All posts by Simon Twist

Jonah 1:17-2:10 – God provided a big fish

The book of Jonah is a most extraordinary book. Chapter one was filled with great excitement and adventure. Chapter two has the form of a Psalm. Chapter three seems like a nice and tidy finish to the book. Then chapter four is a revisit to the grumpy and short-sighted Jonah. This week, we look at chapter two and see Jonah at his best. His prayer is full of imagery that can be quite literal and yet fits perfectly as a metaphore for the Christian life or the story of Israel.

Context

Jonah was commissioned by God to take a word of judgement to a foreign nation – Nineveh. He rebelled and tried to escape from God by going to the end of the earth in the opposite direction. God tormented his escape and he was thrown into the sea in order to save some pagan sailors. In the final verse of chapter 1, Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish – something which God had arranged for him.

Structure

  • 1:17-2:1 Narrative Context: The Lord provided – the fish swallows Jonah
  • 2:2 – Jonah’s opening summary: In my DISTRESS, I CALLED to The Lord and He DELIVERED me (past tense)/li>
  • 2:3-6 – Jonah’s distress – downward movement/li>
  • 2:7 – Jonah’s call for help/li>
  • 2:8-9 – Jonah’s deliverance/li>
  • 2:10 narrative close: The Lord provides again – the fish ejects Jonah/li>

Observations

1:17-2:1
Jonah, who disappeared at the end of the last narrative section (1:1-1:16) is now the centre of attention again.
The story begins with this context: Jonah is in the belly of a fish for three days and nights. Note that this phrase: ‘three days and three nights’ is a kind of short hand for three days (doesn’t sound short), and is not meant to be an exact timeframe. It does act, in the scriptures, as a repeated phrase to help us readers link events together – like this event and the event of the resurrection!

God, the LORD, is in complete control. This is no rogue fish, but a message from God to Jonah.
Jonah prayed to God from inside the fish. There seems to have been two prayers that Jonah offered, one in the fish and one prior to being in the fish – while he was descending to the deep. The prayer of Jonah while inside the fish reflects much on what happened to him prior to being swallowed.

The narrative of Jonah works fairly well without the inclusion of the psalm (verses 2-9). Try and read the narrative skipping these verses (so 1:17-2:1; 2:10 onward). The narratives simply tells us that Jonah prayed while inside the fish, and the LORD commanded the fish to vomit Jonah out. So, the actual prayer he prayed while in the fish could have been for deliverance from the fish. Then, a psalm is inserted in the story to tell us what was in Jonah’s head. You might expect a lament to be given but we get a song of thanksgiving.

It is probable that Jonah cried for help while descending to the depths of the ocean, then he prayed again for help when in the belly of the fish and then he created a psalm to describe the two events together. Thinking of it this way, helps us to relax and enjoy the psalm to hear what it contributes to the whole book of Jonah.

Although 1:17 tells us that the fish was a provision from God to save Jonah, Jesus and the Apostles use the same imagery to describe judgement. See the following NT references…Matt 12:39-42; Acts 2:22-28 – esp 24 and 27.

2:2
This introduces the shape of the whole psalm. Distress leads to calling out for help which results in deliverance by the only one who can.

This verse contains a classic Hebrew poetry technique where two sentences mirror or parallel each other.
“In my distress | from the deep in the realm of the dead,
I called to the LORD | I called for help,
and he answered me | and you listened to my cry.”

This summary from Jonah could recall his time in the sea or his time in the fish. The following verses lend it to being about the former, but the summary nature of this verse, and the observation that this psalm was probably constructed after Jonah was spat out, lets us say that both are true.

2:3-6
Jonah’s existence was thrown into chaos. He was out of control with no hope to live.

‘I have been banished from your sight’ – wasn’t this what Jonah wanted?

‘yet I will look again toward your holy temple’ – the temple in Jerusalem symbolised almost literally the presence of God. This phrase should be taken to mean that Jonah turned to the LORD for help. His mind’s eye turns toward the presence of God. He looked to God for salvation.

‘the roots of the mountains’ – just picture how low Jonah feels he is going.

