On the occasion of the Fast of Jonah or of Nineveh, I would speak to you about Jonah’s character and problem.
The story of Jonah the Prophet is one of conflict between the human ego and God as revealed in Jonah who was of a nature like ours but his ego caused him trouble.
Whoever wants to walk in God’s way ought to deny himself and forget or renounce himself, putting before him God alone. Jonah, on the contrary, let his ego be prominent in his mission and stand before him and God’s commandment.
Most probably Jonah thought much of himself, exclaiming:
How about my dignity as a prophet? What about my word and what people may say about me? What can I do if God’s way of work contradicts with my dignity? And Johan could not overcome himself.
God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and cry out against it, for although it was a big capital of more than one hundred and twenty thousand population it was an ignorant and very sinful nation. It deserved destruction. But Jonah thought of the matter that if he cried against the city and it repented, God would relent and have compassion towards it and it would not be destroyed!
Can it be that my word falls and my dignity be lost due to God’s mercy and forgiveness? It is better for me to keep away from His way which will deprive me of my dignity!! So, he fled in a ship going to Tarshish, because he was not a person who obeys and submits but one who discusses God’s commands to see if they suit him or not.
The angels are different. They obey without hesitation or discussion. They are aware that God is all wisdom and they only have to do His will, for they do not take part in His dispensation, therefore they have no right to discuss or object.
They do God’s will whether for mercy or punishment. He commands an angel to shut the lions’ mouths to save Daniel, and the angel obeys. He commands another to kill all the first born to the Egyptians, a third to save Peter from prison or to save Paul or Lot, or to visit Hagar, and they obey. Angels will sound the trumpets to bring down plagues on the earth and destroy it. None of them will excuse himself, for they know their role and are humble. They do not think themselves more compassionate than God the Creator.
This reminds us of the Personal Status Law which prohibits divorce except for adultery, ad how some people call for allowing the divorced to re-marry, as if they were more loving, merciful and compassionate than Christ who gave the command!
Let us not be like Jonah who received the command, discussed it, and found that wisdom calls him to disobey, so he fled from the Lord in a ship! Poor is the person who imagines himself able to flee from God! I wonder where!
Wherever you flee, the command will pursue, ringing in your ear, haunting your mind, and troubling your conscience. The Lord’s word is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and sounding within the whole person.
Jonah fled and forgot that God is also in Tarshish, and is the God of the sea and the land. But God did not permit Jonah to reach Tarshish. He caught him in the sea and raised a tempest on the ship. Amazing indeed that Jonah was deeply asleep! Neither the tempest, not the throwing of the cargo into the sea, nor even his conscience did awake him!
Such a deep sleep needed a decisive action from God by which the passengers may be saved physically and spiritually, His will concerning Nineveh, be done, and that fleeing prophet be saved. He taught him obedience and wisdom and let him continue in the ministry in spite of his faults and disobedience with amazing long-suffering.
Who are Your servants, O Lord, who will do such great salvation? The Lord says: I have the tempest, the wind, the sea, the great fish, the sun, the worm, and the plant. If My rational creation did not obey Me, I will use the irrational creation as a reproach for them. And the wind and the tempest obeyed immediately and precisely.
The passengers and the mariners behaved very prudently and did their best. Every man cried to his god and they cast lots to know the cause of that trouble, and the lot fell on Jonah.
Jonah alone did not pray even when the captain blamed him, as if his obstinacy was greater than the surrounding danger!
The mariners tried to save Jonah, but they could not. Jonah confessed that he was afraid of the Lord God who made the sea and the land!! He knew the truth, but his pride made him insist on disobedience and obstinacy. When they asked him what should they do to him that the sea might be calm, he said, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.”
I wonder, after such warnings and strikes Jonah did not confess his sin nor promised to obey and go to Nineveh! He preferred to be thrown into the sea rather than confess his sin!
He did not implore God or apologize or promise. He preferred to die “with dignity” rather than let his word fall! But God’s will must be fulfilled in any case.
So, Jonah was thrown into the sea, and the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow him.
O Jonah! It is hard for you to kick against the goads. If you have willed, you wound have gone voluntarily to Nineveh, but since you did not, you will go by command, by the sea, the tempest, and the fish.
In the fish’s belly he had calm time to return to himself and see how he was neither alive nor dead. He had to confess his sin and apologize, yet he did not want to remain in such a condition. He had to argue with God, so he said, “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and He answered me… for You cast me into the deep … I have been cast out of Your sight…”
Actually it was not God who cast Jonah in the deep, in affliction and out of His sight, but Jonah’s sin did.
It was Jonah who put himself in the affliction; yet he complained and attributed the cause to God. However, it was good that he restored his faith in the belly of the fish and trusted that his prayer would be responded, so he said, “Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.” He trusted that though in the belly of the fish he would come out and see the Lord’s temple.
The fish succeeded in its mission, and it seems that Jonah vowed to go to Nineveh, because he said, “I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thank giving; I will pay what I have vowed.” (Jon 2: 9) And when he received the command once more He fulfilled his vow and went to Nineveh.
But it seems that he went against his will with the body only not with pleasure just to obey but not convince. He conveyed the Lord’s word successfully to the people of Nineveh, and they repented, fasted, prayed, and humiliated themselves. The Lord accepted their repentance and did not destroy the city, but the prophet, seeing his word falling, became angry! Such anger was an evidence of egoism which Jonah did not rid himself of.
The prophet should not have felt angry or displeased for the salvation of more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who returned to the Lord by repentance and contrition of heart; while there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Jonah in his selfishness did not take part in this joy, exactly like the elder son who did not rejoice for the return of his younger lost son and did not take part in the party made for him (Lk 15).
Jonah’s will did not conform with God’s will.
Not only this, but Jonah blamed God and justified himself thinking that he was right. He prayed, saying, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God.” (Jon 4: 2).
I wonder how could he pray with such a sinful and angry heart!
How could he imagine himself aggrieved and blame the Lord as if he was right?! How could he justify himself without any feeling of regret or contrition but as if he accepted labor with patience.
Strange indeed that a person justifies himself wrongly at the expense of truth and refuses to confess his faults though evident!! See also how God used four types of His irrational creation to teach His prophet a lesson. He entrusted them with hard tasks which they fulfilled perfectly without arguing: the tempest that struck the ship; the big fish that swallowed Jonah; the sun that beat Jonah’s head and made him faint; the worm that damaged the plant.
What about Jonah? He sat on the east side of the city to see what would become of the city! I wonder if he was expecting that God would change His mind and destroy the people for the sake of Jonah’s dignity! So, God gave him a lesson through those irrational creatures who were more obedient than the great prophet. However, God did not forsake him but guided him. May his prayers support us all!
The story of Jonah the Prophet and of the repentance of Nineveh provide us with many meditations:
The people of Nineveh were mere gentiles with no aspects of greatness at all but mere ignorance. They were of such a type that cannot discern between their right hand and their left (Jon 4 : 11) ! They also were sinners, but they repented.
Their repentance made their name and story recorded for ever in the Holy Scripture.
The Lord Christ said about them that they will rise up in the judgment and condemn that generation because they repented at the preaching of Jonah (Mt 12 : 41) The importance of their repentance lies in its being immediate, serious, and powerful, and it extended to the whole people from the king to the public. So it pleased God and made Him defend them.
Many people become famous for great works they did, for certain distinction or brilliance, for high spirituality, for a power to work miracles or to some talents they were endowed with, but Nineveh won its fame because of its repentance. Whenever we remember the repentance of Nineveh we take it as an example to follow. Some kinds of repentance cannot be ignored by history, especially if it was a turning point in one’s life.