Friday, February 12, 2016

Jonah: Beyond the Fish

Once upon a time there was a nation who believed that conquering neighboring people was a religious duty. Their god had given them a divine mandate, so it was an act of faithful obedience to punish nations that would not bow down to their rule.  Based on this belief, the aggressive empire built a huge army.  In order to frighten nearby kingdoms into submission, the conquerors committed unspeakable atrocities on any peoples who resisted their army, then boasted about it to further spread the word. 

Some of these brutal horrors included hanging enemy corpses on posts, cutting off hands and feet, flaying nobles to drape their skins over piles of corpses or over city walls, and beheading the enemy and hanging their heads in trees around the city. That the kings ordered these barbarous acts is not in question because they proudly produced official propaganda in pictorial and written form. One ruler, Ashurnasirpal II, had this to say about one of his conquests:

I felled 50 of their fighting men with the sword, burnt 200 captives from them, [and] defeated in a battle on the plain 332 troops. … With their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool, [and] the rest of them the ravines [and] torrents of the mountain swallowed. I carried off captives [and] possessions from them. I cut off the heads of their fighters [and] built [therewith] a tower before their city. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls. (Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Part 2: From Tiglath-pileser I to Ashur-nasir-apli II (Wiesbaden, Germ.: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976, p. 124)

Does this sound familiar?  A group of people who believe they have a divine right to wage war?   Who commit atrocities on unbelievers and develop a propaganda campaign to spread the word of what they do in order to inspire terror in their enemies? This isn’t a new problem.  This is what was facing the Israelites from the Assyrian empire during the time of the prophet Jonah. 

After the first period of conquest there was a lull in Assyrian brutality. Internal strife had kept them from conquering as much as they did, but Israel had paid heavy tribute to the Assyrians since the time of Jehoahaz to prevent them from marching on them.  But no one had forgotten how brutal the Assyrians were.

It is at this point that God came to Jonah. Arise, go to Nineveh [capital of Assyria] that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Our children can tell us the story from here.  Jonah ran away, and God had to send a storm and big fish to get his attention. What we often gloss over when telling this story to our kids is WHY Jonah ran from God.  It wasn’t fear of the Assyrians or fear of failure.  In fact, it was fear of success. When Jonah went to Nineveh and preached his message, the whole city listened and repented. Instead of being happy, Jonah was angry.

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 4:2-3)

In essence, Jonah said he would rather die than to see the Assyrians forgiven of their barbarous ways.  It would have given him great pleasure to see the entire city wiped out by God so they could never threaten Israel again.  He had forgotten that if it hadn’t been for God’s abounding and steadfast love, Israel would never have been a nation. The Jewish people were not better than the Assyrians. God, in his love and mercy, chose them to be his people and to be a light to other nations.  Jonah, as many of the Israelites, clung to the part about being God’s chosen people, but disdained to be a light to the nations, especially those nations that were enemies to the Jews.

God was not pleased with Jonah’s attitude.  He tried to teach Jonah a lesson by using a little vine.  The sun was hot as Jonah watched to see if the city was destroyed, and the vine provided a modicum of shade.  God sent a worm to kill the vine, and Jonah became angry.  God asked why he should care so much about the vine and so little for the people of Nineveh. There were 120,000 people in the city who didn’t know the truth about God, and wouldn’t know
 unless somebody taught them.  God’s justice is not stayed by ignorance, but He wanted to give those souls every opportunity to learn the truth and respond to it.

The end of the story is that the Assyrians were not destroyed.  Their repentance didn’t last long, however, and eventually they went back to their conquering, murdering ways. When they conquered the kingdom of Israel, it was because God was using them as a tool to punish Israel for idolatry.  The Assyrians, in turn, were punished by God for their own arrogance. They could not plead ignorance, and they did not repent (Isaiah 10:5-19).

By this time, you can might be able to see the parallel to our situation today.  Please come back Monday so that we can have an honest discussion about how American Christians often play the part of pre-fish Jonahs, and pray for God to change our hearts towards our enemies. 



  1. This is a subject I have been invited to speak about in April. It is indeed worrying to see my brothers and sisters act exactly like Jonah, forgetting that it was only God's grace and not our merit, that saved us.

  2. My husband has so often said and taught that there is so much for us to learn from the little book of Jonah ... so much more that just that he was swallowed by a giant fish! Thanks for writing about much needed truths! Blessings!