Bible Text: Jonah 3-4, Matthew 12:38-41, AC 2261 | Preacher: Ethan McCardell | Series: New Series | The Faith to Follow God
“Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot discern between their right hand and their left?” (Jonah 4:11)
Jonah’s a strange one. He really is. He’s thought of as one of the most wishy washy, misdirected, and often faithless characters in the Word. But I love him. I love him so much in fact, that he became the inspiration for the names of one of our children. Why would I love such a mixed up character? And why would I cherish what in most cases is a pretty stark list of personality traits? Because I hold them all! And so do you! And the lessons we learn through these Jonah tendencies, about what it means to be truly spiritual (i.e. moving from what we care about to what God cares about) are an invaluable part of human spiritual
What we read at the beginning are the Lord’s last words to the prophet Jonah, and they conclude his story in the Old Testament. There’s only one more time Jonah is referred to in Scripture, when Jesus was warning the Scribes and Pharisees that He would not give them a sign of His Divinity, but that they must be content with the sign of the prophet Jonah. “For,” He said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40) I love the Christology of Jonah’s journey. In other words, the Lord here was referring to the fact that He would rise from death, and on the third day, appear to His disciples.
Scripture tells us that Jonah lived during the reign of Jeroboam II. This second Jeroboam reigned for forty years (by the way, notice all the 40s in Jonah’s life – pretty significant) in the first half of the seventh century B.C. About two hundred years had passed since the time of David and Solomon, and the beginning of the divided kingdom under Jeroboam the first. Jeroboam II ruled the north kingdom of Israel from his capital in the city of Samaria. He wasn’t a good king, but he did succeed for a while in helping to suppress invasion from the Assyrians that sometimes poured from the city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Among these cities at the time was the great fortress of Nineveh. Situated on the Tigris River on what is today the northern border of Iraq and Iran, Nineveh symbolized the power, splendor, and extreme cruelty and brutality of the Assyrian Empire. From here, armies of Assyria streamed out to conquer, captivate, and destroy the people around them with terrible torture. And one of the lands that suffered invasion was the kingdom of Israel. The Israelite people feared and hated the Assyrians, because they were such a powerful enemy. So, put yourself in the other guy’s shoes for a moment, and imagine that you’re Jonah, in shock as the Lord asks you to go to this terrible people and warn Nineveh of the judgment that’s coming.
Because Assyria was feared and hated by the Israelites, you might have thought that a Prophet of Israel would be delighted with the idea of going and speaking warnings of judgment against them. Most of us probably would have thought something like: “Warn
‘em!? It serves them right. There is justice in the world! What goes around comes around.” Or some equally inspired expression of humanity. You better believe the Israelites wanted nothing more than a judgment from God coming upon them and destroying them all.
Isn’t it strange, then, that instead of obeying the Lord, Jonah took a ship from the coastal town of Joppa, and refused to carry out God’s command? It wasn’t until later, after being cast into the sea by sailors and then swallowed by a great fish (talk about death bed repentance) that Jonah agreed to do as he was told. He cried his message against Nineveh, that in forty days it would be destroyed unless the city repented of the evil it had done. And much to Jonah’s grief, the people of Nineveh repented, and not only that, God forgave them!
It’s in the conversation following this which Jonah has with the Lord that we see the reason he didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He was suspicious that God might change His mind and not condemn the Ninevites after all. My question is: do we do this? Are we often
so bent on an outcome it obscures our ability to see the truth about which outcome is best? This is one of the big lessons of Jonah’s life. Here then we have a pretty incredible contrast. The people who did not know the Lord or have the revealed Word of God at their fingertips, the Ninevites, listened to the Lord and repented, while the people who had the Word and knew the Lord, didn’t obey Him, and were at the same time filled with a spirit of hatred and contempt. Jonah even
acknowledged the reality of God’s relationship with His children when he said: “I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, …abundant in loving kindness, One who relents from doing harm.” (Jonah 4:2)
We’re taught that Nineveh, like a lot of other cities in the Fertile Crescent, had the Ancient Word. For centuries the people of the ancient world took their wisdom from it, and could come into connection with heaven through the knowledge and practice of correspondences. By the time of Jonah though, the knowledge and the life from this Word became lost through people’s selfish choices, and only extremely external ritual practice was left. (SS 21, 102) So the Lord said, describing the spiritual condition of the understanding in the Ninevite people, that they “couldn’t discern between their right hand and their left.” The people who had known and practiced the life offered them in this wonderful revelation were now really Gentiles – ignorant about God and heaven and anything that constituted spiritual life. (AE 401) So, the representation of Nineveh in the Old Testament is exactly what it had become literally – a state where sensual life with all its illusions is what we care about – and we let them determine our reality. And when this is all we’ve got, then false doctrines (remember, doctrine really just means the God given values you live from) and
practices come out. This was the Nineveh state that was called to judgment. (AC 1184, 1188)
But then there was the contrast – Jonah’s state. Right? He wasn’t a Gentile. He was a totally learned member of the Jewish church. He was so versed in the Word being given through his nation that he’d formed a very real sense of the true qualities of God. So why, would he not only have an isolated moment of disobedience, but completely turn His back on the Lord and get angry with Him – the God who he’d learned so much about? Was Jonah just an individualist in his own time? Or does Jonah’s life represent something deeper about patterns of life we all go through, connecting our belief in God to the way we’re living and recognizing that the math doesn’t always add up. That’s when we have a crisis of faith. And that’s Jonah. In speaking of Jonah and his representation as a person of the church, the Writings talk about the meaning in the ending of the story. After he gave his message to Nineveh,
Jonah went to the east side of the city and built himself a shelter. There he sulked, and became more and more angry when he saw the people of Nineveh were repenting and wouldn’t be destroyed. A plant grew up and temporarily gave him shelter, but a worm
destroyed it. Then the sun and a strong east wind beat on his head, and he wished he were dead. I want you to think about that again, as it applies to your life. Ever wish you were dead? Find a time when you remember feeling that way, and then tune in again.
