Encountering Jesus on the Highway
We love every opportunity we get to talk and pray with Victory listeners and donors, and they share their stories. There are so many conversations every day and emails with long lists of prayer requests as a result. Last week in the midst of one sweet chat, Kelly asked a woman, “what had caused her husband and her to give monthly to Victory for so many years?”
She shared about how strongly they felt about the importance of Christian radio and how it reaches the lost…but there was so much more to the story. Their adult son worked driving a truck delivering construction materials up and down the East Coast. He had never truly experienced a life-changing encounter with God growing up, and they continually prayed for him.
Then one day he called with great excitement to tell them he had found Jesus while driving along in his delivery truck listening to a Christian radio station. There are just no words which rightly express just how much that meant to his praying parents. Sadly, his life ended in a car accident not long after.
But that didn’t change their resolve. They had determined to be a bridge for others with needs like their son, and they continue giving to Victory 91.5 every month, still maintaining that bridge. Maybe their gifts made a way for you or someone you love; or maybe yours paved that bridge and helps others encounter Jesus even when you’re away from the radio.
If you have given recently, thank you for what you are doing to keep that bridge crying out to the lost and creating encounters between listeners and Jesus every day. If you have not been able to give lately, would you consider helping rebuild that bridge? It’s life and death every day, even when we don’t realize it. Thank you so much! Please Donate Now!
We are in the first part of the Biblical month of Elul, when Jesus journeyed into the wilderness for forty days before beginning His ministry; Moses met with God on the mountain for a third forty days to receive the replacement tablets which he placed in the Ark of the Covenant; and Jonah preached across Nineveh for forty days before he sat down in anger and disappointment begging God to take his life.
We desire to be more like Jesus and Moses, but Elul often illuminates the obstacles that we are facing and reveals to us that we are much more like Jonah. Sometimes, our everyday lives and experiences can leave us disillusioned, irritated, unsympathetic, or even forlorn. Being sent to preach judgment to Nineveh would have been an impossible command for any Jew – Jonah is the only prophet sent to preach to a Gentile nation.
So, what should we do when doing the right thing is an impossible thing? This season – the end of Summer – can awaken weariness. Thankfully, Jonah’s story is a great tool for waking our first love and passion for Jesus because Jonah’s rapport with God can reveal our true relationship with God. I have spent the last few weeks hyper-focused on the story, trying to glean all I can of God’s heart.
I shared recently how Elul and Song of Songs reveal a beautiful allegory of walking with Jesus and intimacy with God. But Jonah’s story is just the opposite. How does it relate? You don’t spend time in the desert, on the mountain, in the belly of a fish, or preaching in the most ungodly city on earth if intimacy doesn’t carry a price. Jonah is a tragic comedy that also unpacks God’s heart.
I love the story of Jonah. His book should be called “The Book of Ironies” because the ironic humor just never stops. All prophets are unique. Isaiah was a poetic, singing prophet; Jeremiah was a weeping, suffering prophet; Ezekiel was a visions and dreams sort of prophet; meanwhile Hosea and Jonah were both proxy prophets – the events and experiences in their lives were the prophecies – meaning their lives overflowed with situations, types, and shadows that revealed Christ.
Ears That Hear
Scottish Pastor John Cameron Sr was one of my all-time favorite guests during our on-air Sharathons back in the 1990’s. He immigrated to America with his large extended family in the 1950’s and founded a dynamic church in Atlanta. He was in his 70’s when I had the great pleasure of spending time with him. He was like an instant grandfather to all of us – he always brought enough chocolate to last everyone for the rest of the year – and I loved our times together on the radio.
We would be talking and as he shared some godly wisdom He would say in his thick Scottish accent, “Ray, are you listening?” It would always catch me off guard because I thought that perhaps I had lost eye contact with him and caused him to wonder if I heard his insights. I would pause for a moment and be sure I understood him and say, “Yes, yes I am.”
After our first few visits and quite a few, “Ray, are you listening” inquiries, I thankfully realized it was part of his unique preaching style. He asked it whenever and wherever he spoke to highlight an important thought. So, I stopped worrying that I was the cause.
However, if Pastor Cameron had met Jonah, the correct question to ask would have been, “Jonah, are you listening?” On the surface, the story of Jonah seems to be about running from God and the mercy of God for even the most wicked. But this story is much more about listening, hearing, and the qualities that are buried inside each of our hearts from which God is trying to deliver us.
God has been focused on this single issue from the earliest days; it’s the heart of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6, “Shema Israel Yehovah Eloheinu Yehovah Echad.” “Shema O Israel: Yehovah our God, Yehovah is one!” Shema [šāmaʿ] means to Hear, Listen, Obey, Understand, Discern, or Perceive.
