Everyone has heard of Jonah and the
whale. If Jonah were to ask the New Testament question, Who do men say
that I am? He would be told he is a myth, a legend, and a fairy tale by
many. His story is one of the most unusual in all the Bible. Some have
found it harder to swallow than if Jonah had been asked to swallow the
First of all, there was no whale. The
story tells of Jonah being swallowed by a "great fish."
Second, once a person believes that God made the ocean with a single
word and then filled that ocean with "whatsoever passeth through
the paths of the seas" he has no difficulty with any
circumstance designed by the Almighty. The same faith that accepts the
story of the incarnation (God reduced to the size of a single cell
joined to another single cell in the womb of the Virgin Mary), has
little difficulty accepting Jonah and his great fish.
While corroboration and internal
evidence of some biblical characters is rare or sometimes non-existent,
Jonah has his friends. He was a respected and recognized prophet in his
own day and respectfully remembered in the days of Christ.
He is referred to in 2Kings 14:25 "[Jeroboam]
restored the border of Israel . . . according to the word of the Lord
which He spoke by His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who
was from Gath-hepher." More significantly, Jesus himself spoke
of Jonah and thus validated his authenticity and rightful place in the
hall of Prophets.
A man named Amittai had a son. Amattai
means "truthful." He named his son Jonah which means
"dove." They that worship the Father must worship in
"spirit and in truth." God was grooming a man who would teach
Assyria something about worship.
His call to preach was perhaps the
most difficult assignment of any preacher. He was not to stand outside
the gates of Jerusalem, or Samaria and preach to the choir. He was not
to chide or counsel Jewish kings. He was not even called to renounce the
barbaric practices of Israel’s enemies which would have been
encouraged by a chorus of Hebrew "Amens." Jonah was called to
go to the lion’s den and look into the face of the beast. Jonah was
called o preach to Nineveh in Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria.
Assyria was the personification of evilness and idolatry. These people
were barbaric, brutal, and exceedingly wicked. They were famous by their
own accounts for savagery. Assurbanipal, the grandson of Sennacherib was
known to cut off the lips of captured enemies along with thousands of
hands and feet. Tiglath-pileser flayed men alive and left gruesome piles
of heads in the wake of his army. These Assyrians must have marched in
the nightmares of Hebrew children and the thought of them must have
caused mothers to tremble with fright. To the very den of this lion was
Jonah commissioned to go.
A true prophet must allow God to
assign the parish. As with Lot who, when given the choice by Abraham,
chose the best and most pleasant for himself, many a
"so-called" preacher selects the easy or comfortable
assignment. Professional clergymen call these comfortable churches
"plums." May the Lord deliver us from such churches and
Every church has a few "uncalled" men who think themselves to
be preachers or prophets. They are usually shade-tree mechanics who
tinker with and dabble with doctrines, precepts, and parables. They are
recreational and arm chair theologians who think it should be pleasant
to stand in another man’s pulpit. He that would be a prophet must pay
the price of the prophet. Both John by the Jordon and John in Patmos
knew the pain which is part of that price.
While the pain of Jonah’s calling is
and example of the extreme and very apparent, there is pain involved in
every true call to preach. Amateur preachers never pay the price and
they never go to Niniveh. When God called this writer out of seminary to
go to New York City many a preacher whispered with a kind of cynical
sigh of relief, "better you than me." God does not call
preachers to green pastures but to barren and needy places. By the grace
of God, if sown faithfully, persistenty, and prayerfully the seed will
result in pastures lush enough for any sheep. God does not call his
prophets to dig wells next to waterfalls. Wells need digging in dry
places. A man who wants to preach to the choir is rarely called to
preach at all. There are more street corners than pulpits and a man who
is truly called to preach will find one before the other.
Sometimes grace offers a cup of water
even knowing pride will refuse to drink it. The preacher must go where
God sends letting God worry about the results. Jonah ran from God’s
calling. He never told us why he ran. The final chapter gives us some
clues however. Was he afraid the Assyrians would cut off his lips if
they were offended by his Jewish preaching? Would they cut off his hands
and send him home helpless? Would they add his skull to already high
heap of unfortunates? Was he afraid? I would be surprised if he was not.
Here was David without a slingshot. A simple provincial prophet standing
in the gates of the most fearsome city in the world bringing a rebuke
from heaven. If he was the least bit reasonable he would at least
approach this assignment with caution. But Jonah’s fear was altogether
different. He was afraid, it seemed, that God would spare these awful
people. He was afraid God would save Ninevah.
