They Turned Back from Their Evil Ways

The book of Jonah is famous for a fish story; its story is well known even for kids with some animated characters. But, the message is not simple. It offers something more profound than what we usually expect to understand from plain reading. It takes only 5-10 minutes to read the four chapters of the book, but took many years for me to understand the real meaning of the book, especially Jonah’s dilemma.   

  1. Jonah flees from the Lord.

God said to Jonah, go immediately to Nineveh, that large capital city, and announce judgment against its people because their wickedness has come to God’s attention.  Instead, Jonah immediately headed off by ship to Tarshish to escape from the commission of the Lord (1:2-3, NET Bible). 

Why did he run away from God? Is it possible to runaway from God of omnipresence? God is everywhere no matter where we go. But he runs away anyways, there must be a reason for that. Jonah went aboard and sailed for Tarshish. As a result of running away from God, a violent storm arose, and Jonah admitted that it was his fault that this great storm had come upon them. And the sailors had to throw him into the sea. The current swirled, engulfing waters threatened, and his head was wrapped around by seaweed.  He was thrown into the deep sea, into the depths of the grave. This poor Jonah, who ran away from God, sank down to the root of mountains. He thought that was the end of his life. But God provided a giant fish to swallow him. Jonah did not drown but completely locked down inside of the fish. No rescue team could come to save him from such a dark and smelly belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

  1. Jonah’s prayer

From inside the fish, there was absolutely nothing Jonah could do except for praying. Have you ever experienced a moment when you absolutely could do nothing but pray to God for help?  How did you overcome that moment with prayer? Well, Jonah remembered God and prayed to him earnestly with repentance, thanksgiving, and rededication in his distress.

God answered Jonah’s prayer because God had a significant mission for Jonah to implement for the people in Nineveh.  When we pray God answers our prayers in his time and ways. Not only to satisfy our desires but to fulfill his purpose for us. God commanded the fish to vomit him out onto the dryland.  Jonah gave thanks to the Lord for bringing his life up from the pit (2:6b). Jonah just foretasted the resurrection from the dead.

  1. God gave Jonah a second chance.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, sending him again to the great city of Nineveh and proclaimed the message God gave him.  Unlike other prophets in the OT, Jonah’s message was concise, with only five Hebrew words translated into English.  “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (3:4b). Jonah proclaimed the message, but he did not have much love or compassion for the Ninevites. He delivered the news with a sense of obligation. Nevertheless, the impact of his message was incredible. The people of Nineveh believed in God and repented. Starting from the king to everyone in the city of Nineveh fasted and repented of their sins. They humbled themselves, put on sackcloth, cried to God and turned from their evil way of living. God saw their turning away from wicked ways; God changed his mind and did not bring the judgement upon them that he had threatened.  

  1. Jonah’s response to God’s grace and compassion

When Jonah saw that God did not bring judgement to destroy them, he was furious. He was greatly displeased יָרַע (Yara`) and became angry (4:1). Although Jonah understood that God was gracious and merciful, God’s showing mercy to the Assyrian, Israel’s worst enemy nation, seemed totally wrong to him. The new JPS translation of the Hebrew Bible says, “This was a great evil to Jonah.” The Young’s Literal Translation of this verse says, “It was grievous unto Jonah -- a great evil – and he was displeased at it.

It is usually God and prophets who are displeased when people did not serve God but followed their evil ways.  God was displeased when David killed Uriah and took “Bathsheba” as his wife (2Sa 11:27). Samuel was displeased when Israelites asked for a king(1Sa 8:6). However, it is hardly ever the case that a prophet is displeased with God because God acts justly. Yet here it was Jonah who is “exceedingly displeased and becomes angry” (4:1). There is no other place in the Bible that a prophet takes God’s righteous actions as “evil.”  

Jonah’s dilemma

What made Jonah so displeased and angry, even considering God’s mercy and compassion evil? Jonah had been saved from the fish in the deep of the sea, but his heart was still not changed, no pity, no compassion, no mercy towards his enemy nation. The hatred-hardened heart of Jonah was more profound than the deep sea. This is the dilemma for Jonah. Why such an inflammatory reaction towards God?

Jonah was so displeased at God’s mercy and compassion for the enemy nation that he found no meaning in his life. So, he makes a statement that is almost absurd, “Now O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). He seems to have completely forgotten his prayer to God for deliverance from the deep, inside the fish. And the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians whom Jonah was called to warn were notorious for their physical and psychological terror tactics to subdue weaker states, like Israel. Jonah could not accept that such an enemy nation would be spared from God’s wrath.  For Jonah, they deserve to be overthrown. For Jonah, it would have been their destiny to face destruction. From the perspective of the oppressed, Jonah’s response seems legitimate, patriotic and understandable.

