Jonah has always fascinated me as the most ungrateful prophet in Christian history. I mean, think about it. First, God tells him he has a special message to deliver to the people of Ninevah. Sure, great, except they were enemies of the Jews. Not just rivals; they really despised each other. Naturally, Jonah being such a devout Jew and merely human, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with this assignment. So what does he do? Why, run in the opposite direction, of course! Tarshish was no way near Ninevah by any stretch of the imagination. And, as if God couldn’t see where Jonah was going, Jonah thought he could hide on a boat, kind of blending into the crowd. Well, that certainly didn’t work! God “found” him and caused a great storm, which resulted in Jonah confessing to the other guys on the boat that he was disobeying God. Jonah tells them the seas will be calmed when they throw him overboard.
Considering Jonah was a stranger to them and possibly costing the sailors their lives, I find it interesting that they didn’t toss him immediately. They actually tried to save him, but in the end, it was necessary for Jonah to go into the sea. In normal circumstances, this would have been the end of Jonah’s life. However, God had an agenda and He wasn’t going to let Jonah off the hook so easily. He arranged for Jonah to be swallowed by a great fish. I remember that the first time I’d heard this story as a kid, I’d thought it was mean of God to make him stay inside the fish for 3 days. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that God had actually used that time “in the belly of the whale” as a time of rest and protection. Not only did God use that fish to save Jonah from drowning and other possible dangers in the ocean, but He also used it to give Jonah a chance to repent and revive spiritually. Once Jonah was ready to fulfill God’s purpose for him, he was vomited from the fish and ready to face his destiny…delivering a message from the Lord to a group of people he hated beyond all others.
Jonah did what he was told to do. He delivered the message. Then he sat back and watched. Jonah figured he’d done his job. The Ninevites deserved what was coming to them. They were a vile, horrendous group of people. Jonah warned them what God would do to them if they didn’t shape up. He would destroy them. Wipe their sorry butts from the face of the earth. And Jonah was content to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
But God had other plans. The people of Ninevah, as sinful and flawed as they were, actually paid attention to the message and repented. Something tells me Jonah wasn’t expecting that. God heard their cries and showed them mercy and compassion, forgiving them and giving them another chance.
Jonah was not pleased. He wanted the Ninevites to pay for all they had done, especially to his people, and wanted them dead. How easily he had forgotten how much God had forgiven him for, how merciful God had been with him. God showed Jonah, using a simple plant to give Jonah shade from the burning hot sun, how much He loves His creation and how He, as Creator, has the right to show mercy to anyone He deems worthy, whether a group of unsavory sinners or a selfish prophet who runs away from God’s plan.
I’m no different from Jonah. There have been plenty of times I have “run to Tarshish” when I should have been trying my best to reach “the people of Ninevah.” I can get pretty self-righteous, thinking I have the right to choose who is worthy to receive God’s message of hope, love, and redemption. I don’t. Good thing, too. If my salvation depended on whether or not someone liked me, quite frankly, I’d be in a lot of trouble. Our God is the God of unlimited chances, as long as we’re still alive to make the choice. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. We can accept the direction God wants us to go, even to our own personal Ninevah, trusting that there is a purpose for it, even if we never find out what that purpose is. Or we can run to Tarshish in our disobedience and pride, missing out the blessing we could be to someone else and receiving the joy of being part of something much more important than ourselves.
Each of us has our own Tarshish. Sometimes we need 3 days (or more) inside of a great fish to figure out what we’re running from and why. It can be terrifying but also life-changing. I may have to continue to fight some preconceived notions on who deserves God’s unconditional love, but that’s all part of the journey of the Christian walk. The truth is, none of us are worthy to be in God’s presence. That’s why He sent His Son to bridge the gap between His perfection and our sinful nature. We need to be reminded that the gift of love and salvation is for anyone who is willing to receive it.
I think I need to visit Ninevah again and be reminded of my purpose.