Gleanings from the Bible: Jonah

Of all the lessons we could remember from the book of Jonah, the part which has caught people’s imagination and prompted most discussion is one of least importance.

I have no problem believing that the God who created the universe could prepare a large fish to swallow a man and preserve him intact, but it’s hardly the point of the story. There is far more to Jonah than that.

Jonah was sent to his enemies.

The Assyrians were a terrible threat. They were the superpower of the region that eventually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took them into exile, scattering them to such an extent that they never really recovered their identity. Those ten tribes were lost. And it is to Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, on the Tigris River, that Jonah is sent to call on its king and inhabitants to repent.

Jonah goes on a cruise

Jonah appears to be heading for Spain, the opposite end of the Mediterranean, a sea cruise instead of a hot, dry, dusty inland slog. This is not simply a case of ignoring God’s command or failing to hear his voice.  It’s open rebellion!

God’s will is irresistible

It’s not that we can’t say “No” to God, it’s just that when we do there are consequences! It seems that God will apply extra pressure on some people to get the job done. The person who is sensitive to God’s promptings can never feel at peace when he or she is not complying. Jonah knows instantly why the storm is threatening their lives. He’s not casting around wondering, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?”

The fish is an act of grace

It seems as if Jonah has abandoned himself to his fate when he asks to be thrown overboard. He realises that he can at least save the lives on board the ship and that he cannot escape God’s displeasure. I suppose he expected to die as a punishment.

But God preserves his life, gives him time to reflect and realign his life, and puts him back on land for a second chance.

The point of the story

So Jonah travels to Nineveh, and preaches a message of repentance to his enemies, hoping that the citizens will take no notice and be wiped out by God. Amazingly though, they do repent and God spares them, just as he spared Jonah. And Jonah is furious!

And here is the confession which shows us Jonah’s heart…

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”  What is Jonah saying? “You, God, are merciful, but I am not!” Jonah is not like his God. He is angry enough to want to die! He is more angry over a shade tree dying, leaving him exposed to the sun, than he is about a whole city being destroyed.

God’s statement at the end sums it up…

Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?       

The Application

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is has always been obvious, but rarely acted upon, that the message of God’s Kingdom is for the Gentiles as well as the Israelites. The good news of God’s kingship was meant to be blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3), friend and enemy alike. And now the inheritors of the Old Testament Covenantal promises are given the same task of taking the gospel into the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20). To the family member that you haven’t spoken to in ten years, to the neighbour who throws rubbish over your fence, to the Asian family playing foreign music loudly across the road, to the Muslims whose faces you can’t see, to the homeless people occupying the park, to the criminals of every sort in the local gaol, to the extremists in the Gay Community, who tried to put you out of business because you did not approve of their lifestyle.

We may feel angry

but God says,

Should I not have concern?      

Who are we like in this story?     

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Gleanings from the Bible: Hosea

Is God into judgement or into love and mercy? Our answer to that question will determine how we respond to those who fail in church life, whether the lay or the leadership. It’s easy to see that we can find ourselves towards either end of the spectrum – harsh and unfeeling at one extreme or weak and irresponsible at the other.

The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle and it seems to me that the prophecy of Hosea gets the balance right.

The theme of marriage is used to illustrate the Covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. Israel is likened to an adulterous wife, chasing after idols and the heinous practices associated with them (13:2). Israel has made vows to worship and serve Yahweh alone and there are consequences for breaking those promises and the conditions associated with them. Both the leadership and the people are culpable. God is justifiably angry…

            “I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals
she decked herself with rings and jewellery
and went after her lovers
but me she forgot,”
declares the LORD. (2:13)

However, in the following sentences we read…

            “Therefore I am going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her…”
“There she will respond as in the days of her youth…”
“In that day,” declares the LORD,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master’…” (2:14-16)

The very act of judgement can be seen clearly as discipline to restore Israel to all that will make life abundant, stemming from her devotion to her Maker, Lord and devoted Husband.

