The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.”
But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish.
But the Lord hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship.
But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”
Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?”
Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”
“Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.”
Instead, the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it. Then they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. “O Lord,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. O Lord, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.”
Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.
Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. (New Living Translation)
God said, “Go!”
Jonah said, “No!”
And, God said, “Oh!?”
Jonah did a complete turn-and-run from God’s clear instructions to go to the city of Nineveh. That doesn’t sound like a good idea. So, why did Jonah run? And why do we run?
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 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.
The Assyrians, the Ninevites, 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 awful and inhumane. 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?
God isn’t at all like the Ninevites. The ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, the capital city of Nineveh. So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he told one of his prophets to go and give a message.
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 did not like the Assyrians. More than that, he hated their guts. They killed, maimed, executed, and deported Jonah’s fellow Israelites. 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:
Who are we?
Christians are the community of the redeemed. New life in Jesus Christ involves a wholesale jettison of bigotry and 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 God 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. Instead, we are to take the plank out of our own eye before we address the splinter in another’s eye.
It wasn’t the Assyrians who were running from God; it was Jonah. In God’s upside-down realm, the wicked become the righteous, and the righteous are exposed as wicked. The unrighteous run to God, whereas the religious run from God. Nineveh eventually turned from their evil ways.
So, let’s keep to the side of mercy, not judgment.
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.