This sermon is number 9 in a series of 12
As Sparks Flying Upwards - Part 9
"The Dilemma Of Jonah"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2002 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
We're turning to the book of Jonah, as you can see from your study sheet, we're embarking upon our ninth study tonight in our series 'As Sparks Flying Upwards' - looking at these biblical characters that can be marked for many characteristics and personality traits, but the one which we are homing in on in these recent weeks is the fact that these men and women, some of whom we haven't reached yet, went through very difficult times in their lives. We're analysing how they came through those difficulties, and how indeed God brought them through. We're looking tonight at a very unique character that many of you are very familiar with since you were a child - you've learnt the holy scriptures, or been to Sunday School, and you know the story of Jonah and (as it's commonly called) 'the whale'.
We're going to come in at the very end of this story, at the very back of the book, and we'll be looking at a lot of this narrative tonight but we want to look at the very climax of this book - the part that the author is leading up to, and the conclusion of where he wants us to get. It's very easy to get sidetracked with 'the whale', or the great fish, in the story of Jonah. It's even very easy to get distracted with Jonah himself, but that is not the whole point of this book. The whole point of the book of Jonah, as with all the books in the Bible, is God and the centrality of the divinity of the Almighty.
Let's look at verse 4 of chapter 4: "Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry? So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city. And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?".
In Job chapter 3 and verse 11 we looked in recent weeks at this expression of a wish - a death wish, if you like - of the great prophet and man of God. He says this: 'Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?'. We find that when we moved from Job, we moved to study the character of Jeremiah in our last study, and we find also there in chapter 20 verses 14 and 15, he said: 'Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad'. Job curses the day that he was born; Jeremiah, we find, curses the day that he was born. We then looked at the great prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19 verse 4, and he says, we read in the narrative that: 'He himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers'.
Job, Jeremiah, Elijah, all wishing that they would die. Now we come to Jonah and we find that he is no different, for in verse 8 of chapter 4 that we've read together tonight he says: 'It is better for me to die than to live'. We've been looking, over these few weeks, at how these great men of God can be moved to such an extreme, such a point of emotional and spiritual desperation, that they can feel within the very depths of their soul - even though they are zealous after God and His righteous cause, and preaching His word - they feel at the end of their tether; they feel that they want to die; they feel that there's no longer any purpose in their life, in their existence; they feel that the ministry which they have been called to is now pointless, and they just wish that God would take them off the face of the earth, that God would take their breath from their bodies.
Now the reason why I'm starting, tonight, at the end of this little book is because I want us to be caused to ask the question tonight: how do these great men of God get to this extreme? How do they get to rock bottom like this? Surely if they are men of God, surely if they are spiritual, surely if they are following the word of God and all of its teachings, its precepts and its righteousness, they should never get depressed? They should never become dejected and discouraged and downhearted! The reason why I start at the end is simply to prove to you that they do. In fact, it is characteristic of most men and women of God - if I can use this phrase - most men and women who go through with God, and follow hard after God, and seek God with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their might, that there comes a time in their lonely experience when they leave others behind that they feel dejected, downhearted, and even near to death.
You've heard the expression: 'Many roads lead to the cross', it simply means that there's only one gospel, there is only one way to be saved - by grace are ye saved through faith - and it is through Calvary's cross work, the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, that we come to faith. But many of us have different stories about how we came to Calvary, and of course the same can be said to be true of trouble. There are many different kinds of road that bring us to trouble, there are many and varied reasons why we can go through trouble. Job that we've looked at: he suffered affliction and disease, heartache, bereavement. Jeremiah that we've looked at: he was downhearted, and in fact he wrote the whole book of Lamentations because of the state of the city of Jerusalem and the whole nation - God's nation, Israel. He was heartbroken over the people, he felt the heartbreaking nature of God's emotion and compassion for His own people. We saw in recent weeks how Elijah feared for his own life, and he ran away from Jezebel. His trouble was caused through fear of man.
