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Nov 25, 2018

Two Prophets & A City

Passage: Jonah 1-4

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Mining the Prophets

Keywords: compassion, judgment, mercy, rebellion, repentance, transforming grace

Summary:

What does everyone need, no one can earn and very few people actually choose? Find out from this Old Testament Prophet, Jonah.

Detail:

Two Prophets & A City

#6 in Mining the Prophets Series

Jonah & Nahum

November 25, 2018

ILL:  I remember having a conversation one day with one of my fellow classmates…in middle school.  While she was religious and believed God existed, she said she was quite sure that the book of Jonah was just a “fable,”—a cute story put into the Bible, not to be historical, but to teach some vague spiritual truth…though she didn’t seem to know what that truth was. 

I wish I had been a bit quicker on my feet to have asked her what I now know as C. S. Lewis’s famous question about Jesus: if what she said was true, then which did she believe-- Jesus was a.) a liar, or b.) lunatic.  Why do I say that?  What connection does the story of Jonah have with believing Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic…or actually Lord of all? 

According to Matthew 12:38ff, Jesus not only believed that Jonah was an actual historical prophet; He clearly believed Jonah spent 3 days and 3 nights “in the belly of a huge fish.”  In fact, He believed it so much that he used Jonah as his answer to angry religious leaders of His day.  They demand another “sign” that He was the Son of God.  Here’s how it went down.

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.”

            If you believe in Jesus and his bodily, physical resurrection from the dead three days after his death and burial, then the story of Jonah and the great fish is not something that will strain your spiritual faith muscles.  But if you have trouble believing God could keep a man alive for 3 days in the belly of a great sea creature, you will probably have problems with the resurrection of Jesus. 

While that is certainly an important point to make about belief or non-belief in the story of Jonah, I don’t think that is the main story of the book of Jonah.  While this is a book about impending judgment, it is actually much more about the power of GRACE. 

THEME of Jonah:  Grace embraced transforms while grace rejected embitters. 

Q:  So, if Jonah is one of our 2 prophets today, who is the other prophet and what is the city? (The city is Nineveh and the prophet is Nahum.)

We’re not going to spend any time looking at Nahum today.  But for historical reference, Nahum is a 150-year later echo of God’s message of destruction resting over Nineveh.  As with our country, a lot of moral slippage can happen in a nation in 150 years.  And though Jonah’s preaching, as we’ll see, is going to bring about one of the most amazing spiritual revivals in human history, 150 years later the Ninevites’ offspring were apparently back in the same moral and spiritual gutter that demanded God’s judgment. 

Here’s the historical timeline where these 2 prophets intersect:

Jonah prophecies against Nineveh (792-753 B.C.)…Israel falls to the Assyrians (70-30 years later in 722 B.C.)…Nahum prophecies (around 620 B.C.)….Nineveh falls to the Babylonians (612 B.C.).   

            The more we learn about Jonah, the more it seems that he would have been a much happier prophet if he had been able to switch places with Nahum.  Nahum is all about impending judgement on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, a judgment they won’t escape the second time with this second prophet.

            But Jonah is all about the mercifully gracious heart of God towards godless pagans…as well as undeserving saints…like us, I might add.  Jonah was told to preach a “repent NOW or be judged” message.  And Nineveh, as we’ll see in a moment, really took it to heart, repented from the bottom up and was spared judgment for roughtly another 150 years. 

APP:  For those of us who are praying for the spiritual awakening through repentance of our own godless America and Spokane right now, this book is great news and great encouragement. I’d die a happy man to see Spokane repent like Nineveh.  But one of the questions this book pounds me with today is, whether I’d be willing to preach a message of God’s judgment that could lead to just such a revival?     

            While Jonah is all about the heart of the very loving and merciful God we serve, it is also a story about God’s reluctant people…of every generation.  It’s about the attitudes and actions of Jonah who mirrored his entire nation of Israel and, by extension, a whole lot us in the church today.

            One of the unique characteristics of Jonah as one of the Minor Prophets of the O.T. is that it is the only O.T. prophet that has no prophecies!

