Helping Jonah

Published: January 24, 2012

If you lived in Jonah’s day and he came to your door asking for help—help for his soul—what might you say to him?

First you would want to see the good in him, and there is plenty of good. Hard-hearted people usually don’t receive words from the Lord, so he was a worthy prophet. And he volunteered to be thrown to his death in a devouring sea so others could be spared. I think that is very impressive, even though the storm was basically his doing. Ugh, it reminds me how I don’t like the idea of drowning, and it is hard for me to imagine that I would volunteer for it.

A couple other things. He is telling this story about himself, and he is not trying to look good. You have to appreciate his openness. There is a confessional quality to it. And his prayer—the one he spoke in the fish! He spoke it before he was delivered, and he wasn’t crafting a manipulative prayer so God would make all things well. This prayer is one of the best in Scripture.

We could glean other good things from his short story, but that’s enough to get us started.

Next, you might talk about the hard things in his life. Motivated by your desire to encourage him, and by the unique opportunity to hear about life inside a fish, you might want to talk through the whole deep-sea experience. But Jonah doesn’t seem to be interested in a compassionate response to his hardship. He is angry.

Jonah is angry at God

He’s not angry about the fish; he is angry that God relented and did not destroy Nineveh. He recounts it to you this way.

“So then I said, ‘Lord, I am TICKED OFF. I knew you would be merciful to them,

I knew it! Nineveh is our enemy! How could you! Oh, just kill me now because I can’t stand it another minute.’”

This is a tough one. He is convinced he is in the right. When people are that sure of themselves there is not much you can say. And when you don’t have anything to say, you keep listening.

Then he tells you about the vine episode—the one that first gives him shade and then quickly dies.

“When it died I said the to Lord, ‘It is better for me to die than live.’”

At this point in the conversation, I might have laughed. I am not recommending that, but I would have laughed because he seems to be intentionally melodramatic.

Then, I would have noticed that he is not laughing along with me.

Oops.

My recovery might be, “hmm,” stalling for more time. “Sounds like that vine was important to you,” stating the obvious. Angry people can leave you speechless in their recalcitrance.

I might manage to say: “So, what happened next?”

What happened next was the Lord’s questions to him. Simple questions. Twice the Lord said, “Do you have a right to be angry?” The first time Jonah had no response. The second time he said, with confidence and without hesitation, “I do.”

Who knows how long it took for those questions to sink into Jonah’s conscience. Who knows when he finally grasped the principle, “people—even enemies—are more important than vines.”

I love these questions, but to be effective, they need ears that hear. If Jonah knocked on my door, still in his indignant state, I don’t know what I would have said. Angry people can be dense. It’s hard to talk to them.

But even if he wasn’t angry, it would have been hard for anyone to help Jonah understand God’s purpose in having Israel’s enemies repent—especially if it seemed to be the end of the story.

Jesus’ story explains Jonah’s story

But it isn’t the end of the story, as the New Testament helps us to understand.

There Jesus essentially says, “Jonah, your days in the fish (Matt 12:38-42), and your preaching to Nineveh (Luke 11:29-32), which are both failures in your eyes, are about me. I am the better Jonah. I went down into the grave and came back up, and I preached to people who were a more hard-hearted lot than those in Nineveh. Sadly, the hard-hearted ones, the enemies, are your own people." [1]

Jonah’s story is resolved in the story of Jesus.

Knowing this, I could say: “Jonah, you are a blessed man. Your story has the Messiah written all over it. Do you see it now? No one gets swallowed by a fish and lives to tell about it. Something big is going on here. You were pointing ahead to Jesus. Disobedience leads to death, but you didn’t die. Your entire story is about Jesus. He did die, so we don’t die. And your preaching to the Gentiles? Jesus ironically points out that your preaching ministry was more successful than his own. Of course, your preaching was powerful because the Spirit of Christ was on you, as it now is on all of us who are in Christ. Jesus is the greater Jonah, the greater you.”

Oh, and there is one other thing, though you might not say it to Jonah.

Jonah is our story. We live under Scripture and in it. Jonah, along with every other Old Testament story, is not a mere example to us. We are Jonah. Every Old Testament story invites us to inhabit it. Jesus, therefore, is the better Ed, the greater Winston, the perfect Julie, . . .  Even when our stories are unattractive, there is a redemptive undercurrent that comes through, and where we fail, Jesus takes up our stories and transforms them into something we never imagined.[2]

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[1] Thanks to Sam Boyd – a practical theologian – who talks about the New Testament use of Jonah in his chapter in Eyes to See, Ears to Hear.

[2] We are more accustomed to being brought into Jesus’ story as we are united with him by faith; that is Scripture’s accent. Here I am taking a cue from Hebrews where Jesus is referred to as the greater Moses.