4 Powerful Lessons from Jonah for Today

Rudyard Kipling, the great English poet of the first part of the 20th century, considered the strengths and influence of the British Empire but warned his fellow subjects of the crown that empires are fleeting. He mentions one in particular:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
"Lest we forget — lest we forget!"

God does not want us to forget the lessons of the book of Jonah, nor the destiny of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. The minor prophet, Jonah, takes place when Nineveh, “that great city,” was the largest city on the face of the earth. So great was this monumental world capital that considerable remnants of Nineveh remain to this day. In the north of modern-day Iraq, next to the city of Mosul, the remains of Nineveh, stand as testimony to the historicity of the story in Jonah.

What do we know about the book of Jonah?

The book of Jonah is often characterized by liberal theologians as a metaphorical story to teach Israel to be more open to others. Those who hold Jonah as a mythological yarn seek to strengthen their unbelieving position by adding disbelief in a fish swallowing Jonah and, then, spitting the reluctant revivalist onto the shore. Liberal scholars might dismiss the story of Jonah’s prayer time in a fish belly as riotous rabbinical storytelling, but Jonah would surely protest. He would have very likely carried PTSD and claustrophobia with him for the rest of his life. Long strands of briny seaweed wrapped around Jonah’s neck and the distinct rankness of a creature’s stomach acid digesting the prophet would remain with Jonah for the rest of his life. Since we interpret Scripture by other Scriptures, and since our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ told the book of Jonah as history (Matthew 12:39-41), so must we.

The book of Jonah is remarkable for several reasons. One of those is the way the historical account is conceived and recorded. Rather than the story being only about Nineveh, or about God's message, all of the lessons seem to be centered in the person of Jonah. Jonah was called to go and to preach to Nineveh. He was to call Nineveh to repentance. The mandate to preach repentance is inexorably linked to the announcement of God’s grace and forgiveness.  It is clear that Jonah believed in the efficacy of God's message. It is not that Jonah hesitated and, then, refused to go to Nineveh because the task would be difficult (although that is an argument from silence). Rather Jonah became a reluctant prophet because he knew God's grace would overwhelm Israel's enemy. We know as a fact for Jonah records his prayer, not a petition that flatters its supplicant:

So he prayed to the LORD, and said, ‘Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm’” (Jonah 4:2 NKJV).

The word for the English, “loving kindness” in the text is the Hebrew, חֶ֫סֶד “hesed.” Hesed is the word used repeatedly throughout the Old Testament to describe God’s loyal love, His self-sworn obligation to love Israel, and to provide what Israel lacked (viz., sacrifice for sin and a holy life). This is covenantal language of the highest order. Jonah is saying in his prayer, that he knows that God will bring Nineveh into that covenantal relationship. It is an astounding admission of the true nature of God‘s covenant given to Abraham. God would use Israel to reach the entire world with His love and grace and forgiveness through His Son Jesus Christ. Jonah 4:2 is remarkable, also, in that it demonstrates that when God shifts His affection on the people we should expect conversion. The essential nature of God and His mission in the world should be a powerful motivation as well as a source of confidence as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission.

Covenantal-snobbery was, and can still be, a serious problem with God’s people. We can come to think that we are blessed to be in the family of God because of something of value or usefulness that impresses God. Indeed, the Bible is clear:

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7 NIV).

Jesus echoed this truth:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16 ESV).

While the theme of God‘s sovereignty and God‘s grace is, indeed, the predominant storyline of Jonah, the book is certainly not merely metaphorical. The book is historical and refers to what became one of the greatest revivals in the history of humankind. The pagan city of Nineveh, the capital of an Ancient Near Eastern Empire, Assyria, was the epicenter of antagonism toward Israel, and yet, this enemy of God became the object of God's love and grace. Jonah was called to go and preach the repentance to the Ninevites (And by natural inference, to receive the forgiveness of God). The story of Jonah demonstrates how Almighty God has sovereign control over every creature on earth. From the wind to the fishes of the sea, and even pagan sailors, all respond to God in obedience. A gourd, an easterly winder, and even a worm, all over the Lord without any protests. The only disobedient figure in the book of Jonah is Jonah. He must learn that God's love is greater and wider than he had ever imagined.

