A Jolt From Jonah

The noteworthy theologian Darth Vader once said to a colleague, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” When we turn to the Old Testament book of Jonah, we encounter a lack of faith that is devastatingly disturbing. We are jolted to discover that the lack of faith, in this case, belongs to Jonah, who himself may be identified accurately as the ultimate “unprophet.” He was an ancient form of Archie Bunker, the closed-minded character from the famous 1970s sitcom “All in the Family.” (Note to millennials: save yourself the time and trouble of googling Archie Bunker; just think, “intolerant bigot with a capital B.”)

Most readers of Jonah’s story focus on his being swallowed by a great fish and subsequently being “deposited” on dry ground. Yet, that sequence of events is only the precursor to greater intrigue. Clearly aware of the trauma of facing another “fish-swallowing,” Jonah goes to Nineveh, the great city and center of Assyrian cruelty, and preaches the God-assigned message of repentance to its inhabitants. The result is a mass revival perhaps unparalleled in history.

One would think that all is well at this point and that a neat bow could be affixed to the story of Jonah. However, as Jonah 4 indicates, this is not the case. Jonah’s response to revival in Nineveh jolts the reader and evokes yet another “shaking my head” moment. Rather than rejoice in a mighty movement of God in which he is an ordained instrument, Jonah turns theological advisor to the Almighty and rails against Him for the very attributes that form the foundation of his own deliverance from disaster.

Surely, the jolted reader thinks, Jonah will move beyond his narrow and nationalistic conception of Yahweh and relish the reality of His lavish grace. Sadly, Jonah still needs more schooling in order to begin to grasp the sovereignty of God and the fact that, indeed, “salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). After expressing his desire for divine euthanasia for himself, Jonah takes a seat east of the city of Nineveh and moves into full spectator mode.

Graciously, the Lord provides for Jonah while serving up to him a powerful dose of applied theology. First, God “appoints” a plant to give the spectator-prophet shade from the scorching heat. Jonah is exceedingly glad about this turn of events. However, the Lord proceeds to “appoint” a worm to “attack” the plant so that it withers. Then, to top things off, there is an “appointed” wind that is so distressing to Jonah that he pleads yet again for divine euthanasia.

At this point in the narrative, the Lord delivers the ultimate “jolt.” He notes Jonah’s attachment to and affection for a temporary plant that he did not create or sustain. Then, the sovereign Lord of the universe drives home His divine lesson when He queries: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city…?” (Jonah 4:11).

Jonah is exposed! He values a temporary creation that brings him pleasure more than he values people created in the image of God and sustained by the hand of God. Sinclair Ferguson, commenting on the dramatic events in Jonah, rightly observes, “The reputation of the God of grace in Nineveh necessitated the loss of the reputation of Jonah in Israel.”

We can shake our heads at the clueless obstinacy and insensitivity of Jonah. Yet, the truth is that there is often more of “Jonah” in us than we would care to admit.

Two years ago, author Danielle Kurtzleben, in a U.S. News & World Report article, noted that Americans spent $61 billion on pet food and supplies in 2011! Don’t misunderstand me; I have nothing against our “Fidos and Fluffys.” I am simply pointing out that we can be so attached to our fleeting pleasures and pastimes—think stuff and sports and sex—that we marginalize and minimize what really matters—namely, God’s glory and people created in His image who will all spend an eternity in heaven or hell. This is the “jolt” we ought to receive from the story of Jonah.

As the Lord’s pilgrim people on this planet, we desperately need a renewed enthusiasm for the King of kings and Lord of lords and a renewed commitment to love as He loves. Andrew Murray hits a raw nerve when he writes, “As we seek to find out why, with such millions of Christians, the real army of God that is fighting the hosts of darkness is so small, the only answer is lack of heart. The enthusiasm of the Kingdom is missing. And that is because there is so little enthusiasm for the King.”

Where there is enthusiasm for the King, there will be an enthusiastic embracing of His agenda. That agenda involves the passionate and relentless pursuit and rescue of sinful rebels like you and me. In his classic poem on Jonah, Thomas Carlisle brings the prophet’s story full-circle: “And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat and waited for God to come around to his way of thinking. And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs in their comfortable houses to come around to His way of loving.”

Need a jolt? Remember Jonah, and herald with urgency the message of the One who said, “… and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).

Matthew McKellar

Matthew McKellar

Associate Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Matthew McKellar serves as Associate Professor of Preaching in the School of Preaching at Southwestern Seminary. Prior to joining the seminary faculty, he served as a pastor in Texas churches for 28 years.
Twitter: @dr_mckellar
Website: drmmckellar.wordpress.com
Matthew McKellar