Jonah: a story of compassion

This past week, one of my good friends preached a message from Jonah 4. The message was convicting and challenging; I wanted to add some additional thoughts and lessons learned on Jonah.

Many people have discredited the book of Jonah because it describes a man surviving inside a fish for three days. To many, this simply seems impossible. So they raise all kinds of questions that have little to do with the central theme of the story: Was Jonah swallowed by a fish or a whale? Isn’t this story more of an allegory than a historical narrative? If Jonah wasn’t swallowed by a fish, isn’t God’s Word discredited? Many people would rather debate the story than learn from it; critique it rather than study it.

We happen to believe this story is historical fact. First, Jesus made reference to Jonah’s big adventure as an example of his own death and resurrection. Second, we have documentation of someone else surviving a whale swallowing.

Just for the record: In 1891, David Bartley was a crewman on board the English whaling ship, Star of the East. He was thrown overboard during the struggle to reel in a 70-foot sperm whale, and presumed dead. But the next morning, when the men of the ship began to clean and gut the animal, they discovered Bartley in its stomach. He was unconscious but alive, his skin bleached white from stomach acid. He eventually recovered and said that breathing was surprisingly easy, though the heat (104 degrees for a whale) was almost unbearable.

So it seems possible just by natural causes that a person could be swallowed by a whale and live to tell about it. And when we consider the awesome power of an omnipotent God, how can Jonah’s story be anything less than certain?

But the key to unlocking this book is not establishing the plausibility of the plot. It’s recognizing the infinite compassion of God and the drastic measures he takes to express it.

For us in the west, we think of compassion and love as residing in our hearts. But in the biblical mindset, compassion comes from one’s stomach or intestines. Compassion is gut-level concern for others; something you feel deep in your belly. That’s why the Bible sometimes speaks of “bowels of compassion.” God had it. Jonah didn’t. So God used the stomach of a “fish” to try to turn Jonah’s stomach back to Him and the lost people of Nineveh.

Sadly, even Jonah’s fish ordeal had only a temporary effect on him. He took his message to Nineveh, but grew bitter and resentful when God spared the city.

In many ways, Jonah is just like us. How many times has God stirred us up to serve him, only to see us fizzle out a short time later? How many times have we grown jealous and resentful when an enemy is successful and seems to enjoy God’s favor?

There are many lessons and warnings we can take from this story, look for the Holy Spirit to apply them in a variety of ways.

“You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah 4:2

Lessons from the Life of Jonah

1. You Can Run but You Can’t Hide-God’s compassion in disciplining his people – Jonah 1

God will take drastic measures to keep his people in line. He had Jonah thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish. Question: What will he do to you? Answer: Whatever it takes to keep you in his care. Hebrews 12 tells us that only legitimate, “loved” children receive discipline. Illegitimate kids run wild with no restraint. So, while some people might think God was mean to do what he did to Jonah, he really was just the opposite. Jonah did something extreme by sailing away to the end of the earth. God matched that move by sending a storm and a fish to eat him alive.

2. You can Always Pray-God’s compassion in answering our prayers- Jonah 2

If God were an ogre, he would have gotten a cheap thrill out of squashing Jonah in mid-flight. Instead, the Bible says that God provided a great fish for Jonah (1:17). And after Jonah prayed, God commanded the fish to vomit him onto dry land (2:10)

Sometimes God needs to drive us to our knees. He wants us dependent and praying. So he will allow our situation to get so desperate that we have no other choice but to cry out to him.

3. You can Never Be Too Far Gone-God’s compassion in granting repentance –

Jonah 3

Nineveh was a city of evil people. They were barbarians who worshiped idols and often raided Israel, raping and torturing it’s people. In spite of this, God was sending them help! That’s why Jonah didn’t want to go…from the beginning Jonah suspected that God intended to spare the city.

Nineveh didn’t deserve God’s compassion, but they received it anyway.

Jonah 3:10 says that Nineveh turned from evil and God had compassion on them. But, understand this: It was not their change of heart that led to God’s compassion. God’s compassion came first. Compassion led to repentance; not the other way around. After all, if God had not sent Jonah, the people would never have changed.

This story illustrates the power of God’s Word. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that the Word is powerful for correcting us and leading us to righteous living. By sending His Word to Nineveh, God had compassion on them and gave them the opportunity to change. And by granting a place like Nineveh repentance, God shows that we can never be too far gone. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, God can save us.

4. You Can Short-circuit God’s Compassion-God’s compassion in spite of Jonah’s condition- Jonah 4

Next to God, Jonah should have been the most compassionate person around. He had already tasted it. He had already been thrown into the sea and miraculously saved. He had already met God in the most unique way, and knew how gracious and loving he was.

Yet the story ends with Jonah wanting to die. Why? Bitterness and anger. Jonah wouldn’t let go of either one. He was angry at Nineveh and angry at God.

As with Jonah, anger and bitterness, deep in our belly, will crowd out the compassion of God that should live there.