Let me ask you a question – what do you think – which is worse – to be like Jonah or Nineveh? That’s a catch-22. Truthfully, the book really isn’t about Jonah or Nineveh. It’s about God converting His words into witty images that we can use to navigate the dark edges of our lives.
Zechariah 7:11 says, “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.” That’s a very vivid visual, isn’t it? Hundreds of years later in Matthew 11:15 Jesus said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” Having tools and mastering those tools is quite different.
Don’t miss the humor in Jonah; everything and everyone in the story hears and obeys God – the wind, the sea, the heathen sailors, the fish that swallows him and then later hears to spit him out, the wicked and merciless Ninevites, their evil king, the gourd, the worm, and the wind again – only God’s prophet refuses to hear or obey. Yes, there seems to be a theme. But are you listening?
In a special moment of irony, the pagan ship’s captain rebuked the prophet of God and instructed Jonah to call on his God using the word “arise” [qûm], the same command used by God to tell Jonah to go preach to Nineveh. Remember, Jonah is defined as “a prophet” only because he’s anointed to “hear” God – but everyone and everything is listening to God better than him.
Why does the book end with Jonah sitting angrily on a hill pleading with God to kill him because God refused to destroy Nineveh? Why did Jonah end his own story with no resolution? It paints him in a terrible light! Even though it was a true real-life event, it wasn’t really about Jonah, or the fish, or even Nineveh’s repentance. It’s a parable for our times and all times. The story is God asking, “Are you listening?” The resolution is you and me answering the question, hopefully during Elul.
We study and pray through the Book of Jonah during Elul to unplug our ears, awaken our hearts, and to truly know if we are listening. Israel’s ending was tragic because the answer to “Are you listening” was an unequivocal “No!”
The Mission Fields
Jonah was one of the final prophets in the Northern Kingdom of Israel right before they were conquered and carried away into captivity. Jonah was the son of the prophet Amittai, from a Galilean village just north of Nazareth.
Tradition claims that he was the son of the widow of Zarephath, whom Elijah restored to life. His only prophetic utterance apart from his real-life fish story was one of comfort for Israel – that Yehovah would save them by the hand of Jeroboam and restore the border lands they lost after a Syrian invasion.
Galilee was a region of Israel which never really followed God. So, God called Jonah from the midst of his own rebellious people, to go and preach repentance to Nineveh, the capital of the cruel and merciless Assyrian empire. It was the largest city at the time – its walls enclosed a circle of sixty miles including pastureland. And it was the most wicked city in the world at the time – yet sadly, they were quite similar to the people of Israel.
Assyria was a dreaded and brutal foe of Israel who would flay their enemies alive. Their conquests over a 300-year reign reached from Nineveh to Egypt, all of the Middle East, and into Europe. When Nineveh’s king called for repentance by his people, he specifically mentioned violence as their distinctive sin. So, it’s even more ironic that the Assyrians were the very scourge that God would soon use to permanently punish His unrepentant people. But there are no free passes. They in turn would be conquered by the Babylonians, who would be conquered by the Persians, who would be conquered by Alexander and the Greeks.
Northern Israel was a tough enough mission; Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea all tried and failed to awaken their dead hearts. Sadly, despite Nineveh’s quick response to his preaching, Jonah would never budge his own countrymen to follow God, and as a result, Israel would only last a few decades before most of them were scattered to the wind; ironically at the hands of the people of Nineveh.
And what ultimately happened to the prophet who tried to put 2,200 miles of ocean between himself and his mission to Nineveh? There is some uncertainty. Jonah either chose to stay and live in the Assyrian Capital or he returned home to Galilee, only to be brought back to Assyria along with his fellow Israelis as a captive about 30 years later.
One thing is certain. Despite doing everything he could to avoid the city – He fled, survived three-days in a whale, traveled over 600 miles through the desert, preached to his enemies, and brought revival – still Jonah ended his days in the one place he did not want to be. Jonah’s tomb is still outside Nineveh as a reminder that, try as you might, you just can’t fight destiny.
Going On a Cruise
Let’s appreciate the myriad of ironies as we hit the highlights: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me. But Jonah arose to flee…from the presence of the LORD.'”
If you were looking at a map, you would see that God called him to go 600 miles northeast through the desert to warn Israel’s cruelest enemy of impending judgment. His own people had heard that same message from him and refused to repent. His answer was no, absolutely not. Jonah realized that God was about to use irony to wake His own chosen people up, and Jonah was not up for being that messenger.
So, he walked south about two days along “the way of the sea” and booked passage on a boat headed 2,200 miles west to Spain. But, if you are part of God’s plan, then your plan is irrelevant because God will pursue you. God sent a storm that terrified seasoned sailors and nearly destroyed the boat, while Jonah – he just slept. Everything about him screams “death wish.”
