Long ago, one king wrote a message to send to the ruler of an offensive enemy kingdom. He sealed the message and gave it to one of his trusted couriers, who immediately began the dangerous ten-day journey to deliver it. Along the way, however, the messenger, who had long hoped his king would finally have the nerve to declare war on the enemy, became overwhelmed with curiosity and decided to unseal the letter. When he read it, he was stunned. Instead of the declaration of war he expected, it was a proposal for peace. He felt betrayed and even ashamed to deliver such an embarrassing token of weakness. He and his people would become a laughing stock, simply because an old king didn’t have a backbone. After much thought, he decided to act in the best interests of the kingdom. He would bury the letter and return home with a well-crafted lie.
His plan was interrupted, however, when a group of scouts from the enemy kingdom discovered him burying the missive. They seized him—and the letter—and carried both back to their ruler’s palace. Surprisingly the message delighted the rival king, and a peace treaty was soon forged. And with the kingdoms now being on friendly terms, the messenger was released unharmed. But he remained bitterly disappointed, disillusioned, and reluctant to call anyplace his home.
This is the basic story of Jonah, the prophet who fled God’s call to preach repentance to an enemy city. It’s recast in a different setting without the assumptions we normally read into Jonah’s story in order to focus on an important question: Who owns the message—the messenger or the author? Jonah obviously felt a certain right to refuse to deliver the message he was called to preach, even though it was never his message to begin with. He didn’t approve of it and wanted no part in it. His own King was essentially issuing an invitation to make peace with Israel’s dreaded enemy—the same enemy that had periodically wreaked havoc on Israel’s borders and committed crimes against its people. This didn’t seem at all like the God he thought he knew.
Most preachers are elated when people respond to their message. But Jonah wasn’t like most preachers, and the people he addressed were not like any he had ever preached to. Assyrians were not, and would never be, friends of Israel. He had lived his entire life in a culture that bred animosity against its hostile enemies—and not without reason. Israel had experienced Assyria’s raids in the past. The prophet’s righteous indignation was hard to reconcile with the mercy of God.
Jonah’s indignation was not much different than that of another prophet. Habakkuk relentlessly questioned God over the seeming injustice of punishing his own people by using a far more corrupt nation: Babylon. But the similarities between the two prophets ended when God explained his intentions to each. Habakkuk praised God for his righteousness, even though he didn’t completely understand it. Jonah was eaten up with bitterness—so much so that he asked God to take his life.
How did God respond? By giving Jonah an object lesson in a helpful vine he hadn’t asked for. As the prophet fumed over the repentant city and this travesty of justice, God gave him extra shade to shelter him from the sun. The next morning, a worm ate away at the vine and caused it to wither, and a scorching wind beat against Jonah. This stirred up further anger, but God had made his point. The “man of God”—a frequent designation for a prophet—valued his own immediate comfort much more than he valued thousands of enemy lives. His ethnocentric focus had blinded him to the heart of his Lord.
Contrary to what we might expect, Jonah was the most effective prophet in the Bible. He ran from God, and sailors were converted. He went reluctantly to Nineveh with a five-word sermon (in Hebrew), and an evil city repented. He bitterly pouted over a withered vine, and the compassion of God was revealed in a prophetic book to a chosen but apostate nation. The irony is that Isaiah and Jeremiah spilled their lives out with many words over unhearing, unrepentant people and would have rejoiced to see even a hint of fruitfulness. Jonah saw fruitfulness in spite of himself, and he hated it.
Even then, God’s compassion toward his prophet was relentless. He didn’t disown his disgruntled servant. He patiently and persistently absorbed Jonah’s anger, heard his questions, and even answered them. He did with Jonah what he had already done with Nineveh. He revealed his heart.
In fact, that’s how the book concludes. “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” the Lord asks. It’s a rhetorical question that leaves readers with a decision to make. Are we in sync with our creator’s desires? Can we get on board with the big picture of his purposes? Will we align our hearts with the missionary heart of God?
Those are questions we all have to ask. God cares about our personal issues and desires, but he also has a bigger picture in front of him. When we focus intensely on our personal issues and give relatively little thought to that bigger picture, we tend to end up a lot like Jonah—out of sync with God and resentful that he is blessing others more than we think he is blessing us. It’s a distorted picture, but that’s what introspection often does; it distorts our perspective. It causes us to miss the heart of God.
God calls us to bring our hearts into alignment with his—to lift our eyes above our own agenda, to have his compassion, and to seek his agenda. When we do that, we find ourselves part of an enormous plan that will bring joy to both him and to us. We find a fruitfulness we wouldn’t otherwise experience. We share God’s heartbeat in deeper and deeper ways.