Monday Musings: Jonah’s “I” Problem

Jonah 1:1-3a

(1) Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,

(2) Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.

(3) But Jonah rose up to flee…

Jonah had a problem. God had a vision for the people of Nineveh and Jonah turned a blind eye to it. This vision problem of Jonah’s wasn’t a handicap. It wasn’t a misunderstanding. It wasn’t even that Jonah could not see God’s point of view. It was that he would not see it. He had an “I” problem: “I want vengeance. I want the Ninevites destroyed. I want my prayers answered my way.

God Called Jonah to Evangelize “Those People”

It’s easy for us to criticize him. We’d like to think: “Well, if God had called me to the Ninevites, I would have gone!” Would we have? The Ninevites were a warrior people with an evil reputation. They were the ISIS of their day. Not only did they kill their enemies, they took great pleasure in it. They were known for torturing their captives, subjecting them to all kinds of hideous means of death. Jonah probably had beloved family members and friends who had been captured and tortured by the Ninevites. And now God was calling him to give those people a message of peace and mercy. (Do you and I have a “those people” we consider off limits?)

Jonah’s resistance wasn’t one of fear. It was of resentment, anger. He didn’t say it in so many words, but his reaction to God’s call said: “God, how dare You call me to those people! Don’t You know what they’re like? Haven’t You seen what they’ve done? They don’t deserve Your mercy!” Of course, we would never say such things about others, but God does not have to hear our thoughts to know them. If nothing else, Jonah was honest with God about his opinion. But God still wanted him to go.

The Lord’s attitude was: “I do know what the Ninevites have done, but their problem is not their deeds. It’s their heart. They need to repent so that I can heal them, and Jonah, you’re my man for the job.”

Jonah refused and ran, and after a lot of aggressive pursuit, God finally got the prophet where He wanted him to be and Jonah reluctantly did what he was told but kept his message as brief as possible: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4). Not much of a message. Jonah still did not want to see the Ninevites forgiven. So, he gave them a message as minimalist as he could. But God can still use the worst sermons to reach people and reach people He did!

Jonah 3:6-10

(6) For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

(7) And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:

(8) But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.

(9) Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

(10) And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

Blinding Bitterness

God used Jonah to bring about a city-wide revival. You would think that would have made him happy. Instead, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.” The prophet even lectured God about His actions essentially saying to the Lord: “I knew this would happen! It’s just like You to have mercy on people! Just kill me now!” (Jonah 4:1-3) The prophet’s bitterness against the Ninevites, no matter how humanly justifiable, made him was so angry, he couldn’t see straight. “Then said the LORD, ‘Doest thou well to be angry?’” (Jonah 4:4). To this, Jonah had no words. He simply stormed off to the outskirts of the city and planted himself outside of it to “see what would become of the city” (4:5). What was he waiting for? He was hoping God would call in an airstrike. He didn’t. Instead, “the LORD God prepared a gourd” for the prophet to provide him shade. Jonah saw this as a small answer to prayer. God sent it as an object lesson. The word translated “gourd” actually refers to a fast-growing plant with broad leaves wider than a person’s hand with fingers spread. Why was this such a big deal to the prophet? Prior to his arrival at Nineveh, Jonah had spent three days in the belly of a great fish (Jonah 1:17). In that time, he’d been subjected to the fish’s digestive juices bleaching his skin and probably causing the loss of his hair. It left him sensitive to sunlight, so the plant God sent was a blessing. Jonah was probably of the mindset: “Finally! I catch a break!”

A Question of Perspective

Jonah 4:7-8

(7) But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.

(8) And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.

God addresses Jonah’s anger again: “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” This time, Jonah doesn’t hold back and answers: “I do well to be angry, even unto death!” (4:9) The Lord leaves off that question and ends the book with another that challenges Jonah’s perspective on life:

Jonah 4:10-11

(10) Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

(11) And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

Jonah’s “I” problem focused him on the temporal and blinded him to the eternal. His book leaves God’s question unanswered. Some would argue the entire book is the prophet’s answer. He wrote it as a confession of his sin and as an object lesson to his readers. Either way, the open question is meant to challenge us. We can see Jonah’s “I” problem crystal clear. Do we see our own?

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