Clutching the Short Straw: Jonah Stories

Jackson Snyder   

 

 

Jonah 3:1-5,10  Psalm 62:5-12  Mark 1:14-20

 

Jonah On Board Briefly

   Jonah is a well-known diplomat in Israel.  He’s already negotiated a very favorable land-for-peace deal with the sworn enemies of Israel, the Syrians, under King Jeroboam II (783-743 BC), so he enjoys fame and notoriety.  However, he is also called of Yahweh as a prophet, a mouthpiece for the words of G-d.  Although Jonah is very reluctant to fulfill his prophetic office, Yahweh’s calling of individuals is deliberate and without repentance.  Jonah’s calling to Yahweh’s service dogged him no matter where he went.  It was like a ball and chain to him.  He didn’t want the job.  One day when he least expected it,

Jonah 1:1,2 The word of Yahweh was addressed to Jonah son of Amittai:  2. `Up!" he said, "Go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to them that their wickedness has forced itself upon me."

   The call to Nineveh is like a nightmare.  Nineveh is not only a wicked city, but it’s the capital of the Syrians, the sworn enemies of Israel.  If the Syrians get hold of Jonah, they’ll put his head on a pike.  Why would Yahweh send him to certain death?

   Besides, what if Jonah preaches fire and brimstone against these Syrians and nothing happens?  I mean, what if Yahweh doesn’t send destruction on them?  What will happen to his reputation?  He doesn’t know which is worse, losing his face or losing his life.

 

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   Jonah goes into hiding rather than fulfill his ministry.  He books passage on the first ship sailing to Tarshish, which is about as far away from Nineveh as east from west.  On board, he hides deep in the belly of the ship, feeling pretty sure Yahweh won’t find him there; after all, his shipmates are all heathens – nobody knows him here.  Yet who can hide from the Creator of the Universe who sees and knows all? 

   Soon enough,

Jonah 1:4. Yahweh threw a hurricane at the sea, and there was such a great storm that the ship threatened to break up.

   The people on the ship are terrorized.  They fight the storm with all their might, but they finally give up every strategy as useless.  They start calling on their gods, demons and angels to save them from the hurricane.  Soon, with nothing left to loose, the boatswain calls those on board together, and even drags Jonah out of the belly of the ship.  He’s so deep down inside that he doesn’t even know what’s going on above decks.

   Sure that there’s a jinx aboard, a man cursed by some god, the boatswain makes everyone draw straws (cast lots).  Jonah gets the short straw and now all attention focuses on him.  The gods have pointed him out.  “Who are you and what are you doing here?” they demand.  Jonah tells them he’s a Hebrew, a worshiper of Yahweh, from whom he is escaping.  Now they realize that Jonah’s the jinx and Jonah’s god Yahweh brewed up this storm.  “What little wooden god could cause such a catastrophe?” they all wonder in amazement.    

   Jonah tells them that Yahweh controls wind and wave because he created the sea and land.  Having failed in every attempt to bring the ship aground, they’re willing to believe in Yahweh’s power.  Fear is a great motivator, at least for a while.  They’re instantly converted.  To whom else could they now look for salvation but the god of the short straw?  They cry out to him in one horrified voice, “O, Yahweh, don’t let us perish for this man’s sake nor hold us responsible for his death; for you, O Yahweh, have acted as you saw fit.”  Then, just as Yahweh cast the hurricane upon the waters, they cast Jonah into the raging hurricane to appease the god.  Having perpetrated this dastardly but necessary deed, they wait while the storms abate.  Suddenly, in the calmness of the seas, a spontaneously cheer wells up among these new converts, and they offer Yahweh thanksgiving, sacrifices and vows.

 

In the Whale’s Belly

   Jonah’s disobedience precipitated the conversion of all these demon-worshipping heathens!  Still, the premeditated murder of Jonah by these sailors is a mortal sin, punishable by death -- had his death actually happened.  When Yahweh saves Jonah he also saves his new converts from judgment for murder.  What a strange situation!  What an unlikely evangelist is Jonah!  Yahweh makes a way when there is no alternative.  Yet Jonah’s salvation makes for an even more incredible story.  Jonah’s saved by a whale.

   Jonah resides in the whale’s belly for three days.  Do I believe Jonah really lived in a whale’s belly?  Sure I do.  Any doubts I had about unlikely possibilities disappeared in 1969 when men lived three days on the moon.  A whale’s belly would be a pretty stinking place, but probably better than some parsonages I’ve lived in.  Therein was darkness, time and uncertainty.  After awhile, when Jonah realizes he isn’t being digested, he begins to make the best of a bad situation by praying, singing and promising to fulfill his vows to Yahweh in case he might be saved.

   One of Jonah’s prayers is recorded in chapter 2.  I love to read it. 

