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Monday, May 14, 2012

Jonah - Not Another Fish Story

~ Jonah - Called By God ~ 
Jonah 1-4

Jonah 1:1
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me."

The easiest reading of the book of Jonah is that the prophet just didn't feel like going to Nineveh. After all, we don't read of Jonah arguing with God when he was sent, only that he just didn't go. But a closer reading of the history of the people of Israel sheds some more light on the story of Jonah, revealing that he was more than just a rebellious prophet who didn't want to go where God had sent him.

In plain speaking, the mission for which the Lord had sent Jonah was one that, in human thinking anyway, didn't make a lick of sense. God was, in essence, sending Jonah to preach to his enemies. God was sending Jonah to preach to a race of people who were mortal enemies of the Israelites. Jonah knew that the Ninevites were a bloodthirsty, vicious people who posed a very real threat to his own countrymen. On top of that, they were desperately wicked people that Jonah no doubt believed were deserving of God's judgment and wrath.

Jonah just couldn't understand why he should go to a place like Nineveh, and the thought of being called to go there must have galled him. But it didn't matter why he didn't want to go to Nineveh, only that he refused to do what God had told him to do, instead relying on his own human understanding and reasoning. The results of that refusal made a most interesting — and very entertaining — adventure!

You're Sending Me Where?

The prophet Jonah was the son of a man named Amittai of Gath-hepher, and his name meant “a dove.” The most familiar Biblical story about Jonah begins with this command from God: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are” (Jonah 1:2).

This was a fairly unusual assignment for a prophet of God. Usually when God sent a prophet, it was to the people of Israel with a warning to repent and return to God. This time, however, it was a call to preach to people who, for all Jonah knew, could have killed him on the spot.

But God had a plan for Jonah, and it was a plan to bless him by allowing him to be the vessel through which a generation of people would be saved. It didn't make sense to Jonah; in fact, there was no way he could possibly have understood what God was up to. It wasn't a calling a prophet of God could have expected, but it was God's command — one He expected Jonah to obey.

Sadly, however, Jonah did exactly the opposite of what God had told him to do. Rather than head straight for Nineveh, Jonah hopped a boat and headed in the opposite direction. As the book of Jonah tells us: “But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3).

Jonah hoped to get away from God and the very distasteful mission he'd been sent on, and he probably thought he had it made once he boarded the ship. But that was just one of the several missteps Jonah would make before he finally turned around and got his mind and life right. Jonah went nowhere but “down” when he ran from God: down to the port of Joppa (Jonah 1:3), down to the hold of the ship (1:5), down into the stormy sea (1:15), and down into the belly of a giant fish (1:17).

And, as you will see as you study these four Books of the Bible, it was only when Jonah looked up that he was pulled up.

I Think I Know Why This Is Happening

There is no more miserable place in life for a Christian to be than running from God and the things He has called us to do. When you turn away from God there is no protection from the devil, there are no messages or comfort from God, there is no peace of mind, and there is no joy or strength from the Lord.

While Jonah probably thought he'd gotten away with something — and away from God — it wasn't long before his sin and rebellion caught up with him. He had purchased a ticket to a place called Tarshish and boarded the boat. He was sleeping soundly in the ship's hold when he was awakened by the terrified and panicked cry of the ship's captain: “‘How can you sleep at a time like this?'; he shouted. ‘Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives';” (Jonah 1:6).

Jonah really believed he could run from God, and he probably wondered if God knew where he was when he ended up in the belly of the fish. But David the psalmist wrote that it was impossible to hide from God: “I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!” (Psalm 139:7).

This was no ordinary storm that had struck. It was a storm sent specifically from God (Jonah 1:4) so that He could pull His prophet back to a life of obedience, and it was so violent that it threatened to rip the ship in half. Even the weather-hardened, sea-wise sailors who ran the ship were so afraid they were going to die that they started tossing cargo overboard.

Jonah informed the ship's crew that he was a Hebrew who worshipped the true and living Creator God and that he was on the ship because he was running from God. That, he said, was why they were in the predicament they were in. When they asked Jonah what they should do, he told them very directly and simply: “Throw me overboard” (Jonah 1:12).

But instead of getting rid of the cargo that was causing the problem — Jonah himself — the sailors tried harder to get the ship under control and back to port. When they found that they were helpless against the storm's fury, they threw Jonah overboard and down into the sea.

