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?     

Gleanings from the Bible: 2 Samuel

Following the death of Saul at the end of First Samuel, Second Samuel takes up the reign of David. I used to think that David just took over the throne relatively smoothly but as we read the account we realise that the underlying tensions between the tribes supporting Saul (principally his own tribe, Benjamin) and David’s tribe (Judah), prolonged the process considerably and led to bitter civil war.

It reminds me of what can often happen in parishes that have several church centres. Each one has its own identity and its own powerful identities. The minister may bring unity to the groups and they may cooperate as things go well, but there exists an underlying rivalry rooted in property or status or some long-past fallout. When any stressful situation comes to the parish, usually in the form of change, the cracks between the centres become apparent and old rivalries flourish.

Even with the experience and wisdom of David and his reliance on Yahweh to guide him (2:2ff) we read that “war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time” (3:1). It took a weakened house of Saul and the realisation that at least David was dealing honourably towards them (3:36) to bring about a unified kingdom. Later, towards the end of Solomon’s reign and with Rehoboam’s distinct stupidity, tribal divisions would surface again, leading to permanent disruption.

Aber’s (Saul’s general) reality check to Joab (David’s general) continues to be relevant to warring nations, churches and families to this day,

“Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realise that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?”  (2:26)

So it is chapter five before David rules all Israel and he mostly does it well. Most notably, he doesn’t rush into action without asking God first (5:19). God is pleased with him and makes a covenant promise that he will always have a successor on the throne, a promise fulfilled in his descendent, Jesus Christ (Christ or Christos, is of course the Greek for the Hebrew, ‘Messiah’ meaning ‘Anointed One’ or ‘King’).

David is commended because he sought God’s will and approval not because he was perfect. He would listen to wise advice but during his life he shed much blood, could be vengeful, made some poor decisions without consulting God and committed adultery and murder. Not a pretty picture!

A superficial reading of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and arrangement for Uriah to be killed in battle, may give the impression that David got off fairly lightly. After all we wouldn’t allow leaders to continue with that record would we? (Well maybe some would. We’ve seen leaders get away with some appalling deeds unchecked, haven’t we?)

As you read on you realise the dire consequences of David’s actions and the serious judgements God brings on him. Yes, he continues as king, but it all seems to go downhill from there. The child dies, Amnon rapes Tamar, Absalom kills Amnon. And David, perhaps diminished by his own sin, seems unable to mete out firm justice, thus enabling revenge and anarchy within his family. Absalom’s conspiracy seems to demoralise David further. This once decisive man of action cannot deal with Shimei throwing stones and dirt at him as he flees Jerusalem (16:5-14) and defers to the decisions of others (18:4). It is his general, Joab, who becomes the de facto leader in this period, calling David to order for neglecting those who fought for him during the coup.

And yet David returns to the throne. He still seeks God and he recognises his failure.

As we seek to learn from history it may be possible for church leaders who have erred to be restored to ministry at a later time, but cheap repentance won’t do. There is always a cost involved.

Let’s not take away from David his noble acts, his faith in God, and his recognition of his own sin. He is a towering figure in Israel’s history and the uniting of the nation. But let us also learn from his failures and not use them as an excuse for our own.