Friday, June 1, 2012

The Crux of the Book of Jonah


Jonah is one of my favorite stories in the OT, and in particular I find verse 16 very fascinating: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows.” Here I postulate that this is one of the, if not the key verses in the book.
The casual reader is immediately struck by the character of the sailors with Jonah, which is in stark contrast to the prophets own nature. They are of a decent lot; they try everything they can to save the life of Jonah who hated them, even unto rowing back to their original port and returning him, while he tries as hard as he can to kill the whole city of Nineveh (population 600,000) down to the last man, woman, child, and livestock.
Unsuccessful and God fearing, they beg Him not to hold Jonah’s blood against them, and admit to the sovereignty of God “for you O Lord have done as it pleased You” and hurl him over board. (For myself, I think Jonah asked for it on purpose to get out of preaching to Nineveh. “If you will not let me go God then I will take my own life.” Which would be the parallel to 4:9 “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”) Immediately the sea grows calm, and seeing this they knew God was behind it, and doing this to teach his prophet a lesson. I think that lesson was verse 16.
How did Jonah know that they began to make sacrifices and vows, to fear God and marvel at His power? Either because much later he found these same sea-farers and caught up with them, or much more likely, because he floated there watching them.  We often focus on the lesson God taught Jonah through the plant, but I think that this is the big one, considering that this was the last thing Jonah was to see before being swallowed by the fish for three days. That would make for a strong memory: the image of them sailing away praising God and giving thanks to Him while Jonah was left alone and cold, in danger of drowning. 
The text doesn’t say if it was day or night, (I think night, as a parallel to Jesus calming the storm) and it doesn’t say how long Jonah spent trying to stay afloat, but in my minds eye I see the sailors on the ship with lanterns and faces aglow while Jonah tries as long and hard as he can to stay alive, now giving it all of his energy.  It’s one thing to have courage in the moment, but when push came to shove drowning didn’t look so appealing and Jonahs flesh sided with God against his rebellious spirit, and attemped to keep him alive. Eventually however his strength gives out, and first the waves, then the seaweed closed over him, and then just about the last thing you would expect happens: he gets eaten. (More speculation: it’s a really giant catfish, they have a swim bladder full of air that he could have climbed up into (or put his head in) connected to their digestive track.)
Now at last, with no room to move, and with nothing to do, Jonah reflects on those sailors and the imagery he saw while waiting to die. It takes him three days but at last he understands, and copies them, and vows to do the will of the One who is Sovereign (see 1:9).  Having understood at last Jonah sets off to Nineveh.
But he still doesn’t get all of it. He still wants them to die. “I’ll do your will but I’m not going to enjoy it.” God has to send a plant, and then a worm, and then the sirocco to teach him the rest of it: I’m a loving God.  “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than on hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right and their left- and much live-stock?”
Now Jonah sees there is not a particular nation that God cares about to the exclusion of everything else, but that God is omni-benevolent.  God saves the Gentile sailors, the Gentile Kings, the Gentile peasants. He saves the Namaans and the Nebuchadnezzars too. He gets it.
Now Jonah sits down and writes the book, deliberately showing the goodness of God shining through the sailors against his own black heart.  Now he juxtaposes the King of Nineveh repenting in sackcloth and ashes with himself on a mountain hoping it wasn’t a genuine repentance. And foremost in his mind is v 16, the conclusion of the story for the sailors, which is the parallel to Nineveh, they went away praising God for His mercy.
I think Jonah did too.

1 comment:

April Miller said...

Jonah is a remarkable story. Very humbling. Great insight!