The Book of Jonah is for children. We might not say so, but our actions and thoughts often say otherwise. It is most likely met in church and home as a story for children. As adults we are perhaps embarrassed by its improbabilities.
We are however missing something if we dismiss this oddest member of the Twelve Minor Prophets. It is so different to the other Eleven. This oddness does not make it suitable for children nor relegate it to irrelevance. Rather, the opposite is true. This book has the capacity to challenge us in a way that adults need to be challenged and children do not.
It is only adults that know about cynicism, disappointment, running away, apathy and selfishness to a great enough depth to be the target of such a sharp and barbed prod from God.
To follow this meditation you will need to have a copy of Jonah available.
Make yourself comfortable. Loosen your shoulders. Breathe deeply and slowly. Imagine you are Jonah. Keep asking what do you feel, taste, hear, smell and see.
Read Jonah 1:1–3
Why are you running away from God? You know so much about his ways. But sometimes you choose to go in the wrong, in fact the opposite, direction. Why is it sometimes so hard to do the things of God?
Why is it that there are some people that you do not want to be with? Is it their poverty that makes you run away from them? Is it their sin you can’t abide? Do you flee from them because of their ‘pagan’ religion?
How is it that running away from people can be the same as running away from God himself? Surely you know there is no running away from God? Where can you hide from him?
Where Can You Flee?
Read Jonah 1:4–12
You find it easy to judge others. Especially those who don’t share your faith. You are, after all, born of a chosen nation. You are born of a famous father, Amittai, who was a prophet of great renown. You too have been chosen for the same privileged role—to utter judgement on the nations.
Waking up you remember that you’ve ignored Yahweh’s call. Worse than that you have fled his presence, or at least you have tried to leave him behind.
Bleary-eyed you find that the pagan sailors have eyes wide-open to God. They see him at the heart of this storm. They perceive he is angry with someone on the ship. A fraction of a second after you judge them for their silly superstition you realise it is true, that it is you that God is angry with.
You have to do the right thing—your life for theirs is not the end you had expected. But you can’t bear to be responsible for their deaths too. You surrender to being thrown overboard; as you are going to die either way. You hear yourself say “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”
Read Jonah 1:13–16
Your horror grows as the sailors can’t bring themselves to throw you overboard. You’ve rarely heard such earnest prayer. Prayer born out of desperate fear and anguish. Calling on God’s name for salvation.
You are paralysed with fear. You can’t find the courage to throw yourself overboard nor can your lips find words, try as you might.
As your rather dull life flashes before you, you realise that you were at the crossroads of something important which your life had been moving to. But now it is too late, you’ve missed the boat—or rather you’ve got on the wrong one. It’s almost a relief when rugged calloused hands grab you roughly and throw you into the roaring waves.
Composing a Psalm
Read Jonah 1:17–2:9
Your lungs have barely started burning as you hold on to what you think is your last breath, when you realise that you are not drowning. Damp squidgy glutinous material is all around. The smell is like the fish market you passed through yesterday, yet one hundred times worse.
You attempt to calm yourself after your breakfast has made a reappearance. Your mind tries to find the words for this new experience. All you can do is patch together snippets of the psalms you have sung so often before. You patch verses together and they sort of work.
You are trying to believe that being in the stomach of a fish is God’s salvation rather than just the start of a slower death.
You realise that despite your daily commitment to the psalms, “songs of trust”, you’ve never really been tested before. This really doesn’t seem the best way to learn such a lesson—you ask yourself, “Why did I flee from God?”
Unlikely though the prospect seems you promise yourself, and God if he can hear you, that next time you will do what he asks. Even if it is pronouncing judgement on the smelly undeserving people of Nineveh.
In that moment you have to admit that you smell far worse, however, than any Ninevite.
Read Jonah 2:10–4:3
Since being regurgitated you have done all that God asked. You walked 400 miles from where the fish vomited you up. You’d begged for help to get fresh clothes and food. You have pointed out to the people of Nineveh that these ‘pagans’ do things that are an abomination to God.
The people believed you! At first you enjoyed being a celebrity. The king believed you! If the kings commands were taken at face value, why even the cows and goats had repented.
But then God does a U-turn because of his mercy. Where is the justice in all this? What use is Law if it can be overturned with repentance? Are these pagans God’s chosen? Are these Assyrians God’s holy nation? Why can’t God stand up for his ways, punish those that do wrong? Wouldn’t punishing these people vindicate his own people?
An Angry Prophet
Read Jonah 4:4–11
Father, we confess that too often we reject you ways. We want to know your mercy and grace, and yet we are slow to help bring news of your mercy and grace to others.
Father, we pray that we might learn to see this world with your eyes. Grant us wisdom to walk with you and to honour you with our choices.
Help us see temptation for what it is—a journey away from you.
Father, we pray that we would see others as you see them. Help us know with our hearts that you love all men, women and young people. Help us to love irrespective of wealth, status, ethnicity, gender and peoples’ mistakes.
Help us see the plank in our own eyes that we can love more truly.
Lord we are your servants. Help us learn from Jonah’s weakness that we can begin to echo better Jesus’ meekness.
Father, help us to be people of prayer. May we may pray more with our own words. May we pray liturgy together more passionately. May we desire your Spirit’s words more voraciously. And may we read, and be read, by your Word more frequently.
Afterword: The Two Brothers
Read Luke 15:11–32. Whilst you do so imagine you are the first son (or you can be a daughter) and that the second son is called Jonah.