[Of fish and other means of being made willing to do God’s will…]
“Jonah and the Whale” by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633)
We are getting ready this week for a family houseboat adventure, the likes of which we have not had since our firstborn graduated and was on the brink of leaving home…Fitting conclusion to a round of graduations. This time the kids are initiating and organizing the event! In view of the opportunity to have grandkids about to tell stories to, I was re-reading Jonah’s story with a view to telling it to Chase…It’s such a classic children’s Bible story…but really, it’s so much more.
I’d just barely started the story when I was struck by the preposterousness of this statement:
“Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.”
Now, maybe there’s something I don’t know about Tarshish, but really, is there anywhere we can get ourselves to where the LORD is not present? And would we really want to? Sounds like Hell to me. But I guess it all depends…Jonah really didn’t want to do what God had chosen him to do. After all, he was called to warn his enemies of impending doom. Why warn them? He would rather see them destroyed! But knowing God as he did–this gracious God, who is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster”…(4:2) well, Jonah had a bad feeling about this. God was likely to let the Ninevites off the hook and Jonah didn’t want any part of it! The alternative was to try to part company with the God of the universe, his Boss. He tried.
Adam and Eve could have told him this wouldn’t work. God comes seeking. “Where are you?” giving us the chance to acknowledge what we’re doing in trying to hide from a God who sees everything, and what we’ve done that has made us want to hide! He draws the confession from us so that fellowship can be restored. He is gracious. Jonah knew this, but wasn’t willing for that grace to extend beyond himself, so…he ran and tried to shut out the presence of God by going to sleep in the hold of a ship bound faraway…
David too, had spent his time in the joyless camp of doing his own thing in conscious defiance of God’s commandments. The pleasures of his sin were short lived it seems: “day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” Ps.32:4 This too was a mercy of God. It led David to admission of his sin and a longing for the joy of God’s presence to be restored. “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence… Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Ps.50:12
Ahhh that’s just what Jonah needed, a willing spirit, willing to do what God had chosen him to do. Willing to go to Ninevah and preach and give his enemies a ‘heads-up’ so they could escape destruction and discover God’s mercies…
David could have saved Jonah the effort of trying to escape God’s presence. He knew what Jonah was about to find out. Consider his Psalm 139. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me. (Ps.139:7-10)
Humanly speaking, if I’d been Jonah’s mother, I’d have despaired that God could ever use him, sighing at the reality of man’s free will. How is God going to have his way with that boy when he’s determined not to listen? Well, but God is God and His will prevailed. Granted, Jonah did get to the coast. He bought the ticket and got on board the Tarshish-bound ship. He maybe even thought he was ‘home-free!’. But no. Not so long as God was in pursuit. The God who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them—the sea and ‘the great sea creatures’…this God was watching. This God knew what Jonah needed, a heart-change. He could have let him get away and live out his days in the misery of having chosen his own way, but He intervened, for Jonah’s sake and for the Ninevites’ sakes.
Before Jonah would make peace with His God there had to be a storm, a fearing for life itself. A surrender of his escape plans. “Throw me overboard”. And a commodious fish to house him while he rethought things….“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you…” Jonah 2:7. He remembered God’s steadfast love—that love that doesn’t give up on shaping us to be what He intends, that will not let us go, no matter how uncomfortable the chase gets. Jonah knew God to be his only hope and in his distress he cried out to God. Done with running, he cried ‘uncle’, or should I say, “Lord!”.
Only then did God direct the fish to regurgitate its unpalatable load on the beach, for a chance to make good on his desperate vows, to demonstrate with his life and his message that ‘salvation comes from the LORD!’
Once again God gave Jonah his marching orders: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”
This time Jonah obeyed, despite his personal objections. He fulfilled his calling, begrudgingly. We know the rest of the story. We know Jonah’s heart wasn’t in his mission. Nevertheless, God accomplished His purposes through Jonah’s life. There’s encouragement here. This is more than a whale of a tale for grandkids to know.
It’s for anyone who’s been reluctant to follow God’s directions,
for anyone who’s felt quite useless in His hands for whatever reasons,
for anyone who’s doubted that God can soften a hardened will and direct a life’s destiny despite bad choices and wrong attitudes.
Our God is merciful and slow to grow angry. He loves steadily and is eager to suspend judgment, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance—even His own reluctant children. But He’s not opposed to using means, even storms and fish. We can be glad of that; He is a God who pursues us for our own best good and His greatest glory.
As I write here tonight, I’m remembering our first old sailboat. I christened it: Wings of Dawn, taken from Psalm 139 and the double meaning found in my middle name also being Dawn. It was replaced four years ago by a trimmer vessel, one we named in honor of the birth of our first grandchild, Chase. We called the boat: Chase Me and made many happy memories on board. Well, we sold that boat today; but I’m reflecting on an aspect of its name I hadn’t thought of until now. Aren’t you glad we have a God who is more than willing to chase us down, when we are unwilling, when we are surly, when we are a hazard to ourselves and everyone around us… He pursues, and persuades, and transforms our hearts, making us willing to do His bidding. Salvation truly is from Him.
“But as for me, I will look to the LORD;
I will wait for the God of my salvation;
my God will hear me.” (Micah 7:7)
In Your presence is fullness of joy…Ps.16:11 Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Mt.28:20 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Phil.4:4 Be to me a rock of habitation to which I may continually come; You have given commandment to save me, for You are my rock and my fortress. Ps.71:3
“Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” –sailors bound for Tarshish with Jonah (Jonah1:6)
“How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” —David Ps.139:17
“Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.” Ps.32:10