Unrequited Love

1 And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days. Hosea 3:1-5 ESV

Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was meant to parallel the relationship between God and the apostate nation of Israel. And it seems that Gomer played the part of the unfaithful and adulterous wife quite well. It appears that, at some point, she abandoned Hosea and sought out the love of another man. We are provided with none of the backstory to Gomer’s fateful decision and are told nothing of the pain Hosea experienced when she left him. Since few details are provided, it is impossible to know how long Gomer has been gone. But regardless of the length of time and the level of pain that Hosea suffered, he receives a clear, yet difficult command from God.

Go and love your wife again, even though she commits adultery with another lover.” – Hosea 3:1 NLT

Hosea was being given a non-negotiable assignment from God. He was to seek out and restore his unfaithful wife. And what made this command particularly difficult was that she had left him and was now in a relationship with another man. Her actions clearly indicate that she had replaced Hosea with someone else. And God points out to Hosea the glaring similarities between Gomer and the people of Israel. By seeking to restore his adulterous and unloving wife, Hosea will be demonstrating God’s unfailing love for Israel.

“This will illustrate that the Lord still loves Israel, even though the people have turned to other gods and love to worship them.” – Hosea 3:1 NLT

As difficult as all of this was for Hosea, God fully understood and could easily empathize with the hurt and anger that he was feeling. In a sense, Hosea was being allowed to experience the very real pain of rejection that God had endured for centuries. His relationship with the people of Israel had been marred by their constant unfaithfulness and repeated rejections of His love. Regardless of how many times He had demonstrated His steadfast love for them, they proved to be spiritual adulterers who made a habit out of giving their love and affection to other gods. And every time they bowed themselves before another “lover,” they were rejecting and spurning the love of God. They were thumbing their noses in the face of the one who had redeemed them from their former life of slavery and had pledged to shower them with His undeserved love and affection.

So, Hosea obeyed the Lord and sought out his wayward wife. Once again, we’re not told how long it took Hosea to locate Gomer. It could be that he knew right where she was all along. It’s more than likely that the rumor mill had been in full effect and Hosea had heard where she was and even knew the name of her new lover. But getting Gomer to return was going to prove difficult and costly. This isn’t one of those Hallmark Cards movies where Gomer runs into the waiting arms of Hosea as the music swells in the background. No, Hosea was forced to buy back his own wife, and he shares the exact price he had to pay.

So I bought her back for fifteen pieces of silver and five bushels of barley and a measure of wine. – Hosea 3:2 NLT

It’s difficult to know just how costly this purchase was for Hosea. But the Mosaic Law provides a bit of context. It outlines the penalty that was to be paid if one man’s ox gored and killed another man’s slave.

…if the ox gores a slave, either male or female, the animal’s owner must pay the slave’s owner thirty silver coins. – Exodus 21:32 NLT

It seems that Gomer’s new relationship was not as loving as it may have appeared. Her new “husband” was willing to enter into negotiations with Hosea to determine a fair price to let her go. And the final price worked out to be about 30 pieces of silver. Hosea paid half of it in cash and the rest in barley and wine. Gomer’s lover sold her out for the price of a dead slave.

Once Hosea had finalized the purchase, he informed Gomer of the new conditions of their relationship. He laid down new rules of engagement that prohibited any further adulterous behavior on her part.

“You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” – Hosea 3:3 ESV

Hosea was pledging his faithfulness to Gomer and declaring his expectation that she return the favor. Something that is easy to overlook in all of this is the difficulty this new arrangement would pose for Gomer. She had a proven track record of unfaithfulness and was going to find Hosea’s demands to be restrictive and repugnant. She had already left him once and it is likely that she would be tempted to do so again. But her forced “faithfulness” was intended to illustrate what was going to happen to the people of Israel. God was going to take them through a time of corporate cleansing that would deny them access to their false gods. And it would come in the form of their defeat and deportation at the hands of the Assyrians.

During their time in exile, the Israelites would find themselves living outside the land of promise and with no access to their former idols or places of pagan worship. They would have no king to lead them or priests to guide them in their worship of their false gods.

“Israel will go a long time without a king or prince, and without sacrifices, sacred pillars, priests, or even idols!” – Hosea 3:4 NLT

And they would be denied any access to God Almighty. Some scholars believe that Hosea told Gomer that their physical relationship would be put on hold as well. Not only would she be denied access to other lovers, she would not be allowed to enjoy intimacy with Hosea.

