Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lesson 4: The Jonah Saga

Sabbath School Today
With the 1888 Message Dynamic

Biblical Missionaries
Lesson 4: The Jonah Saga

[Or, Out With The Jonah Saga, and in With
The Repentance of the Ages--A Lesson From Jonah]


We welcome Mary Chun back as a writer for Sabbath School Today. Mary has done a great deal of research on her topic, therefore we would like to share her research with you, even though this essay is somewhat longer than usual.


Jonah is an unusual book because of its message and messenger. Unlike other Old Testament books, it exclusively revolves around a Gentile nation. God is concerned for the Gentiles as well as for His covenant people, Israel. We see God's messenger, Jonah, as a reluctant prophet who does not want to proclaim His message for fear that the Assyrians will respond and be spared by the compassionate God of Israel. There are significant points in this book--the storm, the casting of lots, the sailors, the huge fish, the Ninevites, the plant, the worm, and the east wind. Only the prophet Jonah fails to listen to God's call. All these were used to teach Jonah a lesson in compassion and obedience. We see the 1888 message of God's everlasting love expressed over and over in this book. There is God's infinite mercy for all people; and our human reluctance to share His mercy.

Just think that Jonah was a contemporary of Jeroboam II of Israel who ministered after the time of Elisha and just before the time of Amos and Hosea. Israel under Jeroboam II was enjoying a period of resurgence and prosperity. During these years, Assyria was in a period of mild decline. Weak rulers had ascended the throne, but Assyria remained a threat. By the time of Jonah, Assyrian cruelty had become legendary. Graphic accounts of their cruel treatment of captives have been found in ancient Assyrian records, during the 9th and 7th centuries B.C.

God was calling Jonah to go to Nineveh. Let's see where Nineveh is located--northeast from where Jonah was. The city of Nineveh was for many years the capital city of the mighty Assyrian Empire. It was considered a "great city," one of the oldest cities of the ancient Near East. Assyrian kings were cruel and ruthless. This pagan nation had invaded and pillaged the homeland of the Israelites on numerous occasions before Jonah visited Nineveh. The prophet wanted the city destroyed, not saved, because of its wickedness. But the people repented and were spared by a compassionate God, as seen in chapter 3, verse 10. God's love for the pagan world was deeper than His messenger could understand or accept.

God's love for the Gentiles is not only disclosed in the New Testament, it is also in the Old Testament. God commissioned the Hebrew prophet Jonah to proclaim a message of repentance to the Assyrians. Jonah's selfish nationalism blinded his purpose as an instrument of God's plan of salvation. The book of Jonah is one of the clearest demonstrations in the entire Scripture of God's love and mercy for all mankind.

Jonah is part of the collection of the twelve Minor Prophets. All the other books of this collection convey prophecies by genuine, historical prophets. By placing Jonah in this collection, the compiler of the Minor Prophets considered the book of Jonah to be an historical account. So Jonah is considered as a real historical figure, said to be a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel in 2 Kings 14:25, introducing Jonah as the son of Amittai. Yonah (Jonah) is the Hebrew word meaning "Dove, son of My Truth." Doves suggest two things to biblical writers: they are easily scared (Psalm 55:6; Ezek. 7:16; Hosea 11:11) and they mourn (Isa. 38:14; 59:11).

Under Jeroboam, the borders of Israel were expanded "according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher" (2 Kings 14:25). Let's check where Gath Hepher is located; it's 3 miles north of Nazareth in lower Galilee, making Jonah a Galilean and a prophet of the Northern Kingdom. You will see that the miracles in the book of Jonah are not impossible for the God of the Bible. And most of all, Jesus, in Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32, spoke of Jonah as being in a huge fish and preaching in Nineveh as if these were real events. Jesus mentioned that "the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah's proclamation" (Matt. 12:41). Jonah is the only prophet whom Jesus likened to Himself.

There is a significant message through the book of Jonah as indicated in E.J. Waggoner's article, "One Book," The Signs of the Times, November 13, 1893: "Take the account of the prophet Jonah. Many people would feel almost insulted if it were intimated that they were so simple as to believe it. They say that it never really happened; that the great fish never swallowed Jonah, and that it would have been impossible for him to live three days in its belly. But Christ said, 'As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth' (Matt. 12:40). Now if Jonah was never in the whale's belly, and could not have been, then we have the Saviour likening His death and resurrection to an impossibility. Therefore to deny the story of Jonah is to deny the foundation of the gospel."

