“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” – Jonah 4:2b
You’ve heard the story—probably since you were a kid. After all, it’s one of the Old Testament’s greatest hits, right up there with Noah and the
and David and Goliath. Yes, the story of
Jonah is one of the best-known stories in the Bible, but a closer look reveals
that it’s much more than a kids’ story. It’s an eye-opening book that urges
those of us who follow Christ to take a long look in the mirror. Ark
How do we get that from a story about a guy who was swallowed by a big fish? You see, familiar as the story is, it’s easy to miss the heart of the book. As the book opens, Jonah had been prophesying in
He had heard, loud and clear, God’s prophetic word that judgment was coming on
Israel—and that judgment would come through the swords of the Assyrians, a
cruel and bloody nation that took pride in their ability not just to kill their
enemies, but to creatively torture and dismember them. So God ordered Jonah
into the heart of Assyria, the capital city of , “because its wickedness has come up
before me” (Jonah 1:2). Ninevah
Jonah’s reaction? He high-tailed it in the other direction. Instead of heading 500 miles northeast of
Ninevah, he took a boat headed 2,000 miles west, toward the city of Tarshish in . We’re plainly told in verses
3 and 4 that he was fleeing from the Lord. Why? Well, there’s no kind way to put
it: Jonah was afraid that if he preached to the people of Ninevah, they would
repent, and God would spare them His judgment. And Jonah didn’t want that. He
wanted Spain Assyria to continue sinning so that God
would judge them. He wanted them to be slaughtered. Given the choice, he much
preferred a dead and condemned Assyrian to a live and forgiven Assyrian. Jonah
was consumed by hatred, resentment and revenge. By contrast, throughout the
story, God shows Himself to be consumed by compassion and love.
When Jonah runs from God in verses 2 and 3, we get the impression in verse 4 that he didn’t make it very far. After his boat set sail, God sent a “great wind” and a “violent storm” that engulfed the ship. The captain and crew were convinced that if there wasn’t some miraculous improvement in their situation, they would all die. But as all the sailors were crying out to their pagan gods, Jonah was snoozing below decks, oblivious. So, the captain slapped Jonah upside the head and said, “Get up and call on your God! Maybe He will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”
Isn’t it sad that the pagan captain was more concerned about the life of one of God’s followers than God’s follower was about the lives of all the lost and dying sailors aboard that ship? It’s a sad indictment on Christ’s followers when nonChristians show more compassion, patience and love than we do.
The sailors were convinced that the storm was somebody’s fault—that someone on the ship had ticked off one of the gods. And in this case, they were right. So when they cast lots to find out who was responsible for the calamity, it’s not surprising that Jonah drew the oddball lot. But even when he admitted that he was the one who’d angered his Lord, and told his shipmates that if they threw him overboard, the sea would calm, they didn’t want to do it. They tried instead to row back to land. Only when that failed did they do what Jonah suggested and throw threw him overboard. Instantly the waters grew calm, and the sailors were blown away. In verse 16, we’re told that “The men greatly feared the Lord and made vows to Him. “
If only Jonah had feared and respected God as much! Even though he believed in God, his correct theology didn’t keep him in the center of God’s will. And unlike the pagan sailors who hesitated to throw him overboard, he didn’t want to show compassion and mercy to the wicked Ninevites who waited for him. Simply put, even though he believed right, he didn’t obey right.
How different are we from Jonah? Think of your least favorite politician. How often do you pray for him or her? Think about a family member you’ve written off, or an ex-friend who’s stabbed you in the back. How often do you think about them with compassion and love? Not very often, right?
You see, the book of Jonah matters today because YOU are Jonah. I am Jonah. All of us have, at one time or another, run from God’s marching orders. And our friends and family who don’t know Christ are citizens of Ninevah, who need to be warned about God’s coming judgment. And God desires for us—unlike Jonah—to have a heart like His, a heart of compassion and mercy. Like our Lord, we need to be “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
Dane Davis is the Lead Pastor of First Christian Church in Victorville. For more information, visit www.fccvv.com and join us for worship Sundays at 10 a.m.