Jonah also is the only O.T. prophet who is outright rebellious towards God who gave him the message to preach.  Other prophets struggled with God about their messages and audiences but none is as self-absorbed and defiant towards God as Jonah. 

            So let’s take the 30,000 ft. view of Jonah for a moment. 

Chapter 1 is the historical account of Jonah’s absolute disobedience to God’s prophetic call on his life. And it is a painful account to watch.

  • Jonah is probably the northern-most prophet in the Bible. He lived up by the Sea of Galilee. 
  • But when God came to him and tells him to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me,” (Jonah 1:2), Jonah goes in exactly the opposite direction. Nineveh is Northeast of where Jonah is.  And Jonah goes directly Southwest…to catch a boat that will take him to the farthest reaches of the then-known world, somewhere near Spain! 

Jonah 1:3--But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

APP:  It’s amazing what we will do to “run from the Lord,” isn’t it? On the face of it, we all know it’s pretty dumb to think you can outrun God, right? We read this and think, “What an idiot… running from God.”  But just think of all the ways we run from God every day. 

  • God nudges us to pray for someone whose story you are listening at work and when they are done pouring out their heart to us, we give them a hug and walk away without saying, “Would you let me pray for you right now?”
  • God tells us not to be “unequally yoked” together with non-Christ followers. So what do we do?  Date non Christ-followers and often end up romantically involved with them. 
  • We join business partnerships with non-Christ followers and wonder why we get taken to the cleaners.
  • It may be as simple as God convicting us about some sin we’re involved in and we just try to ignore the conviction of the Holy Spirit…

Our “running from the Lord” may or may not be as big as Jonah’s.  But we all have a propensity to do it…especially if we don’t particularly like the people or the risk obedience to God may require us to pursue. 

Jonah going to Nineveh in his day would be akin to God asking us to leave Spokane and go work in Phoenix with MS-13 gang members from Mexico… or go to Afghanistan and work with ISIS groups who regularly kill anyone who speaks about Christ in public. 

I have to believe that this “big disobedience” on Jonah’s part was more the result of a whole lot of “little” rejections of God’s grace leading up to this story.  Remember the theme?  Grace embraced transforms while grace rejected embitters.   Almost everything we’re going to see about Jonah’s character leads me to believe this “running” from God’s grace was more the norm than the exception. 

            As we read the rest of this chapter, I want you to take note of as many CONTRASTS between Jewish Jonah and pagan sailors (or “public transit workers”).  Jonah 1:4ff--

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

Contrasts: 

  • Sailors faced reality; Jonah numbed it with sleep.
  • Sailors stayed on deck working; Jonah went below to sleep.
  • Sailors prayed; Jonah slept and didn’t pray. The pagan captain went to Jonah believing God would answer prayer and asking Jonah to pray; Jonah withdrew from all interaction with lost sinners and did nothing to save the ship, the cargo or the lives of his fellow shipmates.
  • Sailors got rid of the cargo at great personal loss. Jonah wouldn’t even get rid of his disobedience that would have been great personal gain.
  • The pagan captain believed in a god who might hear their cries; Jonah was indifferent to the God he knew heard people’s cries.

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

  • Pagan sailors sought to determine the cause of the crisis; Jonah tried to hide what he knew to be the cause of the crisis.
  • Pagans believed in the sovereignty of their weaker god(s) over even the casting of lots; Jonah ignored the sovereignty of Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, over the unfolding natural disaster.
  • Pagans understood their actions could make their god(s) angry enough to create a storm like this; Jonah believed his absolute disobedience and rebellion wouldn’t make God angry and wouldn’t have any repercussions.

11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

At least Jonah finally confronts the reality that his actions are negatively impacting and actually threatening the very lives of the people around him.

APP:  There is a common lie in our culture that goes something like this—“As long as I don’t hurt anyone else, I should be free to do what I want.”  What’s the lie?  That we can do things, even things that appear to be just about us and our lives, and it won’t have any fallout for others.  But we know that’s a lie.

ILL:  Many of us know that the result of someone’s “private actions” of drinking too much or using drugs or gambling or viewing porn or engaging in sex outside marriage ofen can and does have profound impact on others. 