“You must live in my house for many days and stop your prostitution. During this time, you will not have sexual relations with anyone, not even with me. – Hosea 3:3 NLT

Hosea was placing his unfaithful wife in a form of isolation, and that is exactly what God ended up doing with the unfaithful people of Israel. He sent them into captivity in Assyria, where they were denied all the privileges and prerogatives they once enjoyed as His chosen people. Their unfaithfulness, like that of Gomer, came with consequences.

But God gives Hosea good news. He informs His faithful prophet that the day will come when Israel returns to Him. And it won’t be a forced relationship based on rules and mandatory restrictions. They will willingly return to God and express to Him their love and affection.

“But afterward the people will return and devote themselves to the Lord their God and to David’s descendant, their king. In the last days, they will tremble in awe of the Lord and of his goodness.” – Hosea 3:5 NLT

The prophet Ezekiel provides further insight into this future day when God will restore His disobedient people.

“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.” – Ezekiel 36:24-29 ESV

Even their return to Him will be the result of His gracious power and provision. He will be the one to restore their hearts and provide them with the capacity to love Him unconditionally and faithfully. The prophet Jeremiah makes this point quite clear.

“I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” – Jeremiah 24:7 ESV

“I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.” – Jeremiah 32:39 ESV

Hosea did not possess the ability to instill this kind of change in the heart of Gomer. He had no guarantee that his unfaithful wife would ever return his love and affection. But he faithfully obeyed the will of God and continued to display his love to her, without ever knowing if she would reciprocate. But God provided him with a glimmer of hope by revealing His plans for the disobedient people of Israel. If God could restore and redeem them, perhaps there was a chance that Gomer could one day learn to love Hosea.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

You Are My People

14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
    and bring her into the wilderness,
    and speak tenderly to her.
15 And there I will give her her vineyards
    and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
    as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.

16 “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. 18 And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. 19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.

21 “And in that day I will answer, declares the Lord,
    I will answer the heavens,
    and they shall answer the earth,
22 and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
    and they shall answer Jezreel,
23     and I will sow her for myself in the land.
And I will have mercy on No Mercy,
    and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’;
    and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:14-23 ESV

The holy and righteous God of Israel was going to punish His rebellious people for their sins against Him. Yet, as an expression of His grace and mercy, He would also redeem and restore them. He would keep His covenant commitment to them and fulfill the promises He had made to Abraham and to David. They would once again become a great and mighty nation, ruled over by a good and righteous king, a descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:8-16). But these things would not happen as a result of Israel’s decision to repent and return to God. He would be the pursuer.

“I will win her back once again.
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her there.” – Hosea 2:14 NLT

Like a husband with a promiscuous wife, God would have to purposefully pursue His wayward people, seeking them out even as they suffered the consequences of their own sin. The prophet Ezekiel describes God’s relentless pursuit of His rebellious people and explains why He refuses to simply abandon them to their well-deserved punishment.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

Any hope the people of Israel had of experiencing redemption and restoration rested in the hands of God. He would have to be the one to pursue them and whoo them back to Himself. Even when they found themselves living in exile as a result of their sins, they would refuse to seek and serve Him. But He would never give up on them. Reminiscent of the days when the people of Israel lived as slaves in the land of Egypt, they would once again find themselves miraculously and graciously delivered by God. Their days of trouble would come to an end and they would once again enjoy the fruits of a restored relationship with Him.

God promises to “make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15 ESV). That is a reference to a less-than-flattering scene from Israel’s past. Joshua was leading the people of Israel into the land of promise. They had just enjoyed a rousing victory over the city of Jericho. But when they attempted to defeat the much smaller city of Ai, they failed miserably. The reason for their unexpected failure was the sin of one man: Achan. He had violated God’s commands by taking plunder from Jericho and hiding it in his tent. When Achan had been exposed as the guilty party, Joshua confronted him.

And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” – Joshua 7:24-25 NLT

In Hebrew, the word Achor means “trouble” or “disaster.” Achan’s sin had brought disaster upon the whole nation of Israel. On this site, Achan would suffer the consequences for his sin, along with his entire family.

And all the Israelites stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies. They piled a great heap of stones over Achan, which remains to this day. That is why the place has been called the Valley of Trouble ever since. – Joshua 7:25-26 NLT

Now, God promises to lead His people back from their exile and, this time, when they pass through the “Valley of Trouble,” it will become a gateway to hope. They will enter the land of promise once again, where they will enjoy the goodness and graciousness of their loving God. But this future day will be like none other. It will feature a restored creation where the animal kingdom and humanity experience an Eden-like existence, with all animosity and fear having been removed. It will be a time of unprecedented peace between the nations of the world. But most importantly, it will be a day when Israel will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God. He promises to restore them and return them to their former place of prominence as His chosen possession.

