life was simpler in the good old days of the Cold War, cannot convince the Russians to try again. Then a fight between American and Canadian fans breaks out at a hockey game and his advisers show him how to play it up into a full-blown international incident. Pretty soon the nightly news is running items like this:
It’s hard for some people to imagine a world without a constant state of suspicion among nations.
One of those people was Jonah, the central character of a story written down sometime during the eighth century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire, with its capital at Nineveh, was throwing its ugly weight around the Middle East. They invaded everyone repeatedly, including Israel, which they wiped out as a nation in the year 722 B.C.
We often treat the story of Jonah as a children’s story. One of the songs in Porgy and Bess scoffs at it.
“O Jonah, he lived in a whale.
Jonah, he lived in a whale.
He made his home in
A fish’s abdomen,
In a whale!”
In fact, Jonah only ended up inside the whale because God had told this faithful and patriotic Israelite to go to Nineveh and there, at the center of enemy territory, to declare repentance for their evil ways. Jonah was trying to get out of that, and God wouldn’t let him off the hook, even if the hook was in a great fish. At one point Jonah justifies himself to God and lays out the reason why, when God told him to go east, he went west.
“I fled to Tarshish at the beginning for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” [Jonah 4:2]
Jonah knew his Bible. Those are the words of the Psalms that speak of God,
“slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.
That description of God in those exact words appears in Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, and Psalm 145:8. Jonah had been listening and taking them seriously. He feared that God might have mercy on Nineveh, and he didn’t want that. The official line is always that God is on our side, especially in time of war. But what if, just what if… ?
Events seem to have justified Jonah’s misgivings. They also pointed out God’s unwillingness to leave the Assyrians without a chance to change their ways, and God’s determination not to let Jonah’s opposition get in the way.
Eventually, having been swallowed whole and then vomited up onto the shore again, Jonah decided that he had better do what he was told. Grudgingly, he went to Nineveh, his people’s enemy.
“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk, and he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ [Jonah 3:4]
and I suspect he enjoyed that. It’s always gratifying to tell your enemy on God’s behalf that they are on the brink of destruction. But then the rest of it came about, the part that Jonah feared.
“And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” [Jonah 3:5]
God relented. God let go of his anger. God forgave.
Jonah did not. He became angry at God as well as at the Assyrians. He was bitter. He cried,
“O Lord, please take my life from me now, for it is better for me to die than to live.” [Jonah 4:3]
So he sat down on the ground outside the city, totally despondent, hoping that God would see it his way after all, watching from a distance to see if God would destroy the city despite the people’s change of heart. God took pity on Jonah as he sat there in the hot sun, making a bush grow up suddenly to give him shade, but God did not erase anyone from the map.
What God did was remove the bush whose leaves stood over Jonah’s head, and in so doing found (as small as it might seem) a soft spot in Jonah’s heart. When the bush died as quickly as it had sprung up, Jonah’s bitterness increased.
“God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said,”
– and here is the point of the story, and the very last words of the book, which stops right with this –
“’You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” [Jonah 4:10-11]
Children. One hundred, twenty thousand children. And innocent animals, even, knowing nothing of human conflict.
Jonah? Are you getting it yet, Jonah? Bitter, angry, frightened prophet! Shuddering not at God’s judgment, but at God’s mercy! Made uneasy not by thunder and storm, but by the soft and gentle voice of the Lord, asking mercy from you!
Jonah, Jonah! Can’t you see the problem isn’t always them?
No, this book is not a children’s story. Be careful with it, because its pages are sharp and you may cut yourself.