By J.R. Miller
Jonah 1:1-4; 3:1-10
It was not by any means an easy task that was given to Jonah--his mission to Nineveh. There was no Board of Missions behind him with ample funds. There were no comfortable missionary quarters in Nineveh to receive him. There were no fine railroads to carry him there. The journey was long, the duty was hard and full of danger. It is quite easy to sit in our pleasant rooms and criticize the prophet; but--would YOU have wanted to go, if you had been in his place?
Jonah suddenly conceived a strong desire to go to Tarshish, instead of to Nineveh. Distinctly it is said he did it--to flee from the presence of Jehovah. Perhaps Tarshish needed a preacher too--but that was not where the Lord wanted Jonah to go at that time. It is never a question of where we want or do not want to go--but of where God wants us to go. A reason for Jonah's reluctance comes out later. He didn't believe God would destroy Nineveh; that is, he believed the Ninevites would repent and God would spare them. The fact is, he didn't want these heathen people to be saved! He wanted God to destroy them. He was an Israelite with strong prejudices, and on principle didn't believe in foreign missions. He considered the heathen fit only to be destroyed, certainly not fit to be saved in the same company with him!
We will call this a very unworthy attitude for a prophet to have--and surely it was. But does no good, clean, respectable, well-to-do modern Christian, ever have a like feeling toward wicked, dirty, degraded, good-for-nothing sinners? Just think out the answer, and don't look too far away from home for your facts.
"He found a ship going to Tarshish; and so he paid the fare." He did not want to go to Nineveh, so he thought he would go on a trip in another direction. It is a very sad piece of history. Was there never a young minister, just through the seminary, whom God wanted to go to some heathen country--but who didn't want to go, and made excuse to go somewhere else in place? Was there never a minister whom God called to some lowly, needy field among the poor or the outcast--but who had a "providential" call about the same time--to a rich or a fashionable church, which he took instead? Are there no good Christian men and women--not prophets or ministers--who have had "calls" to duties which were hard and repulsive, perhaps attended with danger or requiring sacrifice, which they did not accept--running off toward Tarshish instead?
It is well enough to look honestly at Jonah's sin--but we must not exhaust our vision on him. It is no doubt a great deal easier to be honest with other people's sins than with our own--but it is with our OWN SINS--that we have the chief business. None of us shall ever be punished for Jonah's sins--but for our own we shall be--unless we repent of them. The fact is, there is a great deal more running away from distasteful duty--than we dream of; and the condemnation strikes close home with many of us. Do we never shirk a task, that we know in our soul we ought to perform? Do we never make errands for ourselves as excuses for not doing errands that God has assigned to us? Well, that was what Jonah did--he made believe that business called him to Spain, to get clear of going to Nineveh.
"The word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the second time." He had failed dishonorably the first time--but God gave him a second chance to do his work. This shows the divine patience with us. Strict justice would have left Jonah at the bottom of the sea--or in the maw of the great fish; but grace preserved his life and restored him to begin again. He had now gone through a discipline which left him submissive and ready to obey. This is the way God often deals with people in our own days. When they disobey Him, He does not cast them off--but puts them under some discipline, sometimes sore and painful--to teach them obedience, and then tries them again.
Many of us have to be whipped to duty; but God is very patient with us. Most of us owe all we are to His disciplines. By these, even our sins and falls become blessings to us. We should be very thankful to God, too, for these second chances that He gives us--when we have failed to improve the first chance. Very few people make of their lives what God first wanted them to make. Then He sets them another lesson, that they may try again. Perhaps the second is not so beautiful or so noble as the first; still it is good, and if we are diligent and faithful--we can find blessing in it and make something noble even yet of our life. Most of us have to be sent more than once on our errands for God. Happy are we if we go even at the second bidding, although it is far better that we go at the first.