(Jonah 2 excerpts) “From the belly of Hell I cried out to Yahweh; you heard my voice!  The waters round me rose to my neck, the deep was closing round me, seaweed wrapped round my head.  When I was growing ever weaker, my prayer reached.  Some abandon faithful love by worshipping false gods, but I shall sacrifice to you with songs of praise. The vow I have made I shall fulfill!”

What else could Jonah do?  Just allow peristaltic action drag him down into the foul depths of the whale’s large intestine?  No, “Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah unto dry land.”  The whale barfed him out like a rotten rutabaga.  Maybe the whale just couldn’t stand all that psalm singing.  Either way, before Jonah can get the stink off, Yahweh speaks to him again: (Jonah 3:2)  “Up!” he says, “Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to it as I shall tell you.”

 

Jonah in Nineveh

   When Jonah finally gets to Nineveh, he must walk through the town like a street preacher.  It takes him three days.  Everybody there knows Jonah by reputation (2 Kings 14:25).  Now they see this living legend in person.  “Has he gone mad?  What’s he doing here, looking for a firing squad?  Doesn’t he know this is the most wicked city in the world, home of the terrible Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:36), nemesis and hated foe of Israel?” Jonah cries out as he walks through, “O bloody Nineveh!  Repent or you will be overthrown in forty days.  Thus says Yahweh, god of Israel.”

  Nobody can touch Jonah as he moves through heralding his message.  Yahweh protects him for these three days, and when they’re over, Jonah climbs the hill overlooking the city to watch the fire fall or army invade or host of angels descend.  Nobody knows about his fish story, and he isn’t about to tell.  Too embarrassing.  But if Yahweh doesn’t destroy this city within forty days as predicted, everybody’s going to know he’s a phony.  So he sits there and waits.

   Below the tree line, in Nineveh, that bloody, wicked city, something unlikely happens.  Some fellow puts on a burlap sack and squats in the middle of the main street, builds a fire, then throws ashes all over himself.  This is the ancient practice of public humility and repentance.  To Jonah, sitting under the gourd tree up on the hill, this is not good.  He doesn’t want anyone to repent.  He wants the place to go up in flames.  And if it doesn’t, he’ll be known as the biggest fool in history.  Jonah’s the loser no matter what happens.  Pretty soon more people waddle into the streets in sackcloth, building little fires and sitting in the ashes.  Now the streets are full of people.  They believe Yahweh’s warning, seek out his law and repent of their wickedness and violence.  They proclaim a fast to show how serious they are.

 

 

Nineveh Spared

   What causes these people to repent?  I don’t believe it was simply fear of destruction nor do I think it was the power of Jonah’s word.  But I do believe that the presence of Jonah and the warning announced on Yahweh’s behalf were instrumental in creating the circumstances vital for a city to be supernaturally convicted of their sin – convicted to the point of change.

   We believe that if our government will repent and seek Yahweh, then the people will follow.  But in Nineveh, that wasn’t the case at all.  Just the opposite.  This very evil king sees what’s happening with his people and he follows suit.  He decrees that everyone is to renounce their evil ways and violent behavior, and seek the will of Yahweh with all their might.  He acts thusly because his people did.  His proclamation?  “Who knows?” he says.  “Perhaps Elohim will change his mind and relent and renounce his burning wrath, so that we shall not perish.”  And the Bible tells us that, “Elohim saw their efforts to renounce their evil ways and relented about the disaster that he had threatened to bring upon them.”

   Yet Jonah isn’t the least bit happy about his conversion rate.  He despises these heathens; they are the bitter enemies of Israel.  And they are Arabs.  Jonah flies into a rage (4:1).  But Yahweh loves Jonah despite his hatred of foreigners, and is very apologetic to Jonah, explaining to him,

(4:11) “Why shouldn’t I care for Nineveh where more than one hundred twenty thousand people can’t tell their right hand from their left?” 

You see, these people worshiped demons because they were ignorant of the power of Yahweh; they were warlike because they didn’t know the Law of Yahweh; and the only reason they’d not turned to him before is that no prophet had dared go and tell.  Yahweh’s saying that the conversion of all these people isn’t Jonah’s responsibility.  He’s only the messenger; he was only to do what he was sent for.  The responsibility is Yahweh’s.  Once the Ninevites come under His conviction, the choice then becomes their responsibility.  Jonah is just to go.

 

The “Preaching Moment”

   With this, let me insert a short “preaching moment.”  When their preacher came, he wasn’t lovable or even mild-mannered.  Furthermore, he was a foreigner.  But they heeded Yahweh’s call and thus were saved.  The area in which we live is 100% saturated by the Gospel.  There are more churches than bar rooms.  Nobody around here has any excuse for being violent, acting like a heathen or rejecting the call of Yahweh to repentance and conversion.  Some day, sudden destruction will come.  You and I have no excuse not to be saved.  If we don’t repent now, we will die in our sins, and our fate will be sealed.  This marks the end of my short “preaching moment.”