“I will make you my wife forever,
    showing you righteousness and justice,
    unfailing love and compassion.
I will be faithful to you and make you mine,
    and you will finally know me as the Lord.” – Hosea 2:19-20 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah also recorded a remarkable promise of God, outlining His future plan to restore the people of Israel to their homeland.

“I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in this land.” – Jeremiah 32:37-41 NLT

While God did eventually return a remnant of the people of Judah to the land after their exile in Babylon, the majority of these promises remain unfulfilled. These passages all speak of a yet-future day when God will miraculously restore His chosen people to the land and reestablish their covenant relationship with Him.

“At that time I will plant a crop of Israelites
    and raise them for myself.
I will show love
    to those I called ‘Not loved.’
And to those I called ‘Not my people,’
    I will say, ‘Now you are my people.’
And they will reply, ‘You are our God!’” – Hosea 2:23 NLT

Centuries have passed since Hosea recorded these words, and their fulfillment remains to be seen. Even when Jesus appeared on the scene, declaring that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, His words and His works were rejected by His own people. They refused to recognize Him as their rightful King and Savior. But there is a day when Jesus will return to the earth and establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem, where He will rule and reign for a thousand years. And in that Kingdom, He will rule over a restored remnant of God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel. At that time, every promise of God will be fully fulfilled and the words recorded in Hosea will come to pass.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

I Will Restore

11 “In that day I will raise up
    the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
    and raise up its ruins
    and rebuild it as in the days of old,
12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom
    and all the nations who are called by my name,”
    declares the Lord who does this.

13 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
    and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
    and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
    and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them on their land,
    and they shall never again be uprooted
    out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God. Amos 9:11-15 ESV

From its opening chapter, the book of Amos has focused all of its attention on God’s pending judgment. Amos began his book with a revelation that the coming wrath of God would be global in nature, impacting such nations as Syria, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. But chapters 2-8 make it painfully clear that God has reserved His severest judgment for His own chosen people. And since Amos was a prophet to the ten northern tribes, the majority of his book has been a divine diatribe against the sins of Israel. Judah has been mentioned and will not escape punishment for its own transgressions, but the purpose of Amos’ mission has been to record God’s indictment against the northern kingdom of Israel.

Time and time again, God had sent His prophets with a message for His rebellious people. They were warned to repent and return to Him or face the consequences of their sin. But they had repeatedly refused His gracious and merciful offers of forgiveness by continuing to seek and serve their false gods. And even when God brought upon them famines, droughts, diseases, and disastrous military defeats, they remained stubbornly committed to their lifestyle of apostasy and idolatry. Each divine judgment ended with God declaring, “…yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6 ESV).

They had repeatedly and persistently broken their covenant commitment to God, and now they were going to have to pay the price for their disobedience. They had no excuse. God had given them ample warning of what would happen if they chose to disobey His commands. All the way back in the days of Moses, long before the people crossed the Jordan River and began their conquest of the land of Canaan, God had told them what would happen if they broke their covenant commitment.

“But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you:

Your towns and your fields
    will be cursed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be cursed.
Your children and your crops
    will be cursed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be cursed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be cursed.

“The Lord himself will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in everything you do, until at last you are completely destroyed for doing evil and abandoning me.” – Deuteronomy 28:15-20 NLT

And now, centuries later, the ten northern tribes of Israel were facing the final stage of God’s judgment: Their destruction and deportation.

“The Lord will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! You will become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you. – Deuteronomy 28:36-37 NLT

And, as Amos begins to wrap up his book, he reinforces the unavoidable reality of God’s judgment.

For behold, I will command,
    and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
    but no pebble shall fall to the earth.
All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
    who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’” – Amos 9:9-10 ESV

Even to the bitter end, the prideful and arrogant people of Israel will deny the possibility of their own demise. They will persist in believing that their status as God’s chosen people will somehow provide them with immunity from judgment. Despite their centuries of rebellion and spiritual adultery, they will cling to their belief that they are the apple of God’s eye and, therefore, untouchable. But they will soon discover that their assumption was sorely mistaken.