What if God had saved Hitler in that
fateful bunker? What if Hitler had taken the path of Peter rather than
that of Judas? What if at the last moment, just before the allies
stormed the wolf’s lair, this man who was responsible for the agony,
torture, suffering, and death of six million Jews repented and asked for
forgiveness? Before you quickly and easily say you would embrace and
welcome him to the Lord’s Supper, suppose he has gassed your entire
family at Aushwitz. Suppose you were asked to preach to him in a
warehouse filled with a million bars of soap made from men, women, and
children who had been your neighbors. Suppose you had to
read to him of God’s love under the illumination pouring from a
lampshade of human skin taken from the body of a helpless grandmother
who pleaded for the lives of her terrorized and naked
grandchildren. If you do not understand Jonah’s reluctance
by now, you never will, and there is little hope that you will ever
truly understand the real meaning of a single word in the Bible. Jonah
hated these people. He wanted to have nothing to do with them, let alone
preach in their presence.
His response to the call of God was to
go in the completely opposite direction. Nineveh was approximately five
hundred miles northeast of Palestine; Tarshish is believed to be the
ancient Tartessus of Spain which was not only two thousand miles due
west, for all practical purposes it was the end of the earth. He became
a fugitive from God.
This reluctant prophet has become a
timeless object lesson about obedience. Every Sunday School has taken
his failure as a parable of foolishness and his dirty laundry has been
hanging out for everyone to see for nearly three thousand years. If my
dirty laundry can be used to save a single soul, or restore a single
prophet, then may God pin it to the line in spite of my shame. Millions
have been ministered to by Jonah’s poor example though he must still
shake his head has he remembers his lack of faith while he marvels at
the grace of God.
"Faithful is he that calleth you
who will also do it" 1 Thes. 5:24. Jonah’s
problem was a lack of trust. He failed to trust God either for the means
or or the result. We have all been there. We may not have purchased a
ticked to Tarshish but we have all been on board that boat. Every time
we resent or resist God’s call to obey some command we sail on
dangerous waters. Every time we secretly wish fire would fall from
heaven on some enemy or modern Assyrian we deny the name of Christ as
much as Jonah failed to live up to his. Every time we think we are
somehow superior to a Samaritan or an Assyrian we are seeing our
reflection in the muddy waters of our imagination rather than in a true
mirror of God’s Word. We are all sons of Adam. We are only saved by
Whether to Ninevah or New York, a call
of God is a call of God and a prophet who’s name means
"spirit" and who’s father’s name means "truth"
must go. He should fear neither failure nor success. He should simply
sow the seed while trusting the results to the Lord of the Harvest. Each
man must find his calling. To hear that calling, the ear is not as
important as the heart. Not every man is a prophet and not every man is
sent to Nineveh. How foolish it is for a bird to become a fish , a mouse
think it’s a lion, or a tinker a teacher. The writer of Hebrews said
it well. "Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your
heart." Jonah had a second chance and he took it. There is no
guarantee a second call will come. There is no guarantee you will be
more inclined to listen when your heart has become harder either. It is
sad when we buy a ticket to Tarsish when God has a job for us in
Nineveh. The Holy record says "so he paid the fare
thereof." It is very expensive indeed to try to flee "from
the presence of the LORD." Satan will send you the tickets, but
you will have to pay the price.
It was said of Jesus that "he
must needs go through Samaria." Eternity had made an
appointment. A needy woman had a date with opportunity. She found the
Savior and living water, yet only God knows the number of times he
waited at some well and no one came. We are on a journey and Jesus knows
Not every Jew is a Rabbi, and not
every prophet a priest. Each person must answer the knock at his own
door. And that knock is seldom a pounding. "Behold I stand at
the door and knock" Rev. 3:20. If we expect a friend to come
calling are we not more prone to be listening? When God calls, answer
the door. Go to Nineveh if he asks you, or should he request to
"sup" with you and yours, make room at the head of the table.
Every believer is called to care. Every believer is called to share.
Every saint is called to serve. No, not everyone is a preacher, nor a
prophet, for then we should all be yelling in the streets.
We seldom feel equipped or adequate,
or ready for God’s call, nor sufficient to accomplish God’s calling;
yet faith and obedience places itself at God’s isposal. The man who
jumps up to speak often has the least to say. The man who rushes to the
platform and loves the lime-light and attention knows nothing of God’s
call. The gift of gab in not the gift of God. The prophet is always
aware that "that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that
which is born of the Spirit is spirit" John 3:6.
Jesus spoke of Jonah twice. He
compared Jonah’s ordeal in the sea monster’s belly to his own
crucifixion and resurrection and said that Jonah was a "sign."
Secondly, he referred to the ministry more than the man when he warned
Jerusalem of the coming judgment. "The men of Nineveh shall rise
up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; for they
repented at the preaching of Jonah..." Then our Lord gave what
amounts to a warning for the world and every man who ever heard the name
of Jonah. "A greater than Jonah is here." (Lk. 11:32.)