There are a lot of people who struggle with the reality of Jonah. A man is thrown overboard, swallowed by a large fish, lives in this fish for three days, and is eventually vomited onto dry land. What an incredibly, unbelievable story. This is the stuff of fairy tales and legends.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a person could live inside of large fish or whale. We know that stomach acid and other digestive processes immediately start breaking down whatever enters the stomach. Not to mention lack of oxygen and everything else that would interfere with out ability to live inside of a fish.
Through the years there have been stories, unconfirmed and others proven untrue, of people being swallowed by a whale and living…but for the most part…pardon the pun, this story is hard to swallow.
Brianna told me a joke this week…a little girl’s teacher was telling here that while the mouth of a whale is big the throat is too small to swallow a human. The little girl protested that Jonah from the Bible was swallowed by a whale. The teacher continued to insist that he could not be swallowed by a whale. The little girl says, “Well, when I get to heaven I am going to ask him.” “Well,” said the teacher, “happens if Jonah isn’t in heaven?” “Then you can ask him!”
Either way…still a hard story to believe.
For me, and maybe I’m pessimistic…this isn’t the part I find hardest to believe. Knowing what I know and have experienced of human nature and governments…I find it almost very difficult to believe that once Jonah obeyed, went to Nineveh, and proclaimed the judgment of God…that this foreign super-power would respond the way they did at the end of Jonah 3.
Let me read this bulk of this chapter to you.
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
The fish is unbelievable enough, but it becomes especially difficult, for me anyway, to believe the Persian Empire would listen to an obscure prophet from a people they had conquered. The Persian Empire was ruthless and powerful. They had conquered many people, and this can’t be the first time a prophet from one of the defeated kingdoms proclaimed their doom. It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
While, we are about three thousand years removed from the life and times of Jonah and Nineveh, people pretty much respond in similar ways, I think…so how many nations do you think would change the course of their lives if a “prophet” entered its capital, preached God’s judgment on their actions, and then went and camped outside the city to wait for it to happen?
And yet, this passage says that when Jonah’s warning reached the King of Nineveh. He donned the formal appearance of someone in mourning…he covered himself with sackcloth and ashes, sat in the dust, and then issued a royal decree for everyone in the city to fast, pray, and repent.
I don’t know about you, but I often carry this kind of pessimism with me when it comes to individuals as well.
The loved one who is destroying their life and won’t listen to anyone…
The son, daughter, friend, or spouse who we have been praying for, and they just don’t seem to be any closer to God…
It is easy to be pessimistic because they don’t seem to be doing anything…they may even seem angrier toward God…angrier toward you…they seem like they are drifting farther and farther away from God.
A few years ago I was watching a discussion online between a couple of friends…another social media controversy. Because of this “controversy,” one of my friends who was a pretty strong atheist posted an article deriding religion and those who are religious.
I remember sitting in from of my computer praying, “God, how do you reach people like this? People who are angry at you or Christians?”
The very next morning, literally the next morning, he messages me behind the scene and says, “I just want to thank you for the demeanor and candor at which you espouse your messages and beliefs here. As a person devoid entirely of belief and/or faith it is very nice not to be “beaten over the head with god.” I appreciate it…”
Here is this person whom I had been despairing over their resistance and anger toward God and people of faith…and there was something getting through behind the scenes of which I was completely unaware. See…
God is always working behind the scenes.
Neither the people of Nineveh nor Jonah had any idea what God was doing, unseen, in the life of the other.
The people of Nineveh had no idea the lengths God was going through to get a prophet to come to their city…to rescue them from the coming destruction.
Jonah had no idea of what God was doing behind the scenes to make the people and the King of Nineveh open and willing to listen to the message he was about to deliver.
And our inability to see the work of God does not in anyway affect the fact that God is working. He is working the lives of those we love…in the lives of those we hate…in the lives of those whom we are praying for…God is working…even when we cannot see it.
We are called to pray for the salvation of those around us…and we should pray even when we can’t see it.
We are called to pray for our government and our leaders…even when they don’t espouse our beliefs and seem to be acting contrary to what God commands.
God’s work seems to be taking a long time.
There might be several reasons for this…The plan might be a big one…
2 Peter 3:9 reminds us…
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
We may want God to return…want him to set everything right in our world or, more personally, in our situation or the life of someone we love….But God is taking a bigger view and working on a grander scale.
Maybe the process is taking longer because someone isn’t responding obediently…
At any moment our disobedience or failure to listen to God can redirect or interfere with God’s will. We see how God’s plan for the world was derailed because of Adam and Eve’s sin…God allows us to take part…and Him allowing us to have freedom of choice means we can derail God’s plans for our lives and the lives of others…because reaches beyond just our own lives.
We know how hard Jonah fought God’s directive…how he tried to run away…who knows what would have happened if Jonah had not eventually repented and obeyed. His disobedience could have resulted in the destruction of an entire city…the death of every crew member on the ship.
We can only imagine all the things that could have gone wrong and caused the King of Nineveh to reject the message and go a different way…
Like it or not, God doesn’t force himself on people…he doesn’t force His will on our lives or the lives of those we love…no matter how much we may want him to do so…no matter how much we think it would help a situation.
The son or daughter making terrible decision…maybe even to spite us…God will not override them and force them to do what we think or He knows to be best.
The friend who is destroying their life…the loved one who will not turn to God…you name it, God will not override them. He will not force because force doesn’t result in relationship.
Yes, God will see his ultimate will come to pass, but there are many instance and detours along the way because of our or someone else’s disobedience.
God’s Ultimate Goal is Grace.
Jonah knew this…that’s why he resisted and disobeyed. He didn’t want the people of Nineveh to receive that forgiveness should they decide to listen to his message and turn to God.
Jonah 4:1-2 says,
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “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.
The King of Nineveh realized God was offering grace…and that is why He repented. All of the obvious reasons why he wouldn’t turn and repent mean nothing. God was working in the life of the King and the people of Nineveh preparing them to realize the truth and the power of what was offered. And in response to that…they saw the grace of God.
The challenge here, for many of us, is to trust God in the midst.
It is painful to feel like we are not in control of our lives. But the reality is that we are only partially in control of what happens in our world. There are so many things outside of our ability to control it isn’t even funny. We can’t control others. We can’t control situations. We can’t control accidents. We can’t control God.
We have to trust. Trust that God is working and keep ourselves from interfereing.
So many times we attempt to do God’s work for Him. We try to go beyond what He asks us to do…we threaten…we nag…we guilt-trip…we leave tracts…we devise schemes and plans…But we have to trust that God’s work is happening and we have to be willing to step up and be obedient and say what needs said WHEN God wants us to say it.
We also have to trust God when what hope for in this life doesn’t happen at all. Maybe that’s the most difficult. So many times we pray and work and are obedient and the person remains far from God. They make no moves toward him. They never seemingly come to Him.
Make a list of the people whom you want to see God work in their lives.
Pray for them until God moves (could be weeks…could be month…will probably be years).
Be obedient when God asks you to do something.