“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
Well that isn’t right! A God who changes his mind messes with our heads. And look at poor Jonah; he was totally hung out to dry. Jonah just put his prophetic reputation on the line, in a hostile environment, by preaching this very heavy (yet totally unimaginative) sermon, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The sermon, in its brevity, is five words long in the original Hebrew—bumper sticker preaching, with a not too friendly message. And now what—no overthrow?! Thanks for the follow through big-guy! Jonah was now the ancient Assyrian version of Chicken Little, or the boy who cried wolf, and all because God didn’t have the chutzpah to pull the trigger—all because God changed his mind.
The worst part was that Jonah was psyched about Nineveh getting God-stomped. So after delivering his pithy oracle he started to check the days off the calendar like a wide eyed child marking time till Christmas morning. 40 days!—what would it be this time: torrential waters, devastating hail, consuming fire—would the earth open up and swallow every last back alley in that dreadful place? It’s not every day you get to see a major metropolitan area implode by divine dictum. This was going to be good. And it was all the better since Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria which was the hated enemy of Israel, and a major fly in the ointment of the people of God. It was about time they received a boot to the forehead. But it never came, and Jonah waited and waited—39 days, 40 days, 41 days. Who moved Christmas? Finally, Jonah figured it out, and he was angry. They repented, and God forgave them.
The repentance is so overdone in Jonah it is just silly. Since when does an oppressive people group, with all the power and might, take seriously the five word prophetic oracle of an itinerant, doom and gloom prophet from an insignificant little backwater? That’s even sillier than someone hitching a ride inside a fish for three days. Well, that kind of repentance is just what happens here. Jonah said his peace, and everyone, great and small, put on uncomfortable sackcloth, and sat in humiliating ashes. When the great Assyrian king, the virtual lord of the ancient world, heard the message he went so far as to make a proclamation, “By the decree of the kings and his nobles: no human being or animal, no herd of flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered in sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” And with that the shady, oppressive, bloodthirsty, Assyrian king proved himself a far better prophet of YHWH than old Jonah. For in the very next verse God did just that—God changed his mind.
Jonah couldn’t believe it. This was the worst of all possible outcomes. So he prays to God and his words pull no punches. The prayer is startling in its honesty. The whole while we thought Jonah fled Nineveh to save his own persecution at the hands of his enemies. I am sure Assyria had a poor reputation of hospitality to Israelite holy men. But now, in the words of the angry prayer, we find out the real reason Jonah fled. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Ah, now we see, Jonah fled in order to make sure Nineveh was smote. He didn’t want any chance for the Ninevites to hear the word of the Lord, and then worm their way into God’s soft heart.
Do you see what happens when our enemies become our stumbling blocks? The attributes of God that we love the most, and that we extol in our singing, and invoke in our prayers—God’s grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love—become the things we condemn God for. This is Jonah’s great complaint—who ever heard of a God who is ruled by such absurd notions of grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love?! Who ever heard of such an absurd complaint?!
And here is where it is important to remember the rest of the story. The Koran calls Jonah “him of the great fish.” That is how Jonah is best known to us as well. Above all Jonah is the reluctant prophet who runs away from God’s presence only to become fish food somewhere in the deep blue Mediterranean. The mythical story is meant to illustrate the impossibility of fleeing the presence of the Lord. There is not place out of reach—no place to hide. Even after Jonah “goes down” to Joppa, and “goes down” to the ship, and “goes down” into the ships inner compartments, and “goes down” into the sea—God was there enlisting the help of a giant fish to hatch his providential plan. For three days Jonah bobbed around in the smelly innards of the mysterious jumbo fish. His life hung in the balance. If a rescue was to occur, it would be God’s initiative. This prompted Jonah to stop fleeing the presence of the Lord. Of all the places of holy prayer recorded in the Bible, this is the strangest. Jonah, from the belly of the giant fish, brought his petitions to God. Seeking his salvation Jonah prayed: “The waters close in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord, my God.”
