Archive for the ‘Nineveh’ Category

On a recent ocean voyage in the Pacific, I had the pleasure of daily observing schools of playful dolphins that accompanied our ship, and, on one occasion, we ventured close to a pod of whales.

The sight of the whales reminded me of the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to run away from the mission to which God had called him, but was swallowed by a “great fish,” presumably a whale.

So I decided to reread the book of Jonah, and as I meditated on the story, I was confronted by the following considerations and insights.

The first was that, whereas I had always accepted the traditional interpretation that Jonah was alive in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, a comparison of Jonah 1:17 and Matthew 12:40 led me to consider the possibility that Jonah died in the belly of the fish but was resurrected after the fish vomited him out onto the beach!

When the religious teachers and Pharisees asked Jesus to show them a miraculous sign to prove that he was from God, he replied:

“Only an evil, faithless generation would ask for a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so I, the Son of Man, will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” (Matthew 12:39-40, New Living Translation, NLT)

Since Jesus was predicting his own resurrection from death to life after being in the grave for three days, was he implying that Jonah, too, was dead for three days and was brought back to life?

And what about Jonah’s own words that seem to imply an experience of death and resurrection?

“I called to you from the world of the dead, and Lord, you heard me!” (Jonah 2: 2b, NLT)

“I was locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead. But you, O Lord my God, have snatched me from the yawning jaws of death!” (2: 6b, NLT)

The language of Jonah 1:17 – 2:10 is ambiguous in the sense that it could be interpreted either way—that the prophet was alive in the belly of the fish, or that he died in the belly of the fish and God restored him to life when the fish vomited him onto the shore.

Because Jesus likened Jonah’s experience to his own death and resurrection, I am inclined to accept the latter interpretation.

Second, I was reminded that God’s grace and salvation was—and is—offered to all people throughout the world, yet it was a concept that Jonah and the people of Israel found difficult to accept because of their belief that God’s salvation was reserved only for them as God’s special nation.

So when God called Jonah to take his message of repentance and salvation to Israel’s powerful pagan enemy, Nineveh, Jonah was so angry that God would offer grace and mercy to such a vicious and hateful people that he disobeyed God. Instead of journeying northeast to Nineveh to deliver God’s message, he headed down to the seaport of Joppa and boarded a ship heading west to Tarshish, presumably in or near Spain or Sardinia.

And as the familiar story goes, God sent a life-threatening storm that abated only after Jonah revealed to the ship’s crew that he was running away from God, and they followed his suggestion to throw him overboard to appease God and end the storm.

Jonah’s confession to the pagan crew (Jonah 1: 9-10), his description of the Lord as “the God of heaven, who made the sea and land,” and God’s powerful demonstration of immediately stopping the storm combined to cause the crew to turn from their pagan faith, pray for forgiveness, offer sacrifice, and commit to following and serving the living and powerful God of Israel.

Not only did Jonah’s act of running away from God inadvertently lead the pagan crew to receive God’s grace and salvation, but when Jonah finally reached the outskirts of the city of Nineveh and shouted, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” he was amazed at the people’s immediate willingness to believe God, repent, fast, and wear sackcloth in mourning.

Waves of populace repentance radiated and surged inward from the suburbs and throughout the city that by the time Jonah reached the center of the city three days later, he found that even the king and his royal household and nobles had repented and had joined the rest of the city to wait out the forty-day period in the hope that God would spare them.

When God saw that they had stopped their evil ways, he had mercy on them and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened (Jonah 3: 10).

Thankfully, God’s mercy and message of salvation continues today, and we are the beneficiaries of his grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through the witness of countless numbers of faithful servants throughout the ages who have faithfully answered Christ’s commission to go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere (Matthew 28: 19; Mark 16:15).

Third, in looking at Jonah, we see some of his flaws and characteristics in ourselves. For haven’t we been reluctant to do something that we knew that God wanted us to do?

Haven’t we, at some time, been willfully disobedient in doing something that we knew that God wanted us to do?

Haven’t we been angry and raged at God when we didn’t get what we wanted, when he didn’t answer our prayers the way we expected, or when we felt that he failed us?

Haven’t we been jealous when God showed favor to someone other than ourselves, when we felt that we deserved God’s blessings instead of that other person or group?

Haven’t we been biased and prejudiced towards another person, family, group, race, nation, religion, denomination, school, college, or political party, thinking that we are better than they are, that we are God’s chosen, and that we are right and they are wrong? And haven’t we failed to recognize Jesus among them?

In Jonah 4, we see the fickleness, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and argumentative moods of Jonah as he waited outside the city, expecting to see the destruction of the city and people; we see his immaturity as he lashed out at God after losing his plant shade, and we sense that despite the fact that he finally fulfilled his mission and had been given a second chance at life and ministry, yet he hadn’t learned his lesson and he hadn’t grown in his spiritual journey!

Have we matured and grown spiritually?

The book of Jonah ends in the following way (Jonah 4: 9-11, NLT):

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only, at best, short lived. But 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 city?”

In the same way, the Lord says to us, “There are nearly seven billion people on earth today. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such people?”

Let us not be reluctant when God calls us to minister to any of them.


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