Reading through the Bible is taking way longer than expected! This is partly because there is more there than I realised, and partly because I often don’t understand what I’m reading, and have to spend time doing a little research. There are stories which I knew well, others which I’m sure I’ve never read, and some which leave me with this huge “What???” feeling.
The book of Jonah, however, is one which I felt I knew well. When I was a child, aged about 12, a man called Mr Goss did a series of five sermons on Jonah at our church. They are the first sermons I ever really listened to, and I still remember some of the things he said. (On a different note, I heard recently that Mr Goss’s life went wrong after this, he made some bad decisions, ended up in prison, and died young. I hope the people who knew him remember that he was also a gifted preacher, and some of what he did with his life was good and worthwhile. This is an especially poignant thought when reading Jonah, which is all about people making good and bad decisions – because we all do both. Yet God is bigger than our mistakes.)
The book of Jonah was written about the same time as 2 Kings (a history book) and Nahum (another prophet) so roughly 615BC. Both Jonah and Nahum are about Nineveh, a city which was part of the Assyrian empire (and today would be part of Mosul, in Iraq). You probably know the story:
Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh, to tell them they are evil and God is going to destroy them. Jonah decides to run away, and goes on a boat in the opposite direction, towards Tarshish. There is a big storm, Jonah is thrown overboard, and swallowed by a big fish. The fish vomits him out on dry land, and Jonah goes to Nineveh. The people repent, God doesn’t destroy them, Jonah is angry.
I have a few thoughts about the story. Firstly, why did Jonah try to run away? Did he fear the people of Nineveh, or was he frightened he would look silly? I can relate to both of those feelings. Then later, when he’s in the belly of the fish, and life is looking hopeless, he cries out to God. This still happens today; very often people wait until everything is going wrong, there is no hope, before they cry out to God. He is often our last resort.
The book of Jonah is all about second chances. Jonah tries to run away from what he knows God wants him to do, and yet later, after the fish vomits him out, we read that God spoke to him a second time, telling him to go to Nineveh – he gets another chance to do what he should have done in the first place. Later, the people of Nineveh, after they have listened to Jonah, turn back to God and God doesn’t destroy them – he gives them another chance. I think this reflects so much of what I have read in the other books of the Bible, about a God who always sees the wrong that people are doing, and yet he gives them another chance. God wants people to change and come to him, he doesn’t want to destroy them.
I find the character of Jonah to be very interesting. He was clearly a very passionate man, someone who acted on impulse, very hot-headed. Even so, God chose to use him. Perhaps it was that passion, that depth of feeling, which made him an excellent speaker (because whatever it was that he said to the people of Nineveh, it was enough to change a whole city including the King). Being passionate was both Jonah’s greatest strength and his biggest weakness. We all have weaknesses (some more than others). If we let God help us, he can turn those weaknesses into strengths, which is pretty amazing really.
The book of Jonah doesn’t really finish (in my opinion) it just sort of stops. After the city is saved, Jonah goes off in a sulk, and builds a shelter, which a plant grows over, shading him from the sun. Then the plant dies, and Jonah is livid. God says that Jonah has no right to be angry about the plant, which Jonah did nothing to create, and compares it to the whole city of souls which God wanted to save. Then it stops. We have no idea if Jonah realised he was wrong, or simply stomped home again. I have never really understood the bit about the plant – it just shows that Jonah was a pretty awful person (in my opinion). But perhaps he changed.
I will continue reading through the rest of the Old Testament – near the end now.
Thank you for reading.