God is at work in His messenger to form in him His own heart.
Not long ago I got my first pair of prescription eyeglasses, and that experience has been amazing. If I take my glasses off while I’m speaking, people in the front rows are a blur, like the hazy figures in a painting by Claude Monet. But when I put them back on, I see everyone, even people in the back rows, with the clarity and detail found in paintings by the great Dutch masters. I can hardly believe the difference.
Before I got glasses, I was clueless about my need for them. I thought I was seeing just fine. Then I went to see an ophthalmologist. As he began a battery of vision tests, he asked, “Are you seeing well these days?” “I think so,” I replied. As the doctor examined my eyes, he asked more questions: “Do you have trouble seeing things from a distance? How is it when you’re driving at night?” It wasn’t long before he said, “Todd, you need glasses.”
When I picked them up a few days later and put them on, I could not believe my eyes! I was seeing twenty-twenty. Until I put on those glasses, I had no idea how poor my vision had become, no idea of how much I was missing.
There’s a parallel here between physical sight and spiritual sight. In the same way that glasses help us to see physical things more clearly, God’s Word helps us see spiritual things more clearly. When we look through the lenses of His Word, a whole world opens up to us. We see things about ourselves and about God that we never knew before. Now that is scary, but it is also exhilarating. So I want to invite you on a journey through the book of Jonah. I challenge you to be scared—and exhilarated. I ask you to take a look at a world that has faded from sight or, perhaps, that you never knew existed.
Some time ago my wife and I decided to downsize the library of our young children. We had not done that before, but it was clear that we needed to do so. One by one we reviewed the books. Then I picked up one that told the story of Jonah and began to read it. I must admit that I lacked enthusiasm from the start. But by the time I finished, I found myself frustrated. In an attempt, I suspect, to make the story more understandable to children, the author softened the sharp edges. As he brought the story to a climax, he asked, “Did you know... Jonah knew he never wanted to run away from God again, and he happily obeyed Him?” The book’s illustrator did his best to support the writer’s description. There is a beaming Jonah in vivid color, knapsack over his shoulder and walking stick firmly in hand, as he gleefully makes his way to Nineveh, eager to preach God’s Word.
Is that the way it really happened? In this case, the author, whether consciously or unconsciously, came dangerously close to turning the story of Jonah into a fairy tale that ends “and he lived happily ever after.” I don’t mean that he doubted the historical authenticity of the book, but he was probably unaware that he was guilty of something far more subtle. As he softened the sharp edges of the story, he robbed it of its bitter sting.
Jonah chapter 4 shows us the real condition of Jonah’s heart, a condition that has existed all along, but doesn’t become clear until we get the rest of the story: Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:1-3, NIV)
Do these sound like the words of a happy, obedient man, one who knows he never wants to run away from God again? No, Jonah is “greatly displeased and . . . angry” (4:1, NIV) He isn’t jumping for joy at Nineveh’s repentance. He is not on the road because he cares about what matters to God or because he shares God’s heart. He is there because he has exhausted other alternatives and has found it futile to flee from the living God. The bitterness locked in his heart erupts, and he openly admits its presence. It was there from the start, and it held Jonah hostage to the end.
My wife and I ended up removing that storybook from our collection, but that experience made us ask, What is the book of Jonah really about?
If you were to ask a young boy to identify the main character of the book, he might well answer, “The big fish,” and who could blame him? After all, to describe this “fish story” as incredible, extraordinary, or even astounding would fall far short of what Jonah actually experienced. The fish is larger than life, and what he did defies description. And yet he does not show up until chapter 2, sand once he has made his appearance, we never see him again. The great fish is pretty great, but like an actor in a cameo role, his role is significant only in that it is part of a much bigger plot. Other “characters” in Jonah do this as well: a vine (4:6), a worm (4:7), a scorching east wind (4:8), and a blazing sun (4:8). These are not nearly as fantastic as the fish, but they still play significant roles.
The logical answer to the question of who the main character is would be “Jonah.” After all, he plays the “title role” since the book bears his name and he appears in every chapter. We meet him in the opening scene, and he is still there at the end. As we read, we engage with what this man is thinking and feeling. We are drawn along as he takes the roundabout route to Nineveh (1:1-3; 3:1-3) and then waits, disgruntled, to see what God will do (4:5). The evidence seems compelling that Jonah is the most likely candidate to be called the main character, but there is more to it than what first meets the eye.
As I reread Jonah, I discovered something that revolutionized my thinking and brought me squarely in line with the book’s knockout punch: The story of Jonah is not about the great fish or the vine or the east wind or even, primarily, about Jonah himself. It is first and foremost about God and about what He chose to do in His messenger. We could sum up the message of Jonah this way: God is at work in His messenger to form in him His own heart. This, or something close to it, is the melody that flows out of the book of Jonah. We hear it in the story. It draws us in, builds with each refrain, and leads us to its climax. It captures us and calls us to respond.
