The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

Miniature Joys

Life is full of “big” things–birth, marriage, death, buying a house, losing a job… But it is also full of small moments– a quiet smile, a child’s laughter, the smell of new rain, a cup of cocoa.

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Often, we let the “big” things overwhelm us, and we miss the miniature joys all around us. I was reminded of this over the past weekend, as we were able to spend time with various family members– many of whom we had not seen in months because of the pandemic. Of course, some of the “big” topics came up in conversation– COVID-19, riots in cities around the world, frustrating job situations, ongoing health concerns, and so on. But the miniature joyful moments–sharing silly memories and laughter, noticing how much the teens have grown, sharing a meal, hearing familiar voices–these are the things that stay with us and sustain us through the “big” things.

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One of the weekend activities was a birthday party for our granddaughter. It was a smaller gathering, and limited to family members, so there were no young girls for her to play with. All her siblings and cousins are boys, and the grandparents outnumbered the children. We sat outside on the hottest day of the year (so far), and sang “Happy Birthday” and watched her blow out candles on a small cake. And we made a promise to phone our granddaughter on her “actual” birthday two days later.

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Two days later, we had a busy day– we were running errands, and spending time with my niece and nephew. We had appointments and important phone calls to make, and e-mails to answer. We almost forgot about our promise..but our granddaughter had not. When we stopped our “big” plans, sat down and made the promised phone call, the joy in her voice was enough to light up a hundred candles and shine brighter than the sun. Such a little thing. We had already wished her a happy birthday, given her gifts, and shared her birthday cake. But in keeping our “small” promise, we shared something priceless. There is a bond of trust and love that makes the small moments vitally important in our relationships, and in our own character development.

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And the same can happen in reverse. In the book of Jonah, God sent a gourd vine. Such a little thing, and Jonah had done little to deserve it. But God sent it just the same. A tiny bit of shade to comfort Jonah in his bitterness while he watched his enemies receiving God’s grace. Several thousands of Ninevites saved from destruction v. Jonah being saved from the heat of the mid-day sun–it seems like a ridiculous comparison. But in his selfishness and anger, Jonah missed the obvious. Yet God still provided–extravagant grace to Nineveh; the grace of a gourd for Jonah. When God caused the gourd vine to be destroyed, Jonah’s reaction was fierce and extreme. He could not find joy in Nineveh’s salvation; he couldn’t sustain joy in God’s gracious gift of the gourd vine. All he could feel was the anger and bitterness. After all, isn’t it possible that some of the very Ninevites who had been spared would have been glad to offer shelter to the prophet who had brought them a timely warning? What kind of joy and healing might Jonah have experienced in the company of his former enemies?

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Lord, please help me to rejoice in the small moments, and see Your glory in the miniature joys of life. Open my eyes to see past the “big” things in life, because I know that You are bigger than all of them. Thank you for restful moments, and fleeting pleasures; for glimpses of Glory, and poignant snatches of memory; for grins, and sips of cold water on a hot day; for old photographs, and new snapshots; for Your faithfulness, and Your mercies, which are new every morning!

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Praying from Nineveh

It’s depressing to watch the news, lately–the reports include the COVID-19 pandemic, rioting and violence, injustice, crime, natural disasters…there is very little to celebrate. And yet, my nation just recognized the 244th anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. In that declaration are the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..” America has never realized perfection of these truths. No nation can claim perfection, just as no individual person can claim perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the truth still stands. All men (and women, children…human beings) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. God does not favor the rich or the poor, men or women; He doesn’t favor one skin tone over another; He doesn’t love Baptists more than Catholics, or agnostics! He is not partial to citizens of one nation over another; He doesn’t favor Republicans over Democrats. Governments and individuals may deny or withhold these rights; they may pervert the truth or twist and shape circumstances to their favor at the expense of others. But the truth still stands.

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Long ago, there was an empire called Assyria– powerful, ruthless, domineering. They were not governed by principles of fairness, equality, or justice. They conquered and slaughtered other people at will. Their capital city was Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, a man thoroughly familiar with their cruelty and lack of justice, was dispatched by God to warn the people of their coming judgment. Instead of obeying, Jonah fled. It would seem understandable that Jonah might fear the people of Nineveh. Delivering such a warning could put him in danger. But that wasn’t why Jonah fled.

