“But God, as He is the supremely good Creator of good natures, so is He of evil wills the most just Ruler; so that, while they make an ill use of good natures, He makes a good use even of evil wills.” —Augustine, The City of God
Jonah comes to a jarring end with pagans repenting and the prophet rebuked. A litany of three questions leaves us hanging in suspense.
“Do you do well to be angry?”
“Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”
“Should I not pity Nineveh…?”
Like Job, Jonah is brought into God’s court. Unfortunately, Jonah neither speaks nor keeps silent with the wisdom of Job. Unlike the book of Job, no pleasant resolution follows the court scene. Instead, we are left with Jonah to wrestle with these questions. If we don’t, I’m afraid we miss the message of this little book.
There is a sense in which you need to get angry to understand the message of Jonah. The central message of this book is found near the center, at the end of chapter two where Jonah exclaims, “Salvation is of the LORD!” How could we get mad at a message like that? Paul anticipates that we might.
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:14–24 ESV)
A good sign that you understand Romans 9, and Jonah also, is if they’ve ever made you angry. Do they give rise to an initial objection? That so many interpretations of Romans 9 don’t hit the mark is evident in that they make no one mad. Often, the best indicator that you’ve understood God’s salvation isn’t that you now rejoice in it, but that at some point it has made you furious. Have you never felt what Paul calls the “offense of the cross?”
Perhaps the reason you’re so comfortable with God’s grace is that it makes sense to you. You live in Jerusalem where God’s grace makes sense. You live among the pretty people. Of course God loves you so. Have you never stepped outside of your bubble of bliss to see the Savior’s sovereign salvation of sinners? Here is where the rub lies. He is sovereign. We are sinners. Yahweh is free to have mercy on whom He will.
Just how free do you believe God’s grace to be? When all is done, what separates you from your neighbor in hell? “I believed,” you reply. Yes, but why did you believe? Is the answer found in you or in God? Salvation is not of you. Not even a little. You do not make the difference. Salvation is of Yahweh. Every bit of it. Soli Deo Gloria. Glory to God alone.
Jonah ends with Jonah’s silence, and yet the book screams. We are brought to exclaim, “No! Jonah does not do well to be angry. He deserves to die. And yet, Yahweh, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, allows him to live. In doing so, He is free to have mercy on whom He will.”
If you read this book closely, I believe you’ll see that Jonah came to sing after the appointed plant, worm, and wind, just as he sang after the appointed fish. Chapter two is not a record of Jonah’s prayer, but an account of his praying. The narrator is no longer unfolding the events for us as they came, rather, Jonah’s poetic recollection of his praying is inserted. I don’t believe Jonah took time to pen poetry after being spewed out by the fish before heading to Nineveh. I believe Jonah 2:1–9 were written sometime after God’s final question was put to him. In this way, Jonah does answer God’s questions. He answers with a prayer of repentance and faith and praise exclaiming again, “Salvation belongs to Yahweh!”
Jonathan Edwards too was once troubled by the Savior’s sovereign salvation of sinners. He wrote:
“From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But I never could give an account how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, with respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God showing mercy to whom he will show mercy, and hardening whom he will. God’s absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times. But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God’s sovereignty that I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”
Like Jonah, the sweetness of Savior’s sovereign salvation of sinners may not be the saint’s first conviction, but it is sure to be their last.
Salvation is of YHWH!
“And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” —Jonah 1:17 (ESV)
If the big fish story of Jonah causes you to flop nervously like a fish out of water consider this, the big deal isn’t if you believe the latter part of 1:17, but the beginning. If God is sovereign, He may do as He pleases. The laws of nature do not stand over Him but under Him. They are because He is. C.S. Lewis observed,
“If the laws of Nature are necessary truths, no miracle can break them: but then no miracle needs to break them. It is with them as with the laws of arithmetic. If I put six pennies into a drawer on Monday and six more on Tuesday, the laws decree that other things being equal—I shall find twelve pennies there on Wednesday. But if the drawer has been robbed I may in fact find only two. Something will have been broken (the lock of the drawer or the laws of England) but the laws of arithmetic will not have been broken. The new situation created by the thief will illustrate the laws of arithmetic just as well as the original situation. But if God comes to work miracles, He comes ‘like a thief in the night.’ ”
He goes on to say,
“This perhaps helps to make a little clearer what the laws of Nature really are. We are in the habit of talking as if they caused events to happen; but they have never caused any event at all. The laws of motion do not set billiard balls moving: they analyze the motion after something else (say, a man with a cue, or a lurch of the liner, or, perhaps, supernatural power) has provided it.”
