I have a slight obsession with the planet Mars. This obsession has led me at various times to read on Wikipedia and other sources about Martian geography. Now, when you unroll the planet like a map, and at the center of the map are the prime meridian and equator of Mars, far to the west you will find a region called Tharsis. Tharsis is the Greek pronunciation of the place we know as Tarshish. When I read the book of Jonah, the mental imagery of Jonah fleeing to Mars is pretty entertaining. Here on Earth, Tarshish is considered to be by many scholars to not be a real place, but rather a symbolic city used to represent the furthest western point on earth. Although, there is evidence from the Bible as well as extra-biblical sources that suggest it was a real city, possibly somewhere in modern-day Spain, and its extreme distance from Israel and the Middle East just eventually gave rise to a metaphorical symbol that coexisted with the actual city. Regardless, Tarshish was far. There are many Christians today, however, who are not so far from Tarshish. In fact, for many who claim the title of “Christian,” Tarshish is home. For others, it is a longed-for destination. Preachers use Tarshish as a selling point. Buy a timeshare in Tarshish, it’s great! I know I myself have often made the pilgrimage to that distant land. I have settled in with the locals and counted myself amongst the lotus eaters. Like Odysseus, I am usually able to see through the deception and find my way back home, but the temptation is always still there. What about you? How are you enjoying Tarshish? Have you ever been there? Do you want to go there? If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had more than a few stamps on your passport. I pray, though, that you aren’t like me, and that you have stayed obedient to the calling in which you have been called.
Like Tarshish, Jonah is considered by some to be metaphorical. The personification that is traced throughout the tale, the focus of the text on narrative rather than actual prophetic message, and the unanswered conclusion all lend themselves to Jonah being a strawman meant to represent the children of God. Some would take issue with the personifications and miracles, but to do so would also reject most of the rest of the Bible as well. Of course, there is nothing to prevent the story of Jonah from being a real account. In fact, those holding to the most conservative definitions of “literal” in their belief in biblical inerrancy would have to believe this is true history. Ultimately, Jonah’s disastrous decision making is useful to us whether his story is allegory or history. It’s unfortunate that we have to call Jonah’s decision making disastrous, because we make the same decisions far too often, but there really is no other word for it.
The story begins with Jonah being given a direct task from God in verse 2 of chapter 1, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their disaster has come up before me.” This seems like a fairly straight forward task, go and tell. In fact, this is very reminiscent of God’s call at the beginning of many other prophetic messages recorded in scripture. To Isaiah, God says, “Go, and say to this people,” to Jeremiah, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem,” and to Ezekiel, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel… And you shall speak my words to them.” The Old Testament is filled with examples of God appointing a prophet to proclaim his word, and the formula generally stays the same: go and tell. Now, you may be thinking, “Where is the application here? I am not a prophet.” You are correct to think you are not a prophet, and a discussion needs to be had at a later time if you do. But you do have a similar command from God on your life. Now you should be thinking, “Oh yeah… that.” Yes, that. Our good friend Matthew 28:18-20 commands every Christian, “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” So, you may not be an Old Testament prophet, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Peter is reminding us that all we who call upon the name of Jesus are still bound to the priestly service to which we have been called. According to Peter, no small part of that service is to go and tell. You must realize and acknowledge this truth, because it is imperative that you identify with Jonah. We will see later how the original Jewish readers were meant to identify with him as well.
So, how are you matching up? We’ve only made it through the very first two verses of the book and I am pretty done. I know already that I have been disobedient in proclaiming the word of God how I have been commanded to do. What about you? If you’re still with me, let’s keep going. Verse 3: “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish.” That’s it. God says, “Do this,” and Jonah doesn’t even flinch; he just says, “Hard pass,” and runs. This seems like a horrible idea. You know it’s a horrible idea, Jonah knew it was a horrible idea, even the sailors determine eventually that it was a horrible idea. You see, running from God would make more sense if God wasn’t omnipresent and omniscient. Most pagan theology at the time said that gods were land bound, so maybe Jonah tried to test his luck by going to Tarshish, AKA: as far away in the opposite direction as Nineveh as earthly possible. Unfortunately for Jonah, Isaiah 46:17 exists, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” There is nothing that exists in the entirety of everything that exists that can prevent God from accomplishing his purposes. For Jonah, he was doomed (I’m obviously kidding) the moment he received the word of the Lord.
Jonah gets on his boat to Tarshish and God sends the storm of the century to destroy him. This storm is very obviously of divine origin, as the sailors all start calling out to their gods for mercy. In fact, even the boat is aware of the horror. The way the Hebrew is worded describes the ship as if it has a brain and is genuinely thinking about breaking up. So, even inanimate objects know that some idiot is trying to disobey God. This scenario is not the exact same thing, but it does call to mind Romans 8:22, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Humanity’s active disobedience against God is directly felt by creation. We will continue to see Jonah’s active disobedience. Jonah says to these frightened sailors in 1:9, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This is the nail in the head that confirms to us as reader’s what Jonah’s mindset is. Jonah knew that God was causing the storm, he didn’t care, and he went down into the lower decks of the ship and tried to sleep it out. In Jonah’s proclamation, it is confirmed that he does in fact have correct theology, yet he is emotionless and disobedient There is an apathy from Jonah throughout chapter 1. Notice how the sailors are freaking out, and yet Jonah is so unmoved that he is even able to sleep. Even later, when they throw Jonah into the sea, he seems aloof. God goes so far as to have Jonah swallowed whole by a giant fish before we see any emotional rise out of Jonah.