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The story of Jonah is well-known. After fleeing toward Tarshish on the first available ship, God sent a storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, the sailors cast lots to choose a human sacrifice to appease the sea gods. Jonah volunteered, saying it was his sin that “caused” the storm. Reluctantly, the sailors threw him overboard, and the storm ceased immediately. Jonah was “saved” when a giant fish swallowed him. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and God rescued him again, causing the fish to spit him out onto dry land. Jonah took advantage of his second chance, and went to Nineveh, preaching the message of destruction.

But when Jonah’s message results in mass repentance and a “second chance” for the Ninevites, Jonah is disgusted. THIS was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh– because he did not want them to receive a warning and a potential reprieve! He knew that God was sending him, not with a message of doom, but with a message of hope! There was a chance to repent– to try again–to seek justice and avoid destruction. They didn’t deserve it. Certainly, they had never given mercy to any of the peoples they had already conquered. God had every right to destroy them without any warning– and Jonah had counted on it.

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I almost always focus on the character of Jonah when I read through this story. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah+1&version=NIV (follow this link to see chapter 1 and use the site to read the other three chapters). But what about the people in the city of Nineveh? Imagine a stranger walking around one of America’s major cities– Washington, New York, Seattle (in light of recent events there)… His face and skin are unnaturally white and blotchy; bleached by stomach acid from an enormous fish. He looks like a zombie, and his message is delivered in utterly horrible assurance–“yet forty days, and this city will be destroyed.” Not by a spike in COVID-19 cases; not by looters or protesters tearing down a couple of buildings here or there–total destruction by the hand of God.

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What might we do differently if we had forty days to convince God to stay His hand and give our nation a chance to repent. We claim we are not like the Assyrians– we were founded on truthful principles and ideals. We “hold” these truths, but we do not live them out as a nation.

The Ninevites did not have time to amend or rewrite a Constitution. They did not have forty weeks or forty years to “reconstruct” their empire or implement social justice legislation.

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But they had time to pray. They had time to fast, and repent, and seek the mercy of God. From the least to the greatest, they fasted and prayed. Even their animals fasted! They stopped frantically trying to grab power, and turned their eyes toward their Maker and Judge. And God listened! God forgave! God showed mercy!

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May we pray– in every nation, region, city, village, or settlement– for God’s mercy in these times, and at all times. God is not waiting for us to “get it right.” He is waiting for us to come to Him. May we be humble and hopeful and turn to Him today. And may we learn from their example.*

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*Spoiler alert– while the Assyrians in Nineveh repented after the message of Jonah, they quickly forgot God’s mercy and returned to their wickedness. Just a few decades later, God DID bring destruction on the entire empire– this time without warning!

Repent, relent, or resent?

I’m revisiting Jonah today.  The book of Jonah is a fascinating study–it’s just four short chapters, but they are packed with messages that inspire, convict, and encourage. More about Jonah here…

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At the beginning of the book, Jonah is sent by God to preach disaster to a city steeped in evil and violence.  Nineveh was an ancient metropolis of the Assyrian empire, located near modern-day Mosul, Iraq.  The people of Nineveh had been responsible for attacks against Israel, and it is believed that Jonah may have lost family members in these attacks.  Now God is sending him into the “belly of the beast” to preach judgment and doom.  Instead of following God’s command, Jonah tries to run away and gets swallowed by a big fish.

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This is the part of the story with which most people are familiar– Jonah and the “Whale”.  But this covers only the first quarter of the story!  Inside the fish, Jonah prays.  It is a beautiful prayer of praise and acknowledgement of God’s might and power to save.  This is not the sniveling coward of chapter one, but the great prophet he could have, should have been.  God gives him another chance and this time, Jonah is faithful to preach the message God sends– forty more days and He will wipe out Nineveh.

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But something unexpected happens.  The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s dire warning– a lone voice calling in the streets with a gloomy message– and they repent.  From the least to the greatest, they cry out for mercy, they fast and mourn and do a complete about-face.  Just as God saved Jonah from the fish, He relents and saves Nineveh from destruction.  Jonah’s enemies get to live to see a new day!

The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah resented.  The last chapter tells of Jonah’s temper tantrum in the light of God’s mercy.  God even sends him an object lesson in the form of a gourd vine.  The book of Jonah ends abruptly with God’s last statement.  We never read Jonah’s response; we never find out if he learned his lesson a second time or not.

