God uses the unwilling.
Of all the stories in the Bible, Jonah must be right up at the top of my list of favorites. I love Jonah. I love everything about his story. I not only love him in the story, but I love God in the story. Indeed, for me, the story of Jonah is the Old Testament’s Gospel—there is so much good news about God in it.
It hasn’t been too long ago that I was discussing the story of Jonah with my mom, and during our talk, it dawned on me that God—who knows us waaaayyyy better than we know ourselves—must have known Jonah was going to run. In fact, I think it may be likely that God called Jonah to go to Nineveh precisely because He knew he would run.
Maybe God knew there was a little boat down at Joppa with a crew of sailors who had open hearts to the Spirit. After all, once they’d encountered the storm and Jonah and Jonah’s God, their lives changed: “Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.” (vs 15-16)
And there you are. God was using Jonah, unwilling servant, long before he ever made it to Nineveh. Even though he didn’t want to go, even though he ran away, even though he was rebellious, God was still willing and able to use him in reaching others for the kingdom.
And God still uses the unwilling today.
So, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve heard God’s call and headed in the opposite direction. It really doesn’t matter if you’re still waiting to hear God’s call. And it really doesn’t matter if you don’t believe there is a God to make the call. You may be unwilling, unrepentant, and unmoved, but God can still use you.
He’s got divine appointments for you today. You may attend some of them even while He’s in the process of bringing you around.
* * * * * * * * * *
One of my favorite poets, Thomas John Carlisle, wrote a book of poetry about this story titled You! Jonah! I love his poems so much that, each day during our journey through this book, I’m going to share a couple of them that correspond to the chapter.
I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do!
Whither shall I flee
from Thy presence?
presents no problem
when one ignores
and the sky.
NEGOTIATION WITH A HIGHER POWER
I will demonstrate
providing You comply
with my demand
for a more satisfying
God is just a genius.
I mean, really. What else can you say? God is simply a genius—both in the way He interacts with us and the way He brings us along in our understanding, teaching us all the things we need to learn in exactly the right way and in the right time. He is a master teacher.
You know, God is never just doing one thing or two things or even five things. His dealings with humanity interplay on so many levels, we might just spend eternity figuring out how all the little threads were woven together in just the right way.
Take Jonah, for instance. The more I read Jonah, the more I wonder if sending Jonah to Nineveh even had anything to do with Nineveh . . . or if it was all about Jonah. Well, of course the Ninevites needed God, too, but for all his Biblical knowledge, Jonah doesn’t seem to be much further down the road toward the kingdom than the heathens he hates.
And that’s why I found what God was doing in this chapter totally fascinating.
Here was part of Jonah’s prayer to the Lord from the belly of the great fish: “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.” (vs 5-6)
Jonah began his brief Biblical story by turning his back on God and running away. It wasn’t like he was naive or uninformed about God. He was downright rebellious. Then, after his encounter with the big storm and his trip into the sea, Jonah experienced a bit of repentance. He came to see the error of his ways, and he cried out to God for salvation.
God heard Jonah. He listened to him, and indeed, He saved him. And there’s the kicker: When Jonah repented, God relented. When Jonah repented, God saved him. Thus, whether he realized or not (and it seems he did not, at least not right away), Jonah was a little walking, talking Nineveh. What God had done for him was the very thing He wanted to also do for Nineveh!
In His own genius way, God sent a prophet who had just been through his very own “from rebellion to repentance to salvation” experience to preach to a rebellious people that they could find salvation through repentance. Surely, eventually, this irony was not lost on Jonah.
As he picked himself up off the shore and headed to Nineveh, he must have been a little humbled at the thought that he had just benefited from the very graciousness of God which he was so reluctant to proclaim to his enemies, the very graciousness that had so frustrated him in the past. But I bet the graciousness didn’t seem quite as frustrating when Jonah was on the receiving end of it.
And therein lies the genius of God.
* * * * * * * * * *
If You just rescue me
from this unpalatable
just fish me out
of this hot water,
get me off the hook,
You can just bet
I will not only
obliged but also
oblige me to
even if it means
Distress did it.
Not Easy Street.
Not Acrilon Avenue.
Not Prosperity Place
or Brightview Boulevard.
Not Fair Haven
or the Bay of Serenity
or the Island of Tranquility
but off-course winds
and the Straits of Adversity
and the tempests of disaster
that howled to Charybdis.
The deep was round about me.
Emergency exits were barred.
I was pitted against perdition.
In a ravenous cavity
I was swallowed up.
Better late than never
I remembered the Forgotten.
My troubles put me in touch.
God starts where we are.
And the plot thickens. Once he was finished with his whale of a ride, God sent Jonah to Nineveh a second time. (By the way, Bible commentators note that the Hebrew wording in God’s second command to go to Nineveh is exactly the same as in His first command. How wonderful it is that God is not unwilling to give us a brand-new beginning whenever we need it! Most of us need more than one!)
This time, Jonah does as he’s told and goes to Nineveh. He walks about halfway into the city (probably near where the palace would have been located) and preaches God’s warning message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (vs 4) And lo and behold, everybody listened: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” (vs 5)
I bet the prophets would have done anything to have had such great success in Israel! I mean, this rapid repentance is almost comical, especially when you have just trudged through the Old Testament, featuring prophet after prophet after prophet begging the Israelites to repent . . . and having no luck.
