Israel has been on the receiving end in their relationship with God. They have received a promise, they received the good work of God that freed them from captivity, and they received the promised land. It was not earned nor deserved. Rather God had chosen them to be his people and in his grace he has blessed them. But part of the promise to Abraham was for the people to be a blessing to the world, and that is not something the people always excelled at.
Having been transformed from one man receiving a promise to a powerful nation, Israel is now in the position to be a blessing for others, but they keep their blessing to themselves. The leadership hoards and the rich become richer. Even when God makes it explicitly clear that he has a plan for Jonah to go to a rival city, Nineveh, Jonah flees acting as though he’d rather die than give the Assyrians a chance to repent. This is not the way God wants his people to act and it certainly isn’t the way that God has treated them.
God shows his love to us even while we were his enemies. But too often we will only love those who already love us.
If God treated we who were spiritually poor the way Israel cared for its poor, we would never share in his riches. If God treated we who were his enemies the way Jonah would have, we would still be lost.
This week we are reading passages that are written in a time when Israel has now come to possess the land that God has promised to them. God was faithful to Joshua and led the people to the land that was flowing with milk and honey. He was fulfilling the promise he had made to Abraham. But the people fail to be a blessing to others and fail to live in the way they were called to. In Amos we read how Israel is oppressing the poor and weak, treating them much like they were treated when they were slaves in Egypt. In Jonah we see the lengths Jonah would go in order not to go to his enemy, instead preferring Nineveh’s destruction.
Then when we look in the New Testament in Matthew 23, Jesus is criticizing the leaders of the Jews who similarly are not living as a blessing to those around.
This last Sunday I preached on Jonah, looking closely at his reluctance to even be a possible blessing to his enemy. The good news is that we have one who willingly came to his own enemies and sacrificed himself for us.
Jonah is a peculiar book among our readings this past week. These prophets we’ve had for a few weeks in Year in the Bible typically are part of the people they minister to. But Jonah is sent away to speak God’s message to another nation in the city of Ninevah. Also, the prophets typically want their recipients to stop their wicked ways and turn to God. As you read the short four chapters of Jonah, you see he’s not that concerned with Ninevah’s fate. He wants God to judge them. And when God relents, Jonah is upset.
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah complains saying to God, almost in his defense, “This is why I ran. I ran off to Tarshish because you’re gracious. I know you’d do this!” He is displeased exceedingly because God is gracious. You want to shove the Bible in his face and tell Jonah that God’s grace is exactly why he still has a people of his own. Israel has been a sinner just like the others, but they have been forgiven more times than we can keep count.
But Jonah has a selfish pride and a pompous assumption that Israel has a monopoly on God’s mercy. He doesn’t want a rival nation to be spared because he wants his own nation, and only his nation, to prosper. Jonah would rather see thousands die than witness their repentance because he hates the people of Ninevah.
Along with Jonah being a story of Assyrian sin and God’s grace and forgiveness, it is a book displaying an ugly nationalism that would prevent Jonah from obedience and love, choosing instead sin. Jonah sins by fleeing, ends up in the belly of a whale, then cries out for God to take his life, all because of his displeasure at seeing God work wonders in another people.
We should never follow Jonah’s lead in this regard. We are called to love our enemies, to pray for them, and to work to spread the gospel to all peoples. We cannot lay claim to God’s grace as though it is ours to possess. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it. Thanks be to God that he is in fact slow to anger and merciful.
*Tim Keller has an excellent chapter on Jonah’s idolatry in his book, Counterfeit Gods.
Welcome to another week. You may find yourself fortunate to have the day off due to the holiday, and if so, perhaps that means you have a few extra moments to begin this week’s reading.
We continue to plow through these shorter books of the Minor Prophets. If I haven’t said so already, don’t let their name mislead you. They are not minor in their importance, but are named as such because of their shorter length. This week we have three more in Jonah, Micah, and Nahum.
Then over in the New Testament we have the letter to the Philippians. We just happened to have finished studying this letter during a Sunday class, and I am excited to go through it again. It’s a wonderful book that draws focus on the great worth of Jesus Christ, the humility that he displayed and which we should display in response, and contentment that flows from such focus.
And of course, we continue with our slow walk through the Psalms.