The prayer is bold, it not only assumes God’s willingness to help, but it claims that help has already come. Jonah is not waiting, wondering if God will respond, instead he is preemptively praising God as if God’s deliverance was a present reality. Jonah is latching on to life. Ironically, Jonah praises in the prayer, of all things, the mercy, grace, patience, and steadfast love of God. That is why God responds to Jonah’s later complaint, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Oh be careful what you praise and soon after condemn! The grace and mercy that saved Jonah is the same grace and mercy that then pardons the Ninevites in their moment of repentance? Jonah praises God and latches onto life as a result of the former, and Jonah condemns God and asks for death as a result of the latter—and we thought God was the wishy-washy one. You cannot have a God of grace and mercy for yourself, and a God of fierce wrath for everyone else. And you can’t control what is far beyond you. The grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love of God cannot be bound and gagged, or locked away, or sealed in a bottle. They are wild and free. They will find you in the belly of a great fish, and they will find you on a back alley in Nineveh.
They will also find you in the desert. That is where Jonah travels next. When Nineveh fails to implode he heads east and makes himself a little booth, and sits down in eyesight of the city to sulk. The text says that he was waiting to see what would happen to the city. Perhaps he thought his moaning and thoughts of suicide were enough emotional blackmail to force God to level the city regardless of their repentance. It didn’t work. God is never emotionally blackmailed. Don’t even try it. Do you think that because God changes his mind that you can make God do it? God doesn’t play games. Jonah is acting like a scorned lover, who decides to show signs of self destruction in hopes of winning back his lost love. Don’t be silly. God lets Jonah sit in that booth and bake. It’s hot in the desert.
God isn’t totally despondent. The city still stands, resplendent in its repentance. But while God does not offer relief of Jonah’s mental anguish by destroying Jonah’s enemy, he does offer relief for Jonah’s physical anguish. In the night he causes a bush to grow up next to Jonah to shield him from the scorhing sun. The text reads that “Jonah was very happy about the bush”—God and I are still friends, not all is lost—maybe a few more tears, a couple more statements about life not being worth living, God is coming around, I know he is.
Jonah wanted judgment. So judgment is what Jonah got. Jonah wanted to change God’s mind, so God was happy to oblige: “When dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.” God is so far ahead of us. Do you want to know how far? Let’s go back to the beginning. Jonah is fleeing his assigned task in Nineveh and jumps aboard a ship in Joppa that is heading for Tarshish. The ship is thrown by a mighty storm and it threatens to break up. The pagan men on the ship begin crying out to all manner of false gods, trying in vain to save themselves. The whole time, the prophet of the one true God, the God who calms the sea, is asleep in the hold of the ship. The captain finds Jonah, wakes him, and says, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
When the men finally determine that Jonah is the reason for their mortal peril they ask the prophet what they should do. Jonah instructs them to throw him in the sea. The pagan men cannot do this. How could they? This was a living and breathing man—flesh and blood—if they threw him into the sea it meant certain drowning. So they labored on, until all hope was lost, and only then did they offer Jonah as sacrifice—the death of one, to save the lives of many.
After Jonah was thrown into the sea the storm soon abated and the men became believers, and offered sacrifices and made vows to the LORD. God had defined himself, as the captain had hoped he would. When all other gods failed to respond, the God of the Israelites was the God who spared the pagans a thought, so that they did not perish.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes those who do not know God act far more like God, then those that claim to know him? The pagans wanted to save Jonah from judgment, and mourned their decision to throw him overboard. Jonah wanted to judge the pagans, and mourned the judgment brought upon a dessert bush. “’It is better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’” Angry enough to die—because of a bush?! The bush grew in one night. Jonah did not plant it, or water it, or cultivate it. It lasted one day, and then it died. It left the dessert in the same way it found it. It was nothing, a microscopic foam bubble on the timeless ocean of life. And because of its demise, Jonah is ready to die.
Jonah—the prophet who spares the bush a thought, hoping it does not perish.
“You are concerned about the bush…” God replies, “and should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?”
YHWH—the God who spares a thought for the pagans, so that they do not perish.
It is the same today as it was then. There are those who mourn the loss of desert plants, and spare no thought for tens of thousands. There are those who are up to things, trying to blackmail and control grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love. There are those that praise God for these things, and then condemn God for the same things. In the end all of them are far behind the God who is telling all of their stories—the God who can change his mind, the God who gives the bush and the God who takes the bush away. When God changes his mind, God will show you yourself, in all your depravity, he will let you bake in the dessert of your own choosing, and then he will gently whisper “Is it right for you to be angry?” So get used to the God who spares a thought, and get your tail to Nineveh, you reluctant prophet, and rejoice in their deliverance. That is the way to latch on to life and to honor the God who brought up your life from the pit, and who will do the same for anyone he pleases. Amen.