A penetrating Christmas meditation on the essential message of the book of Jonah.
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundance in love …”
~ Jonah 4: 2 (NIV)
Recently two Florida fishermen spotted a huge fish, rarely even seen in the waters of the marine state. So impressive to them was this magnificent sea creature, that one of them courageously dove into the sea in order to get a closer look at it. For 45 tantalizing seconds he got a close look at this huge, graceful elusive fish which soon disappeared in the deep blue ocean. Fortunately, he had the equipment (and acuteness!” to visually record it so that people all over the world might get a glimpse of this elusive fish!
Now in the Bible there is a fascinating narrative about another big fish. Commonly known as “The Story of Jonah and the Whale.” It has arrested the attention and captivated the imagination of people in all walks of life (saints and sinners) throughout the ages!
Now, there can be no doubt that it has proved to be one of the “most provocative (to borrow a favorite expression of the talk show host Darold Miller passages in the bible. The question raised and the answer given have indeed proved many and varied.
Learned debated about it historically and how it should be interpreted and have been carried out with much vision.
Interestingly enough, the Bible says nothing about a whale; it speaks of “a huge fish” (Jonah 2:1, NIV). Still there have been discussions as to whether it was possible for a fish to swallow a man. It has been suggested that it could have been a dog fish, which also has a huge belly. A wide division exists between those who recants the narrative as what may be described as “sacred myth” and those who hold it to be historical and can be verified on scientific grounds. Concisely, there is no consensus on this matter. It is, however, essential to bear in mind that such discussions (often generating more heat than light) miss the profound theological truths of this fascinating bible story. As one eminent contemporary biblical scholar accurately states, “The important fact is that GOD is in control of His creation, and His creature unwittingly obeys and serves his purposes.” (The Concise Bible Commentary, p.1037).
What is the Bible scholar telling us here? Plainly, that in order to discern the profound message of this text, we need to focus, not on the fish, but on its creator, GOD. For the function of the fish is to fulfill the purpose of God. The fish is only an instrument for the fulfillment of
the divine purpose of Jonah’s mission. Concisely, it’s not all about the fish! So, what’s it all about?
Well, first, the Book of Jonah is about obedience to God. Let us just examine the context.
God spoke to the prophet Jonah in Israel, commanding him to go to Nineveh and preach, calling tits wicked people to repent. What did Jonah do? He went to the port of Jaffa and took a ship with its destination before Tarshish. Now, Nineveh was to the last, while Tarshish was far west of Israel. Jonah, then, fleeing from God, was utterly disobedient. Why didn’t he want to go to Nineveh?
Well, you see, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were the enemies of the Israelites and constantly attacked them. So, Jonah, as a patriotic Israelite hated the Assyrians. He simply did not want to preach to the pagans. So, he went as far away as he could - he wanted nothing to do with them.
But Jonah did not get anywhere near this destination for a violent storm arose and the vessel was tossed to-and-fro by the strong winds. When questioned by the marines Jonah admitted he was being disobedient to God. As a result, he was cast into the sea. It was then that he was swallowed by a huge fish, crying for divine mercy, and eventually obeying the Lord by going to Nineveh and preaching. Jonah, then learned “the hard way” the evil consequence of disobedience. He also learned what countless others have learned in the argue of experience – it is impossible to flee from God.
So, Jonah preached with power and conviction, warning the Ninevites that several divine punishments would come upon them if they did not repent. The first to repent was the king, who did so, fasting in sackcloth. Then all its citizens repented as a result, the Lord Himself forgave them and did not punish them.
Then a strange thing happened. One would think that the prophet would have been delighted that this preaching proved so effective that all who heard him repented. All preachers
would be greatly encouraged, yea dearly inspired if thousands were to respond positivity to their proclamation of the Word of God! But not Jonah! He was so upset that he claimed wanted to give up. He was so depressed that he claimed that life was not worth living.
What was the reason for this most unexpected anger? Precisely this – Jonah was upset because the Lord had spared the Ninevites when they repented. You see, Jonah wanted to see God punish the Ninevites. Thus, he is angry with God for being merciful to the Ninevites.
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong and he became angry. He prayed: “Isn’t this what I said Lord when I was still at home? This is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God. Show to anger and abounding in love.” Jonah 4:1-2
This brings us to the main message of Jonah – God is love, God’s love is universal. You see, Jonah thought of the Israelites as God’s chosen people, which is true. But he had to learn that God’s love and mercy extends not only to Israel but to all people, even the hated Ninevites.
God’s love is universal, extended to include all humankind. Is not this the essential message of the book of Jonah. Also, the message at the heart of the gospel. Yes, the proclamation of the love of God in sending His divine son to be the Saviour of all humankind is a heart of the celebration of Christmas.
As Charles Wesley well expressed the truth in one his Christmas carols:
“Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and new acre
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate deity
Our God, contracting to a span
Incomprehensibly made man.”
The coming of poor, despises sharing and wealth gift bearing wise men to worship Christ demonstrated once from all the universal appeal of divine love. For “love came down at Christmas!’ all this leads us to appreciate the profound essential message of the book of Jonah.
The late evangelist Lloyd Quant was esteemed lay preacher of the Methodist Church coming from the Turks and Caicos Islands, he resided and served for many years, first in New Providence and then to Grand Bahamas. He was a devout man of God. One of his favorite sermons had the arresting title, “How Deep is Your Faith?”
Dear reader, the book of Jonah, in the final analysis is not all about the size of the fish, it is all about the love of God.
Concisely, its purpose is not to make you wonder about the size of the fish but to ponder the death of your faith in the God who love came down at Christmas.
So, how deep is your faith?