  • If you’re a child born out of wedlock, you know there is a cost to a dad who won’t commit and take care of his children and their mother.
  • If you’ve been the spouse someone cheated on, you know there’s a cost to a “private affair.”
  • If you’ve been the object of gossip you know “private speech” has consequences.

ILL:  I was just reading this week an article entitled “Ten Reasons Your Family Matters to America.”  Reason #6—Your marriage saves money for other taxpayers.  Any guess how much broken marriages cost our country…and thus all of us…every year?   “When the family breaks down, the taxpayers often step in [with] government programs” [that address the social consequences of broken homes, things like poverty, health problems, poorer educational performance, juvenile delinquency and crime.] Two studies they cite put the annual cost to the rest of America as between $100-112 billion. 

One of the most important things for any of us to do when it comes to our sin is to fully acknowledge the cost to others of our sin and let that cost break our hearts.  Jonah sadly didn’t do that.

            So here comes another sharp contrast between Jonah and his pagan sailor shipmates:

13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 

Contrast:  Jonah was willing to let these men perish for his sin; these men are hardly willing to let Jonah perish for his own sin. 

15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. 17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Contrasts: 

  • Pagans obeyed the prophet’s command; Jonah wouldn’t obey God’s command.
  • Pagans “feared the Lord” and “offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him”; Jonah neither feared God, offered any sacrifice nor made any costly vows to God.

So, who are the HEROES in chapter 1?  Not the “man of God”!

            Now, we’re going to skip over chapter 2.  It’s a Psalm or prayer of Jonah.  It’s not even a very great prayer, I think.  Suffice it to say, you won’t find a single statement of repentance in that chapter, just a lot of hollering out to God for help and bargaining with God. 

Vs. 10 of chapter 2 gives us the net effect of this 3-day solitary confinement:  “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”  I’m sure that was a lovely sight… and a delightful smell.  In all probability, Jonah had a complete “body makeover.”  Commentators believe that spending three days in the gastric juices of a sea creature probably bleached both Jonah’s skin and hair.  Imagine what a freakish sight a completely bleached human being would be in that part of the Middle East!!!

            Chapter 3 introduces us to the 2nd time “the word of the Lord came to Jonah” (c.f. 1:1).

2“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.  He walked about 200 miles to obey God this time, from the NW corner of the Mediterranean Sea to the inland city of Nineveh on the Tigris River.  (The current Iraqi city of Mosul…largely destroyed by ISIS in 2014-17—8th c. B.C. walls, statues, palaces, etc.) 

Then we have a description of this great capitol city of Nineveh, the message Jonah preached and the response of the people. 

Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

            So here is one of the largest cities in the ancient world, being jolted awake spiritually by a foreign prophet who probably looked a bit freakish from his acid-soaked journey in the Mediterranean, preaching a clear message of impending destruction.  Apparently God had told Jonah that the city had only 40 days left until the hammer of divine judgment dropped.  There isn’t even the normal prophetic admonition to avoid judgment by entering into repentance from evil. There is just a promise of judgment.

            But God may well have been preparing this city-nation for a revival. Historians note that,

“Before Jonah arrived at this seemingly impregnable fortress-city, two plagues had erupted there (in 765 and 759 B.C.) and a total eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763. These were considered signs of divine anger and may help explain why the Ninevites responded so readily to Jonah’s message, around 759.” [John Hannah, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), Vol. 1, Old Testament, p. 1462.]

APP:  What are considered “signs of divine anger” in our culture today?  We won’t even entertain the idea of a God who gets angry.  So is it any wonder we refuse to see God’s anger manifested in anything happening in world or national events today?  We may actually be behind our pagan ancestors!    

So the Ninevites appeal for mercy to God.  A fast is proclaimed, not initially by the king but apparently from the “bottom up” as everyone from bottom to top of the society “put on sackcloth.”  The “decree” of the King to hold an absolute fast (no food or drink for either people or animals) seems to follow the actions of the populace, not lead it. By the time word reached the king, the city’s repentance was already well under way.