What an image, and a judgement on many of us. Here is a man of God’s own calling; a man of sound theology, too. Despite this, all we are presented with is an almost unfathomable hardness of heart and obstinance. Yet, is it so unfathomable. Let’s parallel Jonah’s experience and reactions with our own. God called Jonah to warn a sinful city of it’s impending wrath. Instead, Jonah hardened his heart, disobeyed, and fled as far away as possible. Now, none of you, myself included, are fleeing to California, or even further west to Guam or something, to flee the commandments of God. Nevertheless, we do disobey and retreat. We sink back into our homes, our workplaces, our churches. We keep all of the “shall-not’s” of the Bible, while blissfully ignoring the “shall’s.” In our Sunday School class, we are learning theology. Jonah had good theology and sinned regardless. I believe I have good theology, and yet sin attacks me like an insurgent in an occupied nation. How much you know, while it may help you obey, it does not mean you are actually obedient, and if you are not obedient, you are living in sin. We need to repent of this. Jonah repented of it. We’ve seen his initial reaction to God’s call, now let’s see his repentance.
Here in chapter 2, we finally see the emotion that was noticeably absent from chapter 1. It seems life-threatening storms were not enough but being swallowed whole by a fish struck a chord. I get this. I feel this. I am so thick headed, I’ll plow through all sorts of dangers in life with no regard to personal well-being. But one time I was chased by a whale shark with its mouth wide open, and let me tell you, I was crying out to God too. This particular whale shark in Oslob, Cebu also leads me to imagine how Jonah really felt in that fish. If you see pictures or depictions of Jonah, he’s always in this cavernous belly, kneeling in prayer while he has enough around him for an impressive Ikea set up. However, that whale shark of mine changed my perspective. No longer do I imagine an aquatic apartment. Now, I see a 5’9” man like myself forcibly shoved tightly into the slimy digestive track of a 30-foot, toothless worm for three stinking days. In other words, I see punitive discipline.
I don’t actually know what Jonah experienced inside that fish, but it was enough that for the first time, we see Jonah pray. Let’s first notice Jonah saying, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” Jonah might have thought he was quite literally dead and was now pleading with God from the limbo of the grave. Hopefully you and I never have to be in a place where God leads us to believe we are dead before we repent. We also see Jonah acknowledge the sovereignty of God. Start in 2:3, “For you cast me into the deep, and into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’” We read too in verse 7, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” So, what we are reading is actually Jonah’s thanksgiving for answered prayer, not the prayer itself. God seems to have already informed him of his eminent rescue. Still, we see that Jonah admits, it took him all the way to the point of death to remember the LORD. On the third day of being slowly digested while starving and dying of thirst, he finally remembers the one whom he spoke of to the sailors: “The LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” The last line of this thanksgiving gives us foresight into Jonah’s reasoning for all of his actions. He says, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” Again, we see Jonah’s solid theology, and in a little bit we will read about how that theology angered Jonah.
Jonah gets a second chance. He receives a call very similar to the one he received in 1:2, and instead of his reaction the first time we see a new direction for Jonah: up. Look at 1:2, where God tells Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh.” The first time, Jonah indeed rose, but he rose to flee to Tarshish. The rest of chapter 1 and 2 is filled with things going down, down, down, until ultimately Jonah is as low as it gets literally: the bottom of the sea, and as low as it gets metaphorically: the grave. But now, God gives Jonah the command again, “Arise, go to Nineveh” and 3:3 says that “Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.”
Arriving in Nineveh, Jonah spends one day, not three, and not in the belly of a fish, but in the streets of Nineveh, shouting “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it. That’s the entirety of Jonah’s prophetic message. One day of calling out 5 words in Hebrew. It should be apparent by now, that the point of the book of Jonah is not Jonah’s prophetic message that consists of five words and is included in passing in the middle of the book. No, unfortunately, the book is about Jonah’s disastrous decision making. But before we see more of Jonah, let’s look at the people of Nineveh.
Nineveh repents! One day of calling out five words doesn’t seem like much, but God uses it anyway! 3:5 says, “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” If you cannot see the power of the word of God in this passage, then you are as lost as Jonah. An entire city is impacted by the half-hearted call of a prodigal prophet. Salvation truly belongs to the Lord! The king of Nineveh even issues a proclamation for people to repent because “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” This sounds eerily similar to the sailors in chapter 1 who said to Jonah, “Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” Twice now, we have seen God bring judgement on pagan peoples, those pagans have repented and sought reconciliation with God, and Jonah, who is a member of the covenant people of God, reacts in the opposite way. Let’s read Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s salvation.
