Comment (11/11/12)

Today, as we remember those who have given their lives in the service of their country, we read about Jonah, a prophet who would have gladly given his life in the service of his country, but who was called to take God’s message to his country’s worst enemies.

The only Jonah we know of in the historical books of the Bible was a prophet who prophesied relief for the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. During his forty one years in power the nation prospered and expanded its borders to its greatest extent since it had split from the kingdom of Judah and become a separate kingdom. Jonah had prophesied this, but we have no record of what he said. The prosperity was unrelated to Jeroboam’s spirituality – he was just as evil as the other kings of Israel. Only thirty two years after Jeroboam died the kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians.

The book of Jonah is set around those times. Many scholars think it was written as a piece of fiction, many years later; whether it was fiction or history, it is a story that would have horrified its first readers.

The only part of the story that most people who have heard of Jonah know is the story of his being swallowed by a ‘whale’. There is much more to the story than that! It begins with God telling Jonah to preach against Nineveh, the capital of Assyria to the north east of Israel, and warn them that they were about to be punished for their wickedness. Far from obeying God, Jonah travels west to the coast and catches a boat going as far away to the west as possible, to Tarshish in Spain, the edge of the known world! God sends a storm to stop him, and the boat is only saved from shipwreck when Jonah is thrown overboard. That’s where the fish (not necessarily a whale) comes in – it swallows Jonah and spits him out back on the coast.

God gives Jonah the same orders. This time he goes, and preaches that the city would be overthrown in forty days. So far so good – that was a message Jonah would be glad to preach against such cruel enemies. Why, then, was he so reluctant to go in the first place? Was it because he feared that the Ninevites would respond violently? Maybe. But it was more likely that he feared the opposite response – the possibility that the Ninevites would listen to his message and repent. Jonah knew that God’s prophetic messages only came true if people responded in the way predicted. If God gave a message of blessing to people who were worshipping him, that would only come true if they continued to worship and obey him. If they started taking him for granted, the promised blessing would not come. Likewise, if God warned a wicked people that they were about to be punished, that punishment would only come if they went on being wicked. If they repented, they would not be punished. That is always the purpose of prophesies of doom. But Jonah did not want the Ninevites to repent: he wanted them to continue in their wickedness and be destroyed as he had predicted.
The shocking part of the story is that Israel’s enemies repented, and God decided not to destroy them. (That repentance did not last long, neither did the Assyrian empire; within one hundred years the Babylonians took over.) Jonah, job done, had set up camp to wait out the forty days and watch the destruction – the destruction that never came. 

The last verses of the book show God telling Jonah how important to him were the lives of the inhabitants of Nineveh, both people and animals. Such teaching would be very difficult for most Israelites to accept. It is equally difficult for us to accept that those who hate us, who are cruel to us, are important to God. ‘I wish you were dead’ are words which we may only occasionally say or hear, but the desire is rather more common, and when we are ignored or ‘blanked out’ that is the same kind of thing. Our reaction is to pay back in kind. But that is not God’s way.

On this Remembrance day it is good to be reminded that our enemies as well as our friends are special to God. And we all need a Savour.

Questions

1. What would you be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for?
2. Did the people whom we remember today give their lives for a worthwhile cause? Does our answer make a difference to the way we remember them? Should it?