Just as Jonah had said, the storm ceased immediately and the ship's crew was safe. Jonah, however, had another problem to deal with.

A Really Nasty Place to Be

The Bible tells us that Jonah didn't drown after he was thrown overboard but was swallowed whole by “a great fish” (Jonah 1:17), which the Lord had prepared. While the language in which the book of Jonah was written leaves it open to debate just what kind of creature swallowed the prophet, it is clear that he stayed in the belly of that beast for three days and three nights.

It is difficult to imagine or to try to describe the foulness of such a place. Perhaps one good point of reference is what fishermen refer to as a chum bucket, an onboard receptacle for a mixture of fish heads, blood, and innards, all of which are dumped into the water to help attract fish and bring them closer to the boat so that fisherman can more easily get them to take their bait.

Being buried head to toe in a bucket of chum would likely be only slightly less unpleasant than being in the belly of the creature God sent to swallow the prophet Jonah. No doubt it was a soaking wet place in which Jonah could hardly move or breathe because it was so enclosed and because it stunk so badly.

But it was a place where a prophet of God, or anybody else, could do only one thing: pray for a way out. That is exactly what Jonah did.

A Prayer for Deliverance

Jonah 2:7
"When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple."

There are a lot of ways God can redirect our focus and bring us back to obedience, but it's hard to imagine one more effective than sending someone to spend three days in the stomach of some kind of giant sea creature. And while Jonah must have wondered if this was how his life would end, he prayed for God's deliverance from the situation.

Jonah's prayer starts out sounding very much like one of the psalms: “I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead, and Lord, you heard me! You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. The mighty waters engulfed me; I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves” (Jonah 2:2–3).

Jesus Christ himself gave the story of Jonah historical authenticity as well as a spiritual application when he said, “For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40).

As Jonah continued praying, he seems to understand that he had run from God and that God had banished him from His presence because of it. Then he seems to turn back to God, telling him, “Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple” (Jonah 2:4). Finally, he tells God, “But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the Lord alone” (Jonah 2:9).

That, apparently, was what God wanted to hear. He removed Jonah from the unpleasantness he had brought on himself through his own disobedience and rebellion: “Then the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach” (Jonah 2:10).

But the story was far from finished. There was still that matter of Jonah actually doing what God had called him to do in the first place.

Are You Ready to Go Now?

While not everyone who spends three days in the stomach of a fish will use that time to get his mind and spirit right, that is exactly what the prophet Jonah did. Once he did that — and once God got him out of that fish's belly — he barely had time to get himself cleaned up when God spoke to him a second time, giving him the same command as before: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you” (Jonah 3:2).

Jonah had learned his lesson. This time he didn't head “down,” but instead he headed out, straight to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see all of it. He still may not have had a clue as to why God had called him to preach to a people like the Ninevites — or why God had chose him to do it — but this time he did as he had been commanded.

And once Jonah was in Nineveh, he didn't pull any punches. He spoke the very message God had given him to deliver.

The book of Jonah doesn't tell us what specific sin or sins the people had committed to bring God';s judgment down on themselves, but it does tell us that the situation was dire, so dire that on the very day Jonah entered the city he announced, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4). It was a message Jonah believed with all his heart, and it was a message the Ninevites believed, too.

Jonah had spoken from the heart and with passion, because the people of Nineveh — including the king himself — listened and made the changes God had called them to make. Jonah, the reluctant — even rebellious — prophet of God had made a difference, preaching salvation to a people who until that time had been his mortal enemy.

The Results of Obedience

Jonah 3:10
"When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened".

Any doubts Jonah had about the people of Nineveh receiving his message were quickly dispelled. Right away the people of the city — from the most important to the least — heard what he was saying, took heed of the message, and repented.

But there was more. Even the king of Nineveh took Jonah's message seriously. He stepped down from his throne, took off his royal robes, and went into “sackcloth and ashes” repentance. Not only that, he and his nobles passed this decree for 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

Because Jonah had obeyed God — after a three-day side trip — and because he preached the truth that God had given him to speak, the city of Nineveh was spared. God saw how the people had repented and changed their ways, and He changed His mind and didn't carry out the destruction He had earlier threatened.

Jesus himself mentioned Jonah and actually likened Jonah's assigned mission to his own: “The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here — but you refuse to repent” (Matthew 28:41).

