There’s a little word at the beginning of the first sentence of the Book of Jonah—”and” or “now”—that most modern Bible translations ignore: “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” That little word not only has great significance for Jonah, but for us as well. I’ll tell you why in this episode.
Devotional Text: Jonah 1:1-3; Psalm 115:1
Hi, this is Brent White. And it is Wednesday, May 16, and you’re listening to Devotional Podcast #25.
You’re also listening to the band Stryper, and a song called “The Devil Doesn’t Live Here” from their brand new album—recorded, as always, directly from vinyl. The singer says that he’s “sold out with no fear… only for Jesus.” I want to be sold with no fear only for Jesus. How about you? That’s what I want to talk about.
To do that, let’s look at the first verse of the Book of Jonah. In the NIV and most other contemporary translations, it reads, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai.” That’s O.K., I guess, but the translations that are descended from the King James6—such as the ESV and NRSV—they’re somewhat more faithful to the Hebrew with this verse. Because there’s a word at the beginning of this sentence: and. “And the word of the Lord”—or “now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.”
At least one commentator I read—Phillip Cary, in his profoundly good commentary on Jonah, published by Brazos Press, the absolute best of its kind! If you’re interested in learning more about this little four-chapter book of the Bible, read Phillip Cary’s commentary on Jonah! I’ll put a link to it in the show notes. Anyway, my point is, he sees great significance in this little word “and”… and who am I to disagree. “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” About this little word and he writes [emphasis mine]:
Finally, before we proceed let us go back for a moment to the first word, that unobtrusive little particle “and” (often translated “now” or “but”) whose force depends so much on drawing no attention to itself. It is over before we notice it, so that we can get on with thinking about weightier words such as “the word of the Lord.” But now is the time to look back at the service it has performed. It got us into the story before we knew it, getting us thinking about the events to come as if they belonged to some larger series of events already under way, as if somehow we had just turned the page to begin a new chapter in a much larger book. And of course that is exactly what has happened. Not only does the book of Jonah belong to the much larger book called the Bible, the book of books, but the story of Jonah is a chapter in the much larger story of the dealings of the Lord God with Israel and the nations. So we begin by getting into the middle of things… For this is how we always begin. Even our birth is always in the middle of an ongoing family history. Only the word of the Lord can begin at the very beginning. We follow.
Hmm… We follow. Or we don’t follow. Or we don’t want to follow. The choice is ours. Jonah’s problem was not that he failed to recognize that the events of his life “belonged to some larger series of events already under way,” as Cary says; his problem was that he knew this full well—he knew that God, the author of the story of which Jonah was one minor character—this God—desired to use Jonah’s prophetic witness to preach to the hated citizens of the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria—and Jonah wanted no part of it; he didn’t want to follow this plot line to God’s foreordained conclusion.
At least not at first! Instead, Jonah ran away in the opposite direction of Nineveh. In fact, he went as far in the opposite direction from where God wanted him to go as he possibly could—which for him meant sailing to a place called Tarshish, clear across the Mediterranean Sea. The other side of the world, as far as he knew! To Europe! Barbarians lived in Europe!
But that’s fine… Going to the other side of the world to live with barbarians is far better than going to hideous Nineveh and preaching to those awful Ninevites!
Now, before we go any further, before we tsk-tsk-tsk at Jonah’s unwillingness to follow God’s will and go where God wanted him to go and do what God wanted him to do—because, after all, we never do that, do we? We’re not like Jonah, right?—No, before we turn up our noses at Jonah, before we let ourselves feel superior to him, let’s acknowledge that he has far more faith than we usually have!
Why do I say that? Because he believed in God so much he was willing to risk his life… on two separate occasions… for the sake of his deep faith in God. One of those two occasions is well known and often discussed: At the end of chapter 1, when Jonah realizes that God has kicked up this tempest on the sea because Jonah was disobeying God, Jonah insists that the ship’s crew throw him overboard. Why? Because his God, Yahweh, is the God who made the sea and the dry land. His God is the One who sent this storm their way—to punish Jonah. So, to save the lives of everyone else on board the ship—a ship full of pagan Gentiles—Jonah offers to lay down his own life. Reluctantly, the ship’s captain and crew agree to do that, and when they do throw Jonah overboard, “the sea ceased from raging,” verse 15 says, and then verse 16 says these remarkable words: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
The captain and crew worshiped the one true God; they placed their faith in the one true God. And when it says they made “vows,” that means that they pledged their lives to this God. Through Jonah’s sacrificial death—or near death, because God wasn’t finished with him yet—through Jonah’s sacrificial death, which literally turned away God’s wrath—he made possible the salvation of these formerly unbelieving Gentiles. Do you hear the gospel in this story? This is just one of a multitude of examples of the way in which the Old Testament points to Jesus and the gospel. Once we learn to read the Old Testament in a properly christocentric manner—with Christ at the center—we can find Jesus on nearly every page!
