Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you’ ” (Jonah 3:1, 2).1
It’s a familiar story. Illustrators of children’s Bibles love to give it prominent treatment; the more “enlightened” of our contemporaries wink knowingly when they hear about the great fish that became Jonah’s home for three days and three nights. Jesus did not wink.
Generally, prophets do what they are told to do. They hear, they listen, they see—then they speak, preach, or write God’s message. Jonah, however, is different. He hears—then he runs in the opposite direction. Together with a boatload of hardened but frightened sailors he experiences a terrible storm. Finally, Jonah is going down, down, down; right to the bottom of the sea and straight to certain death. “You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me” (Jonah 2:3). Yet in the midst of the storm, while Jonah is sinking to rock bottom, God waits for him in the belly of a very big fish. Listen to this imagined conversation between God and Jonah:
God: Jonah, Jonah, can you hear Me?
Jonah: Um, it’s so dark in here—where am I?
God: Jonah, it’s Me, your heavenly Father. I am right next to you.
Jonah: Why are You persecuting me? Why didn’t You let me go to Tarshish? Imagine all the good I could have done for You there.
God: But Jonah, I need you in Nineveh.
Jonah: Well, I didn’t know that this was so important to You. If you insist . . .
So the runaway prophet goes back to “Start” and begins all over again. In fact, the first verses of chapter 3 sound almost exactly like the first verses of chapter 1.
Can you see Jonah making his way from the Mediterranean coast to Nineveh, right in the heart of dry and sizzling Mesopotamia? He has plenty of time to work on his preaching. He has plenty of time to consider his message. He has plenty of time to converse with the Master. The God of second chances has sent him to Nineveh—one of the capitals of the cruel and hated Assyrians. But Jonah doesn’t like his mission. Jonah is walking in the right direction, saying the right words, but his heart is not in Nineveh.
God continues to ask the right questions. God always asks the right questions that are aimed straight at our hearts, because a friend asks the hard questions.
Then Jonah begins to preach: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). What a sermon! No careful and logical development, no illustrations, no calls—just a judgment message in its starkest and darkest form.
Jonah, where is your heart? we want to ask the prophet who already knows that God is to blame. Jonah doesn’t like the God of second chances when it comes to Nineveh. (I’m sure he liked the God of second chances in the belly of the fish.) “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. 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 4:2).
I knew what would happen, Jonah says, and I just don’t like it.
We can think of other biblical stories where feet move in one direction but hearts are somewhere else. The feet of Lot’s wife may have been heading out of Sodom after the angels literally dragged the entire family from the city that was about to be incinerated—but her heart remained in Sodom. Perhaps she felt that she had been dragged out against her will. As soon as she could, she turned around and looked back. With her heart and mind back in Sodom, she shared the fate of Sodom (cf. Gen. 19:16-26).
What about Balaam, son of Beor, the prophet whose curses were to bring destruction to Israel? He didn’t drag his feet. In fact, he ran miles ahead of God when he saw the cash offered by Balak, the king of Moab. Curses for cash must have been one of Balaam’s specialties—why else would Balak have chosen someone living hundreds of miles away?
Unlike Jonah, Balaam was eager to go. But just like Jonah, he didn’t like it when he heard God speak (Num. 22:12). Balaam’s response to the Moabite delegation the next morning is quite instructive: “Go back to your own country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you” (verse 13). Indeed, God refused the generous offer, for these were His people.
The story doesn’t end here. Balak increases the pressure. Balaam keeps insisting—and, finally and reluctantly, God lets Balaam go. He is, after all, a God who cherishes freedom and choice—unlike His demonic opponent who specializes in manipulation and arm-bending. “But,” God reminds Balaam, “do only what I tell you” (verse 20).
Balaam is delighted. Finally here’s an opportunity to fill that retirement fund—and fill it well. Balaam is so eager to catch up with the Moabite envoys that he beats his donkey mercilessly. In fact, he is so fixated on going that he even has a verbal argument with his miraculously talking donkey. In Jonah’s case, it’s the big fish that hears, obeys, and follows God’s instructions. In Balaam’s case, God uses a donkey that sees (an angel with a drawn sword), understands, and speaks to stop this prophet from mindlessly galloping into certain death.
Balaam’s story, unfortunately, doesn’t have a happy ending. His curses-turned-into-blessings make him lose all the promised cash. He returned empty-handed and angry because God, somehow, had not allowed him to do what he really wanted to do. He dies in battle with Israel some time later (Num. 31:7, 8), after his advice of using sex and idolatry prevail where curses and confrontation have not.
Service lies at the heart of Christianity. Christ came as a servant—the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53)—to save a planet in rebellion. He washed the feet of His disciples (John 13:1-10); He carried the burden that we cannot carry; He touched lepers and embraced outcasts. Yet, in His last words to His disciples, He invites us (as He invited Peter, John, James, and the rest of the lot) to move closer. In Greek the term translated as “servant” is doulos. It actually means “slave.” With this background, let’s listen to Jesus as He shares His heart with His disciples: “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants [doulos], because a servant [doulos] does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14, 15).
Did you catch it? Jesus introduces a new dimension as He relates to the disciples. “I no longer call you servants [doulos]” is His way of saying that He wants more. Servants usually don’t know what their Master is up to—friends do. Servants obey the Master’s commands—friends anticipate them.
It’s time to catch up with Jonah in Nineveh. Following the big fish episode, Jonah was an obedient servant. He did what he was told to do, yet the question is: was he ready to be God’s friend? Did Jonah understand why he was sent to Nineveh? Could Jonah distinguish between the right behavior and the right heart?
His conversation with God in chapter 4 suggests that he still has a long way to go. His anger at God, the God who loved even Ninevites (as well as their animals), was so raw and hot and honest. But God continues to ask the right questions. God always asks the right questions that are aimed straight at our hearts, because a friend asks the hard questions—then listens and waits and prays.
Some time ago I heard this story about a traveler in the Middle Ages who happened upon a large worksite in the center of a village. Since he had spent weeks traveling alone through dense forests and sparsely populated mountains, he was eager to talk to people.
After looking around, he walked up to a worker and asked, “Sir, may I ask what you are doing here?”
The worker frowned slightly with a bit of irritation and said brusquely: “I am cutting stones.” With that he turned around and moved away.
Clearly, there is not much of a conversation here, thought the traveler, and he tried the same question on another worker. The worker straightened his back, paused for a moment, and then explained that he was cutting stones so he could support his family. He then went on to talk about his wonderful wife and the two small children who depended on him to provide them with food and shelter. After a few minutes the conversation ebbed away, and the worker turned back to his large pile of stones.
Let’s try again, mused the traveler, and he walked to a third worker. “Sir, may I ask what you are doing here?”
The worker put down his tools, stood up tall, looked the traveler in the eye, and said with a warm smile: “I am building a cathedral. It will be the tallest and most magnificent structure for miles around. Its beauty will delight people for centuries to come. The stone I am now working on will go near the front door, where people will enter for shelter and fellowship. I will, most likely, not see the final building, but I know my work is part of something very important.”
All three workers were obediently doing the same job, but each had a different vision of its purpose, and each had a different level of commitment.
Friends stick around where servants have long bolted.
Friends hear your heart where servants hear your voice.
Friends share your vision where servants get the job done.
As I consider my walk with Jesus, I wonder about my own heart. How often do I walk in the right direction, but my heart is somewhere else? How often do I just go through the motions of being a servant, and forget that God really wants me to be His friend—just like Abraham (Isa. 41:8; 2 Chron. 20:7) or Moses (Ex. 33:11)—or the disciples?
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.