Among other brilliant things reading the book of Jonah is noting that it’s as much about what’s around Jonah as it is about Jonah.
The Ship’s Crew:
Here is a group of people who do not know or worship the God of Israel. They are very much into their gods, though. They show a great deal of compassion to want to avoid taking a life – especially knowing that it belongs to someone who worships the maker of heaven and earth.
Their conduct before, during and after the storm is depicted in a very sympathetic light, which is intriguing considering they’re non-Israelites. Especially their understanding of who the true God is after the sea calms when they chuck Jonah into the sea.
The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him. (Jonah 1:16 NLT)
This is not an indication of how all peoples everywhere behave. It does imply, however, that non-believers cannot be easily categorised as being unable to behave in ways that are honourable. Some of their behaviour might indeed indict those who claim to believe in the maker of heaven and earth and everyone in it.
The Great Fish
Two things are great about the fish – its size and its obedience to God.
Jonah owes his life to the Great Fish. It formed the incubator in which Jonah could die to himself and rise to a life of obedience through the cry of repentance.
Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach. )Jonah 2:10 NLT)
It’s a Great Fish because it was there on time to take Jonah in. It’s a Great Fish because when the time was right it was obedient to throw up Jonah back on dry land. The Great Fish was more obedient to God than Jonah. (Let that sink in for a few days and nights.)
Wicked and violent. Not exactly the kind of review you would want as a recommendation for a holiday resort. This was how God rated the place which is why it was under his judgement. If you just stick to what takes place in Jonah then there’s a great lesson to see even in what happens to this place.
Their response to the message they receive from some strange guy from a strange land referring to a strange God is remarkable. You can imagine alternative responses to the news. They could have taken umbrage at a foreigner coming in with scaremonger tactics. They could have been dismissive of this alien babbling about some God they don’t even know.
It was one thing to get the edict of the King calling not just for a season of fasting, but actual practical action to address the issues that had been highlighted. Not only that, the King’s message followed what people were already doing – taking the message seriously and grieving about it. Yet it’s still got to be remarked as to the degree to which the entire city took on the message.
Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:
“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.” (Jonah 3:7-9 NLT)
Everyone in sackloth – a significant act of humility. That’s remarkable in a city that might well have been accused of self-indulgence and the degree of materialism and showiness that goes with that. For them to invert that on hearing news from this strange guy about this strange God speaks volumes about the capacity for people to change.
It makes it all the more tragic that later on judgement still fell on the city because they reverted to their wicked ways. Yet for the benefit of what this book looks to convey, the response of the people should offer hope for community transformation when God’s Word is heard and taken seriously from the authorities of the community all the way through even to the animals.
The Leafy Plant and The Worm
Now if you were looking to do a screenplay of the book of Jonah and needed to put together a cast list you probably wouldn’t be looking for a leafy plant. Yet the leafy plant in the final stages of the story is rather fundamental to the point Jonah is supposed to get from the scenario.
This plant was not nurtured by Jonah, it didn’t come about because of Jonah and its demise wasn’t because of Jonah either. Yet Jonah gets all hung up about the plant because of the great help it gave him. You ever wonder to yourself if Jonah was meant to be the worm? Someone who wanted to chew through any hope for the plant and see its downfall? Nah, it might just be me.
Either way just like with kudos going to the Great Fish, the role of the plant and the worm have a lot to contribute to us getting an understanding of what’s going on around Jonah and what might be going on around us if we have the eyes to see.
Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. (Jonah 4:2 NLT)
The heart of the story is the reason why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place. There’s no way in which He forces anyone to do anything. God does what it takes to get the attention of people to be given the opportunity to respond to every effort He makes for them to turn to Him.
He doesn’t force the crew to interrogate Jonah and then call out to Him before they throw Jonah overboard. He provides the opportunity for them to choose and see Him at work.
He doesn’t force Jonah to go to Nineveh. He provides the opportunity through salvation in the Great Fish for Him to repent.
He doesn’t force the Ninevites to repent of their wicked ways. He provides the opportunity for them to be made aware of their situation through Jonah.
He doesn’t force Jonah to get the message of why He is the way He is. He provides the opportunity for Jonah to learn through the leafy plant.
The character of God in this story is so pronounced and significant that surely we have got to see Him at work and marvel at His patience, His compassion, His concern for people as a whole, not just for His chosen people. To this day He’s not forcing anyone to do anything. He’s providing opportunities for us to respond.
That response could allow us to see His awesome provision of salvation and restoration.
For His Name’s Sake
C. L. J. Dryden