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Even with its abrupt end, the book of Jonah teaches about three important responses:

  • The people of Nineveh repented.  When faced with judgment, they humbled themselves and called for mercy.  They received it.  In spite of their former violence, idolatry, and wickedness, God sent them a warning, and He extended the grace and mercy they did not deserve.
    • Two words of warning here:
      • 1) Their response was immediate, sincere, and dramatic.  That makes for an exciting story, but repentance sometimes comes over time and quietly.  God knows if our repentance is real.  It is not our place to judge someone else’s conversion or apology.
      • 2)  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance was short-lived.  God eventually destroyed the city and the Assyrian empire.  Just because we have a moment of sincere regret or keenly feel a need for mercy doesn’t mean that God has an obligation to extend mercy or to withhold judgment indefinitely.  Grace is a gift, not a negotiation!

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  • God relented.  God listens, ready to extend His grace.  He does not punish us as we deserve.  He does not mete out immediate judgment without hope of redemption.  God sent Jonah with a message of potential doom to Israel’s sworn enemy in the knowledge that they (EVEN THEY) would repent.  God sent dozens of prophets to the nation of Israel warning of doom and exile, and they mocked and even killed the messengers!  God is patient, loving, and kind.  But He is also just– evil will not be forgotten or left unpunished.  God will relent, but He won’t retreat, back down, or surrender.

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  • Jonah resented.  We don’t know if he stayed resentful, or rediscovered gratitude for God’s grace to Nineveh or to himself, but we are left with a picture that Jesus echoes in the story of the prodigal son.  Jonah is like the older brother who worries more about his brother’s misdeeds than his brother’s soul.  How many of us who have experienced grace sulk and pout when we see others enjoying their first delightful taste of it?  Do we stamp our feet at God when he sends us to bring the Gospel to people we have written off as uninterested in or unworthy of it?  Do we resent being corrected and humbled by a loving God?  Do we worry and fret over our creature comforts as Jonah worried over his gourd vine, while others live without hope, food, or shelter?

Three words, so similar in spelling and sound, but so very different in impact!

Lord, I pray that my repentance would always be immediate and sincere; that I would see others, and their need for your grace, through your eyes of compassion; and that I would not resent your goodness and patience toward others.  Thank you for your patience and mercy toward me, and may I give the same to those who need to see Your face.  Give me the wisdom to trust you and obey, even when my flesh would run away.  May I see the gourd vines and big fish in my life as your gifts.

The Smallest Detail

Have you ever looked at a series of pictures that “zoom” in or out (or both)?  Something that seems “normal” in size suddenly becomes a tiny detail in a much larger picture.  Or one tiny detail grows large enough to show intricacies hitherto unseen.  It is mind-blowing to think of how many details there are in God’s universe–little things that go unnoticed and unappreciated every day.  But not by God.  God knows and cares about every single detail– from the  individual hairs on your head, to the variations and whorls of each of your fingerprints; from the gradations of colors in each moment of each sunrise, to the exact air temperature in each square foot of atmosphere around the world; from the wings of every butterfly to the fins of every fish– nothing escapes his notice or falls through the cracks.

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We can pray with confidence that God hears every word we say, and knows the thoughts we can’t even put into words.  I believe God loves to hear all our details.  He loves listening to us, because of his great love for us.  He wants us to hold nothing back.  This is especially true when we pour out our deepest delights and our most pressing burdens.  He wants to share them with us– to double our joy, and shoulder our pain.sea-nature-animals-fish.jpg

I was reminded about God’s attention to detail while reading His word this morning.  I was reading through one of the books of history (II Kings) in which the various kings of Israel and Judah are listed, along with short accounts of “what happened” during their reigns–some kings are given several paragraphs or a couple of chapters;  others merely a sentence or two.  In the midst of all this, there is a curious reference in II Kings 14:25.  King Jeroboam II of Israel is accounted a generally wicked king, but he did restore some of the ancient boundaries of the country, “in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher”– that’s right, THAT Jonah– the one of the giant fish and the adventure in Ninevah (see Paltry Prayer ).  How many times have I read the story of Jonah, and passed right over this reference to him in another book!  The Bible is full of such hidden hints and corroborating details.  I believe that God put them there to remind us of his great attention to detail.  The God who lists genealogies throughout his word— long lists of otherwise forgotten names;  the one who makes a point of listing palace guards and minor officials, and builders and temple workers–this God sees ME!  He sees YOU!  He hears us when we call.  He knows all of our quirks and idiosyncrasies– and loves each unique detail of our makeup.

