The Book of Jonah is a fish story, the only book among the twelve Minor Prophets that is presented in narrative form, but it is also much more. Although the prophet Jonah is best known for being swallowed by a large sea creature and spit onto land, the central message of the book is repentance. The book begins when “the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’” (Jonah 1:1-2). This was a tough assignment for Jonah, a seemingly impossible mission. The prophet was being sent to the capital of Assyria, a powerful enemy of Israel, and was being asked to preach against it. So Jonah bolted in the opposite direction, taking off for Tarshish in an effort to escape the presence of the Lord. He hopped on a boat, encountered a storm, was thrown overboard, and was swallowed by the famous fish.
Can we blame Jonah? Being a prophet to Nineveh was a dangerous job, on par with being a timber cutter today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lumberjack ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs in America, with an annual fatality rate of about 100 deaths per 100,000 workers. But timber cutters are only part of the story. Between 1980 and 1997, more than 100,000 people died in work-related accidents, and these deaths occurred in the construction industry (19 percent), the transportation industry (17 percent) and in manufacturing (15 percent). Mining, agriculture, trash collecting and job-related auto accidents also ranked high. There are at least 30 verses in the Bible about the killing of prophets, and Jonah knew the danger. That’s why he fled from the presence of the LORD and ended up in the belly of the fish, where he spent three days and three nights, offering a prayer that ended with the words, “Deliverance belong to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9). Jonah was spewed out on dry land, and then God said again, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2).
After hearing God’s command a second time, Jonah repented — he changed course and went to Nineveh. Still smelling fishy from his three days in a sea creature, he entered the dangerous city and walked for a day through just a third of it. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he shouted (Jonah 3:4). This stinking, sticky prophet cried out against the city’s 120,000 residents, not knowing if they would hear him, heed him, or tear him to pieces. To his surprise, the Ninevites believed in God and repented of their sins. Even the king of Nineveh rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes. He called everyone in the city to turn from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands (Jonah 3:8). When God saw “how they turned from their evil ways” (Jonah 3:10), God changed course. Instead of overthrowing them, God let them live.
So what is the message of the Book of Jonah for us? It has nothing to do with surviving for three days in the belly of a fish. Instead, it teaches us about how to repent, which means to turn ourselves around and serve a God of overflowing grace. We learn from Jonah about the danger of focusing on our own agenda and having pre-conceived notions about how God is supposed to function and operate in the world. Instead, when we reverse course and become obedient to God — even after a time of running in the opposite direction, as Jonah did — we find that our efforts result in life, not death. Obedience to God can open up new possibilities for renewal and regeneration.
The problem with obedience is that it is a tough sell. You hear the words “be obedient,” and it sounds as if you are being asked to eat your vegetables and exercise 30 minutes a day. There’s just nothing exciting about it, nothing to get you pumped up and inspired. In addition, obedience to God can be difficult because it challenges us to put the interests of others ahead of our own, turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and pick up our cross and follow Jesus. When we say yes to God’s commands, we don’t know where God will send us or what God will ask of us.
But notice what happened when Jonah turned himself around and practiced obedience. The “people of Nineveh believed God,” the king called for the people to turn aside from their violence and evil ways, and “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them” (Jonah 3:5, 10). Jonah didn’t get it right the first time, but he took advantage of his second chance and changed the fate of a great city. This passage is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it shows us that Jonah’s willingness to obey God and proclaim a message to Nineveh resulted in new life for himself, and for the people and animals of Nineveh as well. When we follow Jonah’s path, we discover that obedience leads to renewal instead of wreckage, enrichment instead of exhaustion, and life instead of death. The first step is always repentance, turning ourselves around and walking in the way of God.
1. When have you tried to evade a difficult challenge, and what happened?
2. What is the biggest barrier to repentance? How can it be overcome?
3. How do you respond to the call to be obedient?
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