Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” (Jonah 1:9 NLT)
Getting a hold of Bible stories as a child can be very useful. It can also be interesting to see how you took the story as a child and how that changes as you go on into adulthood.
If you asked me about Jonah as a child I would probably talk about someone who ran away from God, but was swallowed by a whale (yep that’s what I thought until I read it properly) and prayed to God.
That’s what I would tell you about Jonah, way back when. The more I read about it even up to this point, the story of Jonah is so much more than a guy who got to stay in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights. In fact I was conversing with a few friends recently that there is much to learned from the life of Jonah and surely he has to go down as one of the worst prophets in the Old Testament.
I qualify that statement in stating the following – I don’t put Jonah as one of those prophets who were saying things that were not from God. I’m happy to call those types who would speak peace when there would be no peace as false prophets. That’s fairly straightforward to me. So by the ‘worst prophet’ I’m referring to those who had the privilege of the responsibility of conveying the word of God.
Here’s Jonah – he gets the message and does a runner jeopardising the lives of those who were travelling with him. He didn’t even hide the fact that this is what he was doing.
Here’s Jonah – even when he delivers the message that he’s sent to give, he does it reluctantly because he knows what might happen.
Here’s Jonah – has the temerity to turn to God and say it was better for him to be dead than see Nineveh get a reprieve.
Here’s Jonah – extends the temerity to replying to God that he has every right to be angry about the downfall of the shade he had whilst watching and waiting.
Seen in this way, Jonah doesn’t come out of the book looking that great at all. It’s not all bad for Jonah, at least he uses the time in the belly of the fish to genuinely cry out to God. It’s clear that Jonah knows God. It’s clear that Jonah is capable of being the mouthpiece God wants to use. Jonah is not a complete bad guy.
Yet, there is something about him that irks. His attitude reminds me very much of what Jesus would say later. In essence Jesus was pointing out the importance of forgiveness and the level of gratitude to be related to being forgiven. If you have been forgiven of much, that level of gratitude should liberate and not be a hindrance.
Jonah has been forgiven of rebelling against God. Not only has he been forgiven and allowed to live again, he’s even been given the same assignment again and trusted. Yet his attitude when others are forgiven when they cry out is so shortsighted considering what’s happened to him. It’s as if his clear hatred of the Ninevites is more important than the opportunity to see them forgiven as he was.
Jonah doesn’t even appear to get that message when God highlights his hypocrisy in having more concern for a plant than for a city full of people who have not had the chance to know true repentance.
Jonah is a part of the chosen people of God, his behaviour is very much one as if he can get God’s favour but those he considers less than him should not have that favour. Sure Nineveh’s reputation as a city of great corruption and immorality may very well have been deserved. They might have had bad relations with God’s people which would have rubbed them up the wrong way. From that perspective, Jonah’s distaste might very well in the eyes of some be justified.
However, all of this goes against the purpose of God’s people. As a light to the nations, they are supposed to exhibit the very qualities and values they receive from God. They are meant to be a beacon of that as the holy people God is looking for. They are meant to be different.
As I get hung up about just how ‘bad’ Jonah is, though, I am arrested to think about my attitude and approach to others. Jonah was trusted – I am trusted. What am I doing with the trust? How does that impact my relationship with others?
What about those ‘types’ of people who might fall into the category of the Ninevites of the day? What if I was entrusted by God to share important news to those people to turn from their ways and turn to God? Would I do it without running in the opposite direction and needing to be swallowed up for a while to repent? Would I do it and partially hope that they ‘get what’s coming to them’?
There’s something about the character of Jonah as depicted in this one story that offers pause for reflection and consideration on our attitudes and behaviour. (I still think he’s among the worst prophets, though. Let me know if you agree or agree wholeheartedly.)
For His Name’s Sake
C. L. J. Dryden