Jaime and I were doing our scripture study this morning, and we’re reading Jonah. Jonah is an interesting dude (though there is some speculation that he is not a real person, but a fictional character designed to portray a message). The Lord calls him to go to Nineveh and call the city to repentance. What does Jonah do? He goes the other way, buying passage on a boat to Tarshish (a city far away, with some speculation that it could have been in modern day Spain). While on the sea, a storm causes the crew members of the boat to pray to their gods and cast lots to see who caused the evil that brought the storm on them. The lot fell on Jonah. And he tells them their story. He realizes the storm was a message from God, as the fish later when he gets swallowed up.
While in the fish’s belly, Jonah prays to the Lord and the fish casts him out on dry ground. Again the Lord comes to Jonah and again (in the good fashion of Old Testament writers who repeat the exact same words numerous times), the Lord asks him the same thing again, to go to Nineveh and cry repentance. This time Jonah goes, and from his words, you can tell he didn’t look forward to it. He said: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” He doesn’t say, “turn to the Lord,” or direct the people to the Lord. As we see later, he really wanted to see Nineveh destroyed. He was angry when the Lord saved Nineveh. The Lord used a smaller lesson to show Jonah the value of saving people’s lives when they repent of their sins.
It is my belief that this short story about Jonah was more for Jonah’s sake than for the people of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh apparently only needed to hear that they were about to be destroyed for them to all turn to God and repent. Anyone could have given that message, and not someone who the moment the Lord calls him for service, flees to Spain! But Jonah, it seems, did not see the value of the repentance of the people of Nineveh, and prepared himself a great location to view the destruction of the city. When it did not happen, he was angry with the Lord. After all, he had gone through the tribulation of being in the belly of a fish for three days all just to do what the Lord asked. Jonah had to learn that people could be forgiven for their sins and still live.
I wonder, today, if one of us were called to our Nineveh, a city we loathe, with the message that they were to be destroyed in forty days, no if ands or buts, and that city were to repent in satcloth and ashes, would we be happy, or still carry around the pain of the loathing? I know I’ve felt loathing for Utah because of my experiences there, but I would be elated if the Lord had called them to repentance and they followed, because I know what that will entail. What if we had to deliver that message to Tehran today? What about Damascus? Would some of us be disappointed that they might not be destroyed?
One last point about Jonah. Read the following, the last verse in chapter four:
Is this not the strangest ending to a book in the Bible? “and also much cattle?????” What a strange ending to a strange story. My thoughts are that we’re missing a part of this story. I think there is still a conversation going on here between Jonah and the Lord. I’d like to see the rest of it some day.