But the king here exercises true leadership.  He began by personally repenting (3:6)…which is always a good idea for leadership. Then he made a proclamation which required all of Nineveh to fast, and to abstain from drinking water (3:7). Both men and animals were to be covered with sackcloth. Then all the people were told to PRAY…to call upon God.  Finally, repentance involved stopping certain behavior:  they were to abstain from their wicked ways and their violence (3:8).

Apparently “wicked ways” and “violence” needed no further clarification.  People had an intuitive, conscience-driven sense of what was right and wrong.  The issue was not one of having inadequate knowledge of what God considered sin, but lacking to this point the desire to actually abstain from it. It was not a matter of information, but of motivation.

APP:  I’m not sure that we in this nation are even at this point in our public understanding of evil and sin. If our nation (or city, for that matter) received word of God’s impending judgment in the next two months, we would probably have great difficulty determining what it is we are doing which is so offensive to God.  

And if some truly godly leader were to call out publicly just what actions of our nation at present are evil in God’s eyes, there might be a major public outcry for removal from office and punishment of such a “bigoted” or “hateful” person. 

Invitation:  If you want to see a real-world test of that, I invite you to come hear what I will say this Wednesday night to our School Board about some curriculum they intend to impose on all 30,600 students in the district.  I’ll effectively be asking them to either change what they require our teenagers to believe and adhere to about sex, sexuality and gender identity OR treat me as the Chair of this committee as they would any student in the classroom who will object or dissent from their viewpoint and ask me to step down.  (I wouldn’t object to having a room full of you there respectfully praying and supporting me in this public test.)

APP:  How sensitive are we to our OWN sins let alone our city’s or nation’s?  If God said, “This month, unless you repent, you are going to die and stand before Me in judgment.”  Jonah could see Nineveh’s sin but was absolutely oblivious to his own!

But back to Jonah 3:8ff—The pagan king of Nineveh states what his hope is by engaging in this rather “extreme” fast.

“Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

What strikes you about the king’s decree here? 

  • He is agreeing that he rules over a city that is engaged in “evil ways” and “violence.” He’s not soft-peddling the evil of his city.  He’s confronting it.
  • He’s recognizing that repentance involves a change of behavior, a departure from sin and a seeking after God.
  • He’s not debating whether or not God has a right to be angry about human evil and violence.
  • He’s not accusing God of wrongdoing if God ultimately destroys his city for their sin.

How different that sounds from what we would expect to read in the morning paper from any mayor of any major U.S. city today!

And how different the actual outcome was for Nineveh from what we can expect to happen in any of our major cities today…unless there is truly large-scale repentance.

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Some people find it very troubling that God would “relent,” that is, change His mind, regarding the destruction of Nineveh. But notice that Jonah expected God to do exactly that (4:2), and the Ninevites at least hoped He would do just that (3:9). The proclamation against Nineveh which God instructed Jonah to deliver was not simply a promise of things to come, but a warning. The Ninevites were absolutely correct in understanding Jonah’s words as they did, as the occasion for repentance. This is entirely in keeping with the way God has always acted towards people steeped in sin.  Go home and read what God said in the book of Jeremiah (18:5-11) if you have questions about this.  It is clear that the reason God threatens judgment is because he desires even more the restoration of sinners to himself. 

The final chapter, CHAPTER 4, turns the camera back to the prophet Jonah…and on God.  As we read this chapter, notice the CONTRASTS between God and Jonah. 

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 

            The difference between God and Jonah? 

  • God loves repentance because it opens the door to His mercy. Jonah hated repentance.
  • God is gracious—filled with grace towards sinners. Jonah is filled with anger and devoid of grace.
  • God is compassionate—he hurts over others in need. Jonah is bitter and hard, wanting more destruction for people already being destroyed by sin.
  • God is slow to anger; Jonah is quick to get angry and nurses his anger into a rage.
  • God is “abounding in love”—hesed love…everlasting love. Jonah has not even the least kind of love for others.
  • God is quick to withdraw his anger and punishment when people repent. Jonah is determined to stay angry and see as much punishment as possible.