To Jonah, even death was more desirable then saving his enemies. The sailors prayed and soon realized that Jonah was the problem. When he told them about Yehovah and that he was running from Him, they asked, “Why have you done this?” At that point, even heathens could think much more clearly than the prophet, and they couldn’t fathom refusing to obey a God who controlled the seas. Did Jonah pray or repent? No. Did he tell them to steer back toward Joppa? No.
Prophets tend to see God as “a God of truth and justice” who enforces consequences for sinful actions! And Jonah was the son of Amittai, which meant “son of truth”. So, it could be easy for him to think that mercy equaled injustice because without consequences, life had no meaning – what would be the point of obedience – life devoid of meaning was not worth living.
The Hebrew word for truth is emet (אֱמֶת), which is the idea of reality. Proverbs 14:12 warns us, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is a way of death”. Truth (אֱמֶת) apart from God (who is Echad or One which is Alef (א) leads to death (מֵת). Our sincerity of conviction is not a reliable test of truth since we can be sincerely wrong. Truth requires that we must choose whom we will serve.
There is a hidden bit of paradox in Jonah’s name. While he was the “son of Amittai” or “son of truth”, Jonah means “dove”, a bird which excels at fulfilling the needs of the one who sends it. It knows how to go and return – which sadly Jonah had not reconciled himself to do.
A dove is how God describes His beloved in Song of Solomon 1:15, as having eyes only for Him, “Behold, you are fair! You have [ʿayin yônâ] dove’s eyes.” There is a bit of irony here too because a dove’s eyes can’t focus on more than one thing, and Jonah couldn’t comprehend two different things (justice and mercy) at the same time.
Irony, Meet Irony
True to form, Jonah’s solution to the storm is pure justice: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you.” They refused and tried every compassionate thing they could think of to no avail. At this point Jonah probably should have realized that heathens were more mercifully minded than him – likely a foreshadowing of what would happen in Nineveh – but he didn’t or wouldn’t see it.
“Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared Yehovah, and they offered a sacrifice to Yehovah and made vows to Him.” Even in the midst of Jonah’s rebellion, God’s anointing on him caused an entire ship of heathens to follow the Living God – the same God that Jonah was refusing to follow. That’s irony, cloaked in irony, cloaked in…
The first lesson to be learned from Jonah, is God is nearer than you think He is…so you literally can’t flee from His presence (quit or give up)…because, just as God did after the very first sin of Adam and Eve, He will pursue you because He is “abounding in love and faithfulness”, and He has a wonderful plan that includes you.
Psalm 2:4 says, “The One enthroned in Heaven laughs!” I can imagine God laughing as Jonah demanded that the sailors throw him into the sea that day. “Irony, meet irony.” “Now Yehovah had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Just when Jonah thinks he can die in peace, he finds death impossible to reach.
We see the word [mānâ] “prepared”, when God prepares the great fish, a gourd, a worm, and the strong wind. Despite what we think or see, God is also at the work of preparing.
Next, we read that Jonah was protected from the storm and the sea inside the fish for three days. But there’s a bit more to it in Hebrew; there are quite a few references to Jonah being protected in the same way a baby is inside a womb. The word for the fish’s “belly” (מעה; me’eh) also means uterus or womb. And something very odd happens with the word fish. When Jonah is swallowed, “fish” (דג; dag) is in the masculine form; but when Jonah prays from the midst of the fish, the word fish changes to the feminine form: דגה (dagah).
Ancient teachers felt this meant there may have been two fish. First the male fish swallowed Jonah, then it spit Jonah out and transferred him to the female. The more common word for “womb” (רחם; rechem) looks exactly like the word for “mercy” (רחם; racham).
Obviously, there’s no way to know for sure, but the idea creates several metaphors. Jonah transitioned from justice to mercy after repenting; Jonah went from death to life (Jonah compared his experience to being in the grave). With both womb and grave involved, it’s a clear picture of his birth/rebirth (and of Jesus in the tomb bringing new life to us).
Breath Of Lies
The great fish was probably the Right Whale which has an enormous head with a huge mouth, which it opens to draw in an immense quantity of water, filled with small jellyfish and plankton, on which it feeds. On its upper jaw are hundreds of whalebone blades from 10 to 15 feet long which it lets down to strain the water out and keep the jellyfish in. The smallness of its throat would have prevented it from swallowing Jonah, so he was left continuously immersed in jellyfish.
His description, “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried…” Afflicion is [ṣārâ] which also means adversary, adversity, anguish, distress, tribulation, and trouble. At the very least, three days of constant jellyfish stings would be that and more. The blades could have been the “bars” of his prison cell and he would have certainly encountered plenty of ”weeds wrapped about his head,” in the whale’s mouth.
In the depths of the sea Jonah recognized the irony of trying to flee God’s presence, and God then responding by allowing him to experience that feeling, “For You cast me into the deep. Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight.” And Jonah seems to grasp the lesson that is in front of him, “Those who regard worthless idols [or “They that observe lying vanities”] forsake their own Mercy.”
