The Lord’s word came to Jonah, the son of Amittai: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
So, Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.
Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”
Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So, they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”
He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”
Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord because he had told them.)
They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)
He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So, they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.
No escape for the prophet
Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (CEB)
One way of outlining today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah is:
God said, “Go!” Jonah said, “No!” And, God said, “Oh!?”
Jonah did a full out run from God’s clear instructions to go to the city of Nineveh. This does not sound like a wise thing to do with God. So, why did Jonah run? Let’s get some perspective….
Who were the Assyrians?
Nineveh was a large city in the ancient world, and the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had a reputation as fierce soldiers and conquered all the Middle East. They are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. It was Assyria that God used to judge the northern kingdom of Israel. The typical military practice of the Assyrians was to attack a city and completely subjugate it by deporting most of the people and repopulating it with some of their own people. They did this so that the conquered people could not mount a revolt or resistance to their rule.
What is important to know about the Assyrians and the Ninevites is that they were notorious in the ancient world for their brutality toward conquered peoples. Many forms of torture that we are aware of today were invented by the Assyrians. Their methods were so inhumane that it would be inappropriate for me to even discuss them here. I will just leave it at the fact that the Assyrians were experts at thinking-up and executing extreme forms of torture on everyone who resisted their power. It was a very violent culture.
Who is God?
Now, contrast that knowledge of the Assyrians with God. The ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he told one of his prophets to go and give a message. And the message was simple: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Lest we think God was determined to wipe Nineveh off the map, think again. Jonah confesses later in the book, “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).
Who was Jonah?
Jonah was a prophet of God, which means he set apart to speak for God. So, here we have the rub as to Jonah’s lickety-split in the opposite direction from where God wanted him. Jonah did not like Assyrians. More than that, he loathed them. The last thing Jonah wanted was to have effective preaching and see Nineveh repent of their violent ways. Jonah wanted judgment, not grace.
In this little four-chapter prophetic book of the Old Testament, it is Jonah who needs divine deliverance as much as the Ninevites do. In fact, Jonah’s need for rescue gets more attention than the evil Assyrians. The message of Jonah comes down to this: Racism and hatred, however much perceived to be legitimate, have no part whatsoever in the kingdom of God.
Who are we?
Christians are the community of the redeemed. New life in Jesus Christ involves a wholesale jettison of bigotry and a complete chuck to the manure pile of hatred directed toward any ethnic and/or religious group of people, period. New life means adopting the love of God. It involves becoming a dispenser of grace and mercy with all people, not just the ones we feel deserve it.
What does God want us to learn?
To share the same heart as he has – a heart that beats for people to know and live by a better way – a heart that has grace and compassion even in the face of flat-out evil. We are meant to think twice about pointing the finger at others; to take the plank out of our own eye before we address the splinter in another’s eye.
O God, you created all people in your image. We thank you for the astonishing variety of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Click Turn My Heart a beautiful song written by Marty Haugen as we seek to have our lives bend to God’s heart.