Let’s take a closer look at each part of that summary statement.
The first part is that God is at work throughout the book. As we begin to look at the details of the story, take note of the opening words: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (1:1, NIV).
Notice that Jonah is present, but he is not center stage. That place is reserved for “the word of the LORD.” We must not underestimate the value of this verse, because it, along with the words of Jonah 3:1—“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time”—form the structural framework for the book as a whole: God is the initiator. And His word, not Jonah’s, carries the book to the end. In other words, God is in the driver’s seat. Jonah is His passenger and is along for the ride until God stops the car. No sooner does the car leave the garage than Jonah begins to learn this lesson. He tries to flee, but God “stops him in his tracks” “The LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent wind arose that the ship threatened to break up” (1:4, NIV).
Later, as the sailors feverishly attempt to row to shore, “they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before” (1:13, NIV). Finally, after Jonah is hurled into the sea, “the raging sea grew calm” (1:15, NIV). Who is driving the torrential winds and the raging sea? There is no doubt in the sailors’ minds: “At this, the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him” (1:16, NIV).
All this would seem to be more than enough, wouldn’t it? But the writer continues: “The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah,” (1:17, NIV) and “The LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (2:10, NIV). The last chapter picks up right where chapter 2 left off. Now the Lord provides the vine (4:6), a worm (4:7), and a scorching east wind (4:8). We see God everywhere in this book. He is at work from start to finish. He is the main character.
The second part of our summary sentence describes the object of God’s work: “God is at work in His messenger.”
What kind of book do you think Jonah is? We typically classify it as one of the prophetic books. A prophet speaks God’s words for Him. He receives God’s message and then delivers it to people who have rebelled against God and gone their own way. When we read the prophetic books of the Bible, that is what we expect to find.
When I began studying Jonah, that is what I expected too. As I read, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai” (1:1, NIV), I thought, “Just as I expected. Jonah is a prophet. God’s word came to Him, and now he will speak it to a rebellious people.” But as I read, I didn’t find Jonah speaking. I found him fleeing. So I made a mental note of that and continued to read. Soon something else struck me: Only one verse in the entire book records what Jonah said to the people of Nineveh. This is what it says: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (3:4, NIV) That’s it—the sum total of Jonah’s sermon—all that is recorded in the book that bears his name. If one of my sermons were to have been recorded in the Scriptures, I would have hoped for a little more press. But one line is all Jonah gets. What insight does this give about the nature of the book? Just this: Jonah is not so much about the prophecy of the book as it is about the prophet of the book. It is not so much about Jonah’s words as it is about Jonah himself. In other words, it is not about the message; it is about the messenger. To get right down to it, the messenger is the message. That’s why we get so many details about Jonah and so few words from Jonah. That tells us that God is concerned about the lives of His messengers.
I don’t mean that Jonah’s words are unimportant. God did something astounding through Jonah’s words that day in Nineveh. God’s message had hardly fallen from Jonah’s lips when repentance broke out everywhere. Eager to respond, the Ninevites believed God, declared a fast, and put on sackcloth (3:5). All of them, from least to greatest, responded to what Jonah said (3:5). Even the king’s heart was pierced, and he bowed his head, bent his knees, and urged everyone within the borders of his kingdom to repent. Here is the eyewitness report: When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:7-9, NIV)
What a remarkable response on the part of the king! It is amazing that one so used to making demands of others demands nothing from God. Everything about his demeanor and his words drips with unqualified repentance: Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish (3:9).
Can this be the same king and the same Assyria who some fifty years earlier swooped down on the northern kingdom of Israel and wreaked havoc on her people? Who would ever have believed that such a wicked king could demonstrate such profound repentance? But that is exactly what happened—by God’s power through the words His messenger preached. What does your own repentance look like? If I’m honest, I suspect that mine is often characterized by the secret thought that God owes me something in response to my repentance: that if I take a step toward Him, He should take a step toward me. But we see nothing of that attitude in the king’s words. He knows God owes us nothing.
Now, as amazing as the Ninevites’ response was, that is not the stand-alone message of the book. In fact, it was a setup, part of God’s plan to reveal the coldness of Jonah’s heart. We even see a touch of humor here as Jonah arrives in Nineveh. Picture it: He reluctantly walks into town, pulls out his notes, and almost before he begins to preach, people fall all over him to repent. That should make him happy, but it is the last thing he wants. In fact, it is what he feared all along: But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:1-3, NIV)
Now we discover why Jonah fled to Tarshish in the first place:
(1) He hated the Ninevites. Jonah’s ancestors had, no doubt, been ravaged by their violence. Some from his family had likely tasted death at their hands. The resentment he had h