Rebellion. Ethnocentrism. Anger. Bitterness. Hatred. Folly. Not exactly virtues that seem desirable. Not in anyone; certainly not in a prophet of God. But, there’s Jonah.
For the second half of the fall semester, the cgroups are studying the book of Jonah. It’s a book I’ve loved since my seminary days where it was used to aid first year students in their study of Hebrew. Since I wrote the study guide, I thought I could use the blog to give the cgroup leaders some insight into the book and at the same time think through these chapters devotionally.
We actually began our study on Jonah by examining 2 Kings 14:23-29. Since the author of the book of Jonah, which probably wasn’t Jonah himself, doesn’t give us any background information, we turn to 2 Kings 14 where Jonah, the son of Amittai is also mentioned. Still, we don’t have much, but this does put it in some historical context.
Jonah is ministering in the early part of the 8th century BC. Jonah is speaking God’s word at a time when Assyria (Nineveh was the capital city) was building its empire, conquering nations neighboring Israel and threatening Israel’s peace and security. Jonah is a prophet in the northern kingdom under the reign of Jereboam II, a king who, like so many, “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” What we read in 2 Kings 14 is that God, through Jereboam II, restored and extended Israel’s border. This was, as we read in 2 Kings 14, “according the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah.”
When you first read it, this seems to be a non-sequitor. Jereboam is evil. God blesses Israel under and through him. What? The editor of 2 Kings explains, “the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter…and there was none to help Israel. But the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.” The editor of 2 Kings put these words there to highlight God’s continued faithfulness despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. Bad kings would lead Israel astray, but the True King would be merciful and save his undeserving servant anyway.
Interestingly, Jonah isn’t the only prophet speaking the word of the Lord in Israel at the time. Hosea is a contemporary, as is Amos. Hosea depicts Israel’s unfaithfulness with several enacted prophesies, including marrying a prostitute who leaves him and returns to her prostitution. While Hosea does speak words of restoration and reminds Israel of God’s relentless faithfulness, he also confronts Israel for her ‘whoredom’. Likewise, Amos speaks words of judgment against Israel’s enemies, but also shocked Israel by declaring God would come in judgment against his own people. God’s justice is universal and Israel would be held to the same, actually higher, standard as the surrounding nations.
It seems almost like Jonah is a “health-and-wealth-prosperity-preacher” for Israel. While faithful ministers are calling God’s people to account for their infidelity, Jonah proclaims “God will prosper you and extend your borders.” It is the word of the Lord that Jonah proclaims, but one has to wonder, is it the whole word of God (a question that comes up again when Jonah proclaims God’s message to Nineveh)? Is he telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth to Jereboam II?
Turning to Jonah 1:1-3 we are immediately met with another set of dissonant assertions. The word of God comes to Jonah saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh”, but we read “Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish”. Jonah’s plan, run to Joppa and get on a ship heading west – the opposite direction of Nineveh. The prepositions in these verses are interesting (and intentional). God says that Nineveh’s sin has “come up before me”. But Jonah goes “down to Joppa” and after paying his fair to board the ship “went down into it”. If you’ve read Jonah before you know his descent is just starting.
Jonah is more than an interesting story for Israelite parents to tell their children at bed time. I believe Israel was suppose to see themselves in the person of Jonah. Hence, the church as the New Testament continuation of Israel is supposed to see themselves in Jonah too.Why is Jonah not willing to go to Nineveh? Some have speculated that it was out of fear that he refused to go. What would the Ninevites do to him if he confronted their sin? That may be, but I don’t think it fits the rest of the story well. Insight into Jonah’s frame of mind will have to wait till later in the book. But even at the outset, if we lay Jonah 1:1-3 alongside 2 Kings 14, we see that Jonah is willing to preach grace to some, but not to others – grace and mercy to Israel, but not to pagan Assyria.
Would that Jonah’s selectivity was a thing of the past, but it isn’t. Shamefully, churches can still be found who won’t welcome other races into their community, refusing to extend God’s grace in all its multifaceted forms to those that are ‘other’. I doubt we’d have to think too long or too hard to come up with other ways God’s people are shamefully selective with whom they will share grace.
From the get go, we should see that Jonah’s plan is doomed to failure. After all, God has seen what’s going on in Nineveh and is going to do something about it. Clearly Jonah can’t flee God’s jurisdiction – it’s universal.
Futile though it is, Jonah attempts to resist the word of God. It does seem foolish when we see Jonah rebelling against God’s will, doesn’t it? But why then are we so blind to our own folly. I know I’ve been guilty of resisting God’s will and disobeying his word just as blatantly as Jonah did. Why didn’t I see the folly in it? It may be a great illustration that seeing the speck in another’s eye is easier than acknowledging the plank in your own.
We may be quick to make excuses. “I wanted to do God’s will, but didn’t know.” That may be true sometimes because aren’t as wise as we ought to be (yes, ought – it’s something we’re commanded to be). But, there are so many times when God’s will is clearly taught in Scripture and, though it’s clear and I know it, I rise up and run to Joppa/Tarshish.
Thank God for his never ending grace!
Before we leave these verses, I think it’s appropriate to stop and think, “What does God show about himself in these verses?” and “How were God’s people to respond to this self-revelation?” You certainly see God’s authority – he commands Jonah and expects to be obeyed. We should respond in complete obedience. You see that God isn’t a petty local deity, but is God of the Israelites and the Ninevites (though they do not acknowledge him as such). We cannot allow ourselves to get sucked into the pluralistic notion that the LORD is the God for Christians, but not for those Muslims or Buddhists, etc. You see God is involved in his world – keeping an eye and ear on it. Evil doesn’t go unnoticed. We ought to act as though all our actions are laid bare before the LORD. He sees what we do when no one else does. This ought to breed deep integrity in us. The LORD is also a God of surprising grace – extending too even the enemies of his people. Thank God, for we too were once his enemies!