We can all experience trouble, and it can be different types of trouble and different causes of that trouble - but as you look at the character of Jonah tonight, you might say: 'Aha! Well, I know his trouble, I know the reason for Jonah's trouble: he ran away! Jonah was disobedient; Jonah was rebellious; Jonah was a runaway, a prodigal prophet, God's fugitive - and he suffered. The reason why he was swallowed by this great fish, the reason why he went through all the heartache and problems, the reason why we find him in chapter 4 under the gourd, and the gourd being rotted away and the sun beating down on him, and him saying 'I wish I would die', is because he sinned against God!'. Well, that may well be true, but I would urge you all tonight - especially those who are believers - as the Lord Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount warns us not to judge one another harshly, I think we ought to extend that teaching to biblical characters. We have to be wise in our critique and our analysing of men of God within the word of God and I believe it is too - far too - simplistic for us to say tonight that Jonah just simply ran away from God, that Jonah was simply disobedient. He was like a little boy whose Mummy told him to wash the dishes, and he just said 'No!', and he went up to his room and he didn't want to do it.
What you have to remember is what, I hope, you remember from our studies in Jeremiah - and that is the nature and the characteristic of a prophet of God. A prophet of God is to have a heart after God's own heart, a zeal and a righteous thirst after God's law and God's teaching and precepts, just like God. He's to be jealous for the Lord God of Hosts, but he's also - on the other side of the coin - to have a characteristic after the people, a love and a compassion for God's own nation, Israel. He's to be a mighty man. He can't be a man of double standards, he can't be a weak man, he can't be a backslider like Balaam was - for God would have to deal with a man or a woman like that who was standing up for His name. I believe tonight, with all my heart, that Jonah was a holy man; I believe that Jonah was a righteous man, and Jonah would have had to have the qualifications that God lacked and needed in every single prophet whom He chose. His real problem, I believe, was not per se simple rebellion, but if I could put it like this: he had a doctrinal dilemma. His pathway to despair started not just with simple sin, but with a theological problem.
I think we'll see tonight how this is a prime example of how what we believe affects the way we behave, and also how doctrinal extremes in our lives and in our minds can restrict our ability to move as God would wish us to move, and what is God's will for our lives. Let me tease this out for you, because this is so important in our understanding of this book, and indeed the suffering of Jonah. This whole perplexity starts with a confusing commission, which is your first point on your sheet tonight. The big question that we have to look at is this: why did Jonah flee from God? Why did Jonah run away from God's call? Now the common answer that's given to that question is: 'Well, he was a petty minded bigot. He didn't like the Assyrians, the Ninevites, he wanted them all to die, he wanted them all to be wiped out - he just didn't like them'. Some say he was a racist; some say, although he was a prophet of God, he was a hateful, warped and twisted old begrudger - he was an unworthy man to be a prophet, an unlovable man. The more you read some commentaries and some books, that's the impression that you get, and listening to some preachers you'd think that it's very hard to love this prophet, Jonah.
Listen to what some have said about him: 'His national prejudice construed God's election of Israel as a rejection of all others. His religious intolerance was mixed with no mercy for the heathen. His legal spirit inclined more to vengeance than to grace. His disloyal temper made him wilful and wayward'. That author - who you would be surprised to hear who he is - says that Jonah was possessive of a disloyal temper which made him wilful and wayward! Another famous scholar says this: 'One cannot love this Jonah, or think well of him. We seem unable to recognise in him those signs of grace which we expect to see adorning the commissioned servants of God'. Now I want to say to you tonight that I believe that Jonah - along with many men and women of the Bible, but above perhaps all of them - is one of the most misunderstood characters in the whole of the word of God. Surely a man of the description of these scholars would be unfit for the prophetic office, let alone the spiritual leadership? I know, and you know, that God can use any vessel that He chooses to use - but surely God would never sustain a man or woman like this right throughout their whole prophetic career, and continue to inspire His word through them if he was not a worthy vessel and was disobedient, and was wayward and wilful? I think it's a bit hard to believe.