The laws of nature are simply us observing how God normally plays the game. We’re dealing with the one who didn’t merely make the billiard balls, nor simply with one who then masterfully sets them moving, but also with the Sovereign who holds them together by the word of His power and directs them where He will. Our eyes are so clouded that we fail to see that even the natural is supernatural. God is constantly turning water into wine. It is amazing that He normally does so with a plant, but we’ve grown sleepy like Jonah in the boat. We fail to be properly impressed by the creation which tells of His glory. What astonishes us about that vintage He served up at the wedding feast in Cana is that by doing so it was clear that God was among us. Men normally eat fish, and in this God is doing a million amazing things, but when a fish eats a man, we are awakened out of our slumber to realize we are dealing with God.
The subject of Jonah 1:17 isn’t the great fish, but the great God. Science may tell you that it is impossible for a fish to swallow a man and for that man to then live for three days inside that fish. This may be true. But we are not dealing simply with man or a fish here, and this is good news, because it is also impossible for man to save himself. But it is not impossible for God to save man, for “Salvation is of Yahweh!”
When dealing with Yahweh, whatever you do, don’t run! Additionally, it’s helpful to know that you’re always dealing with Yahweh. Because God is omnipresent, when you run from Him you can’t but run into Him, and you’ll always find that the side of God you run into is worse for you than the side you are running from.
Do not flee the One who can hurl “great winds.” We think it incredible when a pitcher can hurl a one hundred plus mile-per-hour fastball, and it is, but we can get our fingers on that. The average person can begin to approach that in measure. God grips what we cannot, the wind, in quantities beyond our comprehension, and hurls it so that the sea foams.
Man needs a bulky blower with some power supply to send bits of dust and grass off his driveway. God needs nothing. He hurls the wind simply by wiling it and He can do so with laser precision.
Know this, God does not simply watch the storm and it is a euphemism to say that He allows storms. He hurls the wind. The psalmist sings, “He commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea,” (Psalm 107:24 ESV). Yahweh is the hurler of great winds and the lifter of waves. Weather patterns are not randomized nor do they run according to some complex algorithm that God programmed into the laws of nature. God didn’t design an automated smart-earth. He operates everything manually.
God doesn’t pitch wild. He can throw full force, straight down the pipe, without tiring. He can smack a giant between the eyes with a stone and He can rock a ship with the wind. This storm smack the glove—a little ship headed for Tarshsish.
If you are so foolish as to flee God, and we all are, don’t think you’re getting away with it because you make it fifty miles. God might just want to demonstrate how far and hard He can throw. God throws comets through the cosmos. He can hit you. He can throw over any distance without losing velocity because every pitch is a short pitch. He can throw such that the wind gains velocity, for He is there carrying the storm along its trajectory at every point.
The scariest thing about running from God is how far He might let you run. Don’t presume He will hurl wind and lift waves to bring you into obedience. He might let you sail off the edge of the world and into hell below. You might be in Israel and not be of Israel. You may grow in the church but prove to be nothing more than a weed to be plucked and thrown into the fire. But if you are His, He will keep you by His sovereign power. Either way, it is best not to test Him. When dealing with Yahweh, whatever you do, don’t run.
“So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.” —Ruth 2:3 (ESV)
Things happen, but things never just happen. Can you picture the wry smile of the author as he pens this line? Can you see the Spirit’s joy as he moves the human author as his pen? Can you see God’s smile as he etches these events in history?
It is not as though God does the big stuff like famine and harvest and leaves the dust to settle where it will. It isn’t as though God sits in the comfort of the air conditioned cab of his tractor, mindful of acres of work but oblivious to the ant mound he just plowed over. God isn’t so big that he passes over the details. He is so big no detail is passed over.
We must look at all reality through these eyes. This was indeed a divine moment—as every moment is. We mustn’t presume, but we must believe in providence. Presumption occurs when we think we can read providence and that it is a story about us. “It was a divine moment—a God-thing. I saved thousands of dollars.” Funny how me-centered your God-thing is?