            “I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the LORD.  (2:19)

The wrath of God (his justifiable anger and judgement) are seen clearly as an act of discipline where, “I long to redeem them…” (7:13). That longing of God for Israel is laced through the text contrasting with the withholding of compassion until the (often horrifically severe) judgement is meted out: “I will have no compassion…” (13:14b), “The people of Samaria will bear their guilt” (13:16), “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (11:1), Return Israel to the LORD your God (14:1), “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely” (14:4).

The Christian church has often struggled to get the balance right between judgement and mercy. Too often a lack of rigorous discipline has allowed destructive attitudes and activities to flourish and at others it has been so harsh, unfeeling and unrelenting as to drive people away for ever. I remember that someone once said something to the effect that, when you preach about Hell you should only do it with tears in your eyes.

May God give us the strength to not retreat from church discipline but to apply it with wisdom and a heartfelt love and longing for the restoration of the people concerned. I am sure we will have much healthier fellowships as a result.

Gleanings from the Bible: Song of Songs.

In my younger days, when this book was known as the Song of Solomon, there was a tendency for the Christians I mixed with to understand it as an allegory for Christ and his Church. Apart from the fact that marriage is frequently used in scripture as an analogy for the covenant relationship of God with his people and Christ with the Church, there is little reason to interpret Song of Songs that way. There is no internal evidence and the New Testament doesn’t refer back to it.

No, quite simply this is a poem about the exclusivity and richness of two people in love, delighting in one another. As a part of Scripture and the body of Wisdom Literature, it reminds us that love and sexual attraction are God’s gift, to be thoroughly enjoyed within the bounds that God has set for us.

The spontaneity of love is hinted at, with Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires (2:7 and 3:5). It has to do with giving and responding from the heart.

Catch for us the little foxes
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards
our vineyards that are in bloom

…suggests an attention to detail in the relationship, whether presenting attractively to one’s spouse or dealing with the everyday small things that could mar the relationship. It is obviously expressed here by a couple in the prime (bloom) of life.

Elsewhere there are the poetic (if somewhat quaint to our ears) compliments expressed one to the other, which keep the romantic love alive:

Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
     with choice fruits,
     with henna and nard,
     nard and saffron,
     calamus and cinnamon,
     with every kind of incense tree,
     with myrrh and aloes
     and all the finest spices.
You are a garden fountain,
     a well of flowing water
     streaming down from Lebanon.

We might feel awkward expressing ourselves exactly like this, but you get the idea.

A NOTE ABOUT LOVE

You frequently read, “All you need is love,” or something similar. It’s used in all sorts of contexts to justify various ideas and lifestyles. But it’s not true and at its worst amounts to superficial sentimentality. I think I know what people mean when they say that though. They are appealing to the idea that love covers a multitude of sins and that if you do what is loving and good for the other person then you will be doing the right thing – fulfilling the spirit of good laws and transcending bad ones.

But, love needs guidance and wisdom. For example, sometimes parents can love their children by giving them everything they want and bailing them out whenever they get into trouble of their own making. And in doing so they can ruin the ones they love. Love can be misdirected from one’s spouse to another, with painful and prolonged results. Love can lead people to make bad choices in a partner, or to enter a sexual relationship without a commitment to marriage. Statistics have long shown that people who live together before marriage are less likely to stay together when they get married than those who waited. De facto relationships often leave an “out” in the minds of the participants, which can often leave the woman literally carrying the baby. Remember, this is a generalisation, but an important one. Just ask the church organisations, which attempt to give aid in a huge number of broken relationships.

God (who is love) has given us ample instruction in the Old and New Testaments as to the boundaries in which love is to be most enjoyed and practised. Those boundaries are the safeguards for a love which may at times be tough in its administration but which ultimately has the long-term good of the other person in mind. Amongst Paul’s writings about purity in relationships 1 Corinthians 13 has served couples well on their wedding day. Would that we read that New Testament chapter frequently alongside the beautiful Old Testament Song of Songs to experience the love of God permeating our relationships in all its fullness.

…and now I should go and help my wife and tell her how wonderful she is – which she is of course! 🙂