 

The Call a Struggle

   The fact is that the Almighty, in his great love, is concerned for all humans, that they might repent and come into fellowship with him and thus be saved from ultimate destruction.  Yahweh has reluctant prophets like Jonah stationed all over the world; folks that would be far more prosperous and popular just staying at home and working at the Minute Mart or the Pig.  But when the call of Yahweh came, they acquiesced their own hopes to follow His plan.  I can tell you, most people who are called by G-d simply don’t fall in line like Philip, Nathaniel, Simon, Andrew, James and John, fishers of men.  For most, like Jonah, there is a terrific struggle, then a running away, then a hurricane, then a fish belly, then either a decision to walk boldly into the danger zone or huddle in some dank, smelly cellar.  It’s not easy to follow the call of Heaven.  Following the call often doesn’t turn out as well as it did for Jonah, who, despite himself, was the instrument that caused the conversion of a shipload of heathens and a city full of criminals. 

 

The Call Means Danger

   I’m sure those Baptist medical missionaries struggled with their calling to Yemen every single day of the decades they ministered in that hostile land.  They didn’t win masses to Jesus; they could only try one-on-one.  And for their service they lost their lives to the bullets of an assassin just three weeks ago (December 30, 2003).  We’ve heard many horror stories about mission work just since the “war on terror” began.  And believers called to the foreign field will continue to win wars with devils yet lose their lives in small skirmishes.  But there are also great successes (every soul saved is a great victory), yet these Jonah-like success stories just aren’t publicized like those that break hearts.  People are far more interested in the bad news than the good.

 

Jonah Stories

   But today Yahweh loves and will do everything in his vast power to save them before destruction falls.  He calls as many as he can to go to these people who don’t know their right hand from their left, what’s right from what’s wrong.  Let me share a couple Jonah stories of Yahweh’s love you’ll never hear on CBS. 

   We read in the Bible about the hard-heartedness of the Jews, those first chosen to carry Yahweh’s message of redemption to the world.  Did you know that our prophets foretold that, in the latter days, millions of Jews would follow Jesus, and that Paul prophesied in Romans 11:26 that all Israel will be saved?  Today, over a million Jews in the US have come to believe in Jesus and another million have some kind of faith in him.  If there are seven million Jews in the US today, that means those Jews favoring Jesus in this country is approaching 30%.  Such a prediction would have been laughed to scorn just 15 years ago.  .

   Consider Latin America.  In the last ten years, over forty-one million people have come into a saving knowledge of Yahweh.  Again: 41,000,000 in 10 years.  That’s a staggering 400 per hour!  One church in Argentina grew to 250,000 members in that same time period.  Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the nation.  What if Yahweh sent them in to save us?  Do we Anglos dare consider such a possibility?

   Can the Holy Spirit fall on Muslims?  In Mozambique in Africa, an evangelical rally drew hundreds of jeering Muslim demonstrators bent on breaking up the meeting.  But when the Holy Spirit fell, he completely paralyzed everybody in the area – inside and outside – Christians and Muslims.  When the power lifted and people struggled to their feet, all were converted, including the Muslim extremist demonstrators.  On the heals of this amazing demonstration of power, more that one million Muslims and pagans were converted by the power of the Holy Spirit in one single series of meetings through Reinhard Bonnke Ministries.  And in Pakistan, one evangelist’s call to repentance brought tens of thousands of supernatural conversions with nearly one hundred thousand sets of Bible school textbooks requested.  There are many more such Jonah stories. 
   (Source: Gentle Conquest, January 2003 www.charlescarrinministries.com.)

 

Short Straw

   In all such cases, some Jonah, a reluctant prophet, is involved.  The convicting power of the Holy Spirit, often demonstrated in power encounters in the least expected places, is met with faith.  In many cases, the hardest, most godless people can’t resist believing – the evidence is too strong.  Faith is followed by repentance – which is just a fancy word for changing one’s mind.  Sins are forgiven and entire cities, listed on the holy ledger and scheduled for destruction, are spared.

   We saw it in Nineveh -- when the people fell before Yahweh, the king also fell and declared his faith by decree.  What if it were to happen in our world and you witnessed a power encounter?  What if it happened right here?  Would you believe that Yahweh is real and that your calling is real?  Well, it’s happening in our world now.  I’m here to tell you about it.  Why struggle against your calling, my friend.  Jonah tried his best to run away, picked the short straw, and ended in a whale’s belly.  Yahweh isn’t going to let you go either.  You’ve got the short straw now.  The secret is that the short straw ultimately turns out to be the winner.  “Those who lose their life for my sake shall gain life in abundance.”  You may be a reluctant prophet, but that’s OK as long as you clutch the short straw, then do your duty to your church, your mission and your god.  Amen.

 January 23, 2003