Nevertheless, the common reasons for that belief are simply these: in chapter 1, if you look at chapter 1, men and women say that Jonah was a coward, he was cowardly, he feared going to Nineveh - he ran away. That's why he ran away, he didn't want to go to these barbarous people. Then the second reason that people give is that he had bigoted prejudices against these Gentiles, because they were non-Jews he didn't want to go and preach to them, he didn't want them converted. Then thirdly some say: 'Well, it was a selfish motive, selfish jealousy he had' - he didn't want to go and tell the people that judgement was coming, and then God didn't send the judgement, and then the egg would be on his face! He would be embarrassed! Now, my friends, let's analyse this tonight: if you look at chapter 1, the one thing that you will not find in it is Jonah being afraid. He might be running away, but you will find him asleep at the bottom of a boat in the midst of a storm in the ocean. That is not a characteristic of a man who is afraid. It is not a characteristic of a man who is afraid, to be willing to jump overboard to save those who are onboard - the crew. Jonah was not a fearful man, he was not a timid man, but he was a rugged, rough prophet of God.
Well, was he anti-Gentile? I grant you he, I'm sure, was a Jewish nationalist. He may have been zealous and patriotic, but you see immediately when the whole ship is ready to sink, and those pagan idolaters - idol worshippers - on the boat are going to lose their lives, you can see immediately that Jonah has compassion upon them, and he is willing to cast himself off the side to save their lives. Is that anti-Gentile? I think not. Was he proud? Was he worried about egg on his face, if what he said and what he prophesied against the city of Nineveh didn't come true? Is that what it was: his reputation? Well, I would say to you that if Jonah wasn't concerned to sacrifice his life for these pagan sailors, do you think he would worry about sacrificing his reputation?
So, why did Jonah flee? Have you ever really wondered? Perhaps you've thought what I would say are these wrong answers to be the answer? Well, the reason I believe is in chapter 4 and verse 2, if you look at it. After Jonah sees the people of Nineveh repenting, it says in verse 2: 'And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country?' - isn't this what I said would happen? - 'Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil'. There's the answer: Jonah didn't go to preach to these Ninevites, not because he was afraid, not because he was anti-Gentile, not because he was proud, but he knew in the back of his mind that if there was any chance at all that these sinners could repent and did repent, God would forgive them and God would save them!
But what is added to that is other information that we have within the word of God, other information that we know Jonah possessed about Assyria, about the city of Nineveh which was the capital of Assyria. There were two factors in particular concerning Assyria that would have made Jonah run away from the commission of God, and run away from any possibility of thinking that these Ninevites should be saved. Here's the first: Assyria was the rising world power that was destined and prophesied by God's prophets of old to conquer the nation of Israel and to destroy them. These were God's chosen people to discipline and to chasten His own people - a bit like Babylon that we were thinking of in the book of Ezekiel. Jonah knew that, and Jonah was being asked to go and preach repentance to them. The second thing was, the second factor that was in Jonah's mind was that these people were so brutal, they were barbarous and notoriously so. Archaeological caves still today are littered and graffitied with the awful barbarous acts that these Assyrian people got up to when they sacked cities, and they went through them and wrecked them - all sorts of barbarous butcherism that they committed on men, women and children - they were like the Nazis of that present day!
So think of those two things, keep them in your mind: first, Jonah knew that it was prophesied that these people one day would come and invade Israel and take it over; secondly, he knew the type of people they were - wicked people, they were evil people, if you like they were people who did not deserve the grace of God! Let me say that it wasn't just Jonah knew these things, but every man in Israel knew them also. Jonah definitely knew them, because he came - as we learn from scripture - from one of the border towns of Israel, and he probably witnessed the savagery that the Assyrians wrought on his own home town and his own people. If you were to go tonight to the book of Nahum, you would find many instances - look at it, two books after Jonah. Jonah, then Micah, and then Nahum - chapter 2 and verse 12, and you can see what this prophet says of the Assyrians, chapter 2 verse 12: 'The lion did tear in pieces enough for his whelps', speaking of the Assyrians, 'and strangled for his lionesses, and filled his holes with prey, and his dens with ravin'. Chapter 3 and verses 1 to 4: 'Woe to the bloody city!', the city of Nineveh, 'It is all full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not; The noise of a whip, and the noise of the rattling of the wheels, and of the prancing horses, and of the jumping chariots. The horseman lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcases; and there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon their corpses: Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts. Behold', God says, 'I am against thee'.