‘But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit.’ Jonah’s story here is the story of judgement. The place he was being sent was the abyss – ‘banished from God’s sight’, ‘the realm of the dead’, ‘barred…forever’, ‘from the pit’. There is no long stretch to imagine this story being about a sinner who is aware of his oncoming destruction. His life is out of control and only hell is the future – unless God can raise up their life!

2:7
Another summary statement that could apply to both the abyss of the ocean and the stomach of a fish.

Before it was too late, Jonah remembered the LORD and he cried to God for help. This is the message of the gospel – to repent and believe the good news. But we are called and we call others to repent before it is too late.

Jonah was given a second chance by God. He fled his responsibility to obey God and tried to run from God’s sight – but God would not let Jonah go. He cares for Jonah. God’s patience means salvation (2 Peter 3:15).

2:8-9
Both the sailors trapped in the storm and the people of Nineveh had to turn away from their idols and turn to the God who made heaven and earth (1:9, 16).

An idol is anything that we cling to I suppose. If it is not God that we are clinging to then there will be an idol or a few that you will be able to identify.

Also and conversely, when there is anything that we cling to in competition with God, this is an act of denying the love of God and the only one worthy of our worship.

The one who serves God gives thanks to him and are full of thankfulness.

The one who serves God will freely confess: ‘Salvation comes from the LORD’ – Jesus Christ is LORD (Romans 10:9)

The sailors and Jonah and the Ninevites call on the name of the LORD and then made vows (1:16, 2:9, 3:9). Turning to God for salvation is not just idle words but we are to repent and obey. Faith is not just what we believe or know, it is how we will live.

2:10
This verses is the matching bookend to the psalm to 1:17. The LORD is in control. The fish is no random accident. Jonah is transported from the depths and judgement of the ocean to the safety of dry land.

Jonah went into the belly of a ship to run away from God and go in the wrong direction, but God gave Jonah a one way ticket back in the belly of a huge fish.

Meaning

Jonah’s psalm gives us the shape of God’s mission: all the world are to turn from worthless idols and cling to the God who saves. The sailor’s had no idea who Jonah’s God was. They were told and they sacrificed to him and were saved. Nineveh will hear the impending judgement coming, they will cry out to God and lament, hoping to be rescued. Jonah, who had denied the true God fell under God’s judgement but was saved when he turned back to the true God.
Salvation and deliverance are themes of this psalm. Salvation is of the LORD. Thanksgiving and praise follow.

Application

  • Notice how much work goes into reading the bible. It is one thing to simply tell the whole Jonah story to Sunday School kids. It is quite another thing as adults to pick up the scriptures and consider every word and sentence as though they were crafted by someone far smarter and wise than ourselves. Do you pick up the bible and read it with a craving to learn and grow and struggle to understand?
  • Sometimes, as Christians, we forget where we have been saved from. Jonah was in great distress and needed a saviour. The sailors and the people of Nineveh respond to the word of God in the same way – each lamented and cried out to God for help. Have you forgotten what distress you were in before you turned to God? Do you carry a sense of urgency or desperation to know God and to turn away from idols?
  • Being aware of sin in the world and sin in your own heart is a good place to start. That means God is speaking to you. Have you, though, called out to God for his salvation? Jonah describes his problem, called to God for help, and committed himself to follow God – he made a vow to God. Have you declared God as you master? Have you committed to follow him no matter where he takes you? Turning to God and turning away from idols?
  • Jonah had a ‘big fish’ experience. I like to see this as God doing whatever it takes to wake us up and get us back on track. In no way do I see the time in the fish as pleasant for Jonah. God’s care for us will mean that we will experience discipline from him as we would expect from a loving Father. In a time when we would expect a lament from the mouth of Jonah, we hear thanksgiving. I wonder if you have experienced a ‘big fish’ moment in your life? Perhaps there will be more to come?

Prayer of the week

Heavenly Father, help us to want to be in your presence. Rescue us from everything that takes our attention away from you. Teach us to keep turning to you for our help. Thank you for the salvation that comes through Christ alone. Help us to live for you everyday. Amen.

