Jonah is maybe the most well known of all the minor prophets and one of the most well known books of the Old Testament. Those of us who grew up in churches, we have known this book our entire lives, from the moment we were born we have been hearing about Jonah and the whale. But that in and of itself creates a problem.
We have to get something out of the way if we are going to get anywhere with this sermon, and I am sorry I have to say this to you, but the book of Jonah is not about the whale. In fact, we don’t even know for sure that it was a whale. The word that the Bible uses here can refer to any large marine animal, it could be a whale or it could be a very large shark.
For what its worth, the largest whales have a an esophagus that is very small because they eat krill, they eat microscopic organisms, too small for a human being to be swallowed very easily. Some of the larger sharks have a much bigger esophagus and it is much more conceivable that a human being would be able to pass through the esophagus.
Now of course, God can do anything that he wants to. If he wanted to, he could have made a whale especially for the purpose of swallowing Jonah and maybe that’s what he did. But that’s not what the book is about.
Instead, the book of Jonah, as much as perhaps any other of the minor prophets, is about God’s love. This is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of God’s love in all of Scripture. On a big level, it’s about God’s love for the people of Nineveh and we will touch on that, but I want us to devote the time to see God’s love for Jonah, this stubborn, disobedient prophet, because I think that the way God loved Jonah, has a lot in common with the way God loves his people today.
But in order for us to talk about God’s love for Jonah, we need to go through the story three different times, highlighting different things each time. The first time we want to talk about what Jonah knows about God, because there are various different places where Jonah speaks up with confessions of faith and shows very clearly that he knows the truth about who God is.
But the problem with Jonah as you may guess, if you have read the title of this message, is that he doesn’t believe what he knows. That is to say, what he knows up here in his mind is not what he actually believes here in his heart, enough that it will lead him to act. He doesn’t believe what he knows.
First of all, let’s talk about what Jonah knows about God. There are several different places where Jonah makes very beautiful confessions of faith. Look at what Jonah says in chapter one verse nine,
He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”
Understand that at this time period, most of the people around the nation of Israel are polytheistic. This is in the eighth century BC, and most of the nations around Israel worship many gods, and in particular believe that there are local gods for certain places. But the problem is that they are not on land right now, they are on the sea.
If they were on land, people would know, “we are supposed to pray to the god of this place, and that god would save us.” But they are at sea and there is a great storm and nobody knows what to do so they say, “quick, wherever you are from, pray to your god, and maybe one of those gods will be able to help us.”
It’s a very localized view, Jonah knows that is wrong, and he knows that there is one true God who is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, the sea and dry land, and that he is a servant of that God, and he tells them so. Jonah knows the truth about God.
The second major place where Jonah shows that he knows the truth about God comes in his long confession in chapter two. And as we read this, pay attention to the fact that this is not what Jonah says after the fish or the whale, whichever it was, spits him up on the land safely. This is what Jonah says while he is still in the fish or the whale, while his destiny is still very much in doubt. Jonah 2,
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish, and he said, “I called out of my distress to the LORD, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice. “For You had cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me. “So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.’ “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, Weeds were wrapped around my head. “I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. “While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple. “Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness, But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD.”
Notice one again, Jonah says this before he is delivered to the dry land safely. “Salvation is from the LORD.” Jonah knows that the LORD is a God who hears the cries of his people, the LORD is a God who can and will save. He knows the truth about God.
Let us look at one more passage where Jonah makes a great confession. Jonah 4:2,
He prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.
“Lord you are gracious, abound in love, you relent from disaster.” Jonah knows the truth about God. To say it differently, Jonah knows all the right things to say about God. He knows the truth.
The second thing I would like to do is to walk through the book of Jonah again a second time, paying attention not to what Jonah knows with his mind, but to what Jonah believes with his heart. That is to say, what he believes to such a degree that it informs his actions.
And unfortunately Jonah, like us all too much of the time, acts on the basis on what he wishes God were like, or what he would want God to be like if God were more like him, instead of on the basis of what he knows that God is like.
In order for us to understand a little bit about what Jonah wishes God were like, we need to look a little bit at the background to the book of Jonah. We said that this takes place in the eighth century BC, that is to say in the 700’s BC. If you back up just a little bit to the latter part of the ninth century BC, that is 830, 820, 810 BC.
This was a period when Assyria, which corresponds to Iraq and part of Iran today, attacked and defeated Aram, which corresponds to modern Syria today. We have Israel, and above that we have Syria, and on the other side of the Jordan river we have what is today Iran and Iraq.
In the late ninth century BC, Aram, whose capital was Damascus, which is the capital of Syria today, was the major enemy of Israel. Assyria attacked and defeated Damascus which enabled Israel to have a temporary area of enlarged boundaries and great national prosperity because Assyria had knocked off their worst enemy.
