Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: September, 2014

3 Lessons from Jonah


The book of Jonah is an extremely unique message of prophecy for many reasons.  It is a narrative rather than a collection of sermons.  The wicked are obedient, but God’s prophet is disobedient.  There are unparalleled acts of repentance without repentance ever being preached.  A man is swallowed by a fish, a shade-giving plant grows and dies in a day, animals fast, prophecy fails (kind of), and a preacher doesn’t want anyone to come up forward.  Unique, indeed.  The story of Jonah is really two short stories (chapters 1-2 and 3-4) combined into one running narrative.  Chapters 1-2 consist of God giving Jonah a task, Jonah refusing, fleeing, meeting some God-fearing sailors, and choosing to die, before God “provides” a fish for him.  Chapters 3-4 consist of God giving Jonah the same task, Jonah accepting, going, meeting God-fearing Ninevites, wanting to die, before God “provides” him with a plant, worm, wind, and valuable lesson.  In this strange word of prophecy there are some important lessons that we should learn.
Don’t Judge a Person by their Nationality
Interestingly, in this Jewish book, the good guy is the bad guy and the bad guys are the good guys.  The prophet is the one who disobeys God, gets angry with God, and needs to be taught a lesson.  The non-Israelite sailors are those who fear God, are reluctant to harm Jonah, and sacrifice to the Lord (Jonah 1:10, 13-16).  The Ninevites are those who listen to God, repent, fast, and turn from their wicked ways.  Don’t forget that there can be bad in the best and good in the worst.

God accomplished tremendous good through a prophet who is pictured in a pretty negative light.  Jonah was the most successful prophet that we read about in the Hebrew Bible.  He was also disobedient, racist, had a poor attitude, and gave probably the worst sermon we’ll ever read.  It was merely a statement: “Forty days more, an Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4).  Jonah did not want them to repent before he preached and he was upset that they repented after he preached.  I seriously doubt he was too keen on their repentance during his sermon.  It’s a rare preacher who doesn’t want people to respond with repentance.  In fact, unlike other prophets, he issues no word of repentance from sin or change of life, only a prediction of doom.  Yet, this prophecy did not come to pass (at least not on Jonah’s timeline).  Like most prophecies, it was contingent on the actions of the people.  God was able to use this message to accomplish an unbelievable amount of good; everyone from the king to the animals repented with fasting.  Remember, there is good in the bad men and bad in the good men, yet God can accomplish His will through both.

God is Not Very Patriotic
Who does God root for in the Olympics?  Apparently it’s human nature to assume that God cares more about you than He does others.  Many nations have seen themselves as God’s “special” nation, the nation that God truly cares about.  Many Americans see this nation as God’s special nation.  I have seen people argue as if the Constitution was on equal footing with Scripture.  The expression “God-given right to bear arms” is a clear example of this.  They apply ancient Israel’s promises as though they were given to modern America, assuming that America is somehow God’s new, special Israel.  America is not alone in this.  Christians all over the world, and at all times, have viewed God through nationalistic and patriotic lenses.  “Surely God wants us to win this war,” “This is a Christian nation,” “This passage to Israel might as well have been written to us,” etc.

There are certainly similarities that can be found between Israel and America, but many similarities can also be found among other nations.  We need to learn from their mistakes so we don’t repeat them, while at the same time remembering that they actually were God’s chosen and special nation.  Yet, God’s focus was not solely on them.  He cared for the Canaanites, allowing them 400 years to repent (Genesis 15:16), communicated with Pharaoh Necho of Egypt (2 Chronicles 35:21-22), and sent Jonah to Nineveh.  According to Romans, God even had a law for the Gentiles.  When Jonah ran away, he treated God like a localized god or idol, like God only existed in Jerusalem.  Jonah behaved as though forgiveness was only for his countrymen.  He forgot that God was universal.  Jonah let patriotism cloud his view of God and justice; we must not do the same.