And yet, after all the doom and gloom of the last nine chapters, Amos wraps up his book on a surprisingly upbeat note. As a prophet, Amos has been addressing the present conditions in Israel by predicting the future ramifications for their actions. He is projecting out into the future and revealing exactly what God is going to do. But his record of what God has in store for Israel does not come with a timeline. There is no calendar providing specific dates on which these events will occur. The people of Israel were left to wonder when and how these predictions would take place. How would their fall come about? When would it happen and what nation would be the source of their demise? God doesn’t say. But He does reveal that “In that day…,” He will do something unexpected and totally undeserved. Somewhere in the distant future, God has a plan to restore and redeem His people.

“In that day I will restore the fallen house of David.
    I will repair its damaged walls.
From the ruins I will rebuild it
    and restore its former glory. – Amos 9:11 NLT

Yes, God was going to judge His people for their sins. But He would also restore them. The judgment would come first and it would take place when the Assyrians invaded Israel in 722 B.C. The forces of King Sennacherib would besiege the capital city of Samaria, eventually breaching its walls, and destroying everything within it. Those Israelites who were not killed were deported to Assyria as slaves. And the author of 2 Kings reveals the reason behind this devastating end to the ten northern tribes.

This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. They had followed the practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of them, as well as the practices the kings of Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17:7-8 NLT

But in the closing verses of his book, Amos records the words of God as He predicts another day – “that day” when He will restore the fallen house of David. And that day remains, as yet, unfulfilled. God is letting His people know that His timeline extends far beyond the fall of Israel. The year 722 B.C. ushered in the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. And, in 586 B.C., God used the Babylonians to destroy the city of Jerusalem and bring about the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah. But the destruction of those two cities and the demise of the two kingdoms did not mark the end of God’s interactions with His people. He had made a covenant with them and He was the covenant-keeping God. While they had proven to be unfaithful, He would keep every commitment He had ever made to them.

Back during the days of King David, God made a covenant commitment to him, promising to raise up a descendant who would rule on his throne forever.

“Furthermore, the Lord declares that he will make a house for you—a dynasty of kings! For when you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong. He is the one who will build a house—a temple—for my name. And I will secure his royal throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.” – 2 Samuel 7:11-14 NLT

That promise was partially fulfilled in David’s son, Solomon. But he proved to be less than faithful to God, ending his long reign by leading the people into idolatry and apostasy. He built a temple for Yahweh but also constructed shrines and altars for the false gods of his many wives. And for his many indiscretions, God divided his kingdom in two, creating the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

But Amos reveals that God intends to restore Israel. Despite the sins of Solomon and the long line of kings who followed him, God was going to keep His covenant commitment to David. The two kingdoms would end up destroyed and deported, but that did not mean God was done with them. The same God who would ordain their fall would be the one to redeem and restore them.

“I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.” – Amos 9:14 NLT

God describes a time of great renewal. It will be a time of abundance and blessing. He promises to bring back His chosen people “from distant lands” and to return them to the land He had given to them as their inheritance. This promise was partially fulfilled in 445 B.C. when the people of Judah returned from their exile in Babylon. But while they would rebuild the temple, repair the walls of Jerusalem, and repopulate the city, they would remain under foreign control for centuries. Even during the days of Jesus, the Jews would be little more than a puppet state, operating under the heavy hand of Rome. And in 70 A.D. the second temple would be destroyed by the Romans, leaving the people of Israel with no place to worship or offer sacrifices to their God.

But God is not done. His will regarding Israel is far from complete. And Amos ends his book by recording the promise of Yahweh regarding His people.

“I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God. – Amos 9:15 NLT

This promise remains yet unfulfilled. And the prophet Jeremiah echoes the words of Amos, confirming God’s plans to keep His covenant promises.

“For the time is coming when I will restore the fortunes of my people of Israel and Judah. I will bring them home to this land that I gave to their ancestors, and they will possess it again. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 30:3 NLT

And Jeremiah goes on to describe the unique nature of this future day.

“I will break the yoke from their necks
    and snap their chains.
Foreigners will no longer be their masters.
   For my people will serve the Lord their God
and their king descended from David—
    the king I will raise up for them.” – Jeremiah 30:8-9 NLT

This day remains unfulfilled, but it will happen just as God has said. The book of Revelation reveals the day when Christ will return to the earth and set up His kingdom in Jerusalem. For 1,000 years, He will reign from the throne of David in the restored capital city. He will conquer the enemies of God and bring righteousness and justice to the earth. And He will restore the fortunes of the people of Israel. God is not done. His plan is not yet finished. And because He is the faithful, covenant-keeping God, He will restore His people just as He has promised.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

For Evil and Not for Good

1 I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and he said:

“Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake,
    and shatter them on the heads of all the people;
and those who are left of them I will kill with the sword;
    not one of them shall flee away;
    not one of them shall escape.