You can see what a city the city of Nineveh is, and in verse 19 he tops it all: 'There is no healing of thy bruise', you're beyond reproach, 'thy wound is grievous: all that hear the bruit of thee shall clap the hands over thee: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?'. Those that hear about your fall will rejoice because you're a wicked, wicked people! Now keep this in mind for a moment, come with me: Jonah knew - one, God had prophesied that the Assyrians one day would come and destroy the nation of Israel as judgement. Hosea said it, Nahum said it, Amos has said it, and Jonah knows it - and as Amos said before him: 'The Lord God will do nothing but that he revealeth his secret unto his servants, the prophets'. I believe that Jonah knew right well that these Assyrians one day would come and be used of God's sovereignty to destroy His own people. Jonah knew what God had intended for Assyria.
Now, put yourself in Jonah's shoes: God comes to him one day in the cool of the day, and He announces: 'I'm going to judge Assyria'. You must imagine that Jonah is overjoyed, he's beside himself: 'That's great, maybe this will divert the judgement and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem'. What a great patriot he is, a nationalist, he's fighting and loving his people! What a joyous message that would be! At last Nineveh would be destroyed and Israel would be saved, but there was one thing that Jonah feared - there was one thing at the back of his mind: he knew that Jehovah was a merciful God, and even if these people cried at the eleventh hour, God would have mercy upon them! Now, how would you like to have the choice that Jonah had? It's alright throwing mud at him when you're reading your Bible in your quiet time, five minutes before you go to sleep - but imagine standing there before God, and having this great choice: the dilemma of Jonah. The choice of whether not to go, not to go and tell the Ninevites, not to go on God's commission with God's message and let them get what they deserve and save the nation of Israel; choosing between divine vengeance upon himself for being disobedient and saving his nation Israel, or else going to Nineveh, preaching to them, and the possibility that they get saved and salvation is brought to them - and Israel is destroyed because the Assyrians live on, and they live on to destroy the nation of Israel!
Can you imagine the mental agony that the prophet of God, Jonah, went through? Do you think that he dealt with this thing lightly? In his mind, where we find him in this book, he thinks that the only way to resolve this problem, this Catch-22, is to flee the command of God - rather than to risk the people repenting, rather than to risk the fact that there should be a revival, that they should be saved and one day they should all grow up and their children should live to come and destroy the nation of Israel. Jonah's decision was to sacrifice himself to save his country. For Jonah that, as far as he was concerned, was his only choice - which should he save: should he save Israel or should he save Nineveh? He chose Israel.
Now let me cast your mind back to what Moses said on one occasion, he looked to God concerning the sins of his own people and he said: 'Lord, if You won't forgive them, if You won't blot out their sin, blot my name out of Your book'. In Romans chapter 9 Paul says, concerning his kinsmen according to the flesh, the Israelites who were not yet converted: 'I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren according to the flesh - I could almost wish that I would go under the judgemental wrath of God for them, so that they can be saved, rather than they all go to hell'. Now I don't think that's what Jonah was doing, or what Jonah was saying, but I'll tell you this: his sentiment was very commendable. Even in his disobedience, in the dilemma of Jonah, he felt that he was choosing the nation of God over a wicked Nazi race! He was feeling that he was continuing the heritage of God's covenant, Jehovah's covenant, and everything that was given in the Torah, he felt that he was doing this I believe - and he had an absolute dilemma that he couldn't iron out!