Jonah 1:1-16 – a type of Christ – plus – how to read biblical narrative

How to read and break down a story in the bible

Before we get to the text of Jonah, I’d like to go over one way to read biblical narratives.

All stories contain a beginning, a middle and an end. It is helpful to go further and look for five parts to a story:

  1. the beginning
  2. the problem
  3. the quest
  4. the closing
  5. the end

This gives us a basic structure of the text to work with. By identifying the problem of the story we are able to uncover what the major theme of the book or section is. We can then look for ways this issue is explored in the story through different ‘eyes’ of the characters as well as the voice of the narrator.

The problem of a story can be anything from finding something that was lost, hoping the hero will make the right decision, will they learn the truth in time, will a disaster be avoided and so on. Once the problem of the story is identified, it enlightens the reader to see the major theme. We’ll step through Jonah chapter one to illustrate.

The Beginning

Nothing actually happens at the beginning of a story. The reader is simply given context. Jonah 1:1 is the beginning of the story. We are told some things about a man named Jonah and that he is a prophet whom God is speaking to. The fact that he is the son of Amittai is unimportant except that we know specificallly which Jonah he is (see 2 Kings 14:23-25).

Theological notes on the beginning:

The story opens with “The word of the LORD came…” Before anything else is mentioned, the word of God is there. We distort the focus of the story if we say it is all about Jonah and what he did. As we go through the story we’ll see that it is all about God’s word and what it is able to do.
The word of God CAME to Jonah. Without pressing this too far, grace is always God acting first. Our relationship with God is not about two persons flirting or beginning dialogue or sharing coffee and a laugh – it begins with God speaking to us – God approaching us – God taking the initiative to begin the relationship and continue pursuing it.
We can’t say how the word of the Lord came to Jonah – a voice? a visitor? a dream? a vision? More often than not, we are not told this details because the fascination is not in the method but in the fact that God speaks.

The Problem

This is where an issue arises that needs to be resolved. Jonah 1:2-3 is the description of our problem. God told Jonah to do this but Jonah did that! Specifically, we are told that ‘Jonah ran away from the LORD.’ Can Jonah do that? The problem is not just that he disobeyed God but that he thinks he can actually get away from Him! Now, you could say that the problem is the storm which comes in verse 4. This may be your initial thought in reading the text and this certainly is a problem for the sailors which is resolved by the end of the chapter. But after reading the chapter a few times, it becomes clearer that a bigger problem surrounds this – who is God and how far does his power stretch?

See the map shared in the previous blog about the world of Jonah:
http://visualunit.me/2011/01/17/jonah-map/

Theological notes on the problem:

We are told that Nineveh is a great city – this is for the reader’s benefit. The size of the city tells us that the size, success and wealth of something is not a sign of true greatness since God wants Jonah to take God’s word to speak against it. 3:1 gives us the same description of Nineveh and when Jonah gets there he sees that it takes 3 days to go through it (3:3).
“Preach against it.” God had a specific word for Jonah to give to Nineveh. I don’t take this as a command for us to go and preach against every evil that we see in the world. Christ instructed us to do two things: tell people the GOOD NEWS and be salt and light in the world.

“But Jonah…” These two words come up a few times in the book (verses 3, 5 and 4:1). It’s a little comical as it provides the wrong direction of the storyline. Try thinking of a narrative where you were the main character and it kept on repeating: “But Simon…” God sent his son to call people to repent and believe, But Roger…But Mary…But Alex….But Denise…

Notice all the detail given in verse 3: where he was headed, which port he went to, he had the funds to get there, he acted on his rebellion and his rebellion is plain: to flee from the Lord. Wow! Have you ever listened to your own thoughts as you plan to sin? Jonah had plenty of time to cool off and think about his rash idea. Joppa was at the southern border of Israel – just getting to there would have been an effort. Reflect on how long it takes us to realise our stubbornness and sin.

For what it’s worth, Joppa was the town where Peter raised a lady named Tabitha from the dead and took the gospel of Christ to that part of Israel (Acts 9:36-43). Peter (who was called Simon at one time) stayed in Joppa with a tanner named Simon – again, just pointing out interesting things that make me smile. I hope it made you smile too.

