A Prophet Outside of His Comfort Zone

Jonah

“Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (Romans 3:29-30).1

Tom Gilbert

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“ The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’ ” (Galatians 3:8).

In the story of Jonah, we are given a real life account demonstrating God has extended and will yet extend His mercy, grace, and salvation to peoples who do not even know Him or revere Him. The inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh were such a people, and their response to Jonah’s message foreshadows the work of God’s Divine Plan in both the Gospel and Millennial Ages. Jonah, whose name means “dove,” was the “son of Amittai” and a native of Gath Hepher, a border city in the territory of the Tribe of Zebulun, about 2 miles north of Nazareth (2 Kings 14:25).

Jonah’s service as a prophet is unusual because his primary mission was to preach doom to a city of Gentiles. His message consisted of just five Hebrew words (Jonah 3:4). All that we know about Jonah is found in one verse in 2 Kings 14, the rather short Old Testament book bearing his name and Jesus’ references to him in Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32. Jonah was a prophet whose service is tied, scripturally and chronologically, to the reign of King Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Ten-Tribe Kingdom). King Jeroboam II reigned 41 years from about 825 to 784 BC.

Historical Background

According to 2 Kings 14:23-29, Jeroboam did evil in the eyes of the Lord, continuing the idolatry of worshipping golden calves that was practiced by Jeroboam I. Nevertheless, God directed Jonah to prophesy to Jeroboam II that he would be successful if he launched military campaigns to restore the northern and eastern boundaries of Israel, regaining territory that had been part of the kingdom during the reigns of David and Solomon.

“In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher” (2 Kings 14:23-25). However, we have no record of the words that Jonah spoke to the king.

King Jeroboam II did as God directed and enjoyed military victories in these endeavors. This is the only recorded instance in which Jonah’s activities as a prophet were involved with the affairs of the Northern Kingdom. Jonah’s only other recorded activity was delivering a prophetic warning to the Gentile inhabitants of Nineveh, a great city of the Assyrian Empire with 120,000 people.

Jonah’s Contemporaries

There were two other prophets of God contemporary to Jonah through whom God communicated to the leaders and people of the Kingdom of Israel. Hosea announced God’s judgments and chastening upon both Israel and Judah. “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel” (Hosea 1:1). Hosea’s pronouncements give a clear picture of the waywardness of Israel (Hosea 4:1-2).

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(1) All scripture citations are from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.

Amos was also a contemporary of Jonah and delivered God’s word to both Israel and Judah. “The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa — what he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel” (Amos 1:1).

Amos’ first pronouncement of judgment was against the territories and peoples north and east of Israel (Amos 1:3-5). The consequences for their sins would be their conquest by the military campaigns carried out by King Jeroboam II to expand Israel’s borders, as prophesied by Jonah, and quoted above (2 Kings 14:25).

However, for all the favor Jehovah bestowed upon King Jeroboam II and the people of Israel in the expansion of their territory and the material prosperity that followed, they did not turn away from their evil ways and idolatry. The nation was in moral and spiritual decline and as a result, Amos prophesied God’s judgments upon them (Amos 2:6-7, 3:14-15).

Jonah’s Mission

In this historical context, Jehovah gave Jonah a rather unusual prophetic mission — a mission so foreign to Jonah’s way of thinking about himself and his role as a prophet of God that he fled the scene and headed in the opposite direction.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, a journey of more than 500 miles from his home community of Gath Hepher, and declare His judgment against the city and its people for their extreme wickedness (Jonah 1:1,2). Instead, Jonah headed south-southwest to the coastal city of Joppa and secured passage on a ship headed to Tarshish in southern Spain, more than 2,200 miles to the west — the veritable “end of the earth” in those days (Jonah 1:3).

According to Jonah’s account, the Lord brewed up a violent storm that put the ship in peril of breaking up. Each of the crew prayed to his own god, and they threw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. Amazingly, Jonah was below deck fast asleep. The captain of the ship awakened Jonah and told him to pray to his god for deliverance (Jonah 1:4-6).

Meanwhile, the crew cast lots to see who was responsible for the calamity. The lot fell on Jonah. This probably was no surprise because he had already told them he was running away from Jehovah. Jonah told them to throw him overboard and the sea would become calm. They hesitated and tried their best to row to land, but the sea became yet more violent. Finally, they cast Jonah into the sea, but not without first asking the Lord to forgive them for what they were going to do. The sea grew calm and as a result, the sailors believed in Jonah’s God, and made vows to Him (Jonah 1:7-16).