But here’s another way in which Jonah risked his life on account of his faith: he believed so strongly, as he says in Jonah 4:2, that God was a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster,” that he was willing to run away from God and incur God’s wrath rather than preaching to the Ninevites, that they might repent and be saved! Think about it: Of course it’s foolhardy to try to run away from a God who is everywhere and who created everything, but he only did so because he believed so strongly in God’s love, grace, and mercy; he believed so strongly that God would show mercy, which he did! And Jonah himself didn’t want God to show mercy; he wanted God to destroy Nineveh. So he ran away.
But please notice that even his running away took great faith in the kind of God that God was! Because it meant he didn’t doubt for a moment who God was, or what God’s character was like.
So… let’s admire Jonah as a man of great faith before we speak negatively about him. And now, I do want to speak negatively about him. But when I speak negatively about him, I’m also speaking negatively about myself. Because I see myself in him.
This book of the Bible that bears his name isn’t the only place we learn about Jonah. When we turn to 2 Kings 14:25, we see that Jonah is a successful prophet, who spoke for God to King Jeroboam II. Being a prophet to a king was likely what Jonah was doing prior to God’s calling him to go to Nineveh. God’s call disrupted his life. That little word “and” or “now” at the beginning of verse 1, chapter 1—“now the word of the Lord” came to Jonah”—disrupted or interrupted the course of Jonah’s life. God disrupted Jonah’s plans in a major way. It’s as if God were saying, “Jonah, I know that you like your life right now. I know that you could be happy doing exactly what you’re doing right now for the rest of your life. I know, as far as you’re concerned, this is what you’ve planned on doing; this is what you’ve dreamed of doing; this is the kind of job that you’re proud to tell your friends and family about. ‘I’m a prophet to a king!’ But… I’ve got something else for you to do.”
And Jonah was supposed to be O.K. with this disruption to his plans. Because after all, God was in charge of Jonah’s life, not Jonah. So when that little word “and” or “now” came along and disrupted Jonah’s plans, Jonah should have recognized, as Phillip Cary suggested, that the events of Jonah’s life belonged to “some larger series of events already under way”—that Jonah’s life was one chapter in a “much larger story” of which God was the author, not Jonah. So if God decided that Jonah should do something else, Jonah should have said, “Not my will but thine be done” and trusted that God would make it all work out O.K.
I think of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Paul’s life and ministry had been disrupted in a major way; in fact, it must have looked, from an outsider’s perspective, that Paul’s life was ruined. And maybe some of the people at the church in Philippi thought so. Because in Philippians 1:12, Paul writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…” and then he lists a couple of really positive developments that have happened as a result of Paul’s imprisonment. Paul says, in so many words, in v. 18: “If the result of my being in prison is that people believe in Jesus and Jesus receives more glory than he would if I were a free man, who cares what happens to me? Who cares whether I’m in prison or I’m free. What matters is Christ being glorified!”
Can you imagine being so sold out to Jesus that you literally only care about his glory, rather than your own? Not you… me! Can I imagine being so sold out to Jesus?
Oh, Lord, please make me like that!
Because in my own experience, I am often so committed to my own glory—and to my own plans, which in my mind will lead to my own glory—that any interruption or disruption to my plans sends me through the roof. I think it’s the main reason I get angry… because something happening in my life is threatening my own glory! Something or someone is threatening to rob me of glory! And it angers me.
But unlike poor Jonah, I may go along with it; I may not run off in the opposite direction, but trust me: I’m keeping score! I may go along with God’s plan, but I’ll do so under protest. God is going to owe me for disrupting my plans!
Do you see what I mean?
Kill my ego, Lord! Stomp it flat! Please… My life is not about me and what I want. It’s about you and what you want for me. Just please teach me to want what you want for me! Help me to be sold out for you! I want to be able to say, with the psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).
Let me modify that slightly: “Not to me, O Lord, not to me, but to your name give glory…” So long as you’re being glorified through me, Lord, I’ll be content. Amen.
Let me keep on praying this prayer until I mean the words I say! And thank you for being so merciful to me in the meantime! Jonah was exactly right about you: you are a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
1. Phillip Cary, Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008), 29-30.