Greater Than Jonah
May the Lord help me to live this message as much as I love this message.
Here’s the message of the book of Jonah: Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. And it teaches us this lesson by showing us a prophet who does take the Lord’s name in vain. Now that claim requires some explanation.
A Summary of Jonah’s Story
The book can be divided into seven sections: two three-step cycles, followed by the lesson of the book. Here’s the three-step cycle:
God’s commission to Jonah (1:1-3; 3:1-4)
Jonah among the pagans (1:4-17; 3:5-10)
Jonah’s prayer (2:1-10; 4:1-4)
God’s rebuke of Jonah (4:5-11)
Yahweh tells Jonah to rise and go to Nineveh and call out its evil. Jonah instead flees, away from Yahweh’s presence, getting in a boat with pagans and heading in the opposite direction. God throws a storm at him (1:4). The sailors, when they discover that Jonah is fleeing from the God who made the earth, sky, and seas, reluctantly agree to throw him in the water. Jonah is cast into the seas. But God appoints a great fish, a sea monster, to swallow Jonah. The fish is Jonah’s salvation, and Jonah sings a psalm of thanksgiving from within the belly of the monster. The fish spits Jonah out, and Cycle 2 begins.
God again tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach the word. This time he does. Again he is among the pagans, preaching that Nineveh will be overthrown in 40 days. But the people repent, from the king to the people to the animals. Because of this God relents of his disaster and Nineveh is saved. Jonah again prays, this time in anger and frustration at God’s mercy. He knew from the beginning that God was likely to show mercy to the Ninevites. That’s why he fled. Now that God has, Jonah wants to die.
But God is not done with Jonah. He challenges his anger. He sends a plant to shelter him from the heat. He sends a worm to eat the plant. Then he scorches Jonah with a furious wind and burning sun. He rebukes Jonah for his anger, saying that God cares for Nineveh and all of its inhabitants (including the cows).
So there’s the story. Now we could spend time talking about whether it actually happened. Some say that it’s too fantastical: sea monsters vomiting up live men after three days, an entire pagan city repenting at the preaching of some backwoods prophet, the plant, the worm, the wind. In response, I’d simply say this: once you’ve embraced the God who raises the dead, you’re definition of what’s possible must change. If we’re Christians and we believe the gospels, we believe that a man walked on water, that he multiplied loaves and fishes, that he healed the blind and paralytics, that he raised Lazarus from the dead and then was himself raised. After all of that, it seems strange to draw the line at a large obedient fish. We know that Jonah was a historical figure. Jewish tradition assumed the story was historical. So does Jesus. So that’s my inclination, but I won’t belabor the point.
Link With Obadiah and Genesis
Instead, I’d like to show you one of the reasons that I love the Bible: the connections between all of its parts. It’s a remarkable book, written over thousands of years by many authors, and yet the connections and links between books are so striking. I’ll draw attention to what I think are two important links.
First, the book is clearly linked with Obadiah. Unlike any other of the Minor Prophets, Jonah opens essentially with the word “And” (“Now”), linking it with the previous book. Obadiah, you’ll remember from last week, is an oracle against Edom, a nation that is related to Israel, but outside of God’s people. God threatens judgment against Edom because they were gloating and mocking when Jerusalem was destroyed. He reminds them that there is a day of judgment for all nations. This book is then linked to Jonah, which tells the story of an Israelite prophet who grumbles when God extends mercy to other nations. (What’s more, there’s even a possible historical connection between the situation in Obadiah and Jonah, but that would require a long explanation. For now, I’d just encourage you to read 2 Kings 14. There you’ll find Judah defeating Edom in battle, followed by Israel defeating Judah in battle and sacking Jerusalem, destroying their walls and carrying off all of their gold and silver. Immediately after this, Jonah appears and we’re told that he prophesied the expansion and restoration of Israel’s borders which occurs in the reign of Jeroboam II.)
