Archive | September, 2011

Jonah 07-24-2011

5 Sep


Today, my Bible reading time was in the book of the prophet Jonah. That doesn’t seem particularly remarkable in and of itself. On my trek of reading the Bible cover to cover, Jonah is the book that necessarily follows after Amos and Obadiah and before Micah and Nahum. These short little books are called the minor prophets, and are a much appreciated relief after weeks and months of slogging through massive tomes like Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Jonah doesn’t at first glance seem to be a particularly remarkable prophet’s story either. He’s the Jonah of famed childhood songs like “Who did, who did, who did, who did, who did swallow Jo-Jo-Jonah?” and kid books with pictures of “Jonah and the Whale” (or more correctly, Big Fish). The familiarity of the story of “Jonah and the Big Fish” makes it almost feel like a cute nursery tale when one reads it outside of its surrounding context of all the other major and minor prophets. And that’s how I’ve usually read it, apart from the occasional enlightening sermon on “Jonah” – pick up the Bible, flip it open and read the story of Jonah.

But today, I came to Jonah after months and months of reading God’s warnings through His many prophets, generation after generation, of the impending destruction of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom) because of their spiritual adultery and persistent, even stubborn, disregard for the laws and character of the Lord God they are called to love and to serve. Jonah is called by the Lord to prophesy, but this time not to Israel or Judah, but to the pagan Assyrian city of Nineveh. At this time, Nineveh is a declining world power, and though the Assyrians are not favorably regarded by Israel, they are not yet in a position to be the “tool of God’s wrath” upon apostate Israel and Judah. But they will once again become a formidable military presence to be reckoned with, not many years after Jonah disappears from the scene.

From the time of Jeroboam II (one of the kings of Israel after the Northern and Southern kingdoms divided, one in a relatively long line of wicked kings who incite Israel to sin against the Lord) to the fall of the Northern Kingdom, God sends a long line of prophets to call Israel (and also Judah) to repentance and to delineate not only the destruction that is about to befall them for their sins, but also God’s willingness to relent from His wrath should they repent. He even gives them time and again the details of their destruction, as well as the details of what He will do to restore them if they repent. But Israel (and Judah) stubbornly refuse to turn from evil and turn back to the worship and love of the only true God, Yahweh. But here, in the book of the prophet Jonah, I find it quite ironic that we have recorded an account where God calls His prophet Jonah to go preach His word not to Israel or Judah, but to a foreign people, the Assyrians of Nineveh. Jonah is not given a great detailed message to preach, much less any promise to give the people that God will relent if they repent. He simply says, “In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed!” as he spends three days walking through the large city, end to end.

The Assyrians were not “God’s people” in the sense that Israel and Judah understood themselves to be. God hadn’t called them to a covenant relationship in the same way he had the Hebrews, to display His holiness among the nations. They didn’t have the “Law of God” on hand to know what He required. They didn’t have His written revelation of “I am the Lord your God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness” (Jonah 4:2 b – here Jonah quotes God’s words to Moses from Exodus 34, when the Lord passes His glory by Moses and declares His Name to him). Yet these pagan Assyrians, hear Jonah’s message of impending doom, and their king puts two and two together that if the Lord has given them a 40 day warning, there is time to repent and perhaps this God will relent. So an entire city of pagan unbelievers hears God’s message through Jonah of impending destruction and repents of their wickedness. One prophet, one message, only implied not explicit hope extended, and those who are not “the people of God” by Israel’s standards REPENT and are spared from destruction, while generation after generation God’s “people” of Israel and Judah ignore prophetic after prophetic warning and spiral down into a catastrophic period of disaster, devastation, and deportation.

True repentance is what matters, ultimately. A sense of comfort and assurance in a “special” status of favor is no assurance at all. Israel and Judah thought because they were God’s “people” in a special covenant sense that they could do jolly well what they pleased and everything would be okay. But God rebuked that “we are at ease in Zion” prideful attitude by demonstrating through the account of Jonah that repentance is what He desires, not dependence on a “special status” or “special system” of rules to be kept, and that a pagan nation who did not know the Lord could be even more spiritually sensitive to truth and righteousness as He desires and have changed hearts, than those who supposedly communed with Him regularly and claimed the name of Jehovah as their Lord God.

“Religious” and “good” people take warning. The unsightly prostitute on the street and dancer in the strip club may have hearts that are closer to repentance as God desires, and true brokenness over sin, than those who sit comfortably week after week in church pews and seats shouting praises to the Lord, and nodding solemnly over clever words from the pulpit. As one pastor once said, it would be a shame to go to hell from the church pew.

©2011 Reformation Lady and Chandra E. Wellman. All rights reserved.