“If they dig into Sheol,
    from there shall my hand take them;
if they climb up to heaven,
    from there I will bring them down.
If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
    from there I will search them out and take them;
and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea,
    there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.
And if they go into captivity before their enemies,
    there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them;
and I will fix my eyes upon them
    for evil and not for good.”

The Lord God of hosts,
he who touches the earth and it melts,
    and all who dwell in it mourn,
and all of it rises like the Nile,
    and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt;
who builds his upper chambers in the heavens
    and founds his vault upon the earth;
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out upon the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.

“Are you not like the Cushites to me,
    O people of Israel?” declares the Lord.
“Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
    and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?
Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground,
    except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,”
declares the Lord.

“For behold, I will command,
    and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
    but no pebble shall fall to the earth.
10 All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
    who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’Amos 9:1-10 ESV

In this final vision, Amos sees God standing next to an altar. But this scene does not take place at the temple in Jerusalem. Ever since the kingdom of Solomon had been divided in two by God, the ten northern tribes had abstained from worshiping Yahweh at the temple that Solomon had constructed in Jerusalem. Instead, they worshiped the false gods that Jeroboam I had set up in Dan and Bethel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, “Unless I am careful, the kingdom will return to the dynasty of David. When these people go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple of the Lord, they will again give their allegiance to King Rehoboam of Judah. They will kill me and make him their king instead.”

So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there.

Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. – 1 Kings 12:26-31 NLT

And long after Jeroboam’s death, the kingdom of Israel continued to worship the golden calves he had set up in Dan and Bethel. So, the altar in Amos’ vision is most likely in one of those locations. He sees God standing next to the sacred shrine dedicated to the golden calf of Jeroboam – the false god that had been meant to replace Him.

Amos sees Yahweh, the one true God, standing in judgment over the altar of the false god that the people of Israel had chosen to worship instead of Him. In essence, God is standing next to one of the golden calf statues that Jeroboam I had created. And in the very presence of this false god, Yahweh calls for the destruction of his house.

Strike the tops of the Temple columns,
    so that the foundation will shake.
Bring down the roof
    on the heads of the people below.
I will kill with the sword those who survive.
    No one will escape!” – Amos 9:1 NLT

Amos is being given a glimpse of the coming judgment of God upon the house of Jacob (Israel). With the destruction of the temple dedicated to Israel’s false god, Yahweh is displaying His unparalleled power and declaring His well-deserved judgment upon them for their rejection of Him. While a literal destruction of this pagan temple would only result in a few deaths, God assures Amos that “no one will escape” His wrath. They can run but they won’t be able to escape the judgment of God Almighty. And God uses language that is reminiscent of the words of King David, recorded in Psalm 139.

I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me. – Psalm 139:7-10 NLT

It doesn’t matter where they go, God will find them and mete out His judgment upon them. Rather than guidance and strength, they will find only the righteous indignation and full fury of the God they have chosen to abandon. And one of the fascinating things about this passage is its rather veiled but obvious reference to Jonah. God states, “Even if they hide at the very top of Mount Carmel, I will search them out and capture them. Even if they hide at the bottom of the ocean, I will send the sea serpent after them to bite them” (Amos 9:3 NLT).

Amos was a contemporary of Jonah, another prophet that God had appointed to the northern tribe of Israel. But at one point, God had given Jonah a commission to take His message of pending judgment to the Assyrians living in the capital city of Nineveh. Fearing that the pagan people of Nineveh would hear God’s message and repent, Jonah refused to obey God’s command. Instead, he booked passage on a ship to Tarshish, hoping to escape the presence of the Lord. But through a series of divinely ordained events, God pursued His rebellious and disobedient prophet. God sent a storm that placed Jonah and his fellow passengers in great danger.

Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.

Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. – Jonah 1:15-17 NLT

When Jonah was cast into the sea, he sank beneath the waves. He began to drown. And he later described for God what that experience had been like.

You threw me into the ocean depths,
    and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
    I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves. – Jonah 2:3 NLT

But God sent the sea serpent to bite him (Amos 9:3). But in Jonah’s case, the “serpent” was actually a symbol of God’s salvation. Even Jonah recognized that the “great fish” had been an agent of God’s mercy.