Second, the book makes numerous allusions to Genesis 1-11. The most prominent connection, made by most scholars, is to the story of Noah and the flood. Here are some of the links:
- The threat of death by water (Jonah in the sea, the world in the flood)
- Salvation through a vessel (Jonah’s fish is like Noah’s ark)
- A concern with the violence of men and beasts (Gen. 6:11-13; Jonah 3:7-8)
- A concern for the salvation of animals (Gen. 6:19-21; Jonah 4:11)
- Jonah’s name means “dove;” Noah sent a dove to search for land (Gen. 8:8-12)
- The “repentance” of God (In Genesis, he repents that he made man (Gen. 6:6); in Jonah, he relents of the disaster he threatened (Jonah 3:10))
Now all of that is interesting. But as I was listening to the book of Jonah, I noticed some additional links (this is one reason why it’s good to listen to the Bible; you notice things you might otherwise not).
“What is this that you have done?” (Jonah 1:10). Where have I heard that before? It’s the same question God asks to Eve (Gen. 3:13). Jonah, like Adam and Eve, was hiding, trying to avoid God’s presence. But God found him out, and, in the mouth of sailors, Jonah is asked the same question God asked the first couple. (Note: this question appears a number of times in the Bible, but almost entirely in the Pentateuch, as well as twice in Judges and once in Ecclesiastes. This is the only time it appears in the Latter Prophets.)
“Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4, 7). I know I’ve heard something like that elsewhere in the Bible. Both elements (“doing well” and “being angry”) are prominent in God’s confrontation with Cain: “So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Cain was angry that God had accepted Abel’s sacrifice. Jonah is angry that God had accepted the Ninevites’ repentance. Neither of them were “doing well” in “being angry” at God’s mercy. (God likewise asks Cain, “What have you done?” after he kills Abel).
The reference to Cain also brings to mind the fact that Cain founded the first city (named after his son Enoch). And later in Genesis 10, we’re told that Nimrod, the mighty warrior founded the city of Nineveh: “From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city” (Gen. 10:11-12). Here in Jonah, Nineveh is three times referred to as “the great city” (Jonah 1:2; 3:3; 4:1). And, of course, any reference to a great pagan city reminds us of the great city of Babel, whose evil comes up to God and he goes down to bring judgment.
So from Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, to Noah and the flood, to the founding of great cities (including Nineveh itself), the book of Jonah has numerous connections to the early chapters of Genesis. But what is the significance of these links to Obadiah and to Genesis? To answer that, we have to understand better what it is that Jonah gets wrong. It’s clear that he is wrong, but why? What was his great failure?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the beginning of the book and ask ourselves why Jonah runs away from God’s commission. The answer is not obvious. God simply tells him to go and call out against Nineveh because of their evil. Why is this such a big deal? Oracles against the nations are common in the prophets. That’s what the book of Obadiah is. The first chapters of Amos contain multiple oracles against the evil of pagan nations. So do Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. If denouncing the evil of pagan nations is so common, why does Jonah run?
Because God doesn’t simply tell Jonah to call out against Nineveh’s evil. He tells him to go to Nineveh to do it. The oracles against the nations are typically delivered from within Israel. They’re designed either to comfort Israel (“Don’t worry; God will judge the nations who harm you. He will indeed curse those who curse you, just like he promised Abraham”), or to warn Israel (“Don’t be like the idolatrous nations all around you; God is going to dash them to pieces”). What’s new in Jonah is that God wants to deliver this warning to the people of Nineveh themselves. And Jonah rightly understands the implication: Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, is willing to treat Nineveh the same way he does his people. He’s willing to warn them of coming judgment and to give them a chance to repent. Jonah says as much in his grumbling prayer in chapter 4:
And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2)
This helps us to see what’s underneath Jonah’s disobedience. He has a warped (and contradictory) view of God as a tribal deity, and a warped response to a true vision of God’s grace. We see this in a couple of ways.
One: He tries to run away from the presence of the Lord. Now in one sense, this seems possible. God’s presence is in the temple in Jerusalem. But the entire Bible gives testimony to the fact that God is present everywhere (Psalm 139; Isaiah 66:1). In one sense, God did place his name and presence in Jerusalem, but it does not follow that he’s in some way limited or restricted there (Note how sin can make you schizophrenic so that you can know that Yahweh is the God of heaven, who made the earth and the seas, and still try to run away from him).
Two: He limits God’s grace, mercy, and blessing to Israel alone. He thinks that Israel’s status as the chosen nation makes them special to the exclusion of the nations. He appears to have a twisted view of Exodus 19:5-6:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Yes, Israel is a treasured possession, but all the earth is God’s. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein (Psalm 24:1).
