Jonah: A Lesson on God’s Mercy (Part 1)
These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 14, 2016, as part of “The Message.” The discussion was based upon a reading from Jonah 1 where Jonah is called by God, flees, and is swallowed by a great fish.
Jonah is part of the Old Testament in a subsection known as the “Book of the Twelve Prophets.” Scholars believe that Jonah was written between the 8th-2nd century BCE (the story is between 2,200 and 2,800 years old!). Jonah is unique among the Book of Twelve prophets in that it is not a list of oracles or proclamations, but a story about a prophet (though the text never refers to Jonah in this way). In fact, Jonah speaks only one line of prophecy in the entire book when he reluctantly proclaims, “Just forty days more and Ninevah will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4, Common English Bible). Most people know Jonah’s story because of his encounter with the fish which, much like his prophecy is, ultimately, a minor detail in the story.
While we’re talking about the fish, let’s just clear the air a bit. I don’t know whether or not a real human being was swallowed by a large fish. My limited knowledge of biology tells me that such a thing is impossible, but my faith tells me that all things are possible with God. God can do what God pleases. So, I’m not sure whether it really happened, but my not knowing doesn’t jeopardize the story. Jonah isn’t a story about a man getting eaten by a fish. Jonah is a story about a man who learns an important and difficult lesson about God’s mercy.
We don’t know much about Jonah, the person. There is a passing reference to him in the second book of Kings (14:25), but all this does is place him on a historical timeline somewhere in the 8th century. His story starts abruptly. There is no background information. The Lord speaks. The word of the Lord comes to Jonah, “Get up and go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” So Jonah arose just as God had commanded and ran, without a word of response, in the opposite direction. Unlike other prophets, Jonah doesn’t try to debate with God on the merits of his choice or the particulars of the call. Jonah doesn’t protest God’s command with debate, he flees. He goes down to Joppa, finds a ship heading to Tarshish, pays his fare and boards the ship, and heads to Tarshish “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3d, New Revised Standard Version).
Have you ever tried to run from God? Have you ever tried to flee God’s presence?
Francis Thompson, in his poem “The Hound of Heaven,” writes of the person who flees from God. Perhaps, we hear Jonah’s voice in his words:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
A down Titanic glooms of chasmed fears.
From those strong Feet that followed, folled after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’.
Jonah fled; and, things seem to go well. He goes down to Joppa, a nearby a seaport; a ship was about to leave; he had the financial means to purchase a ticket (the Hebrew actually suggests that he had enough to finance the entire voyage, crew and all); and there was room for him on the ship. He went down into the belly of the ship so as to hide even there and he fell asleep, a deep sleep. But, God pursued Jonah. The title of Thompson’s poem is an appropriate image, “God pursues relentlessly, like a hound after its prey.”
God conjures up a storm. The crew is scared. Jonah continues to hide. Once it is revealed that Jonah is the cause, Jonah tells the crew to throw him overboard. We should be careful not to assume that Jonah is offering himself as a sacrifice to God to quell the storm. Jonah isn’t trying to save the sailors. He’s still trying to flee God. Throw me overboard, says Jonah, let me drown that I might finally escape God. It’s a last ditch effort of a desperate man to forever flee from God.
Perhaps struggling, as the water overcame him, Jonah is swallowed by the great fish. Imagine his astonishment when he opened his eyes in the belly of that fish. The fish, rather than being his demise, is a source of salvation for Jonah. When he thought he was about to die, Jonah sent a fish to save him. And, therein, Jonah learned his first lesson in mercy: you can’t outrun God’s love. You can never run so far away that God isn’t there to save you. In his poem, Thompson wrote, “Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.” Fear does not know how to evade as well as Love knows to pursue.
May you heed Jonah’s lesson: no matter how fast or clever you might be; no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how far you’ve gone; you cannot outrun God’s love and mercy. It will always be there when you’re tired of running and you turn around or stumble. It is always there, ready to save you as the waves come crashing down around you.
Praise be to God. Amen.
 Phyllis Trible, “Jonah 1:7-16 Reflections” in The new Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p501.