I sank down to the very roots of the mountains.
    I was imprisoned in the earth,
    whose gates lock shut forever.
But you, O Lord my God,
    snatched me from the jaws of death! – Jonah 2:6 NLT

After three days and nights inside the great fish, Jonah was unceremoniously vomited out on dry land. He was rescued and redeemed from death by the sovereign hand of God. After his miraculous and God-ordained deliverance, Jonah went to Nineveh and delivered God’s message of judgment, and the people repented. God’s will was done.

Jonah had rebelled against God and had suffered the consequences. He had thought He could escape the wrath of God and was proven wrong. And the people of Israel were going to learn the same painful lesson. Just as God had appointed the wind to create the storm that resulted in Jonah’s drowning, He would appoint enemies to destroy the people of Israel. The same God who “draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land” (Amos 9:6 NLT), was going to use His sovereign power to rain down judgment upon the disobedient people of Israel.

But, like Jonah, they would find that their God was merciful and longsuffering. Jonah did not drown, and the people of Israel would not be completely destroyed.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel…” – Amos 9:8 NLT

Jonah lived to tell the story of his own rebellion. And a remnant of the people of Israel would live to tell about God’s undeserved mercy and grace toward them. In the midst of His declaration of judgment, God promises to redeem a remnant of His people.

“For I will give the command
    and will shake Israel along with the other nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    yet not one true kernel will be lost.” – Amos 9:9 NLT

There were still those in Israel who remained true to Yahweh, and He would preserve and protect them. Why? Because He was not yet done. The rebellion of His people would be punished, but His sovereign plan for the world would still be accomplished. God had set apart the people of Israel so that they might be a light to the nations, but they had failed to accomplish God’s will. Yet, He had a plan in place that would bring about the fulfillment of His original mandate that Israel be a light to the nations. And it would come about through His Son, the true Israel.

God, the Lord, created the heavens and stretched them out.
    He created the earth and everything in it.
He gives breath to everyone,
    life to everyone who walks the earth.
And it is he who says,
“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
    I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
    as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
    You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
    releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:5-7 NLT

Jesus would accomplish what Israel had failed to do. He would be a descendant of Abraham and the son of King David who would fully accomplish God’s will. But for that to happen, God would spare a remnant of His people so that His Son could one day enter the world, born of the virgin, Mary, and the rightful heir to the throne of David. And, as Amos was about to see, while God was prepared to judge Israel, He was far from done with them, because He had a plan in place.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Measured and Found Wanting

7 This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“Behold, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass by them;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Amos 7:7-9 ESV

The book of Jonah could easily be classified as a cliff-hanger. It ends rather abruptly, leaving the reader with a lot of unanswered questions, not the least of which is what happened to Jonah. We can safely assume that God did not answer Jonah’s pitty-filled plea to kill him. But did he remain in Nineveh or return home to Gath-hepher in Galilee? Regardless of his disposition or destination, he remained a prophet of God. So, did he receive a new assignment? Was he called to minister God’s Word to the new converts in Nineveh?

All of these questions are left unanswered. We are not even told what happened to the citizens of Nineveh. But we know that God did not rain down destruction on them because the text tells us, “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV). God showed them pity and spared their lives. But that is all we know. There is no extant record that corroborates or validates the author’s claim that the people of Nineveh experienced a revival. The Assyrians kept detailed accounts of their many exploits, but no archeological discoveries have ever unearthed a stone or tablet containing evidence of the mass conversion of the city of Nineveh. But that should not come as a shock. The Assyrians were not known for keeping objectively based or unbiased records of their history. The chronicles they penned were intended to glorify their successes while minimizing their failures. So, it would not be surprising that, if the king of Nineveh made a record of what is described in the book of Jonah, it was quickly expunged by his successor. And we know that the repentance of the people of Nineveh was short-lived. Their king’s mournful plea that they “turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence” (Jonah 3:8 ESV), seems to have resulted in a temporary change in behavior. But those same Assyrians would ultimately show up on Israel’s doorstep, besiege their capital city of Samaria, and eventually defeat and deport them.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. They were settled in colonies in Halah, along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. – 2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT

God had repeatedly warned the people of Israel that they would suffer destruction for their sinfulness and for their stubborn refusal to repent and return to Him. Even Jonah’s contemporary, Amos, had prophesied that they would one day be defeated and deported, and it would be God’s doing.

The Sovereign Lord has sworn this by his holiness:
“The time will come when you will be led away
    with hooks in your noses.
Every last one of you will be dragged away
    like a fish on a hook!
You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;
    you will be thrown from your fortresses,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 4:2-3 NLT

And the author of 2 Kings does not sugarcoat the cause of their destruction.