Not Neneveh but Tarshish. As mentioned in the last blog, Jonah was going as far as humanly possible from God. Little did Jonah know that God would send him even further away still when Jonah goes down to the depths of the earth in chapter 2! But even there, Jonah remembers that God is everywhere. Can you think how to apply this truth today? Do we go on holidays and leave God behind? Do we come to God on Sunday (so to speak) and keep distant from him for the rest of the week? Is there a room, a TV show, a hobby, a community, a sport, a conversation that you enjoy where you think that God is not welcome to come with you?

Finally, it seems to me that the book of Jonah is given us a universal view of God. The word of God is not going to a part of Israel but to a foreign country. Jonah thinks that he can leave God by leaving Israel. The book of Jonah will teach us that, even in the Old Testament, God has his sights on the whole world – because it’s the whole world that he loves (John 3:16). Jonah’s understanding of God which is limited to Israel, the promised land and the temple (2:4) will be stretched. I’m not sure that he fully matures by the end of the book. But he does grow a little.

The Quest

This is the bulk of the story. Many things can take place inside the quest but, along the way, the problem finds a solution. In Jonah chapter one, a great description of the storm takes place but the detail of the story surrounds the panic of the sailors and what they are searching for. Verse 9 is the turning point in the story when Jonah speaks the truth which solves the problem: the God of the Hebrews is the God of all the earth. The quest lasts from verse 4 to verse 15 – from the beginning and end of the storm.

Theological notes on the quest:

The sailors: they saw the strength of the storm and were afraid. They cried out to their gods. Who knows how many they had, it doesn’t many. What matters is that they all remain silent and useless – as we’d expect. BUT, they cried out for help. I recall the cycle of the book of Judges where God sends judgement on Israel and they cry out for help and God hears. Well, God has sent judgement on Jonah, but the pagans cry out for help but don’t know where to find the help. Through their random method of casting lots, they are lead to think Jonah has something to do with this. They plead for Jonah to tell them, who he is, where he is from, what does he do for crust and what people is he from. In effect, they are asking all the right questions to get this prophet of God to speak the words that he is supposed to be doing. The pagans have found the one person who can give them the answers and that person has been reluctant to speak the answers to them. Eventually, the sailors ask Jonah, “what should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” In effect they are asking the man of God, “What must we do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). They ask for forgiveness before they throw an innocent man overboard in what they hope is a way of pleasing the God of this storm: the God of heaven, earth and the sea.

Jonah: While the sailors are in fear of the storm and where it has come from, Jonah is in denial and separation from reality. Verse 5b tells us again how Jonah is going against what should be expected of him. “But Jonah…” He has continued his downward journey that began on a hilltop in Zebulun, went south to Joppa and now down below deck and then down into sleep. The narrative shows us how separate from reality Jonah wants to take himself. When the captain got Jonah’s attention and demanded to know who he was etc, Jonah says his first words in the story: I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Verse 9). His words totally disagree with what he has been doing. Is the application obvious enough? Christians will have a converted worldview long before their lifestyle is converted. Like Elijah said in 2 Kings 19: if the LORD is God then worship him – if someone else is God then worship them: but stop serving things that are not God (Simon Twist paraphrase). Jonah eventually comes out and offers himself as a sacrifice – his life for the life of the sailors. In God’s wisdom, the truth of God had come to the sailors. Even in rebellion, God was taking his word to the ends of the earth.

The Closing

Better known as the ‘tying up of loose ends’ or the denouement (said with a French accent). This is verse 16. While Jonah had been called to go to Ninevah to take the word of God to them, the word of God was taken and received by the sailors on Jonah’s rebellious mission. Gentiles turned to God through the prophet of God. The storm had stopped and Jonah was stopped from running away from God.

Theological notes on the closing:

The issue was not that a storm had threatened life but that the nature and truth of God was being denied and hidden by Jonah. The word of God had come to Jonah but Jonah hid it.