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Paltry Prayer

A couple of days ago, I wrote about “Little Prayers.”  I believe God hears our prayers about the so-called “little things.”  But I think there is a type of prayer that is not “little”, but “paltry.”  What’s the difference?  “Paltry” doesn’t just imply little or trivial, it connotes something meager and petty.  And I think we waste a lot of time on it.

Paltry prayer is generic and insubstantial.  It’s like the horrible small talk at a social event one doesn’t want to attend, but feels obligated to show up at, because it’s expected.  When we throw up a prayer, but we really don’t want to get “real” before God, we’re offering crumbs instead of a sacrifice; face-time, instead of intimate conversation.

There are times when we cry out in desperation; we have no words or fleshed-out thoughts, only groans.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the times when we want to reassure ourselves that we’re one of the good guys– that our plans and wishes have God’s stamp of approval–without actually risking God’s authoritative answer.  “God, help me to do your will today,” sounds like a great prayer, but do we really mean what we’re saying?   Or are we really asking God to approve of our own will  and plans as we go through the day?

I’m especially concerned that we are offering paltry prayers in regards to evangelism and revival.  We want it to come– we want God to send a fresh wave of revival to our communities, our country, and our world– but let it begin and end without making us too uncomfortable, too aware of our own need for confession, forgiveness, or change.  We want our neighbor to be saved– without the pain of witnessing and being laughed at or ostracized.  We want to be emboldened to witness, but we don’t want to be humbled into listening.  We want to be blessed; we don’t want to be tested.

 

I get very discouraged sometimes, when I realize that my own prayers have been paltry.  But there is good news– the same loving Father that wants deeper conversation with me is endlessly forgiving, encouraging, and loving.  And I am not alone in offering meager conversation or selfish complaints before His throne.

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Jonah (yes the “Big Fish” guy of the Bible) was a prophet– a very successful one, except for the episode with Nineveh.  Not only did Jonah run as far from Nineveh as a ship could take him; he basically committed suicide to avoid doing God’s bidding.  When his shipmates are in a panic, Jonah demands that they throw him in the sea.  This is not as a result of consulting with God, nor does the Bible suggest that it is at God’s command.  The sailors continue to panic at the thought of throwing Jonah overboard, and are astonished when the storm stops as Jonah sinks toward the ocean floor.  If not for the fish, Jonah would have drowned.  God sent the fish to save Jonah, but there is nothing to suggest that Jonah had any idea of being rescued. However, from the belly of the fish, Jonah lifts up a poetic prayer, in which he sings the praises of the God who spared his life.   He marvels at his rescue and restoration, and vows to go back to Nineveh and fulfill his destiny.  His prayer strikes all the “holy” notes one would wish to see, but I would contend that this is, at its heart, a paltry prayer– sincere in the moment, but not the prayer of a man fully transformed by his near-death experience.

Fast forward to the fourth chapter of the book of Jonah.  Nineveh has heard Jonah’s message about God’s wrath and impending judgment; the people have had a miraculous change of heart, and God has agreed to spare them from destruction (for a time– the Ninevites went back to their old habits and were eventually destroyed).  Imagine if the late Billy Graham had held a rally in Moscow or Tehran or Los Angeles and the ENTIRE CITY had repented?!  This is success beyond imagination.  But we don’t find Jonah grateful and poetic as he was at the end of chapter two– instead, he is hateful and bitter, and praying for death!  God causes a small vine to grow and provide some shade for Jonah as he sits and sulks, but then he sends a worm to chew up the vine so it withers.  Jonah is more heartbroken at the loss of the vine then he was over the possibility of the destruction of an entire city.  Jonah’s story doesn’t end in triumph, but in triviality.

Prayer is a great opportunity to pour out our hearts before God– but it also reveals the content and character of our hearts.  If our prayers are paltry and our hearts shallow, God will often humble us.  But he will also rescue us from our own sinfulness and sulking, and give us all that we need to finish victoriously.  The book of Jonah is a great cautionary tale– let’s learn from it, today.

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What can we do to make our prayers less “paltry” and more proactive?  Check out the suggestions on the attached pages of this blog, or look online for prayer groups and prayer sites that offer constructive ideas.

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