God Cares for Everyone
After Nineveh repented and God did not carry out Jonah’s prophecy, he gets pretty upset and accuses God of something: “I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.  Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live” (Jonah 4:2-3).  Jonah is so angry that He accuses God of being too good; too good the wrong people.  The Ninevites were exceptionally barbaric and cruel.  They made ISIS look like moderates.  But the fact is, God cared about both Jonah and Nineveh.

To illustrate this point God “provides” (an important word) Jonah with a plant for shade.  This makes Jonah happy.  Then God takes the plant away.  This makes Jonah mad.  The point God makes is this: “Jonah, you care more about a day old plant than the people and animals of Nineveh!”  You see, the plant was a benefit to Jonah, and the people of Nineveh were not.  It’s easy to care about those we know, love, and who give us happiness.  It’s easy to care about our homes, cars, clothes, and possessions.  And at the same time it is easy to forget about others.  People we don’t know too well.  People who might be different than us.  People of different nationalities and even religions.  People who are sinners.  God cares about everyone, from the saints to the sinners and their little dogs too (Jonah 4:11).

Unanswered Prayers

The efficacy of prayer has often been an issue which has troubled believers.  It seems like prayer works sometimes, but other times it does absolutely nothing.  There have been times I prayed for things, even very specific things, and they have come to pass quickly, efficiently, and in a manner I approved.  In those times it is easy to say, “Good job, God, You handled that very well. Bravo.”  However, many times I have prayed for specific things and it seems like the prayer has yielded very little divine attention.

Occasionally, I will have major issues I am dealing with and two facts come to my mind: I know God in His omnipotence can easily and immediately do exactly what I am asking, and I know He doesn’t.  It makes me want to cry out, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, And You will not hear?” (Habakkuk 1:2), or possibly, “I cry out to You for help, but You do not answer me” (Job 30:20).  David said, “O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest” (Psalm 22:2).  Clearly, this issue is not new.  Unanswered prayers are a major struggle today, just as they were by many stalwarts of faith in Scripture.

Unanswered prayers not only cause doubt because we feel God’s not listening, but it makes us question the times He does answer us.  “Am I simply attributing dumb luck to a benevolent Creator?  Surely just by chance things will go my way sometimes.  Is there a correlation between how often things go my way when I pray versus when I don’t pray?  Is there a litmus test I can develop to verify or falsify the power of prayer?”

This mindset, I fear, is a lot of the problem.  We judge God’s existence, compassion, and abilities based on how closely He conforms to our desires.  If everything goes my way all the time then God must really exist, care and be quite talented. But when things don’t go my way, it begs some serious questions.  Does God really hear?  Does He really care? Does He really exist?

If I judge God’s abilities or existence based on how well He obeys me, I have really missed the point.  I have essentially switched places with Him.  Instead of God judging me based on my response to Him, I have started judging Him based on His response to me.

In the Bible there are many answers given for why our prayers might not be answered as we wish.  Sometimes we ask things that God simply does not want to do.  Or put another way, “it is against His will.”  Maybe His plans are different than our desires (Habakkuk 1:2-3, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 12:8-9).  Even Jesus faced this dilemma with prayer (Luke 22:42).  Maybe our plans do not fit His timeline (Revelation 6:9-11; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Job 30:20).  Maybe we gave up too quickly (Luke 11:5-10; 18:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Maybe we asked with the wrong motives (James 4:3).  Maybe we have been bad husbands (1 Peter 3:7).  Maybe because of our life choices we have been denied the benefit of prayer (Isaiah 59:1, 2; Psalm 66:18-20).

There are many reasons why God might not answer our prayers, or might not answer as we wish He would.  It should cause us to look inwardly and ask if we need to make some life changes.  It should cause us to trust in God that maybe, just maybe, He knows best.  You know, that whole “Your will be done” thing.  But we should never put ourselves in His seat, and base our view of Him on how well He follows our lead.  We should not design tests for God so we can judge and score His abilities.  We should pray without ceasing, without doubting, without judging, and trust that God is pretty good at what He does.  Let Him be the God in the relationship.

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