In our survey of the Old Testament, we’ve covered hundreds of years of ancient history. But whatever happened to the promises that God made to Abraham way back in the book of Genesis? God had promised three things:
First, Abraham would have many descendants. His line would become “a great nation.”
Second, his descendants would have a land of their own, the land of Canaan.
But there was a third promise. In Genesis 12, God says: “I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing…All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
So, where are we? Did Abraham become a great nation? Yes. But then the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians. People from the Ten Tribes were shipped off to Assyria and pretty much disappeared. The promise was reduced by 83 percent!
What about the land? Last time, we saw how the Persians defeated the Babylonians, who had taken the last two tribes into Exile. The Persians allowed the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. But their territory was very small—only a few square miles around Jerusalem. Judah was a nation only in name, really just a puppet state under the Persians. Not much of a land.
So what about the third promise—that Abraham would be a blessing to all nations? Last time, we mentioned Psalm 137, written by one of the exiles in Babylon. By the end of the song, he’s so angry at the Babylonians that he says he’d be happy to see their babies smashed on the rocks.
If Abraham was going to be a blessing to anyone besides Israel, someone from Israel would have to bring them the message. And under the circumstances, that wasn’t likely. It’s hard to preach the good news to someone if you’d actually rather take both them and their children and split their skulls open.
And so we come to the book of Jonah. The real-life Jonah was a prophet of the northern kingdom. His name is mentioned once, in 2nd Kings 14. And so the book of Jonah is grouped with the other so-called minor prophets, such as Joel and Amos.
But that’s misleading, because the book of Jonah isn’t really prophecy, and it probably doesn’t even have anything to do with the real-life prophet.
It’s a short story, like the parables Jesus told, and Jonah is really just a character. To get hung up on whether this stuff “really” happened is to miss the point. To ask whether Jonah was really swallowed by a great fish and then spit back up would be the same as quizzing Jesus on a parable. Hey, Jesus: What was the prodigal son’s name? Where does his father live? We’d like to interview him and get his take on the whole thing.
No, the truth that God wants us to discover is in the story itself.
That story of Jonah is divided into four chapters. We’ve read the last two. But let’s begin with the first chapter: No words are wasted: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ’Go to the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
So what does Jonah do? “Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.” Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was in northern Iraq, where the city of Mosul stands today. Tarshish refers to Spain. In other words, Jonah headed in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh.
But there’s more. First, Jonah had gotten on a foreign ship. When a storm came up and threatened to sink them, Jonah 1:5 says, “All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god.” Jonah was on a ship full of unbelievers. But watch what they do: As the storm raged, they figured out that somehow, Jonah must be responsible. When they asked him who he was, he said, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
And they believed him! If His God was the one who made the sea, then his God must have stirred up the storm. Jonah was making converts without even trying.
So what should we do, they cried. Jonah knew the answer: “I’m the one who’s made God angry. Throw me overboard, and the storm will cease.” But verse 13 says, “Instead the men did their best to row back to land.” Why? They couldn’t kill an innocent man. But finally, they obeyed the word of the prophet.
They threw him overboard, and the storm stopped. Then, it says, “The men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.”
We’ll come back to that part in a moment.
So, in chapter two. Jonah was thrown overboard. Then, ”The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
There, inside the fish, Jonah prayed. But it was a rotten prayer, shot full of lies. First, Jonah says, “In my distress I called to the Lord and he answered me.” Well, no. In chapter one, Jonah never cried out to God at all. He just ran.
Then Jonah says, “You hurled me into the deep.” No. He’s out on the water because he was running away. He told the sailors, “I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” God didn’t hurl him into the deep. He put himself in that deadly situation
And then in verse 4, he prays, “I have been banished from your sight.” Oh really? Right at the beginning, Jonah 1:3 says “Jonah ran away from the Lord.” God never banished him. He banished himself. Even then, God was still taking care of him. After all, who else could send a fish to rescue him just in the nick of time?
In verse 8, he complained about “Those who cling to worthless idols.” But who’s he griping about? The sailors on the boat didn’t clung to theirs. As soon as Jonah said that his God was the one who had made the seas, they believed him.
And then, Jonah says, “But I with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good.” Nice thought. But in fact, it was the sailors—those supposedly worthless pagans—who actually made a sacrifice to God. Jonah never got around to it. So that was his so-called prayer: a pack of lies, and self-serving distortions.
That brings us to chapter 3. This time, when God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, he does. So maybe he had learned something. And once he got there, he had marvelous results. Verse 4 says that on his first day in town, all he said was, ”Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” and suddenly, verse 5 says, “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on a sackcloth” —the symbols of repentance.
Even the king repented, and ordered everyone else –even the cattle—to repent too. “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.” That was the message that Jonah was supposed to preach—but didn’t.
And sure enough, their repentance worked. God changed his mind. He took Nineveh off his list for destruction.
But now look at chapter four. It says: “But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
And then the ugly truth comes spilling out. We find out why Jonah ran away in the first place: “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 knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
In other words: O Lord, I just knew you’d let those blasted Ninevites off the hook. And frankly, he says in verse 3, I’d rather be dead than have them live.
Why? God asks: ”Have you any right to be angry?” Jonah won’t answer. Instead, he went outside of town and camped under a big, shady vine. The next day, God made the vine wither, and, as Jonah is roasting in the hot sun. God said,” I bet you’re angry about the vine.” “You bet I am,” Jonah says, “I’m so mad, I could die.”
So there it is: God’s promises hadn’t changed. God still wants Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations—even to those condemnable Iraqis in Nineveh, up there in ISIS territory. But the promise won’t be fulfilled it God’s people aren’t willing to lift a finger to make it happen. Here is where the Old Testament connects to the New. John 3:16 could just as well be the ending of Jonah: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus would embody the promise to Abraham, He told his disciples to go and teach all nations. And sure enough, by the end of the New Testament, the gospel message –the blessings of Abraham—had been carried into the city of Rome itself.
The question is, are we more like Jonah or Jesus? Think of Jonah’s prayer: How often do we offer God nothing but lies and rationalizations? How often do we make promises we have no intention of keeping? How often are we the hypocrites, who condemn the unbelievers, even when they’re more gracious, generous, and forgiving than we have been?
Do we really want Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations, or only to the ones we like? Would we rather sit around like Jonah, and complain? How often is it easier to hate and judge our enemies rather than share our good news with them?
The good news today is that God still hasn’t changed his mind. By the power of his Holy Spirit, when his word is told, magical things happen. People will actually believe it! Jonah was probably the worst preacher ever. Yet one unintentional word converted the sailors, and one half-hearted effort drove 120,000 Ninevites to repent. If we’ll try to move the project even an inch. God will move it a mile. That’s the power of his word.
Our inclination is to run away. But if we fight that inclination, and try to live the Christian life so that we become a living sermon of good news, forgiveness, hope, and love, tremendous things will happen—because God will make it so; through Jesus Christ our Lord.