The short book of Jonah “struck” me this time through. Here are some thoughts, aided by the ESV Study Bible (be sure to get to the end, where God gets sarcastic).
But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. – Jonah 1:3
Ah, Jonah, nice try. But the Lord isn’t a local God; He is everywhere. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). You can’t escape Him by getting out of town. Tarshish might be a reference to somewhere in Spain or in Carthage, so Jonah would be going from Israel to somewhere in the far West. But crossing the known world doesn’t put a dent in God’s power.
What happens when you flee God? Death. Images of death and descending to Sheol abound in the first two chapters:
- He went down to Joppa…
- Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and… was fast asleep [during a fierce storm – as one dead].
- Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish [a tomb-like place]…
- [Jonah says,] “…out of the belly of Sheol I cried…”
- “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit…”
Jonah’s flight from God was a foolish one that led towards death.
Some neat thoughts on structure:
- Jonah 1:1-3 parallels Jonah 3:1-3: The Lord calls to Jonah and Jonah goes somewhere (Joppa or Ninevah).
- Jonah 1:4-16 parallels Jonah 3:3-10: The pagan (sailors or Ninevites) responses to God’s judgement – in both cases, they turn to God.
- Jonah 1:17-2:10 parallels Jonah 4:1-4: Jonah prays (from the fish or from Ninevah) and the Lord responds.
For those of you following along at home, that leaves out Jonah 4:5-11. This structure means that the final section of the book is its climax, and it’s a doozy. (It’s puzzled me for many years, but now I feel like I understand it. Somewhat.) (Go read it; I’ll wait.)
Here, Jonah is upset that God saved the wicked Ninevites when they repented, and God is responding to him.
God gives Jonah a shade tree that grows up out of nowhere. Jonah enjoys it greatly, but then it withers and dies. Jonah is angry at God. “Why’d you kill the plant?!”
Then, God pulls the twist on him. He says [my translation], “You’re sad and angry that the tree died, but the tree means nothing to you. It’s just a tree. If you, then, feel pity for a dying tree that you didn’t even plant or take care of, how much more then should I have pity on people? People that I created and love? That’s why I had mercy on the Ninevites.”
God adds that the Ninevites “do not know their right hand from their left.” They don’t know. They don’t get it. So when God – through Jonah – tells them they’re in the wrong and they immediately repent, shouldn’t He have mercy on them?
Let this be a reminder to those of us who follow the Lord to share His compassion on those who are far from Him.
And then, verse 11. The strangest end to a Biblical book: ” and also much cattle.” Here’s God’s sarcasm for Jonah. God says, “Well, even if the fact that there are 120,000 people in Ninevah who didn’t know they were doing wrong doesn’t make you happy with my mercy, you obviously care for other living things, like that plant. So, there’s a whole bunch of cows in Ninevah. Now can I have mercy on the city, for the cows’ sake?”