The command to Jonah was very definite. "Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you!" God knows just how He wants His work done. One of the most important things in a servant--is that he shall do precisely what his master bids him to do. We are too apt to be careless about exactness in obedience. A good many children err at this point in obeying their parents. They obey them perhaps--but they put very liberal construction upon their commands, and so their obedience is very inexact. They should learn the duty of precise obedience. In all business matters there is need for the same lesson. Railroad trains have been wrecked, with terrible loss of life, because a telegraph operator or some other employee obeyed his order inexactly. Wherever we are employed we should train ourselves to do our work just as we are bidden to do it.
One who would tell others how to be saved--must preach just the preaching which God bids His servants preach. Bad advice has wrecked destinies. Wrong sermons, and teaching of spiritual truth has wrecked souls! We are not to put our own construction on God's Word--and give that to the people. We are not to talk carelessly about the divine thoughts and teachings. We are reverently and faithfully to preach the message that the Lord bids us to preach, without abatement, without addition, without change!
Jonah had learned his lesson and learned it well. This time he arose and went to Nineveh. We are not told where he was after his deliverance--but no doubt he had a quiet time for thought and repenting. He would go over the story of his willfulness and disobedience in the matter of going to Nineveh, and would be ashamed of his conduct. Thus he learned humility and was ready now to do as God might command him. Indeed, he would become eager for another opportunity to do the work which he had first refused to do.
There is a story of a regiment of soldiers which in some war had dishonored itself in some way on a certain battlefield. In a later war the same regiment was again in the service, and at the first opportunity they displayed most heroic courage, thus "burning out the shame" of the former field. So Jonah in his humility, would long for another chance to go for God to Nineveh, that he might wipe out the dishonor of his former disobedience. When the command came a second time--he would rejoice. So we see prompt obedience this time, no parleying, no quibbling, no running away.
He delivered his message. "He cried, and said--in forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown!" The doom was announced, and forty days' warning was given. God always gives time enough for repentance. He is reluctant to punish. He waits to be gracious. This truthfully represents the heart of God and His dealing with sinners. He is slow to punish--and quick to forgive. "In forty days!" Still it must be noticed that the time for mercy is limited.
The message was heard and believed. "The people of Nineveh believed God." They believed what God said through His prophet about their sins--and about the destruction that was swiftly coming upon their city. This is a kind of faith that is needed everywhere just now. God speaks very plainly in His Word about the penalties and consequences of sin--but there are many who do not believe God. They sneer at the thought of judgment or eternal punishment.
The king and people entered heartily into the movement. "They proclaimed a fast." They called upon the people of the city to turn every one from his evil way. Their repentance was genuine--so far as it went. They did not merely put on garments of sackcloth and mourning; they turned their faces to God and gave up their evil deeds. They humbled themselves; they confessed their sins; they cleansed their hands of the wickedness they had been committing; they cried to God, supplicating His mercy. It is along the same path that everyone must walk--who would find forgiveness and the turning away of God's wrath. Sins must be given up--and turned away from. Bible mercy is wonderfully full and blessed--but Bible repentance is also deep and thorough.
"Who knows whether God will not . . . turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?" The repentance of Nineveh was from fear, and to escape the judgment pronounced upon them. That was as far as they could go--a mere dim hope that God might turn away from His anger--if they would turn away from their sins. That was all the gospel they had. No promise of mercy had been made to them on any condition, so far as we are told. They were not assured that if they repented--the doom would be averted; they repented on the strength of the dim hope of mercy which their own hearts suggested.
It is different with us. The same message which tells us of our sins, and the penalty which is sure to be visited upon them--points us also to the cross and proclaims eternal salvation and life to every one who will repent and believe on Christ. We are not driven to any such mere "perhaps" when we see our sins and desire to be saved. We know that if we confess our sins--God will forgive them; that if we seek the Lord--we shall be saved.
Mercy was revealed at once. "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way." God is always watching the earth, every corner of it where a sinful soul is, and wherever there is true penitence He sees it. There is no danger that anyone ever shall repent and weep over sin--and God not know it. There is joy in the presence of the angels when even one sinner repents. The most beautiful and precious thing on this earth in God's sight, is the penitential tear.