Unfortunately, the irony and humor doesn’t come through in English. The Ninevites were Canaanites and made idols and prayed to their “gods” (demons) to inhabit them; the demons would counsel and command the people [lying vanities or breath of lies] through the mouths of those “worthless idols”.
So, as Jonah sank into the deep and then lay trapped in the fish for three days struggling to breathe, he saw the Ninevites through different eyes – their only breath was the devil’s “breath of lies” – they needed God’s breath, and of course down in the depths Jonah also needed God’s breath. So, forsaking those idols seemed to equal the right to a breath of mercy from God.
It’s possible that his repentance was very real, but he became overwhelmed with the sin of Nineveh during his forty-days of preaching. Maybe there were too many similarities between the Canaanites of Nineveh and the Canaanites of his land of Israel. Maybe he felt their destruction justified.
Either way, Jonah couldn’t imagine the Ninevites repenting of all their wickedness. He never even told them to repent; he just pronounced their destruction, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Maybe he was thinking, “I’ll get right with God, get out of this fish, prophecy their doom, and surely, they’ll kill me for preaching and I’ll be done with the whole mess.” But, of course, they weren’t going to kill him.
The next thing you know, the fish spit Jonah back out on the beach in Israel and God gave him a do-over, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” This time Jonah faced northeast and walked or hired a camel for the 600 miles of mountains and sand and obeyed God. His message, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” ([עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת] / [hāp̄aḵ] [vᵊnînvê] [yôm] [‘arbāʿîm] [ʿôḏ]).
That’s it – just 5 words in Hebrew (8 in English). But it packed quite a bit of power and meaning. The word [hāp̄aḵ] “overthrown” has a double meaning, ‘destroyed’ and ‘reversed’. So, instead of being overthrown by God, Nineveh allowed God to overthrow their hearts and reverse their old ways.
Jonah’s words of doom and destruction brought the whole heathen city to its knees, so God relented and didn’t annihilate them. Meanwhile, Jonah waited and waited, but God didn’t lower the boom on the city, or the walls, or the people, or the cattle; Nineveh remained. They did the one thing he never imagined they would do – they repented – what his own people refused to do.
Jonah’s response to the miracle, “…take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live. Then Yehovah said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” [or a more ironic Hebrew, “Are you pleased being displeased?”]
“So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant.”
The gourd is type of Eden, where truth reigned, and sin was punished. Like the Garden, the gourd was a gift from God, an unearned compassionate act. Jonah had no claim to the gourd just as man didn’t earn his place in the Garden.
But Jonah wanted a world ruled by Justice. This gourd did not grow in the natural way. Real plants grow from seeds; this one did not, and ultimately this bit of miracle and grace will conflict with Jonah’s world of strict truth.
“But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm – a parody of the snake in the Garden. And this “snake” destroyed Jonah’s Eden – and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” This word faint occurs only 2 other times in the Tanach and both are a faintness from lack of connection to God or from thirst for God’s word.
Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored [womb], nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?”
The book ends with Jonah just as defiant and angry as when God first called him to the task. Why? He never realized that his actions were much bigger than the acts of an ordinary man because he was living in a very important shadow. Jonah was a type or shadow of Yeshua Jesus; his experiences are a type and shadow of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the Gospel going forth to the Gentiles.
Jesus called out the prophet and the evil city to confront the wicked in His day, “For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation… The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.” Luke 11:30-32
The fact that the Assyrians were the most wicked people on the earth was not random but rather extremely significant because Jonah was the shadow of Jesus who would die for everyone, including the most wicked people on the earth. We fail in prayer when we don’t recognize that we are in the shadow in our time. It feels real, and it is real, but it’s also just the shadow of things to come.
As a result, many of our prayers are asking God to adjust things about the shadow rather than about things that have kingdom significance. They feel real, and we assume they are in our lives for the long term, when in fact they are just shadow and are there to point us to something else and to direct our prayers. May we all be given eyes that can see better in the shadow of our times so we can point the way to the light of Jesus Christ.
Lamentations 3:25-26, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of Yehovah.”
James 2:13 says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” How and why does mercy triumph over judgement? The prophet Isaiah, a contemporary of Jonah, declared in Isaiah 53, “But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and Yehovah has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
Our mercy and our hope are rooted in one man, Jesus Christ. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus…” Romans 8:1. God didn’t set the bar low for grace and mercy. He didn’t give us just enough grace and mercy. His death made available all sufficient grace and tender mercies for all of our repeated failures, so when we run to Him in desperation, He would never have to say no.
In Jesus, we have the only hope for this fallen world. But if the darkness of the world around us causes us to become jaded and critical, without hope, then our light becomes too dark to be seen by blind men. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Let’s triumph with it!