The four chapters in the book of Jonah are summarized as follows:

Chapter 1--The first commission of Jonah, and his running from God, results in disobedience. Jonah does not want to see God spare the notoriously cruel Assyrians. To preach a message of repentance to them would be like helping Israel's enemy. The "I" in Jonah, along with his patriotism, put his country before his God and refused to represent Him in Nineveh. Instead of going 500 miles northeast to Nineveh, Jonah attempts to go 2000 miles west to Tarshish (Spain), where he paid his way to catch a ship to the opposite direction. God, the creator of the sea and land, created a great storm to disrupt Jonah's course. His sleeping during the storm caused chaos for the captain and sailors of the ship who feared for their lives, and they cast lots to see who was the cause of this terrible storm. Their attention turned to Jonah, the odd one of the group, and they quizzed Jonah to find out who he really was and where he was from. Jonah witnessed to them of his identity as a Hebrew who is fleeing from the Lord, and that the storm was the cause of his turning away from God's direction. The ship's crew tossed Jonah into the sea, but they prayed to Jonah's God for mercy in throwing Jonah overboard to calm the sea; it made them believers in the Lord. That was not the end of Jonah, as was expected; God created a great fish to swallow Jonah to prevent him from drowning. He was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. This symbolizes Christ in Jonah; it anticipates Christ's death and resurrection, and shows that salvation is available to all people.

Please note as we recap what the great fish is, that in some translations it is described as a whale. Now a whale is not a fish; it's a mammal. The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek--not in English. And both "whale" and "great fish" are English translations of the original words. The Greek word translated "whale" is ketos (pronounced kay-tos), and it means "a huge fish" gaping for prey.

Chapter 2--God has a creative series of counter-measures to accomplish His desired result. While Jonah is inside the belly of the great fish, it is his prayer closet to spend time with God, where he utters his prayer of lament and thanksgiving to the Lord from the psalms. Psalms 130 was in the mind of Jonah: "Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord" (vs. 1). You can imagine Jonah praying to the Lord when he was in the stomach of the great fish that swallowed him when he had made a mess of his life, running away from his duty to Nineveh: "Out of the belly of hell I cried, and You hear my voice. ... I have been cast out of Your sight, ... yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God" (Jonah 2:2, 4, 6). God hears his prayers and orders the great fish to vomit Jonah to the dry land, back to the place where God wanted him to go to, Nineveh. So, all that time in the belly of the great fish, God had ordered the fish to navigate to Nineveh. Actually, Jonah gets free transportation back to Nineveh, courtesy of God.

Chapter 3--The word of the Lord came the second time to Jonah to go to Nineveh, which would take a three days' journey to the heart of the city. God prepared Jonah to say just five words in Hebrew, that there will be forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Incredible words, a one sentence sermon that brought belief to the people of Nineveh. It turned them from their wicked ways, and they proclaimed a fast. The prophet is a walking object lesson from God, his skin no doubt bleached from his stay in the fish, convinced people to believe. Jonah's words of coming judgment are followed by a royal proclamation from the king of the city to fast and repent. This message reached the whole city. It's an incredible act to see that everyone turned to God with repentance and fasting, turned from their wicked ways. Examine the following verses (5 and 6): "So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes." Because of His great mercy, God "relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them" (vs. 10). This is also reflected in 2 Chronicles 7:14, "If My people, which are called by My name shall humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

Chapter 4--God's everlasting love and grace are contrasted with Jonah's anger and lack of compassion. He is unhappy with the good results of his message, like how could this be so credible, because he knows God will spare Nineveh. God uses his creative ways through a plant, a worm, and a wind to teach Jonah a lesson in compassion. Jonah's emotions shift from fierce anger (vs. 1), to despondency (vs. 3), then to overwhelming joy (vs. 6), and then to despair (vs. 8) after God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day to attack the plant and it withered (vs. 7). In a humorous but meaningful account, Jonah is forced to see that he has more concern for the death of a plant than for 120,000 people (vs. 11). Jonah's lack of a divine perspective makes his repentance a greater problem than the repentance of Nineveh. If Jonah could have been compassionate to the Gentile people, we could benefit from a lesson on corporate repentance, and a selfless act of forgiveness.

When things in our lives are changing, be it wilting or gaining strength, we can see nothing as the culprit, or as the solution to patch up the problem. We need to turn our eyes to the heavens. God's hand and purposes can often go unnoticed and unrecognized if we aren't careful to consider His participation in life's events.

Romans 11:33 suggests that knowing God's will and perspective is beyond the reach of mere humans. While His ways are unsearchable and His methods are beyond our ability to comprehend, He will graciously lift the blinding veils and give revelation to those who come in humility with open hearts to hear and receive His Word.

Don't miss God's concern, care, and attention to detail when He crafted the specific methods to teach Jonah. The plant wasn't just any type; it had to be substantial enough to form a roof and provide shade. While many animals could have made Jonah's stay uncomfortable, God chose a worm to harm the plant. Finally, the hot wind came from the east. According to Jonah 4:5, the prophet had gone east of the city. This means he could not have benefited from any protection the huge walled city could have afforded him on the other side. God was strategic and detailed with the methods used to relay divine purposes to His beloved prophet.

All hardship does not come from God, but we must consider the divine implications of our difficulties. If we only see the physical aspects, we may miss the deeper spiritual truths our Father is teaching us. God desires the same from us as from Jonah, an intimacy with Him that molds our hearts into His image. Even if it takes a storm, a fish, a plant, a worm, and a hot east wind, He'll bend over backward to get it done.

--Mary Chun