This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. They had followed the practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of them, as well as the practices the kings of Israel had introduced. The people of Israel had also secretly done many things that were not pleasing to the Lord their God. – 2 Kings 17:7-9 NLT

The fates of Jonah and Nineveh were not relevant to the author of the book of Jonah because they were not the focus of his story. He was writing to the Hebrew people and the entire purpose behind his book was to remind them of the sovereign will of God. It is likely that this book was penned after the nation of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians. They would have been living in exile “along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6 NLT). And this story was meant to convict them of their sin and remind them that their God was “a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love” (Jonah 4:2 NLT). He was “eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT).

And even though they were living as captives of war in Assyria, their God had not forgotten them. If He could redeem the wicked Ninevites, He most certainly could redeem His chosen but rebellious people. But even in their captivity, they remained stubbornly unwilling to obey God. They longed for His deliverance but remained opposed to keeping His commands. In a sense, they were just like Jonah. As they languished in the Assyria (the belly of the fish), they displayed a superficial form of repentance that had no teeth to it.

Come on! Let’s return to the Lord.
He himself has torn us to pieces,
but he will heal us!
He has injured us,
but he will bandage our wounds!
He will restore us in a very short time;
he will heal us in a little while,
so that we may live in his presence.
So let us search for him!
Let us seek to know the Lord!
He will come to our rescue as certainly as the appearance of the dawn,
as certainly as the winter rain comes,
as certainly as the spring rain that waters the land. – Hosea 6:1-3 NET

They were like Jonah, vowing to keep vows and pledging to offer up offerings, only if God would rescue them. But they remained just as stubborn as the prophet of God. And God saw through their sham display of repentance.

“…your faithfulness is as fleeting as the morning mist;
it disappears as quickly as dawn’s dew…” – Hosea 6:4 NET

God was not interested in pretense and false displays of piety. He was looking for true heart change.

“For I delight in faithfulness, not simply in sacrifice;
I delight in acknowledging God, not simply in whole burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 NET

God had taken stock of Israel and found them to be wanting. As the book of Amos reveals, God had measured the integrity of the house of Israel and found it to be of poor quality and construction. Amos was given a vision of God standing next to a wall with a plumb line in His hand. A plumb line was a simple, yet effective building tool that featured a heavy weight on the end of a string. It used the force of gravity to establish an accurate line of perpendicularity so that a wall would not lean in the wrong direction. And God told Amos, “I will test my people with this plumb line. I will no longer ignore all their sins” (Amos 7:8 NLT). He was going to measure or assess their spiritual integrity. And God made it to Amos that the people of Israel were not going to measure up to His righteous standard.

“The pagan shrines of your ancestors will be ruined, and the temples of Israel will be destroyed; I will bring the dynasty of King Jeroboam to a sudden end.” – Amos 7:9 NLT

God was going to deal with Israel according to their sins. Yes, they were His chosen people. He had set them apart as His prized possession. But they had repeatedly rejected Him as their God, chasing after false gods and refusing to acknowledge of confess their spiritual adultery. And God could not and would not tolerate their sin forever.

“I want to heal Israel, but its sins are too great.
    Samaria is filled with liars.
Thieves are on the inside
    and bandits on the outside!
Its people don’t realize
    that I am watching them.
Their sinful deeds are all around them,
    and I see them all.” – Hosea 7:1-2 NLT

The people of Israel had become arrogant and prideful. Under the reign of King Jeroboam II, they had enjoyed renewed success and prosperity. He had expanded their borders and reestablished them as a major player in the region. Yet, rather than see these successes as the handiwork of God, they took credit for them.

Their arrogance testifies against them,
    yet they don’t return to the Lord their God
    or even try to find him. – Hosea 7:10 NLT

And listen closely to how God describes His chosen people.

“The people of Israel have become like silly, witless doves,
    first calling to Egypt, then flying to Assyria for help.
But as they fly about,
    I will throw my net over them
and bring them down like a bird from the sky.
    I will punish them for all the evil they do.” – Hosea 7:11-12 NLT

The Hebrew word for “dove” is yônâ, which just happens to be the name of the prophet whom God sent to Nineveh. As Jonah flitted about like a witless dove, flying to Joppa and then taking flight to Tarshish, he was mimicking the actions of the rebellious people of God. And just as he could not escape the soveriegn hand of God Almighty, neither would they.

