The story of Jonah is a favorite to teach kids in Sunday school and Children’s church.
Who has heard the story of Jonah?
How many chapters are in the book of Jonah, without looking at your Bible?
Tell me what you know about Jonah.
Running away from God, thrown overboard, fish, spit out
What is the message we teach children with this story?
That only covers chapters 1 and 2. There are 4 chapters. The 3rd and 4th chapters of Jonah are just as important to his story as chapters 1 and 2; yet, only the 1st 2 chapters are taught to kids. Maybe because the first 2 chapters are easy to teach kids about being obedient to God and chapter 3 and 4 are more difficult to teach kids about judgment, repentance and grace.
Let’s do a review of the details of chapters 1 and 2 to bring us to chapter 3 which I read.
Jonah is a prophet in the northern kingdom like Elijah. The nation of Israel was split into 2 kingdoms following the reign of King Solomon. The northern kingdom was Israel and the southern kingdom was Judah where Jerusalem was. The kings in the northern kingdom were often bad kings because they led the people astray from true and pure worship of God.
Jonah preaches a message of judgment, not on the king of Israel. He preaches to the king of Assyria. The capital of the Assyrian empire was Ninevah. Assyria is in the general area of the modern countries Syria and Iraq. Ninevah was in the area of the modern day city of Mosul.
The Assyrians were known for being hostile toward Jews. They were proud of killing them. They were murderous and violent. Jews were impaled or their heads cut off. The Assyrian soldiers were paid per head so the soldiers would cut of the Jews’ heads to take back as proof of how many they had killed.
Does a murderous and violent regime in the Middle East known for cutting off their victims’ heads sound familiar?
It is into this environment that God calls Jonah to preach a message of judgment. Jonah’s first response to God’s request is to run, as fast and as far away from God as possible. Jonah chose to take the route of the sea away from God. He hopped aboard a boat and sailed off. God sent a violent wind upon the sea and tossed the boat around. The ship’s crew threw everything overboard to lighten the load and hopefully the storm would relent. The crew discovered by casting lots that it was Jonah who had brought on the trouble. Jonah convinced the reluctant crew to throw him overboard so the storm would let up. The men who had been praying to their own gods prayed to the Living God that they would be spared for doing what they thought might bring about Jonah’s death. As much as he tried, Jonah learned you can’t escape God, even hiding in the belly of a boat.
Here is the most familiar part of the story. God sent a big fish to swallow up Jonah where he spent 3 days and 3 nights where he prayed. After Jonah had acknowledged that God had saved him from death and was alone worthy of praise, God commanded the fish to vomit up Jonah on dry land.
And, so, Jonah was given another chance to go to Ninevah and preach. This time Jonah obeyed and went to preach to the king. Jonah went and preached probably the shortest message ever. Just 8 words. I imagine it was a half-hearted delivery, like when you tell a child to apologize and they give a “sorry.” Jonah gives his half-hearted, “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overthrown.”
Regardless of delivery or length, it was effective and received by the king. The king headed the warning and proclaimed a fast in hope that God would relent. Everyone, everyone, put on sackcloth. Sackcloth was the appropriate attire for repentance, grieving or lament. The king took threw off his royal robes and put on sackcloth; then, he sat down in ashes or dust, another sign of repentance.
The king sent out this decree: no one, people or animals, are to eat or drink anything. There will be a fast and everyone is to wear sackcloth. Everyone is to pray urgently to God, not their local idols, but to God. They are to repent or turn away from their evil ways and violence.
The king had hoped their repentance would cause God to relent of His planned destruction of Ninevah. And, God did. God relented. God did not destroy Ninevah as He had planned because the people of Ninevah repented God relented.
You might imagine Jonah, after a half-hearted delivery of a very short message, was sure that doom was coming to Ninevah. He was counting on it. He figured that after everything the Assyrians had done to the Jews God was going to really give it to the Assyrians.
But, then, God showed the Assyrians grace.
The Assyrians had all repented. Everyone from the oldest to the youngest person, event he animals repented. God’s message had changes their hearts. God saw their sorrow and decided not to destroy them.
This was not what Jonah had in mind would happen. This was not what Jonah wanted to happen. This really ticked off Jonah that the Assyrians would get away with all they had done, just because they repented.
Jonah was mad. I imagine he had that righteous indignation that we have when a company has not given us the product or service we paid for, so we call customer service ready to give whoever is the poor sap to answer the phone a piece of our mind at a loud voice demanding what the wrong be righted. We had a case and we were going to state it. Our anger would only be appeased by letting off some steam at the customer service rep who we know did nothing wrong, but was just the only person we could get to give our anger an audience. But, then, your call is answered by the nicest most helpful customer service person you have maybe ever talked to. You don’t get to yell at them and express your anger. In fact, the customer service person gives you credits and rights the wrong. And, you leave the conversation disappointed that you didn’t get to give away your piece of mind or maybe even yell a little bit.
I think this is what Jonah was feeling, ready to go back and watch their destruction, watch them get everything God had promised. He was angry at the Ninevites and wanted them to get what they deserved. But, then, God relented and Jonah didn’t get to see what he wanted to see, didn’t get to have his anger vindicated. God relented.
So, Jonah throws a temper tantrum. He turned his anger at the Assyrians on to God. He said, “I knew this was going to happen. This is why I tried to run from you. I know that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. I knew you were a God who relented when people repented. I would rather die than see You show mercy to the Assyrians.”
This story of Jonah might give us some clues about leadership. The person chosen by God, who we expect to heed God’s call and serve God’s purpose, who we expect to be the hero of the story, acts like a 2 year old because he doesn’t want to do what he’s told then doesn’t get what he wants. This is not the type of leader we want.
We should look to the king of Assyria for the type of leader we might want. The king of Assyria had a terrible past. He was a bad guy. Then, he headed God’s warning and led his people to a new way of life, a new attitude, toward the true God. He didn’t need to be told twice. He heard God’s message and responded quickly. This is the type of leader we want.
When people repent, God relents. We want justice, but, then God offers grace. Amen.