The Jonah Syndrome

By: 

Neil Earle

"How I Learned to Stop Worrying

and Meet the Assyrians"

“Show proper respect to everyone; love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). This is a great code to live by, but it’s much easier said than done. Why is it difficult? Perhaps because our jaded society tends to make us suspicious and fearful of people different from ourselves, and that attitude can’t help but short-circuit human relationships.

Numerous studies show that the gospel is carried to new people most effectively by personal contact. Fuller Seminary’s mission expert Charles Van Engen has written: “The world is ever more a stew-pot of people of very diverse cultures, religions and world-views working and living side by side.” For this reason, Van Engen argues, “the local body of believers is the primary agent for crossing cultural barriers and experiencing reconciliation in Christ.”

Your Muslim or Buddhist neighbors may question your religion, but they cannot overlook the fact that you, John or Joanne Christian, are different from other people on the block. Or at least we should be.

This is why, when Christians are asked to consider the importance of personal evangelism to the basic mission of the church, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the book of Jonah. As we seek to reach out to the world on a more personal level, the experiences of this Old Testament prophet can at the very least help show us how not to do mission.

Called to mission

Romans 15:4 tells us that everything written in the past, that is, in the Old Testament, “was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.”

What is immediately hopeful about Jonah’s story is that it shows us in stark terms that the source of genuine mission and outreach springs from the kindness and mercy of the great heart of God. Near the end of the book of Jonah, God asks Jonah the core question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).

That gets to the heart of effective biblically based mission. God was concerned about the cities of Jonah’s day, as he is concerned about the people in our cities today.

The biblical witness is consistent. Abraham pleaded for the life of Sodom (Genesis 18:23-32). Jeremiah urged his compatriots in Babylon to “seek the peace of the city.” Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), and Jonah … well, Jonah had some lessons to learn.

God had a challenging new assignment for Jonah, one that totally upset the prophet’s comfortable worldview: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me’” (Jonah 1:1). Jonah’s reaction was far from exemplary— “Not me, Lord — find someone else, please!”

‘Calculated terror’

What is going on here? A little background helps. Up till now Jonah had been a successful prophet. His ministry had gone well.

Sometime in the long and prosperous reign of King Jeroboam II (c. 793-753 B.C.) God had given Jonah the opportunity to announce the good news that Israel would expand its borders (2 Kings 14:23-25). As a native of Gath-heper, a town in the area later known as the Galilee, Jonah was overjoyed to proclaim that his nation would expand northward. Perhaps this expansion would secure a buffer zone between Israel and the dreaded Assyrians to the north.

The Assyrians — that was a name to reckon with. These fearsome warriors had already made their reputation with raids into Israelite territory in the previous century. Assyria’s King Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) had received tribute from Israel around 841 B.C., and Adad-Nirari was banging at the gates of Damascus in 804 (Lasor, Hubbard and Bush, Old Testament Survey, page 207). Cunning and cruel, Assyria’s swift-moving legions were the most dreaded military force in Jonah’s day, and Nineveh was the capital of Assyria!

The Assyrians practiced a policy of calculated terror. The Assyrian king Ashur-Nasir-Pal II (883-859 B.C.) inscribed his tactics on a stone monument: “I stormed the mountain peaks and took them … with their blood I dyed the mountains red like wool.… The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city, their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire” (Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past, pages 202-203).

How gruesome can it get! And God was asking Jonah to preach to these people? Impossible. Inconceivable! Jonah, like everyone else in the Ancient Near East, was all too familiar with the sins of Nineveh, its “evil ways and…violence” (Jonah 3:8). This was too much for Jonah to handle. “A mission to Nineveh, to the Assyrians? Lord, you must be kidding,” we can almost hear Jonah saying. This is like a mission to Osama bin Laden.

Fight and flight

In times of stress, psychologists tell us, we react with either fight or flight. Perhaps Finegan’s words give us a partial insight into Jonah’s flight reaction to God’s calling: “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).

What a strange turn of events! A prophet trying to escape God’s presence by leaving the territory of Israel! Ironically, he leaves from the exact same seaport where God will send the apostle Peter to start the Gentiles on the road to salvation (Acts 10:5-6).

So now the lessons from Jonah begin to accumulate. For openers, the prophet seems to have had a limited concept of God. Whether from a panicky fear of the Assyrians or from the shattering of his comfortable assumption that God was working only with Israel — he hightailed it to Tarshish, perhaps in the Western Mediterranean.

He was about to learn that God was a lot bigger than the Mediterranean. He would be faced with the uncomfortable fact that this God he served loved all people — even the dreaded Assyrians.

The action continues: “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up” (Jonah 1:4).

Where was Jonah during this storm? Incredibly, he was in the hold of the ship fast asleep (verses 5-6). What was going through his mind? Was he totally uninterested in the fate of the ship or — as seems more likely — was he still in shock over God’s shaking up of his neat and tidy division of the world into good guys and bad guys?

Some expositors picture Jonah down in the hold in utter shock, perhaps curled up in a fetal position. Perhaps it was fear and loathing toward the Assyrians, or perhaps it was the trauma of a shattered worldview, but Jonah was in deep, emotional disturbance.