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” In Hebrew it says, “It was greatly evil to Jonah.” Before, we saw Jonah’s apathy in contrast to the repentance of pagan sailors. Now, we see Jonah’s anger at the repentance of a pagan city. Notice he’s no longer apathetic, he’s actually angry. He is so angry he even prays to God, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” Jonah is weirdly angry complimenting God here. What a weird interaction. It reminds me of an interaction I had with a classmate of mine in college regarding my roommate Ray. The classmate said, “I can’t stand Ray! He’s so nice, it seems so fake! Nobody can be that nice, he has to be fake!” My thought was, “Yes, how dare Ray be nice! Shame on him!” Here Jonah certainly doesn’t think God is fake, but his twisted heart is apparently angered by some of God’s most beautiful characteristics. Imagine praying like this, “God, how dare you be loving! Stop being so merciful! Just let everyone including myself die already!” It’s insane! Assyria was certainly an enemy to the people of Israel, but for Jonah to prefer death to their salvation betrays a heart far from that of God.
The insanity continues, unfortunately, with the story of a plant. Jonah seems to be hoping that God will destroy the city after all, and that angry attitude prompts God to initiate another point of teaching. God causes a large plant to grow up and shade Jonah from the blaring sun. 4:6 says that, “Jonah was exceedingly glad.” Jonah is actually as happy about this stupid, inconsequential shade plant as he was angry about the redemption of Nineveh! The apathetic Jonah from the beginning of the story is gone and seems to have been replaced by a toddler. The selfishness is almost difficult to read, and it gets worse. God then causes the plant to wither and die, once again exposing Jonah to the sun. Jonah kind of gets the point that God is trying to teach him something and says again, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God asks, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” and Jonah responds, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” It’s sad, really, but the worst part is that God turns the question on us.
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
You’re supposed to laugh at the cattle joke. God says, “What about the cattle? I made them too! Do you want them to die or live, or do you even care?” You’re supposed to laugh at the whole story. Jonah caring more about a weed, or maybe cattle as God suggests; that Jonah cares more for them than for souls made in God’s image and for whom Christ died is nothing short of hilarious. Even so, the book of Jonah is a tragedy, and the fall of Jonah – from prophet in the beginning of the book to joke by the end – is meant to cause you to reflect. We do not read Jonah’s response to God’s final question, and the reason is we’re not supposed to. The story is told through Jonah’s life, but the story is about us. It’s about God’s people in a lost world, and how apathetic we are about its condemnation. Certainly, Jesus calls us to love our enemies; a lesson Jonah clearly missed, but we struggle to love even our friends and neighbors. All around us, friends and family, coworkers and associates, they live their lives ignorant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They don’t know their right hand from their left, if you will. Yet, think of your own heart’s reaction. Do you weep for the lost? Or do you get angry enough that you could die when you forget to water and your lawn gets fried? The loss of a pet, or maybe a car crash. For me, it’s traffic. Why do these things bring about in our hearts more passionate affections than a lost and dying world and the love of a gracious savior?
In that famous vlog by atheist Penn Jillette, he says,
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”
Jonah clearly hated the Assyrians, yet even he eventually obeyed God’s command and preached to them. We too have a calling, not only to people we hate, but also to all others, that we go and preach the Gospel. Jesus Christ and him crucified. Much like the city of Nineveh, God has pronounced judgement on the whole world, and he has given us the mission to go and warn people. Just as God gave the people of Nineveh a chance, Jesus points to the sign of Jonah. Like Jonah, Jesus would spend three days in the grave, this time literally, and afterword the world would be called to repentance. Peter says in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Unfortunately, God’s question to us at the end of Jonah reminds us and reproves us, that many of us have not arisen to “go ye therefore,” but instead have arisen and fled to the Tarshish. In the story, Jonah stands as a straw-man for the nation of Israel failing to gather the nations to God. So too, the responsibility lies on the Church, not the individual alone, to not flee into the west, but to reach the nations today.
God’s open-ended question to us here in Jonah about where our hearts lie speaks beyond evangelism and to other callings from God on our lives. What has God called you to that you would rather die than do? A move, a job change, an apology, relationships reconciled; What have you shelved because it’s just easier to ignore it? Perhaps, it is a situation in life. When things are hard, do you find yourself crying out to God, “Lord, PLEASE take me home to be with you! Why do I have to suffer here when I could be together with you!” In the story of Jonah, we see how ridiculous our priorities are in comparison to the purposes and callings of God.
In my city, there are over 65,000 people, with nearly 600,000 in all of my county, plus a few cattle. As the Church, we must support each other to complete this commission, so that we would not be like Jonah who took his talent and buried it in the ground, but rather we would be a people who would be faithful with what is entrusted to us that we might here from our King at the end of all things, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”