We see this warped understanding of God’s mercy and blessing by comparing his two prayers (2:1-9; 4:1-3). In the first, Yahweh saves him from drowning. “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (2:3). He was dying; he may have even died (note the references to going to Sheol and the land with bars). But Yahweh delivers him. “You brought up my life from the pit” (2:6). From the depths, his prayer came to God in his holy temple (2:4, 7; recall his flight from the presence of the Lord), and God answered. And he closes this prayer with a clear contrast: Idolaters forsake the hope of steadfast love, but I will sacrifice and pay my vows to Yahweh (2:8-9).
Here is a man who loves the salvation of Yahweh (“Salvation belongs to the Lord!”), who glories in a God merciful and gracious. But then, when that same God shows mercy to Nineveh, the same man who praised God for saving him from death wishes that he was dead: “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). Jonah’s attitude is “Mercy for me, but not for thee.” He’s happy to receive grace, but he’s not happy when that same grace is given to others. [Note: some scholars suggest that Jonah’s motives are not entirely impure. They argue that Jonah knows that God’s reason for sending him to the pagans is because God is in the process of judging Israel. Like in Romans 11, mercy to the Gentiles is accompanied by a partial hardening on Israel, and is designed to provoke Israel to jealousy. Perhaps Jonah believes that the salvation of the Gentiles means that Israel will continue to be hardened, perhaps for good].
This helps us to make sense of those connections to Genesis and Obadiah. The book of Jonah is meant to remind Israel of why God called them out in the first place. The plan is that Abraham’s family would bless the nations. I don’t think this means that there is a direct missionary mandate in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, Israel is not called to “Go!” (Jonah is an exception). They are called to “Be”: be a royal priesthood and a holy nation, until the Messiah comes. And then God will win the nations back: the nations descended from Adam, behaving like Cain, doing violence like those in Noah’s day, founding great cities to make a name for themselves. God set apart Israel as his special people in order to bring the Messiah who would deal with all of that. He separated them from the nations. But Jonah is a reminder to them: while you’re separated, you ought to be chomping at the bit for the day when God opens the gates of Zion and floods the nations with his grace. The connections to Genesis 1-11 (the pre-Israel phase of history) are meant to highlight that. And the connection to Obadiah is meant to make that concrete: Yes, I’ve promised to curse those who curse you, but you shouldn’t rejoice in their destruction in itself. Don’t think that my warnings against the nations mean that I don’t care for the nations. I long for the nations to come back to me. I am no petty tribal deity. I am Yahweh, Lord of hosts, the gracious God of all the earth.
But Jonah doesn’t get it. And from this warped vision of Yahweh as a tribal deity and from this warped response to a true picture of a gracious God, Jonah disobeys. And the book drastically emphasizes this. Everyone in the book obeys except Jonah. God commands storms and fish and people and plants, and they all obey. Storm, go! Sailors, throw. Sea Monster, catch. Nineveh, repent (even the animals). Plant, grow. Worm, eat. Wind, blow. Sun, beat. The only one in the story who doesn’t obey is the one who bears the name of the Lord.
Bearing God’s Name
Which brings me back to the point of the book. I said that the message of the book is “Don’t take God’s name in vain.” More accurately, don’t bear God’s name in vain (which is how I think the commandment should be translated). Most often we think this has something to do with not saying curse words, not using the Lord’s name in a flippant manner. And that’s certainly one application. But it’s bigger than that. In our Children’s Catechism, we say this:
Q: What is the Second Commandment? A: Never bear God’s name in vain. Q: What does this mean? A: Show the world what God is like all the time, in all our words and all our deeds.
This is Jonah’s failure. He knows what God is like. As our Catechism says:
Q: What is God like? A: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, full of love and truth. That’s based on a quotation from Exodus 34 when Moses asks to see God’s glory and Yahweh tells him that he will proclaim his name. This is God’s name: Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Jonah knows this, but Jonah refuses to show this. He refuses to faithfully bear God’s name, to show the world what God is like. There is a grand irony here, and the book hammers it home. Twice Jonah finds himself among pagans, who don’t know their right hand from their left. In both of them, the pagans are threatened with destruction by God (the sailors by the storm and Nineveh by God’s judgment). And in both of them the pagans say the same thing: The sailors say, “Arise, call out to your God! Perhaps he will give thought to us, that we may not perish” (1:6). Maybe God will listen to your prayers. The king of Nineveh says, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (3:8-9). “Who knows if God will be merciful?” Jonah knows. Jonah knows, but he’s not going to tell them. He’s going to sleep in the boat while they drown. He’s going to run the other way lest they repent and be saved.