But, according to many Bible commentators, the rapid repentance shouldn’t come as a big surprise. You see, one of the most prominent gods of Nineveh at the time was Dagon, the fish god. When Nineveh was rediscovered and excavated in the mid-1800s, images of Dagon were found all over the place, in palaces and temples. In fact, the symbol of the city of Nineveh meant “house or place of fish.”
In light of that, it seems like Jonah—who “magically” appeared from the gullet of a big fish—had the deck stacked in his favor. Scholar Clay Trumbull wrote, “What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god was a favorite object of worship? Such an incident would have inevitably aroused the mercurial nature of Oriental observers, so that a multitude would be ready to follow the seemingly new avatar of the fish-god, proclaiming the story of his uprising from the sea, as he went on his mission to the city where the fish-god had its very center of worship.”
Other scholars speculate that Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish (with all those digestive acids) would likely have bleached his skin, hair, and clothes a ghostly white and that this would have been a great help to his cause. If so, are you getting the picture? A ghostly-looking man comes straight out of a fish, claiming to be a messenger from god sent to the people who live in the “house of fish” and worship Dagon.
God sent Jonah to the people of Nineveh in the very way He knew they would accept him. And what’s even more astounding about this is that He took their heathen misunderstanding and worked with it. He didn’t send someone in there to proclaim that Dagon didn’t exist. They thought Dagon was real, so God sent them someone from “Dagon.”
To me, this is incredible. God is not so pretentiously self-important that He can’t stoop to meet us where we are. He not only allows our misconceptions and misunderstandings, He uses them for our benefit! He starts where we are—even if that means letting some other, non-existent god “call” the people He loves to repentance. He doesn’t want the credit; He just wants us.
Once again, I am in awe of God. The way He is able to reach us—no matter how far we are from Him—leaves me speechless. The more I study the story of Jonah, the more I think God had the whale planned all along. He was just itching to talk to the people of Nineveh, and if the only way they would “hear” Him would be because the words came from the lips of a guy who had been vomited out of a fish—yeah, God could make that happen.
* * * * * * * * * *
THE GREAT INTRUDER
It is exasperating
to be called
when the last thing
we want to do
is get up and go
to keep on
Abraham interceded for Sodom
but Jonah couldn’t have cared less
if Nineveh had harbored one
relatively innocent inhabitant
or even one hundred and twenty.
They all looked alike to him—
seeing he hadn’t tried to see them.
But God’s vision is better than twenty-twenty.
God changed His mind
because they had changed
because they repented.
That is the way
we word it
He is limited
His limitless love.
God follows us.
I really couldn’t think of any one title for this blog that would do justice to this chapter. There are a lot of people who claim that the story of Jonah didn’t actually happen, but the picture of God in this book is far too astounding, far too complex, and far too conciliatory to have been conjured up by the human mind. I mean, if you’re going to fabricate an all-powerful deity who can whip up sudden hurricanes and summon great sea creatures for transport services, why would you have him waste time trying to reason with an arrogant fool? In fact, why have him tolerate insurrection at all?
No, the God we find in the book of Jonah—I am convinced—is the real deal. Yet even to say that is, for me, to once again be awestruck with who He is.
- He is a God who cares for those who can’t or won’t care for themselves.
- He is a God who values and encourages our total honesty.
- He is a God who isn’t angered by anger.
- He is a God who finds inventive ways of teaching us where all our blind spots are.
- He is a God who doesn’t hold grudges.
- He is a God who talks back.
- He is a God who encourages thinking by asking questions.
- He is a God who starts where we are.
- He is a God who follows us.
That last point was the new thing that struck me as I read this well-known chapter again today. I couldn’t shake this feeling of deja vu, the feeling that the whole scenario was somehow familiar. Of course, the story of Jonah itself is familiar to me, but it was something more than that.
And then it hit me.
Not only is Jonah the Old Testament’s gospel; it’s also the Old Testament’s Parable of the Prodigal Son. All the elements are here: the lost who became found, the repentance, the forgiveness, the acceptance, the angry elder brother who stomps away from the party, and—most important—the Father who follows him out into the backyard to reason with him.
The story of Jonah is left unresolved, as is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but you can’t help but hope that Jonah finally realizes that he needs to repent as much as his younger brothers in Nineveh. And you can’t help but hope that Jonah finally understands that the “far country” can be in the backyard and that the ones who have “always lived at home” don’t necessarily know the Father any better than the ones who have run away.
But if Jonah ever realized these things, it was only because he served a God who was willing to follow him—to follow him when he ran away to Joppa, to follow him into the belly of the fish, to follow him to Nineveh, and to follow him out into the foothills and keep talking to him.
This is our God. He will not give up on us. If we refuse to come to the party, He will follow us. If we insist on holding a grudge, He will reason with us. And if we resist all His invitations to come to Him, He will come to us.
This is the good news about God.
This is the gospel.
* * * * * * * * * *
The generosity of God
displeased Jonah exceedingly
and he slashed with angry prayer
at the graciousness of the Almighty.
“I told You so,” he screamed.
“I knew what You would do,
You dirty Forgiver.
You bless Your enemies
and show kindness to those
who despitefully use You.
I would rather die
than live in a world
with a God like You.
And don’t try to forgive me either.”
And Jonah stalked
to his shaded seat
and waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting
for a host of Jonahs
in their comfortable houses
to come around
to His way of loving.