John Flavel said that “the providence of God is like Hebrew words—it can be read only backwards.” The author wrote this story from the vantage point of the Davidic covenant. We read it from the vantage point of the new covenant. Don’t presume to be able to read the events of your life with the same kind of clarity.
Nonetheless, believe that there is a God ordering all events, some more significant, others less so, but all ordered for His purpose without one ant marching out of place. Providence isn’t meant to be understood but believed. Our confidence and joy in God’s sovereign goodness flow not from our understanding the details God’s plan, but knowing a God of all understanding has a plan to exalt the King of His people.
Let’s look at a lot of Scripture.
“And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly.” —Exodus 14:8 (ESV)
“Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground.” —Exodus 14:16 (ESV)
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.’ ” — Exodus 14:26 (ESV)
“So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea.” —Exodus 14:27 (ESV)
“Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” —Exodus 14:30 (ESV)
“Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” —Exodus 14:31 (ESV)
The same Hebrew word appears in all six of these verses from chapter fourteen of Exodus. Can you identify it?
Having problems? Maybe these two alternate translations for the first verse and the last verse will help.
“And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.” —Exodus 14:8 (KJV)
“And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” —Exodus 14:31 (NIV)
If you answered “hand,” give yourself a hand.
Israel leaves with a high hand. This gesture can mean defiance and insult (Numbers 15:30), or power and triumph (Micah 5:9). But more important that what is who. Whose hand? Israel went out with a high hand, but was it her hand?
“But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.” —Exodus 3:19 (ESV)
“Then Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the LORD brought you out from this place.’ ” —Exodus 13:3 (ESV)
I believe the mighty hand Israel is going out by is Yahweh’s.
The middle passages where “hand” is clearly translated all deal with Moses’ hand save one. Moses’ hand holds a staff (Exodus 14:6). That staff represents God’s power, or, God’s hand. When Moses strikes the Nile with the staff, it is God striking the Nile with the staff (cf. Exodus 7:17, 25).
One more hand is mentioned, and that is the hand of the Egyptians. God delivers Israel from the hand of the Egyptians by a mighty hand.
I don’t care how well you believe the deck is stacked in your favor, you can’t beat Yahweh’s hand. I don’t care how badly you may think the cards are stacked against you, Yahweh’s hand cannot be beaten.
The hand of the Lord is to be feared, and those who fear it are to trust it.
God doesn’t defeat the enemies of His people and redeem them, only to wave goodbye from the steps of His embassy in the defeated nation, giving them good directions to make it the rest of the way home on their own. The God who comes down to His people goes with them.
Modern evangelicals are not allergic to all doctrine. There’re some doctrines they’re fond of. One of them is guidance. Unfortunately, we’re severely misguided concerning guidance. Culpably, we are misguided because we don’t like where Biblical guidance goes.
Where does God lead His people? He leads them to a mountain, and then to the promised land. He leads them to a mountain where they receive His law, that they might know how they are to live in that land unto Him. God leads His people into holiness and He leads them home. Holiness is the path home, for home is a place of holiness.
A young man struggling with pornography asks what God’s will is for his life. What he want’s to know is where to go to school, what career to pursue, and who to marry. He want’s to know how to live in a sweet spot so that he can live Disney ever after. Many evangelicals have tried to baptize prosperity theology and make it clean. Such a pursuit of God’s will is nothing but idolatry. What is God’s will for the young man? Stop looking at pornography. Be holy.
We want to be Christian Jedi Knights, in touch with the Spirit, traversing a mine field of danger with supernatural knowledge. We think we’re guided by the Spirit when we miss a traffic accident. True enough. But you were also guided by the sovereign God when you had a traffic accident. God’s guidance isn’t something passive, but active. He is guiding. He faithfully guides His redeemed people into holiness until they come all the way home.
God guides His people into Egypt where they’re oppressed. He guides Moses back, and heavier loads are laid on them. He delivers them and lead them south away from the promised land. He leads them by the Sea where there is no retreat. He leads them in the wilderness. And He leads them home. God’s guidance comes with cloud and fire. It is omnisciently wise and gloriously peculiar. It is an unfailing, active, consistent guidance. It comes not at a distance, nor quietly. It is near and clear.
If your notion of divine guidance causes you more anxiety than peace, you’re doing it wrong. As is often the case, many sing their theology better than they confess it:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.