Was he right? Of course he wasn't right. He wasn't right because he chose the land of God over the God of the land. He wasn't right because in the balance that a prophet is meant to have between a love for God and a love for the land he got an imbalance, there was a lack of balance. He loved the land too much, and he didn't obey God enough. But I couldn't help thinking, and I really do believe that this is the correct interpretation of this book, but I couldn't help thinking looking at this that our problem is often the same problem that Jonah had. Do you not feel that at times: that we need to understand what God is doing before we believe in God doing the best for us? We want to understand it all, we want to really reason it before we're willing to obey what God has told to do. We want to reason His commands, and often, like Jonah, our false reasoning of what God is telling us to do drives us from God and from His will! Have you been there? You feel like Jonah feels, you're in his situation: you're condemned if you do, and you're condemned if you don't; you're confused. You know that God wants you to do a certain thing, but it just doesn't seem right to you, you just feel that it possibly couldn't go well if you took that decision - it just wouldn't have the turnout that you wanted, and the end result. So you choose to go the wrong way, against God's will, because you have reasoned that that can be the best and the only way, that can be the only good outcome!
We make God's will so simple, don't we? But it's not simple, it's not black and white, it's not as easy as we all think - and, my friend, I want you to put yourself in the shoes of Jonah tonight and see that there are times that we can make choices for what we feel is best, and we know it's out of God's will but we still can't see past our own futile reasoning that 'This must be for the best, surely this can be the only way, it's the only way I can see it working out'! But we find that when we do not accept God's will, things inevitably get worse. Although Jonah's sentiment and his motivation might have been extremely commendable, it was wrong - and we find that his disobedience moves from a confusing commission to a cry from the deep. In chapter 2 we find that Jonah is cast over the side by these pagan mariners, and he's in the depths of the sea and he prays to God - and a great whale, or a great fish, comes and swallows him up. Now I don't know whether you're here tonight, but I feel that many people can find themselves in a similar position because of a decision of the will that they made maybe years and years and years ago. They made a decision that they thought was right, out of the will of God, and they find themselves, here and now in this present-day, gone out of the presence of God.
In chapter 1 and verse 3 that's what it says, that when Jonah ran away from God it says he went out of the presence of God. Now people think that that means he wasn't in God's presence - do you not think that Jonah knew the fact of the omnipresence of God? Psalm 139, that you cannot escape God - if you go into the heights of heaven or the depths of hell, if you take the wings of the morning, dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, God's hand will still be there. Even in hell, God is there, His omnipresence is there - Jonah knew that he couldn't escape God, but that expression is a Hebraism meaning that he was actually deactivating his capacity as a prophet. He was going out of the presence of God, he was demobilising himself - demobbing as a prophet. How many in their past have renunciated their faith, or renunciated a principle of their faith? It might be a backslider, or a stagnant Christian, or a bitter heart, or a twisted personality - it might even be a broken soul who's been harmed and been through horrific experiences in their life - but above all else they find themselves, tonight maybe even in this place, in a similar situation as Jonah: an absolute ocean of hopelessness!
Is that you? Being in a cul-de-sac with no way out? As far as you're concerned you've spoiled your chance, you've blotted your page in your copybook, and you've been shackled by that choice that you made in your past - and as far as you're concerned you will be shackled with it, and the chain of that decision has gone right into this very day with you. You feel burdened down with it, and you feel that you can never be free from it. Can I say to you tonight: take heart from Jonah! Look at Jonah, the cry that he gives from the deep, because essentially his cry is a 'Tae Deim' (sp?) - if you like, it's a praising of God, a doxology of praise. Look at chapter 2 verse 1: 'Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly, he cried by reason of his affliction'. Verse 3: 'God has cast me into the deep, into the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me: I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again unto thy holy temple'. In the midst of the ocean he's thinking of the golden temple of Jerusalem back home; and when he went to the bottoms of the mountains and the depths of the oceans of the earth, there in the very depths: 'O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple'. 'You heard me, Lord! Even in those devilish depths You heard me', and even in the belly of a whale Jonah could praise God!