That wouldn’t last very long because Assyria would then turn its attention to Israel and take Israel captive in 722 BC. But from the years about 800 to 750 or so, there is a great sense of national pride in Israel. “Look at us, we have larger borders, we are prosperous, we are great.”
But now our potential enemy looming on the horizon is Assyria. The capital of Assyria is Nineveh. And so our worst enemy, the peoples we hate the most, have gone from being the people of Damascus to the people of Nineveh. And Jonah cannot get his mind, or especially his heart around the possibility that God might love the people of Nineveh. But see, Jonah knows that God will accept anyone who turns to him in true repentance. But he doesn’t want God to be like that. So what does he do.
In a series of actions which are almost childish, in the crazy way Jonah tries to manipulate God, we read in chapter one God says, “Go to Nineveh,” which is north and east. So what does Jonah do? He gets on a ship and sails to Tarshish which is in Spain, as far in the opposite direction as you can possibly go in the known world at that time because they didn’t know about the western hemisphere.
And when that doesn’t work, when God dramatically causes him to go to Nineveh anyway, in chapter three he preaches a message of unequivocal, unconditional destruction. “Nineveh is going to be destroyed,” and he doesn’t say, “unless you repent,” even though he knows God is going to take them back if they repent. He doesn’t say anything about that. He says, “Nineveh is going to be destroyed.”
And the people of Nineveh, the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth, they fast, they pray, they turn to the LORD. And they have had no prophetic gurantee that God is going to listen to them. “You never know,” they say, “maybe God will be merciful to us.”
So first Jonah tries to go the other way. Second, he tries to preach a partial message of unconditional destruction, without saying, “by the way, if you repent, God might accept you.” And when even that doesn’t work, Jonah sulks like a spoiled three year-old. Let us look at the beginning of chapter four again, reading it now in context. Jonah 4:1-2,
But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.
At this point I am almost expecting him to say, “and I am going to hold my breath and cross my arms like this and sit here until you destroy them,” because that is what he is acting like. Jonah would rather die than see God forgive the people that he hates. Even though he knows God is going to, even though he knew ahead of time that God was merciful and would receive anyone who genuinely turns to him.
Jonah knows the truth about God, but he doesn’t act on the basis of it. He doesn’t believe what he knows. What he knows, doesn’t shape the way he acts. Instead he acts on the basis of a childish wish that God would be like him, instead of acting on the basis of God’s true character.
What I want to do now is go through the book a third time and see how God responds to Jonah. God ‘s love for Jonah, who is stubborn, who doesn’t believe what he knows, who doesn’t act on the basis of what God is really like, Jonah is unfortunately all too much the way we sometimes are.
Let’s think about the way God loves Jonah. First of all recognize that God did not have to preach to the Ninevites through Jonah. God does not ever have to use any particular person. God can do whatever he wants directly if he wants to. Or God can use somebody else. And in this particular time, there were plenty of prophets available who could of preached to Nineveh, who might very well have been more willing to do so.
To name just the most notable, Amos and Hosea are contemporaries of Jonah, prophesying in Israel among the northern tribes at the same time. God could easily have sent one of them or somebody else to Nineveh instead of Jonah. Why does he send Jonah? Because he loves Jonah too much to allow him to continue not believing what he knows.
Secondly recognize that when Jonah tried to disobey, God could have said, “you missed your chance, now I am going to try plan B. Somebody else, are you ready. Jonah is not going to figure in my purposes anymore.” God didn’t do that, and he doesn’t do that with us either.
Instead, God sent a storm to stop him as he is trying to go the wrong way. He sent a great fish in order to keep him alive, rather than having him drown. He sent a repetition of the command to go. And then he sent a vine and a worm in chapter four as Jonah was sulking over the fact that God wasn’t destroying Ninevah.
Again and again, God intervenes to get Jonah’s attention, to remind him that he needs to believe what he knows. God loves Jonah too much to leave him not believing what he knows.
The book of Jonah is a great story of God’s love for the people of Nineveh, and for all peoples of the world and his willingness to accept anyone who truly repents. But in the midst of that big story, there is the story of God’s love for Jonah.
Jonah was not an easy prophet for God to work with, and he was not the only one. Many of the prophets were difficult characters. Jeremiah tried to quit at least once, and there were many other difficulties in the way many of the prophets responded to God’s call. Jonah was one of the toughest, but God loved him enough that he didn’t write Jonah out of his purposes. He kept coming back to Jonah again and again, to transform what Jonah believed in his heart, so that it lined up with what he knew in his mind.
In many ways this is what Christian life is about. Very often the problem does not lie in what we know. We know enough truth about God. Of course there is always room to grow. But that is not normally the problem. Instead the problem is that we do not believe what we know. We do not act on the basis of the way we know God really is.
Just as God loves Jonah, God loves us. He loves us too much to allow us to continue not believing what we know. The question is, how will we respond? Are we willing for the Holy Spirit to transform us into people who believe what we know?