12-2 The Preaching of Jonah

Reluctance To Preach

Jonah had initially been told to “cry” over Nineveh (1:2). He ran away from this commission, and yet he ended up in the whale of the belly using the very same Hebrew word- this time, to describe how he “cried by reason of mine affliction” (2:2). The same word is translated “preach” in 3:2; Jonah ‘preached’ by reason of his affliction. He realized that it was his “affliction” which led him to “cry” in any case. We are each called to witness; and there is no way out. That witness flows out of our deeply personal experiences. If we won’t make that witness, then God will work in our lives to bring us to a position where we have no choice but to do so. This was how the Lord worked with the family of Lazarus. The Jews had commanded “that if any man knew where he was, he should shew it” (Jn. 11:57). And “Jesus therefore…came to Bethany” (Jn. 12:1 RV). He purposefully attracted attention to His connection with the Bethany home. And so it was that “much people of the Jews learned that he was there” (Jn. 12:9), and the context makes it clear that this was a source of witness to them (Jn. 12:10,11). The Lord sought to expose their secret discipleship, to take the bucket off their candle. And He will do likewise with us. Jonah is of course the great example. He refused to “cry” the message of repentance to Nineveh; he wanted to be an incognito prophet. But an incognito prophet is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. So the Lord brought about a situation in which he desperately “cried” to God; and then told him to go and “cry” to Nineveh. The very same Hebrew words are used about his crying to God and his crying / proclamation to Nineveh (Jonah 1:2; 2:2; 3:2,4). Jonah was forced by circumstance to share his relationship with God with the world around him which he despised. The Lord wants to use us as His candle, and He will arrange situations in life to enable this. 

Jonah perhaps didn’t want to preach to Nineveh because the contemporary prophets, Hosea and Amos, had predicted that Israel would go into captivity there (Am. 5:27; Hos. 11:5-7). Jonah, like many conservative Christians today, didn’t want to entertain the notion that God’s word can be changeable, so sensitive is He to human repentance. And out of all the prophets, Jonah had to learn that this is not the case; for he pronounced an unconditional doom on Nineveh, which did in fact change because of their repentance. He didn’t somehow want God to be that sensitive to human repentance; and he was therefore led through his own failures to realize that grace means that God does ‘repent’ in response to human repentance. And further; Jonah evidently didn’t want Israel to go into captivity to Nineveh. He just wanted to cut out of his mind the possibility that Israel would go to Nineveh; and he lived this out, by refusing to go there himself. Yet he was brought to see that owning up to sin simply has to be done; he simply had to go to Nineveh. Refusal to face up to the result of our sin is a very real problem for us all.  

So strongly did Jonah feel this that he effectively wished to resign from being a prophet. “He fled ‘from the presence of the LORD.’ To stand in the presence of someone is often used in the sense of acting as one’s official minister. (Cp. Gen. 41:46; Deut. 1:38; 10:8; 1 Sam. 16:21f.; 1 Kings 17:1; 18:15; 2 Kings 3:14, etc.) To flee from His presence = to refuse to serve Him in this office” (Theodore Laetsch, The Minor Prophets (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), p. 222). But there is no way we can resign from our calling to be witnesses. We are now with the Lord, and we cannot just resign from His purpose and calling. Jonah intended to flee to Tarshish, the very end of the known world; going the very opposite direction to Nineveh. And we too need to be impressed by the reality of the fact that we can never resign from the Father and Son; we are in their grip. We cannot just ‘pass’ on the piercing issues of commitment day by day.  

But Jonah got there in the end. Finally, as God intends for each of us, he got to a position where he was preaching with the spirit which God intended. Jonah wrote the book of Jonah. His prayer of Jonah 2 was uttered within the belly of the fish; yet it is praise for deliverance, full of careful allusions to the Psalms and organized as a poem. It seems unlikely that he composed it whilst in the fish, but rather that these were his basic thoughts whilst there, which he later wrote up as a poem.  