You know the story all too well, there was a deliverance from the depths of that belly of a whale. But you and I both know that that was not a pleasant deliverance, was it? It was very unpleasant, in fact Jonah was probably scarred for life badly with the gastric juices of acid right all over his body that he experienced in the stomach of this big fish. He was scarred for life, but the point is this: no matter how far away Jonah got from the sovereign will of God, even if he had to be dragged through the hedge backwards - if I can say it - he was given another chance! The God who would be merciful to the Ninevites was willing to be a God of mercy towards His prophet.
What we've got to learn from this character, Jonah, tonight is that the longer we resist God the harder our deliverance will be. The longer we plug our ears to His voice, the longer we ignore His calling and His wooing, the harder our deliverance will be! The poet V. Raymond Edmond (sp?) said:
'With thoughtlessness and impatient hands
We tangle up the plans the Lord has wrought.
And when we cry in pain He saith:
Be quiet dear, while I untie the knot'.
It's hard at times to get deliverance, it's hard to experience salvation, but what we know from God's word tonight is that in the very depths of hell Jonah could cry when nobody else heard him but God: 'Salvation is of the Lord!'. Does that not give you hope tonight?
A cry from the deep, and then we find an unexpected outcome - because it's very interesting to me that as Jonah is vomited onto the land that he goes and does the job that he ought to have done in the beginning: he goes and tells the Ninevites and he preaches to them. But it's very interesting to me that despite all the Jonah went through, despite all that God showed him - God showing that 'You can't predict Me Jonah, you can't tell Me what to do, you can't push Me into a box, you can't run away from Me, you can't escape My presence even in the depths of the sea; I can get you there' - even with all of this experience behind him he still didn't get the point! I want you to see this tonight: he was still hoping deep down that God would judge the Ninevites, that God would wipe them out.
You know, I find that as I was studying this, it comes to my heart and mind that there are many people going through troubles in this world at this present time, even perhaps - it could be possible - in this building tonight: you're going through heartache and trial, and problems and illness and disease, and all sorts of anguish - but you've never learnt from what you've gone through! Isn't that a tragedy of humanity? To think of a man or a woman who has gone through so much in life, but they never learn? They go through terrible times, but their character is never changed for the good even in the slightest. The reason for all that can be: our problem is Jonah's problem, and that is our attitude toward God and to His will. It is simply this: do we resist the will of God, even though we don't understand it, or do we submit to the will of God? How do you see the circumstances that come into your life? Do you see them as intrusions? Do you see them as enemies or do you see them as the hand of God?
You should read through this book in your own leisure time, and look at the many times it mentions what God does. God sent the storm into the ocean; it was God that determined the lot of the dice as the sailors threw it; God's hand is right throughout this whole book. God is in control simply because in Jonah, God was working in him both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Now can I leave this with you tonight, and if you forget anything or everything that I've said please don't forget this: if you and I are to survive the Christian life, there is one mystery that we are going to have to resign ourselves to believing, and that is the mystery of providence of Almighty God. Have you got that? Don't go through your Christian life wrestling with it, but go through it believing in it and using it as a rock and a foundation! Your thoughts are not God's thoughts, your ways are not God's ways - for as higher are the heavens above the earth, so are His ways higher than your ways, and His thoughts higher than your thoughts.
A man was questioning God's arrangement of the universe on one occasion, and he said: 'Why does God make a big tree with small nuts, and a small plant with large watermelons? It doesn't seem to make sense, does it?'. Just then a nut fell out of the sky and hit him on the head, and he said: 'Thank God that wasn't a watermelon!'. We question God, don't we? But we don't know the whole picture, and I think one of the best definitions of providence is given by Paul Harvey, and it is this: 'Providence is God acting anonymously' - moving in your life. Look at the anonymous actions of God in this book: the storm, Jonah didn't know it was from God; the dice, Jonah didn't know it was from God; the gourd, Jonah didn't know it was from God - but God's hand was throughout it all! You can see it in Esther, God's name isn't even mentioned, but God's sovereign providence and moving is right throughout the whole book - His fingerprint is firmly on it.