Can this be a picture of our lives? Can we know what the Word of God teaches, can we even have an affection for the thought that the ideas there can change our life, and still deal with that Jonah part of ourselves? Yup. There’s a special quality of self love that we all deal with which would have us lord our worth over other people. To look down on other people and think that we’re better than them. Not just to hold other people in less esteem than ourselves, but to hold them in contempt. Sound familiar? Sound as if it is part of our history as a church, as a people, as a world? Yup. And there are lots of things that inspire
thoughts, feelings, and behaviors like these, but nothing more destructive than the misuse of the Word itself. The teachings for the New Church point out that we all have this temptation, to use the Word to push agendas rather than truth – just like the children of Israel at this point in their history: “they did not wish well to any but themselves,” says Heavenly Secrets, “thus not to the Gentiles, for these they hated.” This isn’t a history lesson. This isn’t really about the Jewish people. This is about us, friends. All messages in the internal sense apply across the spiritual states of the human race. This is a biggie.
The sun and the strong east wind beating on Jonah’s head is the activity of selfish love, while the shelter he built, the plant that grew up, and the worm that destroyed it are all the false ideas about what’s really important in life that we convince ourselves about. Image over principle, rebuttal over relationship, debate over reconciliation. In Jonah’s attitude, as
well as the attitude of every church that has been on earth, there has grown a sense of selfrighteousness, “I’m better than you because of what I’ve got,” of conceit in ownership, of contempt for others who don’t believe or think quite the same way we do, of hatred. These are the qualities that, if they go unchecked, block the Lord’s influence in recreating in our
hearts His image and likeness, and the life of an angel for which He’s prepared us from the beginning. God tells us that contempt in thought – feeling- and action make one with hatred, revenge, and cruelty. So, that’s not God’s best for our lives, right? There is hope. There is a way out. There is a more loving and wise way to live.
In order to be able to figure out where we are spiritually, and what we need to be aware of in our efforts to live for heaven, the Lord says: examine the signs. Are we beginning to find loving thoughts and true ideas less enjoyable; are we thinking bad thoughts
or wishing bad feelings on other people more often; are we wishing that others would fail rather than achieve honor and glory and fame from living a good life; are we rejecting teachings from the Word in favor of paths that “seem” easier; and are we doing these things in justification of evil intentions which would have us despise those we should be walking with and loving the most.
If the answer to any of these questions is, “yes.” Good news! The Lord Jesus Christ loves you and doesn’t want you to have the hurt of hell in your life anymore, so He’s provided a way out! As it was with Jonah and David and Solomon and many other kings and prophets in the Word, God used their life to represent the human potential for both great good and great evil – and to point the way to heaven. Because we learn by contrasts. In some of his work, Jonah represented the Lord Himself, and the work that He would do on earth as Jesus Christ, fashioning the form of God incarnate that would be our example of the way to a life of total spiritual transformation. But, he also represents our selfishness, an evil that has plagued humanity throughout the ages. Each generation seeks to put on a little more of the image of God, by putting away our need to manufacture the keys to heaven.
We don’t have to. We’ve already been given the Lord’s instruction manual. We just have to make the choice to learn from, love through, and live by its teaching. Jonah’s life is so touching to me because its an example of each of our lives, as we
struggle with this combination of beauty and truth, or ugliness and falsity inside each one of us – more or less depending on our state. In our freedom, God knows we’ll struggle not once, but lots of times to have heaven born in a place where hell has before lived in our hearts. And there will be times where our failures will seem like more than our victories. But we must stay strong in the knowledge of what the Lord has done, and is doing in each life to show us the way to heaven’s peace. Remember: He knows all of your life, but He’s planned you for a destiny beyond what you can see now, and a joy beyond all experience.
Yes, there will be times where you may even feel like Nineveh, filled with such things that give us little hope of redemption, and yet, there’s the voice of the Lord to Jonah – and to us right here right now – “Should I not pity Nineveh?” – I love you!
Lessons: Jonah 3-4, Matthew 12: 38-41, AC 2261