If you’ve not read it start to finish in awhile, I hope you’ll take time to immerse yourself in the story of Jonah. It’s just four chapters long, but those few pages in your Bible reveal much about what it means to say to God, “Thy will be done.”
The story opens with the prophet Jonah at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where American troops fought so many battles in recent years.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.
The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.
Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, however, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and the throw of the dice showed it was Jonah.
And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.
This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”
In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up a little.
Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!
Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food and water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.
God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.
“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!
I said at the beginning that this story is important for anyone wanting to know what it means to say to God, “Thy will be done.” God’s will doesn’t always match our own. God is love; we often are a mixture of love, hate, anger, jealousy, and a whole other range of emotions and sinful desires that interfere with our ability to appreciate what God is doing in the world.
Here’s what I take away from the story of Jonah. I don’t want to be like Jonah. (I find it surprising the early church declared Jonah a saint.) I don’t want to run when God wants me to do what I might dislike, and I don’t want to be bitter when God clearly has had his way.
When my will fails to mesh with God’s will, I know I need to pray, “Thy will be done, and my will be changed.” Sometimes it’s hard to spit the words out, but I hope I grow to mean it more each day.
Christians actually find themselves in Jonah’s position on a regular basis. There is one command we should be able to hear clearly from God: Go into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ. It is our Great Commission, yet often, we shrink from it, wanting to run west instead of east.
The task can seem too large, and the people we are called to reach with the message of Christ can be, well, not that likable. Maybe we don’t like their ethnicity, associating them with people who hurt us. Maybe we don’t like their lack of social graces or their lifestyle. But when such things bother us, our will is misaligned with the will of God.
May God reveal to us where our Ninevehs are, and may we have the strength to go there.