Was Jonah a loser?

Most people know the story of Jonah (from the bible). God had said to Jonah:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Jonah 1:1,2

But Jonah didn’t like that. Not at all.

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.

Jona 1:3a

And then something about a ship, a fish, and eventually Jonah got to Nineveh.

So much for what almost everyone knows. Jonah didn’t want to, God wanted him there, sent a fish and Jonah got there anyway. End of story. At least that was the story I had heard so often as a kid in Sunday School.

Today I was talking to someone, and we were talking about that Jonah. Jonah, who didn’t want to, but got there anyway. And that got me thinking about that Jonah. As a child, I always thought Jonah was a failure, a loser. “Not listening to God? Here comes the fish, and now you listen!” I was definitely better than Jonah! What a villain that Jonah was.

But the more I think about it…. the less I think that Jonah was actually a failure.

Because what is the reason that the story is actually in the bible? To make Jonah look like a failure? God is victorious whether you like it or not? Or is there more to the story?

Let’s look at Jonah. Jonah was a prophet. And that’s quite a thing in the bible. That as a serious thing. You were called by God. I came across this description of what a prophet was in the bible: “A person who was called to call out.”

However, if we look in the Bible to see what God told that prophet to call out, it was hardly ever good news… An important part of the message that the prophets of God brought in the Bible is a warning of impending judgment! God warned them that He would have to act in judgment. And the prophets were God’s mouthpiece of so often brought VERY bad news. Return to God or die. Not much fun to do…. So, yes, you were called by God to bring His message, but glad tidings? No, absolutely not. Preaching hell and damnation.

And those people… they didn’t always listen… on the contrary. They already saw you coming with your hell and damnation preaching. Can you imagine how they were received? I don’t think with nice flowers and chocolate bars…. On the contrary…

We can’t find in the bible why Jonah didn’t feel like this divine command, but the more I think about it, the more I think I get it. What a job… bad news bringer…

If we look at today, how are we doing in evangelism? Jesus loves you? And then we stop? But let’s face it…if we don’t accept Jesus as our savior…what happens? Hell and damnation… how often do we talk about that?? It is part of the news that MUST be brought, but do you feel like it? And Jonah… if I look at it that way, he didn’t feel like it either. But are we really doing better? mhhh……. the mantle of love, forgiveness, loving… we love to use just that. That God is a jealous God, a God who judges, that His church is holy and must be defended (Jesus and the whip in the temple), that hell is real, and it is eternally HOT there…. how often do we say that? Are we really better than Jonah? Mhhh…..

And then we come to that ship that Jonah fled on. The sailors quickly realized that Jonah was the problem on board. And Jonah could have said: “No, I don’t know anything”, but what did Jonah do?

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 

Jonah 1:9

Jonah immediately admitted that He was a follower of God, and also immediately told who God was to the sailors. Do we do the same if someone asks us if you are a Christian? Or do we turn red, beat around the bush, and certainly don’t boldly come out for it? How often do we hesitate? Jonah testified of our great God. Right there on that ship! And those sailors believed him! (we’ll get to that in a minute)

But take Jonah. Bam: This is me, “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” No hesitation, no nothing.

Jonah had also told them that he had fled from God:

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

Jonah 9:10

There, too, Jonah was honest about it. No twisting stories, no nothing… Is that how we always do it? Mwoah… That Jonah… that image of “Jonah = loser” is starting to tilt a bit by now… and the image of how I feel about myself too… am I really better than Jonah? Really?

But it gets even better. Jonah knew he had “brought evil on board.” He could have said: I will row with you, I will pray for you, but don’t throw me overboard! But no:

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Jonah 1:12

Did Jonah know that a fish would come and that he would survive? No. But struggle? No. “Pick me up and throw me into the sea” Doesn’t really sound like a failure to me…. And do you remember Jonah’s testimony of God to the sailors?

Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”

Jonah 1:14

The sailors…believed what Jonah had told… Have you seen it that way? Jonah testified of God and the sailors believed. Wow. Then they threw Jonah into the sea (they didn’t want to do that, but Jonah told them to do it!) and then we see this:

At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

Jonah 1:16

Jonah told them, the sailors listened, and they believed, and they feared the Lord…. What do you think as a reader? Is Jonah still a failure? Mwoah….

