By: Dennis Bates
I never realized until I retired more than two years ago that the book of Jonah is a metaphor about much more than running away from a job you didn’t want to do. It is not just a story about bad choices or denial. In fact, it is even more than a story about running away from God’s calling or God Himself.
To me, Jonah is a universal story that deals with a man who tries to run away from life itself. He really wants to avoid living altogether.
As a piece of literature, Jonah barely qualifies as a short story. It’s fairly involved plot and obvious moral lesson is told in a mere three pages, consisting of four short chapters. In those three pages, we learn that “The Word of the Lord” went to Jonah and told him that he needed to go Nineveh to preach because God had been confronted with the city’s wickedness and He was giving them one last chance to repent.
We don’t know if it was an angel that brought the word or someone else. We also don’t know whether it was something specific that Nineveh did to make God angry or if it was a general course of conduct. The specifics really don’t matter, so they were left out.
What we know is that Jonah wasted no time at all after he got the message. He immediately went the opposite direction and tried to run away from Nineveh, which had a reputation for being a nasty place. He took a ship, ran into a storm, was thrown overboard, and swallowed by a large fish. The fish held him in its belly for three days and three nights, coughing him up and Jonah was again told to go to Nineveh to preach. All of that happens in a few hundred words.
The remaining two chapters tell us that this time Jonah listened and he went to Nineveh and preached. To his absolute amazement they listened to him and repented. Jonah was furious. After all he had been through, the people of Nineveh repented and God forgave them.
That wasn’t what Jonah had expected. He was certain that the wicked people would be destroyed and he would have a front row seat to watch it all, but instead, they survived because they repented.
Jonah pouted. With a loud cry of “It just isn’t fair,” he went to a hillside just east of the city and just sat there even though God tried to explain why he had forgiven the people. Jonah didn’t care, and the story ends strangely in a way with Jonah sitting on the hillside pouting and God walking away.
It is fairly easy to understand why Jonah ran the opposite direction when God told him to go to Nineveh the first time. Going there frightened him, but at least he did something. He ran, and even though that was the wrong thing to do, God could deal with that. He sent the fish to get Jonah’s attention and Jonah learned from that.
However, the second time Jonah ran away, he ran to a hillside and did nothing but mope and complain. He did nothing, not even something wrong.
God tried to talk to Jonah, but Jonah wasn’t interested. Finally, God had no choice; He left Jonah sitting idly on the hillside and walked away because Jonah refused to live anymore. To me that is one of the saddest moments in the Old Testament. Jonah quit living and God couldn’t do anything with that.
If Jonah would have done something good, God could have blessed him; if Jonah would have done something bad, God could have corrected him. But when Jonah chose to do nothing at all God couldn’t help. As the book of Revelation points out, the lukewarm church was sit out because it was neither hot nor cold.
Inaction is the only thing God won’t react to. Don’t sit on the hillside and pout. As a friend of mine used to say, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”