The Repentances And Preaching Of Jonah

Jonah is described as going progressively ‘down’- down into the ship, down into the hold of the ship, and then down into the depths of the sea (1:3,5; 2:6). Yet he was brought up from it. This was the depth of his degradation. Jonah was like Nineveh-  the “wickedness” of Nineveh (1:2; 3:8) is the same word used in 4:1 Jonah was displeased “exceedingly”, i.e. ‘wickedly’. Their wickedness was paralleled with the wickedness of his hard heartedness towards them. When the sailors awoke him with the words“Get up and call …”, they were using the very words which God had used perhaps just days earlier to call him with. We can’t escape the call- God will repeat it to us through life’s circumstances, even through our very efforts to avoid the call. The obvious lesson is to willingly and in love respond to the calls we receive, rather than go through the agonies of seeking to avoid them. Jonah’s response: “I am an Hebrew…” was basically his response to God…he didn’t want to give Nineveh a chance of salvation because he was a patriotic Jew. Perhaps as soon as he uttered the words, he realized what God was doing to him… 

It was his repentant spirit which had been the power behind his conversion of Nineveh; Jonah had been through what was threatened to come upon the Ninevites, had repented, and was alive to tell the tale. He had been cast into the sea (2:5), a figure elsewhere used in Scripture to describe condemnation and the destruction of sin (Ex. 15:4; Mic. 7:19; Zech. 9:4; Mk. 9:42; Rev. 8:8; 18:21). He had cast himself into the sea voluntarily, realizing his worthiness of condemnation. He fled from the presence of God- which is exactly the language of the rejected fleeing from God’s presence at the last day. He realized that he had lived out his own self-condemnation. He recognized “I am cast out of thy sight” (2:4), the very language of condemnation used at his time (1 Kings 9:7; 2 Kings 17:20; 21:2; 23:27; Jer. 7:15). He seems to have drowned and then been swallowed by the whale, in whose belly he then resurrected (2:5; and this is the whole point of the Lord’s allusion to Jonah as a type of His resurrection). He was condemned; but saved by grace. And this was exactly the position of Nineveh. Their condemnation had been pronounced. Only grace could change it. 

Jonah’s conversion of 120,000 people is probably the greatest record of conversion for any single handed preacher. The same realizations are required of any successful preacher; that he too has sinned, is worthy of condemnation, has in fact been condemned but has been saved from it; and now seeks to witness to those still in his position. This, it seems to me, was what the Lord Jesus was referring to when He spoke of the sign of the prophet Jonah. The sign to Jesus’ generation was not just His resurrection after three days- for most people never actually saw Him. The sign was His compelling witness to the world through His church. The Ninevites were ignorant of God’s ways (4:11), but this didn’t mean they were not culpable to judgment. The sheer tragedy of the world around us who like Nineveh do not know, and yet are speeding to destruction, ought to weigh as heavily upon us as it does upon our Father. And yet like Jonah, we may prefer to see ourselves as prophets to Israel, as he was (2 Kings 14:25), operating within the comfortable environment of God’s people whom we know, rather than reaching out to a distant world… If we seek to write down the actual prophetic words spoken by Jonah, they are very few. Rather, like Hosea with Gomer, he was a prophet, a teller forth of God’s word, by his experience of life. This ties in to a major Biblical theme; that as the Heavens silently declare God’s word, their voice unheard, as the faithful wife witnesses without words to her unbelieving husband, so the essential witness is in who we are and how we have responded to sin.  

The boat was not far from land- for the sailors tried to row the boat to land. Jonah would have come ashore somewhere on the coasts of Israel. We are left to imagine him walking away up the beach from the dying whale, naked, disfigured by the acids of the whale’s belly, determined to pay his vows of sharing God’s grace with others, getting some clothes, gathering some money, and making his way on camel to Nineveh. In this he is our pattern. In the parable of the two sons, the Lord divides us into two groups- those who respond to a calling to ‘go’ by saying they will, but don’t go; and those who refuse to go but afterwards go. This is clearly an allusion to Jonah. But Jonah is thus made typical of each and every one of us. 

Repentance And Preaching

Jonah says he will “look again” towards God’s temple (2:4); yet the same words are used in Ps. 102:19 (and Is. 63:15) to describe how God looks from His temple to His people on earth. For a mind as familiar with the Psalms as Jonah’s was, this cannot be accidental. He perceived the mutuality of His relationship with the Father; as He looked to God in His holy temple, so God was looking to Him from His temple. This is where true repentance and renewed devotion lead- to a wonderful mutuality between a man and his God.  

