Our Lord Jesus told His followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mathews 5:44). While everyone talks admiringly about that command, loving your enemies is no easy thing. Many people doubt whether it is moral and wise. The book of Jonah in the Old Testament of the Bible tells the story of a prophet whom God instructed to take the good news to his enemy, the people of Nineveh. True to life, the prophet did just the opposite of what God commanded. He refused to go to the people he hated. Instead he tried to run away from God.
Nineveh was a large important city in Assyria, situated on the river Tigris. It posed great military threat to tiny Israel; thus Israelites had valid reason to hate and fear Nineveh. But God loved Nineveh and wanted to save and not destroy them. Obviously Jonah didn’t want to warn Nineveh they were about to be destroyed. He suspected they would repent and God would forgive them..
Many people have concluded that the Old Testament is racially narrow-minded. They say the New Testament gives the first indication that God cares for the non-Jewish people. But the book of Jonah contradicts that view. It Shows instead that God wanted to use Jews as agents of His concern. Jonah needed to develop an attitude like God’s towards his enemies. Insistently God led Jonah to this understanding of His mind and heart. Jonah eventually preached in Nineveh and the entire city believed the good news and repented. Though cruel and hardened, Nineveh was ready to believe God. Israel had never responded to the prophet like the Assyrians did to Jonah. The book of Jonah is a story of a miraculous change in Nineveh, but even more a story of a miraculous change in Jonah that is relevant to our society today, and perhaps holds the key to peace in the Middle East.
2. GOD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH MAN
Jonah was a prophet of Israel who lived about the time of Jeroboam 11 (2 Kings 14:25). His name means Dove and he occupies a unique place as the first foreign missionary. The historical character of Jonah’s preservation in the great fish and is preaching to the people of Nineveh is attested by Christ who likens the prophet]s experience to His own burial and resurrection (Mathew 12:38-42). Jonah’s character and God’s dealing with him foreshadows the subsequent history of the nation of Israel: Outside the promised land, a trouble to the Gentiles, yet witnessing to them; cast out, but miraculously preserved; in future deepest distress calling upon the lord as Saviour, finding deliverance and becoming missionaries to the Gentiles (Zechariah 8:7-23). But chiefly Jonah typifies Christ as the Sent-One raised from the dead and carrying salvation to all Gentiles.
The Miracle of the Fish: “ Now the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). No other miracle of the Scripture has called so much unbelief. It has been claimed that a Whale could not swallow a man, yet types of Whales have been found that could easily do so. However the word used here, like the one in Mathew 12:40 does not mean ‘Whale’, but a ‘Sea Monster’, possibly the Whale Shark or Rhino don, the largest of all fish, sometimes attaining a length of seventy feet. The real miracle is not the swallowing but the fact that Jonah was alive when he was cast out on dry land. After all, a miracle is what might be expected of Divine love, interposing for good in a physically and morally disordered universe ( Scofield Bible).
Dr. Gleason Archer writes the following: “Numerous cases have been reported in recent times of men who have survived being swallowed by a Whale. The Princeton Theological Review (October 1927) tells of two incidents; one in 1758 and the other in 1771, in which a man was swallowed by a Whale and vomited shortly thereafter with only minor injuries. One of the most striking instances comes from Francis Fox, Sixty Three Years of Engineering (p.298 – 300) who reports that the following incident was carefully investigated by two scientist (one of whom was M. DeParville, the scientific editor of the Journal Des Debate in Paris). In February 1891, the Whaling Ship, Star of the East, was in the vicinity of the Falklands Islands sighted a large Sperm Whale and attacked it in two boats. Of two people in the second boat, one drowned during the attack and the other, James Bartleysimply disappeared. When eventually the Whale was killed and dismembered, the crew found Bartley doubled up and unconscious inside the Whale. Bartley eventually recovered and resumed duty; his face, neck and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness and took the appearance of parchment. Bartley affirms he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not through lack of air” (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction p.302)
Psalm 139 makes it clear that it is impossible to escape the presence of God. Still Jonah attempted what Adam and Cain tried before him – running for God’s presence. And Jonah did this rather than obey God. Why? Jonah understood God’s judgement, and His mercy and did not want Nineveh, an enemy to be forgiven. Because he knew the willingness of God to forgive sin when there is true repentance, he fled rather than tell his enemy of the coming judgement. He didn’t want them to escape God’s wrath.
At the root of Jonah’s unwillingness was a great hatred for the people of Nineveh. They have time and time again proven to be enemies of Israel. They were seen as cruel torturers who descended on rival nations like a plague of locust – destroying and consuming all. For Jonah to go to Nineveh would have the equivalent of a Jew in New York city in the 1940s going to Germany and give the Nazis the opportunity to be forgiven. The racial tension was so intense, rather than obey, Jonah fled. But the prodigal prophet learnt the hard way the cost of hatred. Frank Gaebelien wrote: “In a day when prejudice and hate influence men’s emotions and pervert their judgement, Jonah speaks with compelling force about limiting our love and sympathies only to some of our fellow human beings and excluding others from our pity and compassion” (Four Minor Prophets p.25). And Bill CrowderRBC Director of Church Ministries adds; “ It is easier to hate than love – and some of us may often find ourselves dangerously close to creating our own Nineveh. Perhaps the people that inhibit our ‘Nineveh’ are abortionist, homosexuals, lesbians, political enemies, cultist or an ethnic group we are uncomfortable with. The question we must honestly consider is this: Will our prejudice cause us, like Jonah, to be guilty of silence or will we intentionally express the heart of God? Jonah chose silence and hate rather than obedience and love”. And I ask; would we dare to preach peace and love to the Terrorist ? Would Israel dare preach peace and love to the Palestinians?
3. THE SAILORS RESPONSE (Jonah 1:5)
Jonah’s disobedience caused problems not only for himself but also for those around him. The sailor were innocent bystanders ( like the family of Achan in Joshua 7). They were simply hardworking men caught in the middle of Jonah’s battle with God. And how did they response? They had an emotional response –afraid; a spiritual response – each cried to his god and practical response – they threw some cargo into the sea. But in his backslidden state, Jonah lay fast asleep, the result of not submission to God and trust in Him, as in the case of Jesus’ sleepon Galilee’s stormy lake (Mark 4:37-39), but of spiritual numbness produced by a dull conscience. In desperation the shipmaster woke Jonah and asked him to pray. How ironic that the pagan had to call the man of God to pray.
After the sailors learnt of Jonah running away from God, they were exceedingly afraid. And Jonah responded by asking to be thrown into the sea (verse 12). In essence Jonah was saying he prefer death than obeying God by preaching to a people he hate. In contrast to Jonah’s unwillingness to be involved in sparing the lives of thousands in Nineveh, notice how hard the heathen sailors worked hard to save one man’s life – Jonah! And also notice the respect the sailors had for God in contrast to the disrespect of Jonah (verse 13-14). However Jonah did something in the fish belly that he refused to do when he was on the boat – he repented and cried to God. Jonah had set out to defy God but ended up in sheol – a belly of fish. Yet in spite of his rebellion, when he repented, God responded. Eventually Jonah understands that the need for mercy overwhelm judgement. When enemies accepts God, they are not enemies anymore.
I.L. SAMBO ESQ.
ATTORNEY-AT-LAW, ARBITRATOR & CAPITAL MARKET CONSULTANT.