Jonah, Pontificus and the Lord go ‘Round and ‘Round

By Pontificus Minimus

Painting by John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company. Photo by The Delta Bohemian

Painting by John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company. Photo by The Delta Bohemian

What would make the 8th century B.C. minor prophet Jonah angry enough to want to die? What can Christians learn from Jonah’s human, though honest actions? How is Jonah like Pontificus Minimus?

The word of the Lord had come to Jonah telling him to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Jonah didn’t want to go. Like many Christians, he ran from the Lord and what he believed to be an unction to confront. He caught a ship in Joppa bound for Tarshish. The Lord sent a great storm that threatened to break the ship apart. The Mediterranean Sea is a fearful place during a storm.

All the sailors were afraid and they all cried out to their own gods. Jonah went below, lied down, and fell into a deep sleep. The ship’s captain woke him up and commanded him to get up and call on his God, in the hopes that Jonah’s deity du jour would save them.

The sailors cast lots—thought to be like flipping coins—to see who was responsible for the impending calamity. Sailors on the high seas are not faint of heart, so when they become afraid, trouble is brewing. The lot fell on Jonah.

The sailors asked him pointed questions about who he was, where he came from and what he did to bring this torment upon them.

Jonah boldly answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the land.” This scared the hell out of them. He told them he was running from the Lord. They asked him what they should do to him to make the sea calm down.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “And it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” The fearful sailors tried to row back to land. They did not want Jonah’s blood on their hands.

The sailors cried out in unison to the Lord, beseeching Him not to hold them accountable for killing an innocent man. Finally, they chunked him into the sea, then made vows and offered a sacrifice to God. The sea settled.

Jonah was swallowed by a great fish where he spent three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed a beautiful, efficacious prayer:

“In my distress I called to the LORD, 
and he answered me. 
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, 
and you listened to my cry. 
You hurled me into the depths, 
into the very heart of the seas, 
and the currents swirled about me; 
all your waves and breakers 
swept over me.

I said, ‘I have been banished 
from your sight; 
yet I will look again 
toward your holy temple.’ 
The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 
To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. 
But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit.

When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, 
and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.  But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. 
What I have vowed I will make good. 
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”

And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

God told Jonah a second time, “Go to the great city of Ninevah and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed this time, pronouncing in the streets of Ninevah, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”

The Ninevites, including the king, believed God’s word, put on sackcloth, a sign of utter humility, declared a fast and then sat down in the dust. The king issued a binding proclamation in his name commanding all humans and animals to be covered in sackcloth and to forego eating and drinking in favor of crying out to God.

They were to give up their evil and violent ways in the hopes that all of this would cause God to relent and turn his fierce anger away from them. When God saw their response He had compassion on them and did not bring upon them the promised destruction.

What an incredible story of how our repentant actions can move God to show favor to those who respond to his commands, which are designed for our own good. BUT, it pissed Jonah off. He looked bad having just pronounced that they were going to perish for their sins. Then he finds out they are “getting off the hook.”

Now, how often does Pontificus Minimus’s selfish and shortsighted melon head do the same thing? How often is it more important that his pronouncements about the shortcomings of others be correct than it is for them to be the recipients of God’s grace and unmerited favor? Shame on him.

He should rejoice when God withholds consequences for poor behavior. He expects God to forgive him and bless him when he screws up, but he doesn’t covet the same thing for the rest of creation. Shameful!

Jonah prayed again to the Lord, acknowledging that He was a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” He then asked God to take his life.

God replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

Jonah went outside the city and made himself a shelter where he sat beneath its shade and waited to see what God would do to Ninevah. God caused a vine to grow up over Jonah’s head to give him more shade to ease his discomfort. This made Jonah happy.

The next dawn saw a worm provided by God chew the vine until it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching wind. The sun and the wind caused Jonah to grow faint. He said to the Lord, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

God answered, “Do you have the right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” Jonah said. “I am angry enough to die.” Boy, does Jonah’s pouting not sound like Pontificus Minimus. How often does the hypocritical lad get angry enough to die over some minor, imagined wrong that has occurred to his Highness? Too damn often.

The Lord rebutted, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Ninevah has more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

What a beautiful illustration of God dealing with his creation! Like Jonah, I too often would rather be “seen” as right rather than see God’s compassion on folks who need it and who deserve it more than I do.

God is merciful. Let us call upon a just God and relish in His goodness and common grace that is shed on the just and the unjust! Amen! pm


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  1. “A’men”

  2. Good article. The reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place is presumed to be because the Ninevites were sworn enemies of Israel. He certainly didn’t want THEM to repent and to be spared God’s judgement! As the article says, Jonah wanted to see them destroyed by God; and when they weren’t…he was angry. I, like Pontificus, can learn a lot from this; as I also want God to be quick to have mercy on me when I mess up, but I am all too quick to judge others when I perceive them to have messed up. This can also apply to the wider areas of politics and religion, not that they are the same-they just overlap occasionally. Am I willing that my enemies be shown mercy by God if they repent or would I insist that they be destroyed out of vengeance or some other motive?

  3. Given the option, I would have all my enemies destroyed by God.

  4. If God had mercy on me when I was his enemy (Romans 5:10), how can I insist that he destroy all my enemies without mercy? Even Jesus asked forgiveness for those who were nailing him to the cross. If it were possible that some of my enemies could be brought to repentance and salvation, how could I ask God to destroy them? That does not mean that I would not defend my country in a time of war, however. The two are different things. I could not willingly consent to war crimes, however. I realize from discussions with combat veterans that in war that is a very fine line-and many are haunted by what has happened on the battlefield. I am certainly not here to judge anyone for anything that occurred in wartime, especially during combat. That is why walking with the Lord on a day to day basis is essential so that he can guide in every situation. Physical death is not the ultimate defeat, after all.

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