So what are the lessons we can learn from the book of Jonah?

1. We learn that God's mercy is wider and God’s grace is greater than all of our sins.

The book of Jonah begins with these words:

"Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Ammittai, saying, arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me."

God comes to us while we are still sinners, and still, the Lord does not wait for us to “clean up our act” before He comes into our lives. If that were so we would never be saved. God begins to have mercy upon us while we are still in willful disobedience; and, like Nineveh, characterized by infamous sin and evil. The Bible says that God so loved the world He sent His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). This is an essential characteristic of God. The lesson that God loves us while we are living in rebellion is of great hope to our nation today.

2. We learned that God's love is greater than our self-interest. 

Jonah was quite content with God's grace and God's love over Israel and over his own life. But when God called him to go to Nineveh, we read that Jonah went in the opposite direction. He ran from God not merely because he was afraid of God, but because he really did not want to bring the good news of God's grace to his enemies. The issue in the book of Jonah causes each of us to reflect on this truth: those who curse Christ today could be those who preach Christ tomorrow. Don't just take the Ninevites words for it; listen to the Apostle Paul:

"And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hathenabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:12-14).

3. We learn that God uses all means to extend his grace to all kinds of people.

In the book of Jonah God uses a roaring sea, wayward pagan sailors — who, by the way, were saved by God during their experience with the renegade prophet — as well as, a pagan king, a weed, a worm, and even a hardheaded preacher. The mission of God is a guaranteed success because of the sovereignty of God. Jonah demonstrates how God uses all of His creation to bring about the salvation of one very wicked nation. How much more will God use all things to reach you? How much more will God hear your prayers as you cry out for a wayward child? Or a friend? Or trouble within your church? There are no limits to God's grace and love, and there are no limits to his ways and means of attaining His goals for salvation.

4. We learn that God's mercy is motivated by God's love for his own creation.

The book of Jonah concludes with a rather enigmatic ending. Jonah sits in the heat of Northern Iraq and is so outdone with God’s grace to his enemy, seething that he has lost a gourd with its leaves to shade him, that he despairs unto death. Yes, that means precisely what it says: Jonah was preferring death over the advance of God‘s grace to Nineveh. The petulant prophet is perturbed that God's grace to pagans is of greater priority to God than Jonah’s comfort. Then, God asks a question to Jonah, which echoes through the ages down to our own lives:

Jonah 4:10-11 (ESV): And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

This is both an indictment of Jonah and all who treat God’s grace as proprietary, and a challenge to begin to see the world through the eyes of God who created it. The 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, are likely infants. but how about the Lord’s mention of His concern about the cattle? The truth is that man’s sin has a devastating effect upon creation. Conversely, when there is authentic revival from on high, when people repent and when we receive God‘s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ His Son, balance and harmony return to the community.

The force of this final question cannot be overstated. We learned here that both Socratic teaching and rabbinical teaching (by asking questions) was used by God long before educators ever thought about such things. For in placing the question as He does, the Lord God requires each and every one of us to give a response. And that response is nestled within the greater framework of God‘s plan for the ages: from Paradise Lost (Milton, 1667) to Paradise Regained (Milton, 1671).

Whenever we come to think that someone is beyond God’s love, or they have committed acts so vile as to be forever separated from God, then it is time for us to return to the book of Jonah. When we begin to reduce God’s response to human sin as judgment without mercy, then it is time for us to open up the book of Jonah, and invite the Spirit of the Lord to cleanse us of self-interests, smugness, and uncaring attitudes and return to the Lord of love.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Photo credit: ©SparrowStock


Dr. Michael A. MiltonMICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]

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