We can almost hear him pondering down in the darkness of the cargo hatch: “Isn’t Israel God’s nation? Aren’t they a special treasure above all nations (Exodus 19:5)? Why is God sending me to the wicked Assyrians? No, no, it can’t be … can it? … Does God love Israel’s enemies as much as he loves Israel?”

Deep down, Jonah may have suspected that this was the case (Jonah 4:2-3). But he has to work out this shattering new formula in his mind. Jonah had misread his country’s history. God had called Israel to be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Their founding father had been commissioned for an international mission of mercy — “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).

Missing the boat!

Israel was to be a missionary nation (Isaiah 49:6). Jonah was being challenged to stretch his thinking; to be inclusive rather than exclusive; to be sharing the light, not narrowly looking down on others.

Jonah may have known all this, but he needed time to process the shock. He may have been on a vessel, but he was missing the boat. No wonder he is too distracted to notice that they’re all about to drown!

Here the narrative gets more ironic. The Gentile sailors are terrified of the storm. They have “done something religious” — they have been calling out to their gods, a common procedure when in trouble (Psalm 107:23-37). The captain shakes Jonah awake: “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6).

Nope. Jonah remains obdurate. When it becomes clear that all this is his fault, he says: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (v. 9). This would sound comical if so much was not at stake. The pagan sailors could have asked: “If your God created the sea, why did you think you could get away from him on a boat?”

Ah — a logical question. But Jonah isn’t thinking logically. Neither do we in times of great mental and emotional turmoil. You can almost visualize Jonah thinking of his next move. He responds impulsively: “Throw me into the sea. All this is my fault!”

Incredibly, those pagan sailors refuse. They have more respect for human life than the so-called man of God. Ironic, isn’t it? Finally, events force them to do the deed, but with great reluctance. They do it respectfully, reverently, invoking God’s name (v. 14). The pagans are more religious than the prophet!

Further, when the storm subsides, they offer sacrifices to God (v. 16). What potential converts these seamen might have made. But Jonah is not thinking about such things. Into the sea he goes. Tragically, he chooses self-extinction rather than accept God’s mission.

Mercifully, God wasn’t through with his servant yet. A great fish swallowed up Jonah, the man of God. A man of God, all right, but a man who had head knowledge without corresponding heart knowledge.

But he was still Yahweh’s servant, and with his back to the wall, inside the great fish, Jonah prayed a beautiful prayer of repentance (Jonah 2:1-9). Notice the lessons here. His “death” in the sea reconciled the sailors to God (Jonah 1:16). His “resurrection” from the belly of the fish would result in the salvation of Nineveh (Jonah 3:10). In all of this, the Hebrew prophet was an amazing foreshadowing of the Messiah, also from Galilee, Jesus the Christ (Matthew 12:40).

The still, small voice

But the repentance of Nineveh brought out the worst in this hot-headed prophet. Habits of a lifetime are not so easily overcome. He resented God’s grace and mercy (Jonah 4:1-3) and erupted with one of the most ironic requests ever made by a biblical rarity: a successful prophet: “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

God does not do what Jonah wants (just as well for Jonah!). In this experience and in the incident with the worm and the vine (verses 5-8), God twice approached Jonah in the soothing tones of a skilled Counselor: “My friend Jonah, come on now, be reasonable. Do you have a right to be angry about all this? Don’t you see what I’m doing here?” (Jonah 4:9-10).

What great lessons for us today! New Testament Christians are continually challenged to keep growing, to keep breaking new ground in our relationship with God. Perhaps we can all relate to Jonah — a sincere servant of God with a successful track record who still had so much to learn about the depths of God’s goodness and grace.

Yes, we need to stay humble before God’s overwhelmingly unfathomable love. God’s mission of mercy is for everyone who will hear — including the Assyrians. It is so splendidly all-encompassing.

This supreme reminder from the book of Jonah was stated more powerfully by another prophet, Isaiah. He too passed on a message about the greatness of God, about his loving concern for all people, all nations. And he reflected: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

God goes ahead of us

Perhaps Jonah was so busy being a prophet to Israel that he forgot the purpose of his nation’s existence — to be a nation of priests to the whole world, regardless of color, creed or birth. Perhaps his involvement in his own country’s liturgy and service — the true religion of God — had blinded him to the fact that God looks on the heart.

The sinning Assyrians found that God could be reached through attitudes of repentance and faith rather than religious ritual. Even heathen sailors could turn to God when given a chance. You never know where God might be working.

These are profound lessons to ponder as the 21st century unfolds. God wants us to expand our horizons, to be always ready for new opportunities that lie around us. From Jonah we learn that God is always ahead of us — the Creator of all wants to be the Redeemer of all (Ephesians 1:9-10).

In that hope we can recommit ourselves to the mission of making disciples — “of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). God is already there ahead of us, just as he was already working with ancient Nineveh before Jonah appeared, just as he later prepared the ground for Philip (Acts 8:26-40).

God wants us to succeed in our mission, for the mission is his. He wants to use us to help spread more of his light to a dark world and…avoid the Jonah Syndrome.

Neil Earle

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