Jonah represents the natural characteristic of human beings in response to evil: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth….” Anyone who has experienced the pain of colonial rule will have lots of sympathy for Jonah’s actions.  If you were Jonah, how would you have responded to God? If I were him, my response would likely not have been significantly different from that of Jonah.  I will tell you why.

I used to hate Japan because Japan colonized and occupied Korea for 36 years (1910-1945). Both my father and mother were born during the period of Japanese colonial annexation. I learned how many hardships my parents’ generation had to endure under the colonial power of the Japanese government. The Japanese colonial rule was enforced to control Korean people in every single dimension of society. Koreans lost their autonomy and faced ill-treatment at the hands of the Japanese police, discrimination in schools and workplaces, restriction of religious and other freedoms, exploitation of their resources and personnel, and dispossession of their property or occupancy. Korean people suffered from such an level of alien domination, tyranny, and oppression for the first time in the history of five thousand years.   

When an atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it brought the destruction of these two cities., 140,000 and 70,000 people died, respectively, and hundreds and thousands of people suffered from the deadly impact of atomic bombs. Due to the fatal effects, the Japanese emperor unconditionally surrendered to the US, which brought the end of world war II. Korea was finally liberated from Japanese colonial occupation, and we celebrate August 15 as the day of liberation, like Passover for Jewish people. For Japan, it was a day of destruction. But for Korea, the bomb made Japan surrender, bringing independence to the Korean people.

Given all of this, I sympathize with Jonah and his struggles. I can understand why he is displeased and angry with God.  It seems that this is a dilemma not only for Jonah but also for many Christians who receive the gospel of peace on one hand but refuse to forgive enemy nations or individuals on the other. As I look back, I was not a matured Christian at all.  It would be a tragedy if a child should fail to develop physically or mentally. It would be even more tragic if a Christian should fail to grow spiritually. The Apostle Paul says, “I die every day” to live with Christ. Jesus wants us to examine our spiritual lives to go beyond Jonah to transform our actions through faith and obedience to him. Jesus said, “now one greater than Jonah is here (Matt 12: 41b).

Like Jonah, we, too, may experience of dramatic healing and restoration. Still, without Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, a Christian life does not guarantee our attitude toward our enemies. Our human nature will not automatically be transformed to show mercy and compassion because we grew up in Christian family or been members of the church for a long time. We must die spiritually to our selves, our sins and the world to live with Christ. The Holy Spirit will lead us to grow into the fullness of Christ so that our hearts might be transformed to love our enemies and neighbours as ourselves.

The greatest miracle was not Jonah’s survival in the fish but the revival of the people in Nineveh who turned back from their evil ways. That might have been the most successful evangelistic campaign ever! The entire city was saved from calamity by one preacher! The Scripture says, if one sinner repents, there will be a feast in Heaven... (Lk 15). What will happen today if a nation repents? What will happen if people in a great city like Toronto, Seoul, Pyongyang, Cambridge etc, humble themselves and turn back from their evil ways? What will happen if a church repents? The Scripture says, If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Conclusion

Jonah was a great prophet, but he did not have the Spirit of Jesus with him. We, too, are weak in our bodies. Unlike Jonah, however, we are led by the Spirit of Jesus. This is the fundamental difference between Jonah’s spirituality and Christian spirituality. This great prophet saved the whole city of Nineveh but could not keep himself from hating his enemies because his heart was not changed. No one in the entire world can change one’s heart except him/herself.  Because it was God’s design for humankind, we must use we our “free will” to choose to obey God or not, to follow Jesus or not, to depend on the work of the Holy Spirit.  How can we choose to obey God, follow Christ, and rely on the Holy Spirit?

  1. We must be willing to have faith in God and acknowledge the love of God for us through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected from the dead for our justification.

  2. We must surrender ourselves to God and repent of our sins as often as possible. God is speaking to us through the words of the Bible and all kinds of social, economic, environmental phenomena; colonialism, racial injustice, climate change, and the global pandemic. All of these calls us to repentance of our sinful actions. We must surrender ourselves to God. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).

  3. We have to make a genuine commitment to follow the living Christ in our daily lives. May the Lord bless you and reign in your life through Jesus Christ. Amen.