The book of Jonah is a warning to us. Look at that psalm of praise in chapter 2. It’s amazing what kind of prayers you can pray and still have an ugly heart. The hypocrisy of glorying in the mercy you’ve received and wanting to die when someone else receives it. How much did Jonah have to hate Nineveh to wish death upon himself rather than see them repent?
This is a theme that runs throughout Scripture. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” “I thank you, God, that I am not like them: the tax collectors, the Ninevites, who will receive your judgment.” The older brother’s complaint at the prodigal’s party. Jewish disdain for the Samaritans. The Judaizers refusal to embrace the Gentiles. Over and over, God wants us to see that it’s possible to glory in grace given to you, and be reluctant or even hostile to share it with others. Don’t Be Like Jonah: Bear God’s name faithfully.
Go where God sends you. Run to the presence of the Lord, not away from him. Rejoice in God’s salvation when it comes to you. “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” Faithfully call others to repent and receive that same salvation. Rejoice when they respond to God’s call. That’s where Jonah failed. And so we don’t want to be like Jonah. But as I thought about applying this to us, I do think we ought to be a little like Jonah. Be a Little Like Jonah: Be confident in God’s mercy, grace, and power to save.
Jonah may not rejoice when Nineveh repents, but that’s not our main issue. Maybe for some of us, there are people that would cause us to complain if they were saved. They’ve wronged us and we are bitter and don’t want their salvation. In that case, we should heed Jonah, and remember the Lord’s prayer: Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. But for most of us, that’s not the issue. We struggle in a place where Jonah doesn’t.
Jonah knows that Yahweh is gracious and powerful to save. He knows that if God is sending him to Nineveh to warn them, he intends to save some of them (“This is what I said…” 4:2). But we doubt. We wonder whether God can really save our friends and neighbors, whether he will really give them a new heart. We need to recover some of that confidence in God’s power to save and couple it with God’s joy in saving. Because something greater than Jonah is here. We follow Jesus, the greater Jonah, the better Jonah. He bears God’s name perfectly. He doesn’t run from God’s presence; he is God’s presence—Immanuel, God with us. And he brings that presence into a dark world, full of pagans. He too was hurled into the waters, into the belly of the fish, into heart of the earth, into death, for three days. And when the grave vomited him back up, he continued God’s mission. He preached to the great city. And he’s been preaching to great cities ever since, rejoicing each time a sinner repents. Today he’s preaching to these Twin Cities. And he’s doing so through his body, through this body. And he’s sent us here on this Great Commission, and he’s anointed us with his presence and Spirit, and we’ve been baptized into his name, and he’s calling us to bear it well, to show the world what God is like all the time, in all words and all our deeds.
So far be it from us to be content with our gathering together to receive mercy for us and our families. If Israel should have been chomping at the bit to bring blessing to the nations, how much more ought we be ready, since we live in the era when the river of life is offered to all peoples? Let us faithfully bear God’s name, carrying his presence with us, confident (like Jonah) that our God is mighty to save anyone (even Americans, Minnesotans who don’t know their right hand from their left), and (unlike Jonah) rejoicing with great joy when he does.
Table: The Long-Suffering God of Grace
Which brings us to the Table. It’s amazing how much God loved Nineveh. And it’s amazing how much God loved Jonah. He didn’t quit on the prophet. Even when Jonah disobeyed, God came after him. When he was drowning, God saved him. Though he went reluctantly, God still used him. And when he grumbled, God still sought to instruct him. And he does the same for us.
Here then is the presence of the Lord. Don’t run away. It doesn’t matter if you’ve grumbled like Jonah, or kept silent because you’ve been afraid of what the Ninevites will think about you, or you’ve doubted God’s power to save. Here is a God gracious and merficul, who offers himself to you in the bread and the wine. He is slow to anger. He is long-suffering. And he pursues those who bear his name. If you bear God’s name and you try to run from him, he will chase you down. He will throw storms at you. He will knock you down and drag you out and leave you there for dead. He will take away everything you have in order to give you something better: Himself. That’s what he offers at this table.