“A Gracious and Compassionate God” (Jonah 4:3)

Pastor Ino

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Today we’ll start reading the book of Jonah. Many of you may know the story of Jonah already, but let me summarize it.

God spoke to Jonah and called him to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it (1:2). Jonah was to preach about God’s coming judgment so that the people of Nineveh could repent. But Jonah refused because Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, enemy of his people. Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah boarded a ship towards Spain. In other words, Jonah decided that he could not obey God’s will. However, God sent a great storm to obstruct Jonah. As a result, Jonah was thrown overboard; but by God’s intervention he was swallowed by large fish.

In the belly of the fish, he prayed earnestly to God (2:1). He truly repented; he encountered the Creator God again; and resolved to go to Nineveh. There, he delivered the message that Nineveh would be destroyed after 40 days (3:4). A miracle took place: the people of Nineveh actually repented and God did not send destruction. A wonderful miracle of God. However, Jonah was not pleased with this outcome. In 4:2, he says, “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.”

Unhappy, Jonah went east of the city. He made a shelter there, sat down, and waited to see what would happen to the city (4:5). Then God provided a plant that grew over Jonah for shade and to ease his discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant (4:6). However, God also sent a worm that ate up the plant, causing Jonah to feel faint from the sun that was blazing down on him. He wanted to die and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” (4:8) Through this God spoke to Jonah about his love for people who are lost, including the people of Nineveh (see 4:11). That is the story of Jonah.

I’m sure most of you have heard the story of Jonah being swallowed by the fish. But it is more than that: the story of Jonah is about God’s unchanging love for people of all nations, whether Jew or Gentile. Each of us, too, are loved by God unconditionally. Jonah, whose heart became hard and forgot God’s love for people, was given a chance to change his heart.

Now, let us look more closely at the details of this story. Chapter 1 describes how and why Jonah was thrown into the sea. Ultimately it was because he did not want to obey God’s word. He was afraid that, if he preached God’s message to the people of Nineveh, they would repent and be forgiven. He was a prophet that loved his own country. Jonah actually appears in 2 Kings 14:25. During the reign of Jeroboam he prophesied that the northern kingdom of Israel would expand its borders. Even though Israel would not repent, God still loved the nation and would increase its territory. God did not want Israel to be destroyed. Indeed, Jonah was a prophet who loved his nation. He was afraid that God’s forgiveness towards Israel would also be given to Nineveh, and that was why he didn’t want to obey the call to preach in Nineveh.

In Jonah 1:9, he tells the sailors, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” In verse 10 the sailors asked, “What have you done?” They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so. Jonah understood that this storm was from God. So he offered himself to be thrown into the sea. Rather than accepting God’s will and repenting, he preferred to die. However, later Jonah would be led to true repentance.

Chapter 2:1-2 : “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.” Jonah was in distress, but it was not only a physical discomfort that he suffered. His heart was in distress. He knew God’s intentions, and so he feared that Assyria would prosper and pose a danger to Israel. That was the conflict in his heart. But that conflict did not seem so great after he was swallowed by a fish and thought he was going to die. In the end, he surrendered his fear to God. If God let him live, he would do God’s will. Jonah made that decision. We see this in Chapter 2. Chapter 2 records the prayer that changed his life. So let us look more closely at this chapter.

2:2 says, “In my distress . . . From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” Jonah found himself in the realm of the dead. Verse 3 says the waves swept over him. Verse 4: “I have been banished from your sight.” This was the natural outcome of Jonah’s choice. The fault lay with him. And here, he finally realized that he was alone and apart from God by his own choice. But verse 4 continues, “. . . yet I will look again toward your holy temple,” reflecting his sincere prayer of repentance. Facing death, he cried out that he desired to return to God’s presence. In the belly of the fish he was paralyzed. It was like being trapped at the bottom of the sea.

But when he surrendered everything to God, his heart was set free; and through prayer, he could feel his thoughts and desires reaching God. We see this in verses 6 and 7: “To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. 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.” Verse 8 adds, “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” He threw away the pride that was his idol. That pride was the belief that God will judge Gentiles but favor the Jews, which a narrow understanding of God’s word. Idols are not only physical objects. For Jonah, his idol was an unflexible kind of faith. Moving on, verse 9 says, “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 was freed from this idol.

He surrendered everything to God, desired to walk faithfully again and follow God’s will. He declared that salvation comes from God. He experienced spiritual freedom. All this Jonah was able to experience in the depth of the sea, in cramped and dark belly of a fish. Brothers and sisters, how about us? Is there something that keeps us from following God’s will? God listens when we are in despair. He does not want us to remain in despair. God’s unconditional love is for you as well. He may allow you to go through difficulties so that you will grow. And let us remember that we have the privilege of God listening to our prayers always.

God changed Jonah’s heart in the depths of the sea. Jonah was sent to do God’s work once again. As Psalm 130:1 says, “Out of the depths I cry to you,” and this is what Jonah needed to go through. It is the same with us. We, too, have moments of crying out to God from a deep, dark place. And there is a God who answers us. As Jesus teaches us, let each of us be renewed to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves and share the good news with others.

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