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Playing Jonah is no fun at all

NOTE: This column originally was published in Saworship.com.

By Richard Zowie

Some of us just insist on learning the hard way. A roommate of mine at college told me about how, after high school, he went against his parents’ wishes and attended a secular university. “Ryan” wanted then to follow the money and become an architect.

He only spent about a month at this university in the northeastern United States. He dealt with liberal professors and roommates who liked to get friendly in the room with members of the opposite sex. Ryan called this brief time of ignoring God’s will and going to this liberal state university “playing Jonah”. He’s now married with children and serving as a pastor in New England.

(This is not to say that no Christians should attend state or liberal colleges, but rather they should follow God’s path for their life).

Jonah, one of the Old Testament’s minor prophets, presents the classic example of what happens when a person decides to directly disobey God. It’s a good book to read for anyone who wishes to do something they know goes abrasively against what God wants for them in their lives. Jonah took a simple command from God and disobeyed it, with startling consequences.

That command was to go to Nineveh and call it to repentance. Both the Bible and history tell us that Nineveh was a wicked city. Specifically, God describes the its wickedness in Jonah 1:2 as having “come up before Me.”

Jonah hated the Ninevites and probably relished the idea of God destroying them. Perhaps the prophet’s rationale was “God will destroy it if they don’t repent. If I don’t go there and preach against their wickedness, they’ll have no way of repenting. Therefore, all I have to do is not go and they’ll be destroyed.”

With that, Jonah forsook going to Nineveh and boarded a ship to Tarshish. Jonah knew he’d been given a command from God, but he chose to ignore it. We do this sometimes, don’t we? We directly disobey God, knowing we’re treading onto dangerous ground. We tell ourselves that we’ll deal with the consequences when they come, unaware that sometimes the consequences can border on much more than we can bear.

But the ship fell into a terrible storm. The ship’s captain warned Jonah that the ship could sink at any moment and that everyone on board would drown. The captain noticed something different about Jonah and consulted him for advice on how to save the ship. On the prophet’s instructions, the crew tossed Jonah overboard. He knew this would save the ship, and he might’ve thought this would be the end to God’s way of getting his attention.

He was wrong.

The Bible tells us in Jonah 1:17 that “—the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

It must’ve been terrifying for Jonah to descend into those gigantic jaws, travel through the fish’s* esophagus and into its stomach. Stomach juices generally contain hydrochloric acid, a very caustic substance that helps to further break down food in the digestion process. The smell in the stomach, needless to say, must’ve given new meaning to the word foul. Jonah had absolutely no access to fresh air, and I can imagine that he suffered some severe headaches. Jonah also had company in the stomach, sharing cramped space with all the other dying and partially-digested fish, plankton or whatever else this whale liked to snack on. Worst of all, as he dealt with the perpetual seasickness for three days and three nights as the whale swam around in the sea, he also had to deal with the uncertainty of total darkness. Most likely, Jonah quickly realized that such an unpleasant experience could’ve been avoided if he’d simply done what God had told him.

Jonah spent a lot of time in that fish’s stomach contemplating his actions and praying to God. Jonah 2 gives us a glimpse at the prayer of Jonah. I can imagine that it was an experience that he didn’t care to ever have to go through again. It obviously was terrible, since Jesus compared it in Matthew 12:40 to the three days and three nights he spent in the grave.

Finally, God spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out. After God again commanded him to go and speak to the Ninevites, Jonah obeyed. He went on a three-day journey to Nineveh and preached to the Ninevites, telling them that their city would fall unless it repented of its sins. They repented, and Jonah’s reaction is the subject for a future column.

God had to use the ultimate case of seasickness — the stench and seclusion inside a fish’s stomach — to get Jonah’s attention. One older staff member at college spoke in Sunday school once about how God had to take his beautiful young wife to get his attention about serving Him. I also recall a prominent evangelist who was a very successful athlete in high school. This evangelist said that God had to take his legs in a mine explosion in Vietnam to get his attention about living for Him.

If you have gone away from the Lord there is hope! God is not a God of “I told you so” or “if you would’ve just did what I said six months ago.” God wants the best for you, He wants you live the abundant life He called you to live. God will never give up on you, remember God gave up everything for you (His Son Jesus) so we may live. Find godly men and women to gain wisdom from and be blessed.

* The Hebrew word translated “fish” in Jonah is דג,or dag, which means “fish”. (Some might remember the Philistine god, which had a fish tail, was called Dagon). In the King James Version, Jesus talks in Matthew 12:40-41 about how as Jonah was in the belly of the “whale” for 3 days and 3 nights, he (Jesus) must also be buried for 3 days and 3 nights in the earth. The Greek word translated whale, κητος,  or ketos, is somewhat of an ambiguous term that, according to Strong’s Concordance, can mean whale or huge fish. Fish continue to grow as long as they live, evidenced by catfish that become big enough to swallow a human being. In the ancient world (and even in 1611, when the KJV was first published), zoology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and my understanding is at the time whales were considered to be fish. I think the idea behind the term “whale” is to describe a fish that was so big it was the size of a whale. Who knows, perhaps it was even a whale shark (which, despite the “whale” adjective, is actually a fish).

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