The Ending

Nothing happens during the ending but there is a clear mark that the story has closed. A ‘happily ever after’ kind of moment. This story ends with silence because it is more like a pause for the next episode to begin. The ending of this story marks the transition to the next where we wonder what happens to Jonah. An ending can be a whole paragraph, a sentence but in this case it is empty. It is similar to the ending of the whole book of Jonah – God asks a question and there is no answer.

Once the problem was identified as “can Jonah run away from God?” the solution points us to a great theological lesson: no you can’t and God is concerned for the whole world.

More observations of the passage

‘He went down to Joppa’. In the story, Jonah starts from the heights of Gath Hephor (a village on a rocky hill, see last blog) and descends to Joppa. Joppa is on the south-western border of Israel. Jonah went ‘below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.’ v5. Notice the descent in this narrative. The sailors eventually ‘took Jonah and threw him overboard.’ v15. He went into the belly of a fish (v17) and into the depths and the heart of the sea (2:3), to ‘the roots of the mountains [Jonah] sank down’ (2:6) to the belly of the earth! 2:6 is the turning point of the descent imagery which is the very point that Jonah was saved by God.

The solution for the sailors was to execute one man to save the rest. Only those who have heard the story of Jesus’ sacrifice and burial for three days before raising to life again would appreciate the order here in the story. To save others, an ‘innocent man’ must be put to death. The man is ‘buried’ for three days and three nights before being brought back to life. Jesus embraced this story as pointing to his own death and resurrection (Matthew 12:39-41; 16:4).

What’s the message?

  • The Word of God is for all nations – the Old Testament God is all about reaching beyond Israel
  • Rebellion from God does not stop his reign and authority
  • The God of the Hebrews is the God of all the earth – who made the sea and the dry land
  • Jesus is the very Word of God who has come down into this world to offer himself for all nations. He fulfils willingly what Jonah illustrates reluctantly.
  • God continues to use us even when we are reluctant to be used.
  • What we believe in the gospel must play out in the rest of our lives – how are we being a light to the world, salt of the earth and like a city on a hill. Do people have to grill us deeply before they hear us speak of God’s love and compassion?

Prayer for the week

Father God, creator of heaven and earth and everything in it, thank you for sending your word to us in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the scriptures. Please help us to live out the gospel and be a beacon for all who desire to be saved. Thank you for the sacrifice of your Son, the innocent one who died so that we could live. Help us to take the message of Jesus everywhere we go in our daily lives. Showing people by our actions and our words that we worship the one true and eternal God. Amen.

Introduction to Jonah – the reluctant prophet

A book to follow Romans

I hope you are enjoying a break between terms. The book of Romans has been excellent for many and certainly for me. I am excited about the book of Jonah also. It’s such an unusual book of the Old Testament.  Paul told the church in Rome that he was aiming to head for Spain, the vicinity of Tarshish, to take the gospel to them. Jonah heads to Tarshish immediately but it is to avoid speaking the gospel to anyone.

Jonah isn’t typical of the prophet books and yet it is almost always the go to book to show children what is in the Old Testament! It’s one of those books that everybody has heard something about but the focus is always on the fish. The story, however, doesn’t make much of a deal about the fish. It’s just one part of the whole story. Most children’s books won’t talk about chapter four at all. What a shame. And chapter one has such tension and truth for us and it doesn’t end with a fish! It ends with an innocent sacrifice to save sinners! Gems like that get missed when we fail to look closely and reflect well on the word of God. This blog is to give some context to the book before getting into the text next week. I hope you find it useful.

Who, What, Where and When

The author of the book is not given. It is titled Jonah because of the major character of the book.

Jonah was a prophet of God living in the 8th century BC. The events of this book took place somewhere around 785-775BC. He was a prophet to the northern kingdom, Israel, when Jeroboam II was the king. See 2 Kings 14:23-25 for the only other OT reference of Jonah. He was a successful prophet under God even when the king was disobedient to God.