At 32 years of age William Cowper passed through a great crisis in his life. He tried to end his life by taking poison, and when that failed he hired a horsedrawn cab to take him to the River Thames - he asked to be left beside a certain bridge to jump off, but it was one of the foggiest nights in the city of London, and the cab went round in circles and circles until he got so frustrated that he got off and decided: 'I'll walk there myself'. The more he walked, eventually he hit a door and he found it was his own back door! God had led him right to the very place that he'd begun. He went into the house and he tried to fall upon a knife blade, and it broke in his hands. He tried hanging himself and he was lifted down, delirious, exhausted, but still alive. One day, feeling a little bit better, he lifted up the epistle to the Romans and he received through the word of God such a boost of faith and strength to believe that God had forgiven him, that God had cleansed him, and that God was for him. He summed it all up in a hymn, and I want you to turn to this hymn now for I want you to read every word of it tonight - 102 in the Golden Bells hymn book. Look at these words, and please tonight let them sink into your heart and into your mind, this man could write:
'God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures us His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own Interpreter,
And He will make it plain'.
Friend tonight, when you face unanswerable questions, difficult dilemmas, life changing decisions: trust the God of the unknown! The final thought I want to leave you with, fourthly, is that Jonah had to go through another painful lesson. What I want you to note in the story of the gourd that we read right at the beginning of our meeting, chapter 4, is that right up to chapter 4 Jonah has been the central figure. Until these closing verses the prominence has been Jonah, but now the prominence changes to the Lord Himself and the supreme message of the book is declared - and I think it's like an illustration of our own life's experience and our own suffering: how our experiences, our trials and our tribulations, ought to bring us on a journey from our self-centredness to seeing God and God alone. In chapter 1 he's fleeing from God; in chapter 2 he's praying to God; in chapter 3 he's speaking for God; and in chapter 4 he's learning of God - and we find in verses 1 to 3 that he is displeased, he is angry, he's dismayed for the Assyrians have repented! They have turned to God: what's it going to mean for Israel? It's only a dark future, they'll all be destroyed and the prophecies will all come true!
In verse 5 God says to him, and in verse 8: 'Are you displeased? Have you a reason to be displeased, Jonah?'. In verse 9 he says: 'I have every reason to be displeased', and perhaps you're here tonight going through what you've gone through, the problems and trials, and you say: 'I've got every reason to be the way I am tonight. You haven't mentioned my problem, you haven't mentioned by affliction, I've got a good reason!'. The purpose, I believe, of Jonah finishing the book where he does is for us to get our eyes off our problems, to get our eyes off our confusions and our dilemmas, and to get our eyes onto Almighty God. Is that not what we need? We find that indeed, what Jonah is doing without even realising through the Spirit of the Living God, is taking our eyes to Calvary to the very Son of God, and we can hear His voice saying that as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man shall be in the belly of the earth. We see him coming out of the whale, and we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying: 'Neither wilt thou let thine Holy One to see corruption in Sheol'. We see that our eyes are being brought to Calvary, to the One who bore the waves and the billows and the wrath of God, the One who sunk into a place where there was no standing, the One who could say: 'I am cut off'. God is bringing us, tonight, to the great subject of His love - that's where He wanted Jonah to get: 'I love these people, a people that don't even know their right hand from their left hand, and I love them!'.
He wanted them to learn that there is a wideness in God's mercy, for the love of God is broader than the measures of man's mind; and His heart, the heart of the Eternal, is most wonderfully kind. The message of Jonah is ultimately fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, but the message of Christ is ultimately fulfilled in our suffering: 'Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body'. What was once a dilemma for Jonah is now the privilege of the child of God.
Preach The Word
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the nineth tape in his 'As Sparks Flying Upwards' series, titled "The Dilemma Of Jonah" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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