I’ve been thinking a bit about Jonah for some time now, ever since I heard a sermon on him that hit all the usual notes: Jonah runs away from God, God sends a fish to ‘re-purpose’ him, Jonah relents and preaches to the people of Nineveh, and finally, the strange ending with no real resolution. But lately I’ve been inclined to read Jonah in a different way, one that lifts up the prophet as a truly remarkable figure. Not a coward, but a tower of faith and confidence. Rebellious? Sure. Arrogant? Without question. Authentic faith in trying circumstances? Absolutely.
. . .
Every spring, football fans across the country engage in a funny little ritual that’s one of two things: Either it’s mind-numbingly boring, or edge-of-your-seat exciting, depending on your perspective. These diehards turn their TVs to ESPN or NFL Network and wait for their favorite NFL team’s logo to pop up on the bottom of the screen along with the magical words, ‘THE PICK IS IN.’ This signals that his/her favorite team is about to add another player into the fold. Jerseys will be bought, draft grades will be given, decisions will be scrutinized … but, in the end, the player is now on the team. He’s one of us.
Visit any one of a hundred football blogs on draft day and you’ll be vaulted to the great heights and plunged into the shadowy depths of that wonderful linguistic volcano, Mount St. Hyperbole. My favorite fansite, Blogging the Boys, comments on all things related to the Dallas Cowboys. My team. After this year’s first round draft pick (a guy named Taco, believe it or not), this normally cordial blogosphere exploded.
‘Why didn’t they draft T.J.??? He was there for the taking!’
‘Miserable waste of a pick. He’s horrible.’
‘I hate Jerry Jones.’
‘He doesn’t have enough bend around the edge!!! What are they thinking?’
‘I’m not eating tacos for a year in protest! …umm, make that a week!’
All coming from dudes who have Cheetos stains on their t-shirts; t-shirts which may or may not cover their hairy belly buttons. Ironically, the Cowboys’ second round pick goes by the phonetic nickname, “Cheetoh.”
We’re all experts, aren’t we? It’s easier to chuck rocks from the cheap seats than it is to admire the hard work and dedication that these young men pour into their craft. Or, even better, imagine how perspectives would change if, just for one day, they had to strap on pads and go head-to-head against these mammoths.
Kind of like our usual approach to the prophet Jonah.
Here’s why Jonah is quickly becoming my favorite of the Old Testament prophets.
Jonah knows himself. Yes, he runs from God’s calling in the most literal way possible, taking a boat in the exact opposite direction of God’s call. My kids do this when they know they are in trouble, dashing upstairs and hiding under the covers in a mess of tears and snot. But Jonah has a steely-eyed nerve to him. This is not the flight of the fearful, but rage of the righteous (and/or rebellious). He sleeps during a calamitous storm, in spite of the vomit-inducing rocking of the waves. Once awakened, he speaks straightforwardly and simply to the sailors: ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’ He wouldn’t jump. He had to be thrown. Such was his resolve against the great evil of Nineveh and his lack of compassion upon their fallen condition, not just his stubbornness against the great calling of Yahweh himself.
Jonah knows God. He knows him. After trudging around Nineveh with the world’s worst sermon, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,’ Jonah burns against the character of God—precisely because he knew him. ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I know that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’
Oh, to know God and to understand his will for my life as Jonah knows! I get vague, blurry pictures of God’s calling. Jonah knows the play-by-play, as if he’s playing chess with God and sees fifteen moves ahead. To criticize Jonah for running is like criticizing LeBron James for a turnover. Sure, it’s bad and we’ll all know it, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The presence and character of God runs so deep in Jonah’s bloodstream that he is compelled to move. Move in the wrong direction, sure, but move nevertheless.
Jonah gets a foretaste of Paul’s great mystery. This is one of the very few instances in the Old Testament when God’s grace moves in and about peoples who were not Jewish. On Jonah’s warning, the people of Nineveh are pierced to the heart with repentance, turning from ‘their evil ways’ (3:10). Consider how startling this would be to a Jew, born and bred into the foundational belief that God had chosen one people to be his own. Now, God has opened his gaze to the heathen. Unthinkable.
Paul speaks of this in the New Testament as something so remarkable and inconceivable that it’s essentially a part of the mystery of God. ‘[The mystery of Christ] is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, member together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus’ (Eph 3:6). Gentiles. Who knew?
I’m not saying that the residents of Nineveh all of a sudden became followers of Yahweh. Nor do I have any definite conclusion about their long-term fate. Rather, I want to point us to Jonah’s words yet again (with a little reading between the lines): ‘Lord, I knew you were so compassionate upon the people of this earth that you would give grace even to those who don’t even remotely know you as I know you. Lord, I know your forgiveness is present to those who repent—Jew or Gentile. That’s why I ran.’
Jonah’s certainly not a coward. He’s vigilant and zealous. And he knows God to a far greater depth than I know him.
We’re nervous meeting our neighbors. Jonah says plainly to people who hate him, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land’ (1:9).
We pray only when we’re desperate, hoping that God will answer us. Jonah talks to God as if it’s his rabbi, mentor, and friend. ‘From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry’ (2:2b).
We speak about faith yet often know very little about God, assuming our pastors will do the hard work of reading and interpreting his Word for us. Yet Jonah knows precisely who God is by first-hand experience and yearns for a day when his face can look again upon the Temple (2:4, 7).
. . .
At some point in the future, I’ll be running from God. I’ll be looking for a one-way ticket to Tarshish (hopefully, not on United). Yet, in my rebellious flight, my present hope for that future version of Joel will be that God will be the same God he was to Jonah, slow to anger on Jonah’s sins and gentle with his rebuke … and that I’ll know God then as Jonah knew him. I’ll rest in the absolute reality and sure knowledge that God can pull me from my pit precisely because HE IS compassionate, slow to anger, quick to relent, and gentle in discipleship as he turns my face back toward the temple.
When the leviathan from the deep starts swimming after my boat, my great hope is that my confession will remain intact, ‘I am a Christian and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land. Now, throw me overboard.’ Such a plunge may be the fire that prepares the metal for shaping. For discipling.
I would prefer to love wholeheartedly the task set before me by God. But, I’ll take it if his love is so great that he would swallow me up and bring me back to himself and my calling through other means.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.