The book of Jonah is very honest about a prophet’s flaws and struggles in his relationship with God. It records Jonah being called by God, initially running away from that vocation, yet by God’s grace being turned around and used in an amazing way. Despite that Jonah still doesn’t appear to respond appropriately, experiencing but not appreciating the depths of God’s grace. The account seems designed to make us reflect on human foibles and the grace of God. How much are we like Jonah? Can we learn from his experience?
If nothing else this teaches us that our role in life might include making mistakes that others learn from! Even the apostles were not immune from that, and were open about it in their writings. It’s about God’s glory not ours, and His grace.
The book opens with Jonah being called to, ‘“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it’(Jonah 1:2); but in response ‘Jonah rose up to flee’, in the opposite direction. Clearly this was an unwelcome mission! Our callings are not always what we would naturally desire or plan for ourselves. Moses’ response to God’s plan for his life was, ‘“please send someone else”’(Exodus 4:13); Peter was told that discipleship would lead him ‘“where you don’t want to go”’(John 21:18); even Jesus, when facing the ultimate mission, cried ‘“if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me; nevertheless, not what I desire, but what you desire”’(Matthew 26:39).
So why did Jonah flinch from his mission? It’s not completely clear, but perhaps this very fact helps us to reflect. There might of course have been more than one reason anyway – aren’t our motives often (perhaps always) mixed and multifactorial?
One possibility was fear. Asking a Hebrew prophet to preach ‘against’ a pagan Assyrian city sounds like asking for trouble! Fear certainly might be what hinders us in less daunting tasks, but perhaps for Jonah fear was not his main concern, as he later reveals, ‘“I hurried to flee… for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness, and you relent form doing harm”’(Jonah 4:2). His rationale for fleeing is still not completely clear from this…
Did he anticipate humiliation? Did he think he might go into Nineveh prophesying ‘“Nineveh will be overthrown!”’(Jonah 3:4), that as a result they would turn, ‘from their evil way’(Jonah 3:10) and that God would then ‘“relent, and turn away from his fierce anger”’(Jonah 3:9) – which is exactly what happened? Jonah’s response to this was, ‘“it is better for me to die than to live”’(Jonah 4:3). Was that because he felt he’d lost face, saying something would happen then it didn’t? Perhaps. Anticipation of humiliation or ridicule is certainly something that can deter any of us from our given tasks, but perhaps there was a third reason…
Did he dislike his mission field? Would he have preferred to minister somewhere else? Bizarrely to us he appears perhaps upset that the Ninevites, ‘“repented at the preaching of Jonah”’(Luke 11:32), presumably because he had not properly grasped God’s wider salvation plans beyond Israel. Is our vision for the reach of God’s grace restricted to our own friends, family, or group in some other sense, those we love?
So the question is do we sometimes ‘rise up to flee’ from the callings we have received, or from tasks we’ve been set to do, for whatever reason? What can the lesson of Jonah teach us in this?
The first thing that shines through is God’s proactive grace – to Jonah and to Nineveh. After Jonah fled God turned him round through an extraordinary sequence of events, such that surely Jonah could sing with the psalmist, ‘Where could I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence?… If I… settle in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will hold me’(Psalm 139:7-10). God’s hand reaches out to save His sheep from themselves (that’s literally what grace is), and ‘“no one will snatch them out of”’(John 10:28) His hand. Wisdom is responding to not resisting God’s guiding hand, as Jonah eventually learnt, so he ‘arose, and went to Nineveh’(Jonah 3:3).
However, despite success Jonah still didn’t seem to get the point / appreciate God’s grace to the Ninevites. No doubt he does now, from the perspective of eternity. Perhaps that’s a lesson too, when struggling to appreciate our role in life. Many can testify, only in retrospect, to seeing God’s hand of blessing through bewildering paths – sometimes in this life, always in eternity.
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