And then we get the story of that fish, but also there, read this:

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:

“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.

I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’

The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.

To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.

Jonah 2:1-6a

Does that sound like a Jonah “beating around the bush” for his mistakes? Is Jonah evading or denying something? No. This is a Jonah who is honest about his own mistakes, a Jonah who recognizes God. And a Jonah who sees and recognizes what God really did:

But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.

“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.

But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

Jonah 2:6b-9

And then Jonah arrives in Nineveh. And there Jonah tells the bad news to the people:

“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Jona 3:4b

No flowers around it, no bow tie, no cloak of love: you still have 40 days, and then it’s done. Do you see what it says? It doesn’t say, “You have 40 days to repent, and if you don’t, Nineveh will be turned upside down!”

No, 40 days and then it’s done. Full stop.

Quite a strong message. Could I do that? Phew… I prefer to talk about “Jesus is love”…. And you as a reader? But Jonah? He did what God said. Honest and tough. And the people?

The Ninevites believed God. 

Jonah 3:5a

But those people also literally(!) believed what Jonah had said. And what did they do then? We can’t help it anymore, so let’s just enjoy our last days and party? Nope.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.

Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.

Jonah 3:6-9

Jonah was a straight shooter, just what God had said. No bow ties around it, nothing. And that message got through! And how! Suppose Jonah had wrapped the message with flowers and a bow tie… a little softer… with an extra cloak of love… would it have happened that way? Something to think about.

And then we see what happens to Jonah’s work for God, and what a merciful God does:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 3:10

And Jonah? Was he happy? Nope.

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 

He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 

Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:1-3

And here comes my question to you:

Why did Jonah have to go to Nineveh? Was Nineveh the only purpose of God? Or did God have another purpose? A bigger plan? Just some ideas:

  • We still know Jonah to this day, Jonah made it into the Bible! I will never make it into the bible.
  • We can, to this very day, learn from Jonah, the fish, from a merciful God, from the evangelizing story of Jonah, from God’s vengeance if you won’t listen, from a God who listens.

The story of Jonah still teaches us today! God had a MUCH bigger plan than just Nineveh. But Jonah? He didn’t see that either.

And let’s be honest… do we see that every day?? Do we believe in God’s great plan? Even after a terrible journey with a boat, a fish that stinks, and a very tough sermon about doom?? Do we look further than today? And, like Jonah, are we angry with God for today’s misery?

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah 4:4

And Jonah? Did he get it? Do we always get it? Are we different from Jonah? Am I really better than Jonah?

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.

But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.

When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:5-8

Jonah didn’t get it. Jonah was still looking at today’s misery. That God had a bigger plan? Jonah just didn’t see it.

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.

Jonah 4:9

And then we see, to this very day, another lesson from God, for all of us:

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4:10-11

God teaches us, through Jonah, lessons to this very day(!) Important lessons. Not just about a fish, but about His anger at our sins, His hard message, about His mercy when you deliver His message so clearly to others… about Jonah being honest with the sailors, sailors who believed, a city that believed, a God who teaches us to look beyond today.

So, was Jonah a failure? Are we really better than that Jonah? Or do we sometimes don’t understand the big picture either.. and if we do get it? Are we then just as honest as Jonah, do we also bring God’s news as undisguised as Jonah? Or are we more into “Lets love each other and let’s avoid a tough message”?

Something to think about. The more I think about it, the more I think Jonah is a hero! Jonah went with God, made mistakes, just like you and me, but through Jonah his story… we are still learning more about God. What a hero.

Finally: Jonah didn’t want to, but God got Jonah where He wanted him to go. If you want to go!? Wouldn’t God get you there? Of course, He does! Think about that when you doubt, What does God want me to want?

If God wants you to go somewhere, and you want to go there, why worry?

(PS, what must Jonah have smelled after those 3 days and nights in that fish! That must have been a “nice” appearance in Nineveh. Yuck!)

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