How well does this work out for Jonah???  His reply to God:

Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

By now he is in full-on rebellion for the second time against God.  In fact, he’s actually in a worse spot than chapter 1 where he is running full-tilt away from God.  Now he’s chosen to do battle with God, to fight against God’s mercy and grace and nurse his unvarnished prejudice and anger against a lost people. 

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Right answer would be…???? “NO!  If you, God aren’t angry with them, why am I?”  Apparently Jonah doesn’t even answer God’s question. 

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 

He’s still hoping God will become like him rather than that he will become like God!  So he builds a grandstand from which to watch what he hopes will be a serious pyrotechnics show from heaven to Nineveh. 

            Amazingly, God doesn’t give up on this sorry excuse for a prophet.  What does God do?

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 

This is the 1st time Jonah is said to have been “happy.”  The spiritual awakening of the capitol city of over 100,000 of Israel’s arch-enemies didn’t make him happy.  But a little shade plant did!  Amazing. 

Do you think God is happy with that?  No, and God won’t leave him with that kind of “happy” when his heart is clearly in need of radical surgery.  So…

But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, [same term “provided” used in chapter 1 about the “great fish” God “provided”.]  …which chewed the plant so that it withered.When the sun rose, God provided [same word] a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Not this song again!  How many times now has his anger-gone-to-seed led to despair about life?  How many times has his lack of love for others driven him to hatred of his own life? 

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”  Anybody impressed with God about this point?  J  If I were God, I’d have been singing Frank Sinatra's little jingle with a slight change, “Have it YOUR WAY!”

10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

            What a contrast between God and His prophet!  Jonah is more concerned with a plant he didn’t even buy or raise of work for than he is for thousands upon thousands of animals…and thousands upon thousands of people…all right in front of him! 

            And here the book abruptly ends.

We’re left wondering whether Jonah ever repented like the Ninevites he was sent to preach to. 

We’re left wondering if God’s grace and steadfast love were ever embraced personally by Jonah and transformed him radically…or whether he hated and rejected them and God to the end and remained an embittered man.  I’m not even sure we’re going to see Jonah in heaven…because I’m not sure at all that he ever embraced God or God’s grace and love.

APP:  Have you?  Are you more like Jonah today OR like the Ninevites? Have you faced your sin that deserves God’s eternal judgment, turned away from it and embraced the only God of grace and love who stand eager to restore you to Himself? 

Q:  What is it that everyone needs, no one can earn, and few will receive?  The gift of God’s grace…in the persona of Jesus Christ, Savior & Lord.

[Call to Christ.]

APP:  We would also do well to also take an honest look at any anger, hatred and disinterest we may have towards people God is eager to reconcile to himself.  Is there any group of people you would prefer you didn’t have to relate to?  Any person you don’t want to have to care about?  To speak to about the love of God and the impending judgment of God?  Even indifference to people will eventually become anger against them when God sends us to them with the Gospel.  We must not think that our indifference to people without God is neutral.  It is not.   

APP:   Aren’t you glad God doesn’t answer all our prayers! J  How many of us have argued with God and been so mad at Him about for some situation we found ourselves in that seemed to be so painful that we told Him, “Why don’t you just take me out of here?”    If you’re feeling that way today, God has a much better and much bigger plan for your future.  But it must begin with YOU embracing HIM as He is—

  • A God who will judge evil in the end;
  • a God who doesn’t want anyone to perish eternally but all to come to repentance;
  • a God who is quick to receive you into His family when you cry out for mercy and grace;
  • a God who is abundantly gracious, kindly compassionate, slow to punish and overflowing with faithful love.

APP:  How critical are you of other sinners in this world?  Even when we are tasked with warning them about God’s impending judgment, it is to be with a heart that breaks for their brokenness.  Sin and its destructive effects should make me angry…but sinners should make me anxious to show grace and mercy.

The world can’t understand how we can hate the sin but love the sinner because without the grace of God we’ll all love our own sin of hating the sinner for their sin.  As Christ-followers we must show His love for the sinner and His hatred of the sin…theirs and ours!  Anything less is to become a Jonah in our generation. 

APP:  Have you been running from God’s call on your life… even if you know Him as your God?