Lessons from Jonah, Part 1
By the Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: Jonah 1:1-7
Devotional text: Luke 6:27
Today, we’re looking at the book of Jonah from the Old Testament. Many of us know this story in its simplest form. It is often told to children as the story of Jonah and the whale, or Jonah and the big fish. This simple story reminds us that Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of a big fish and lived.
We’re going to look at the story of Jonah for the many lessons we learn about God, for Jonah was a prophet of God. Known as one of the 12 minor prophets in the Old Testament, the story we read about Jonah is at a time when Jonah decided to say “no” to God.
We don’t know anything about Jonah before this episode. Since he is called God’s prophet, we can assume God had sent him on other missions to the people of Israel in which Jonah willingly fulfilled his calling.
One thing we do know about Jonah from early in chapter one is that he was the son of Amittai, whose name meant loyal and true. Again, we can assume that Jonah came from a righteous family and that he himself had been an honorable messenger of God’s word.
We find some unusual things going on in the story of Jonah. We are used to the prophets of God going to the people of Israel proclaiming that the people had left their one true God and they needed to repent and return. However, in this scripture, Jonah is asked to go to the people of Nineveh, a Gentile (non-Jewish) people.
Jonah’s mission was to preach against the wickedness of the people in Nineveh, giving them a chance to repent of their ways and then be saved from God’s destruction.
Nineveh was a large and powerful city in Assyria, and the people of Nineveh were known enemies of Israel. Jonah had grown up knowing about the atrocities from Nineveh, and he hated these people. Can we relate to Jonah’s feelings when God wanted him to travel to Nineveh to preach to these pagans?
Hate is a strong emotion that blocks out love. Certainly God knew Jonah’s feelings and attitudes concerning the Ninevites. Why would he send Jonah on such a mission in the first place?
Why does God say the same thing to us today?
In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus spoke to the masses about loving their enemies. In part, he said to them, as well as to us today, “I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Throughout the New Testament, we learn of God’s love, compassion and mercy on all peoples. In Matthew 28:19, he has given us the same mission that he gave to his disciples: “make disciples of all nations.”
Jesus came to earth to teach us about our God’s loving attributes, including his love for all people. We find in the book of Jonah God coming to his prophet to fulfill a part of that decree.
It is not easy to love one’s enemy, just as it is not easy to forgive someone who has brutally wronged us. Yet, we learn from Jesus that we are to do both. From Luke 6:27, we read these words from Jesus: “But I say to you who hear: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.”
The word forgive and its derivatives appears 127 times in our Bibles. These scriptures range from forgiving one another to forgiving enemies. But one of the most telling lessons on forgiveness comes from Jesus on the cross, addressed to those who crucified him. Luke 23:34: “ ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”
God wanted Jonah to give his word of repentance to the Ninevites, a wicked non-Jewish people, because God had heard of their wickedness from heaven. Jonah had to overcome his hatred of the Ninevites if he would answer that call.
God, in his love and compassion, decided to give the Ninevites a second chance. And, by the way, in case you didn’t know, our God is a God of second chances to everyone and third chances and more.
Instead of bringing destruction to that city, God decided to send Jonah to offer the inhabitants a chance to repent. In this way, God could also teach Jonah about forgiving one’s enemies and offering them God’s compassion.
But Jonah would have none of it. Although he was God’s prophet, and he well knew of God’s compassion, his hatred for the Ninevites had created a block in his mind against going there to do God’s righteous work. It was not that Jonah feared the Ninevites; it was that Jonah feared the Ninevites would repent and be saved.
We find in Jonah 1:3 that the prophet booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, which was located to the far west of Nineveh. Once aboard the ship, Jonah went below deck and fell into a deep sleep. Meanwhile, a fierce storm had come up, destructive enough to tear apart the ship.
As the storm became more destructive, we find the ship’s crew crying to their various gods for help. Finally, they decide to draw lots to find out who was responsible for the storm. The lot fell to Jonah.
Even in this small scripture from chapter one, we see the work of God. Not only the God of the storm, but the God who used the crewmen’s pagan belief in lots to enable them to find Jonah.
Next week, we will delve into the rest of chapter one of Jonah.