ave you ever felt convicted to do something, but chose instead to become involved in another good project? Have you ever tried to run away from God? Were you successful? How hard does God try to help you when you are determined to do something your own way?
The Runaway Prophet
We find some fascinating answers to these questions in the book of Jonah. It contains the story of a reluctant prophet who was so full of pride for his own country and so full of hate for his national enemies that he preferred to do something no ancient Israelite in their right mind would do. Jonah was prepared to go to sea for up to a year, to get to a “needy mission field,” as far away as possible from the place God wanted him to be. In the ancient world the ocean was typically seen as a place of evil, of dark foreboding—the place of sea monsters. Only foreigners and heathens would be crazy enough to make a living from repeatedly crossing it.
Paying Attention: Up and Down
Notice the key words as the story unfolds.1
First, God says to Jonah—“Arise, and go to Nineveh.” Jonah’s response? He arises in order to run away, and he goes down to Joppa, where he boards a ship and goes down into the hold to sleep.
But God responds to Jonah’s rebellion by “hurling” a wind into the sea. In order to save the ship, the sailors hurl the cargo into the sea, and the captain goes down into the hold and asks Jonah to arise (and to cry out—this is the same invitation that God gave Jonah to begin with). With a prayer of forgiveness on their lips, the sailors hurl Jonah into the sea, and he goes down into the belly of a great fish, then farther down to the foundations of the mountains.
When Jonah is down as far as he can go, his prayer rises to God, who commands the big fish to rise to the surface. Jonah then rises out of the fish’s stomach by force and is spewed out onto the beach. He arises and goes to Nineveh, and cries out (as he had been asked to do at the beginning).
Jonah’s preaching is so potent that there is a great revival. So much so that the king arises from his throne and declares a time of national mourning and repentance, so that even the animals are compelled to wear sackcloth and ashes.
In response, Jonah went out to the east of the city and sat down under a shelter he had made. And God made a plant arise up over it. Then the sun arose and the east wind blew. The sun beat down and Jonah wished he were dead. We find out that while Jonah was trying to sort out the difference between being up or down, God was more concerned for the 120,000 people of Nineveh who didn’t know the difference between left and right.
God-Talk, God-Action, and Jonah’s Reactions
Besides the interplay between up and down, Jonah’s story has other important features. Here are a number of them in summary:
1. God includes two imperatives in His initial command: “Arise,” and “Go!” You would expect a divine imperative to produce a lot of action, and indeed it does. Notice the flurry of action words in Jonah 1:3. Jonah arose, to flee; he went down to Joppa, found a ship, paid the fare, and went down into it, to go to Tarshish (probably in Spain). In the original language the verb “to flee” and the verb “to bless” sound very similar. Hebrew opposites are sometimes like that. The implication is that by fleeing, Jonah was walking away from a blessing—straight into trouble.
2. Jonah sleeps through the storm. There are not many people who could do that. You can sleep soundly in the midst of surrounding chaos only when you have a clear conscience. (Compare this story with one found in the New Testament of Jesus sleeping in a boat during a storm, when other people on the boat are fighting for their lives [Luke 8:22-25].) Despite a blatant disregard of God’s clear instruction, Jonah has convinced himself that he is doing the right thing. His alternative was better than God’s. To Jonah, the people in Tarshish were far more worthy of hearing the message of God’s grace than the hated Assyrians.
3. The heathen sailors are more in tune with God than Jonah is, and what is more, they get Jonah to preach when God seems unable to persuade him to. When they ask Jonah who he is, and he explains his faith to them, they respond to Jonah’s testimony with great fear and reverence. They then try with superhuman strength to row Jonah back to land. They can see that this man has been cursed by his God, and they bow in acceptance before the Creator, acknowledging His greatness and power. As they hurl Jonah into the sea, it is with a prayer for forgiveness. (Note the repetition of the verb “to hurl.” God hurls a storm into the sea, the sailors hurl cargo into the sea, then they hurl Jonah into the sea.)
4. Jonah’s wish for death was granted, but instead of his grave being the earth, it was the belly of a great fish. It is from this “grave” (the belly of Sheol) that he prays. It is only when Jonah reaches his greatest possible depth that he is confronted with his need to address God in His holy Temple. The resulting hymn is one of the finest anywhere, confirming, even before it is physical reality, that “salvation is of the Lord” (2:9, KJV).
5. In his evangelistic appeal to the people of Nineveh, not only people but also animals are involved in the dramatic turnaround. Here we are reminded that human activity affects all of creation, so God’s final restoration is about far more than just saving souls. This informs us not only that the whole of creation needs to be restored, but also that all of creation can be called upon to assist in the great work of saving a reluctant human race. Notice the impressive (and obedient) cast of the natural world that God uses in this story: a storm, a big fish, a vine, the sun, a worm, and the east wind.
6. Jonah is still more concerned for his own credibility than for the glory of God. He expresses a death wish twice more (4:3, 8), in addition to the previous occasion (1:12). It seems that Jonah preferred for his national enemies to be annihilated. But from this we may know that when human preferences, prejudices, and politics get in the way of God’s plans and purposes, His love for all members of the human race is what motivates Him. God is equally concerned for the human race and wayward individuals. The reference to not knowing right from left may refer to the Assyrians being babies when it comes to knowing God. But was Jonah in his sophistication and in his knowledge of the “truth” any better off than they?
What can we learn about God from this story? God is the Creator of heaven and earth—full stop. This gives Him the right and the authority to use His creative powers to send a famine or a fish to encourage His prodigal children to come back home. In this we see that He is incredibly patient with the most stubborn and stupid of people.
What can we learn about ourselves? First, we need to be sensitized to God’s plans and purposes. We need to know that our direction in life is God-ordained. Ellen White describes this important principle very clearly: “He who walks in a path of his own choosing, where God has not called him, will stumble. For him day is turned into night, and wherever he may be, he is not secure.”2 Second, people who are full either of their own importance (on the one hand) or of their own inadequacies (on the other) will fail to see the workings of the God of grace behind the scenes for them.
Let’s pause for a moment for a final reflection. Instead of trying to gain the upper hand of the ups and downs of an unstable world economy, and instead of becoming passionate about either the left or the right wing of politics (or church), maybe it is time to identify God’s direction for us and to recognize Him for what He is—the passionate Redeemer, eager for the great family reunion He has promised. Let’s stop running off to our own personal “Tarshish” and accept God’s creative way of including us in the completion of His work.
1The retelling of Jonah’s story purposefully uses a very repetitive language in order to somewhat simulate how this would sound to a Hebrew-reading audience. Keywords are theologically significant here.
2Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 527.