God had shown mercy, just as He had wanted to in the first place, but that only angered Jonah, who complained, “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. Just kill me now, Lord! I'd rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen” (Jonah 4:2–3).

This seems like a strange response to the mercy of God, who asks him, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:4). Jonah then went out to the edge of the city and started pouting while he waited to see what would happen to it. Would God do as He had said?

Jonah seems angry that such a wicked city had been saved, that what God had said was going to happen didn't. It seems that he was more concerned that what he prophesied come true than have his warnings lead to the repentance and salvation of a huge city. Finally, God uses a series of miracles to demonstrate the rightness of his mercy on the people of Nineveh.

The book of Jonah ends abruptly, and God has the last word, saying to Jonah, “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn't I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:12).

In the end, it seems that this question is posed for the reader to ponder as there is no answer from Jonah. In fact, that question leaves us only to think about the immense compassion of God — even for those who were not his “chosen” people... the Gentiles.

God cares about and loves all people, regardless of what country or race they belong to. The mission of Jonah was an example of that great love and compassion. Shouldn't we too also have love and compassion for all people?

A Case For Jonah

In February 1891 the whaling ship Star of the East was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands, and the look-out sighted a large sperm whale three miles away. Two boats were launched and in a short time one of the harpooners was enabled to spear the fish. The second boat attacked the whale, but was upset by a lash of its tail and the men thrown into the sea, one man being drowned, and another, James Bartley, having disappeared could not be found. The whale was killed and in a few hours the great body was lying by the ship's side, and the crew were busy with axes and spades removing the blubber. They worked all day and part of the night.

Next morning they attached some tackle to the stomach, which was hoisted on deck. The sailors were startled by something in it which gave spasmodic signs of life, and inside was found the missing sailor doubled up and unconscious. He was laid on the deck and treated by a bath of sea-water which soon revived him, but his mind was not clear, and he was placed in the captain's quarters, where he remained two weeks a raving lunatic. He was kindly and carefully treated by the captain, and by the officers of the ship, and gradually regained possession of his senses. At the end of the third week he had entirely recovered from the shock and resumed his duties.

During his sojourn in the whale's stomach, Bartley's skin where it was exposed to the action of the gastric juice underwent a striking change; his face, neck, and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness, and took on the appearance of parchment.

Bartley affirms that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not from lack of air. He says that he remembered the sensation of being thrown out of the boat into the sea, and of dropping into the water. Then there was a fearful rushing sound which he believed to be the beating of the water by the whale's tail he was then encompassed by a great darkness, and he felt he was slipping along a smooth passage of some sort that seemed to move and carry him forward. This sensation lasted but a short time and then he realised he had more room. He felt about him and his hands came into contact with a yielding slimy substance, that seemed to shrink from his touch. It finally dawned upon him that he had been swallowed by the whale, and he was overcome by horror at the situation. He could easily breathe, but the heat was terrible. It was not of a scorching, stifling nature, but it seemed to open the pores of his skin and to draw out his vitality. He became very weak and became sick at the stomach. He knew there was no hope of escape from his strange prison. Death stared him in the face. He tried to look at it bravely, but the terrible quiet, darkness and heat, combined with the horrible knowledge of his environment, overcame him. The next he remembered was being in the captain's cabin.

According to the record, the skin on his face and hands never recovered its natural appearance, but the health of the man did not seem affected by his terrible experience. He was in splendid spirits and apparently fully enjoyed the blessings of life that came his way. The whaling captains say that it frequently happens that men are swallowed by whales who become infuriated by the pain of the harpoon and attack the boats, but they have never previously known a man to go through the ordeal that James Bartley experienced and come out alive.

It is stated that on the return of the vessel to England, Bartley went to a London hospital to be treated for the injury to his skin - but what occurred is not in the record. He was known to be one of the most hardy of whalemen. Parville, one of the most careful and painstaking scientists in Europe, concluded his investigations by stating his belief "that the account given by the captain and crew of the English whaler is worthy of belief. There are many cases reported where whales, in the fury of their dying agony, have swallowed human beings, but this is the first modern case where the victim has come forth safe and sound. After this modern illustration I end by believing that Jonah really did come out from the whale alive as the Bible records".

The Curator of a large museum, in a reply to a question put to him as to the temperature of the blood of a whale, said it was about 2.5 Centigrade above the temperature of the human body - which, in the Fahrenheit scale, would be 104.6°, or high fever heat.