When Jonah recognizes that his life has been brought up from “corruption” (2:6), his mind may again be in the Psalms; for we have seen how very often he is alluding to them. Ps. 9:15 says that the Gentiles are “sunk down” into “the pit” [s.w. “corruption” in Jon. 2:6]. Jonah is perceiving that he is sharing what was to happen to the Gentiles; he too had sunk down [drowning language!] into the same pit as they had. And so it was on this basis that, once delivered, he was able to so powerfully appeal to them. For he had grasped the simple fact that he had been in just their position, and yet had been saved by grace; and he needed to share this wonderful news with them. Likewise Ps. 55:23 speaks of the wicked, those who had ‘broken the covenant’ which Jonah was so proud to be part of, being ‘brought down’ into “destruction”; and these very same two Hebrew words occur together in Jonah 2:6. They also occur together in Ez. 28:8, speaking of how the Gentile king of Tyre was to be ‘brought down’ to “the pit”. This would have been the sort of prophecy which nationalistic Jonah would have loved to hear; but now he recognized that he was essentially like a wicked Gentile, and had shared their condemnation- but been graciously saved from it.   The preaching of Jonah is surely our example.

In 1:12 Jonah asks the sailors to “take me up”- the Hebrew means ‘to lift up’ in the sense of exaltation; the very idea used by the Lord to describe His exaltation and ‘lifting up’ on the cross. The language of Jonah suffering in the whale and drowning in “great waters” is full of allusions to Messianic Psalms which point forward to the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus- and His saving out of it in resurrection. Yet Jonah was suffering for his sins, as it appears David was when he wrote Psalms like Ps. 23 and Ps. 69, evidently prophetic as they are of the crucifixion. What is the point here? Surely that in suffering for sin, in grappling at close quarters with the reality of our sins and the result of them, in realizing our own desperation and urgency of need for salvation, we find ourselves drawn closer to the spirit of our Lord in His time of dying. And in perhaps the finest and most complex of all paradoxes, it is that feeling of being ‘lifted up’ with Him in crucifixion which is also related to our ‘lifting up’ in exaltation with Him. And further; in probing why the Lord suffered as He did, He who never once sinned, we stumble towards some kind of an answer: He suffered as He did in order to be able to know the feelings of the sinner, even though He Himself never sinned. Repented sin in this sense need not separate us from God, therefore, but rather it brings us closer to our Lord. 

When Jonah heard the men of Nineveh praying that they ‘might not perish’, he should’ve thought back to how the men in the boat to Tarshish prayed the very same words. The men in the ship prayed earnestly that they ‘might not perish’, both in the storm and for the sake of Jonah’s life (1:6,14). The men of Nineveh prayed to God that they too ‘might not perish’ (3:9)- the record uses the same Hebrew word in both cases. Jonah should’ve learnt his lesson; the men in the ship didn’t perish because of his self-sacrifice- and the implication could be that they turned to Israel’s God as a result of the whole dreadful experience. And Jonah’s self-sacrifical preaching, just as painful for him as voluntarily suggesting he be thrown to his death, was eliciting in Jonah the same response from those he was preaching to. But he couldn’t maintain the intensity of the self-sacrificial life of witness; he gave up and got angry that they were responding, and, it seems, stopped preaching once he had entered into the city and the response had started. Take another lesson from this; we would likely have been inspired to continue preaching by such a good response. But for Jonah, the response was what discouraged him. What is encouraging for one in the work of witness is a great discouragement for another. 

In summary, there was real bridge building between Jonah and his audience on the basis that he had sinned and been saved by grace, just like them. The resultant mutuality between Jonah and his converts is further brought out by bearing in mind that the word used about Jonah ‘preaching’ to Nineveh is that used about their ‘proclaiming’ a fast in response (3:4,5). His ‘crying out’ to them elicited a crying out in them. They ‘cried unto God’ (3:8) just as Jonah had done in the whale (2:2). Likewise the king of Nineveh “arose” in response to the word he heard, just as Jonah ‘arose’ and obeyed the word which he heard (3:3,6). The preaching of Jonah is surely our example.

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