Jonah did not perish. He records that the Lord “provided a great fish to swallow [him], and [he] was inside the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). Inside the fish, Jonah prayed to God. He acknowledged God’s response to his cry for help when “my life was ebbing away” (Jonah 2:7), and that “salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). He vowed to perform God’s bidding and, as a result, “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (Jonah 2:10).

Jesus Confirms Jonah’s Story

These rather incredible events have led many critics to dismiss the Book of Jonah as a fanciful tale. A number of answers can be given to such skeptics, but the strongest is the Son of God refers to Jonah’s experiences as an illustration pointing to the experiences Jesus would face in providing the ransom sacrifice for mankind.

“[Jesus] answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here’ ” (Matthew 12:39-41).

The lesson emerging from this part of the account is that God will not easily let go of one who has entered into His service. Should one try to do so, God will pursue him or her even if they have turned in another direction. Three precious promises bear this out.

● “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ ” (Hebrews 13:5).
● “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
● “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

The experience seemingly renewed Jonah’s commitment to his prophetic duties. God repeated his charge to Jonah. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 3:2). So Jonah went to Nineveh and proclaimed God’s judgment of impending destruction of the city. However, we learn that his heart was not in tune with God’s purposes. As he entered the city, Jonah proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). This is the only record we have of the message spoken by the prophet Jonah — just five Hebrew words.

Nineveh’s Repentance

Jonah was not prepared for the Ninevites’ response of repentance. They unitedly declared a fast and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. The king, after removing his royal robes, likewise put on sackcloth and sat down in the dust. He issued a decree formalizing the fast, the putting on of sackcloth, and imploring everyone to turn from his wicked way and call upon God to compassionately relent from His intended punishment. God did have compassion on the Ninevites for their apparently sincere repentance and intention to turn from their evil ways (Jonah 3:5-10).

Jonah’s Reaction to God’s Mercy toward Nineveh

The focus of the story then becomes Jonah’s great displeasure at not seeing the Ninevites “get what they deserve.” He was angry with God and explained that the reason he initially ran away from his commission was because he knew God to be compassionate and forgiving. It seems that Jonah did not want to be the agent giving the people the warning and opportunity to repent (Jonah 4:1,2). He apparently felt that the ungodly Gentiles did not deserve an opportunity to change. Instead, they should simply be punished. This is the same spirit embodied in the false doctrine of eternal torment taught by the vast majority of Christian denominations and Islam.

Israel had a special claim on the favor and attention of Jehovah. Jonah perhaps made the mistake of thinking it was an exclusive claim. It seems he resented the fact that God would turn away His wrath from extremely wicked Gentiles in the same way that He had tempered His treatment of Israel when the people turned away from idolatry.

Jonah was so despondent that he asked God to take away his life. He left the city and sat down at a place east of Nineveh. There he built a shelter to shade himself. Then God, perhaps wanting to display His care for Jonah, caused a vine to sprout and grow to provide further shade from the hot sun. Jonah was happy about this, but at dawn the next day God caused a worm to appear which chewed on the vine causing it to wither. Without the vine for shade, when the sun arose and dry winds blew, Jonah became very uncomfortable (Jonah 4:5-8).

Jonah again lamented that it would be better if he just died. He became angry at his circumstances. In response, God challenged him, asking if he had a right to be angry (Jonah 4:9). After all, he had done nothing to tend the vine to ensure its continued vitality. Then the Lord concludes with this lesson in contrasts:

 “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

In playing out this story in the ministry of Jonah, God was foreshadowing the turning of favor to the Gentiles when Israel rejected their Messiah and the opportunity to comprise the spiritual seed of Abraham, the heavenly church. Perhaps God was trying to stir the Israelites to jealousy, when they heard the report of what had happened in Nineveh. The Apostle Paul tells us that God is using envy and jealousy to stir up Israel during the Gospel Age by turning to the Gentiles to fill up the Body of Christ.

“Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, ‘I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.’ And Isaiah boldly says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But concerning Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people’ ” (Romans 10:19-21).

Lessons

One lesson is the importance of recognizing the sovereignty of God, who is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35), and who will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy (Romans 9:15). It is a common theme down through the ages of human history — people have created, believed, and proclaimed their own invented limitations on the graciousness of God.

Another lesson is to have love and care for all people. Jonah was more concerned about the vine and his own comfort than he was about the Ninevites. Our Lord Jesus used an example of birds to stress how much God values people above all other elements of His creation: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26).

Our duty as servants of God is to love all people, just as He and His Son have demonstrated.

“If anyone boasts, ‘I love God,’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both” (1 John 4:20-21, The Message).

Categories: 2017 Issues, 2017-May/June

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