Remember that Israel split into two kingdoms after Solomon died: the southern kingdom which contained Jerusalem and the temple; the northern kingdom was bigger but was not of the line of David. The northern kingdom was taken by Assyria in 722BC. See the following link for a helpful visual timeline:

http://visualunit.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/bible_time.jpg

Jonah was born in Gath Hepher, part of the land of Zebulun (see Joshua 19:13). Isaiah prophesied that the nations would be blessed with joy from the land of Zebulun by the birth of a prince child (Isaiah 9:1-7). Zebulun contained the town of Bethlehem. This would be the literal birth place of the mission of Jesus into all the world. This is where Jonah was sent from to spread God’s word to Ninevah. Gath Hephor is known to be a village on the top of a rocky hill – this little tid-bit will come in handy when we come to chapters 1 and 2.

Ninevah and Tarshish. The other locations in the story are the city of Ninevah and the port of Tarshish. The first thing to know about these destinations is that Tarshish is in the exact opposite and far reaching direction from Ninevah in relation to Zebulun. Tarshish may as well have been the end of the earth. See this very helpful map online…

http://visualunit.me/2011/01/17/jonah-map/

The next interesting, and perhaps useless, feature of these two places is that they both have relatively close links to Noah’s descendants. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Shem was the direct ancestor of Abraham who would become the father of Israel. Ham’s first son was Cush who travelled to and built the great city of Ninevah. Japheth, the third son of Noah, had a grandson named Tarshish. Now, this is a bit trivial. There’s not much more to make of it than that it is interesting. But Jonah, a descendant of Abraham and a prophet of God received the calling to go to Ninevah – a great pagan city of the Assyrian Empire (a growing world power) and headed for another pagan city, one of his choosing rather than God’s. Jonah did leave the promised land to be among Gentiles but it was on his terms, not Gods.

The story of Jonah is a very short narrative. It begins quickly – the adventure starts by verse 4! It is a book about God’s mission, about God’s compassion and mercy, God’s judgement and justice, rebellion against God, about submission and obedience and about who is in control of all things. It is also a very perculiar book in the bible. It reads more like an episode of the book of Judges than it does a stand-alone minor prophet. It is a Jewish book that has little to say about Jerusalem (it does say some things and I wonder if you spot them in the narrative). It appears to read like a book for Jonah’s own benefit – he is the one who needs to come to terms with what God has called him to do. The book of Jonah is less about the message of God through the mouth of Jonah and more about the message of God through the experience and reactions of Jonah. But is is a book about the word of God and how it is needed for the whole world to hear.

Structure of the book

The four chapters can be evenly split into four sections although 1:17 would fit better as the beginning of the second section. The division is based on story arcs. The structure of each section is best to be divided into the various sections of a story – we will go through that when we look at chapter one.

Chapters 1-2 – God forgives a Hebrew sinner
1:1-1:16 – Jonah cannot flee from God – knowledge of God saves pagan sailors
1:17-2:10 – Jonah praises God for saving him

Chapters 3-4 – God forgives a Pagan city 
3:1-10 – Jonah no longer flees from God – God’s message turns Nineveh
4:1-11 – Jonah complains about God’s mercy

Wisdom from Jonah
“I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 1:9
“But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit.” 2:6
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” 4:2

Wisdom from the Pagans
‘At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.’ 1:16
“Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” 3:9

Jonah’s Big Fish

The story does have some ‘larger than life’ elements to it. Aside from the fish, Jonah’s character is like the anti-hero. The storm in chapter one creates a building anger from Yahweh toward Jonah. The anger builds and builds until Jonah gives in and hands himself entirely to God’s will. The prayer of Jonah in chapter 2 gives the feeling of space and quiet in great contrast to the excitement of chapter 1. Jonah is almost back in the womb before God ejects him back into the world to have another go. Jesus defined this moment as a prophecy of the three days God dealt with the sin of the world (Matthew 12:40).

The big fish is sent by God to rescue Jonah. The fish is not Jonah’s punishment but his salvation from drowning. The existence of the fish and the swallowing of Jonah is simply stated and the narrative moves on. The reader understands it as a miracle and a means by which God takes Jonah back to the starting place for another go. God turns Jonah’s life around through this experience. The reality for Jonah is that his moment of salvation and thanksgiving is short lived. He returns to being the self-centred prophet that he started out as.

I pray that you will enjoy digging deep into the text of this book – beyond the basic storyline – to uncover some great lessons for us today.

Your brother in Christ,
Simon