All of this reminds me of another incident recorded in the Word of God. It involves King Belshazzar and the prophet, Daniel. The southern kingdom of Judah has fallen to the Babylonians and Daniel is among those who were taken captive and transported to Babylon as slaves. Fortunately, he has ended up on the payroll of the king. At one point, the king threw an extravagant party, and to impress his guests, he ordered that they bring in all the “gold cups taken from the Temple, the house of God in Jerusalem” (Danuel 5:3 NLT). Belshazzar, in a display of pride and arrogance, had his guests drink wine from these sacred vessels, and they toasted “their idols made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Daniel 5:4 NLT). And as they reveled in the superior nature of their gods, a startling scene unfolded.

Suddenly, they saw the fingers of a human hand writing on the plaster wall of the king’s palace, near the lampstand. The king himself saw the hand as it wrote, and his face turned pale with fright. His knees knocked together in fear and his legs gave way beneath him. – Daniel 5:5-6 NLT

The king sent for Daniel, who was known for his ability to interpret dreams and visions. And Daniel gave the king a brief, but sobering history lesson.

“Your Majesty, the Most High God gave sovereignty, majesty, glory, and honor to your predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar. He made him so great that people of all races and nations and languages trembled before him in fear. He killed those he wanted to kill and spared those he wanted to spare. He honored those he wanted to honor and disgraced those he wanted to disgrace. But when his heart and mind were puffed up with arrogance, he was brought down from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven from human society. He was given the mind of a wild animal, and he lived among the wild donkeys. He ate grass like a cow, and he was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he learned that the Most High God rules over the kingdoms of the world and appoints anyone he desires to rule over them.” – Daniel 5:18-21 NLT

Daniel reminded the arrogant king that his predecessor had suffered from the same malady and had paid dearly for it. Nebuchadnezzar had failed to recognize that his success had been God-ordained. He had taken credit for something God had done. And now, Belshazzar was repeating that mistake.

You are his successor, O Belshazzar, and you knew all this, yet you have not humbled yourself. For you have proudly defied the Lord of heaven.” – Daniel 5:22-23 NLT

And when Daniel finally got around to interpreting the vision, he simply informed the king, “…you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27 ESV). In essence, God had given Belshazzar a plumb-line assessment of his reign:

“God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end.” – Daniel 5:26 NLT

“…you have been weighed on the balances and have not measured up.” – Daniel 5:27 NLT

God is sovereign over all nations. He alone places kings of their thrones. And He had sovereignly chosen to make Israel His set-apart people. They had enjoyed a unique relationship with Him, unprecedented among all the nations of the earth. But they had failed to remain faithful. They had chosen to reject their calling to be a blessing to the nations and a light to the world. As, as a result, God was compelled to punish them.

Listen to this message that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel—against the entire family I rescued from Egypt:

“From among all the families on the earth,
    I have been intimate with you alone.
That is why I must punish you
    for all your sins.” – Amos 3:1-2 NLT

But despite their unfaithfulness, God would remain faithful. He would punish them, but He would also restore them. Yahweh would remain the covenant-keeping God, who fulfills all the promises He has made.

“I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.
I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God. – Amos 9:14-15 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Right To Give Life

Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Jonah 4:6-11 ESV

This is the second time that Jonah has fled from Nineveh. On the first occasion, he had been somewhere in Israel, probably not far from his hometown of Gath-hepher, in the region of Galilee. This would have placed him more than 500 miles from Nineveh. But for Jonah, that was not far enough. So, when he received God’s call to go to Nineveh and announce their pending judgment, he refused and headed in the opposite direction. He attempted to avoid his commission by fleeing from the presence of the Lord. But his plan didn’t work out so well. God sent a storm to delay Jonah’s departure. Then, when the sailors cast lots to see who was the source of their troubles, God caused the lot to fall on Jonah. In a last-ditch effort to save their lives, the sailors cast Jonah overboard, at which point God appointed a large fish to swallow His disobedient prophet. Then, after Jonah had spent three miserable days in the belly of the fish, God caused the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. From there, Jonah made his way to Nineveh, where he finally delivered God’s message. And the people believed.

Now, Jonah sits outside the walls of the great city of Nineveh, waiting to see whether God will rain down judgment on the enemies of Israel or if He will show them mercy and compassion. Jonah hopes for the former but fears that the latter will be what takes place. Sitting in his man-made shelter, Jonah is burning with rage. He is furious that his message of God’s pending destruction of Nineveh had been met with repentance and mourning. Rather than turn on Jonah as the bearer of bad news, the people had turned to Yahweh in faith. And Jonah knew that Yahweh was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). He was afraid that the repentance of the Ninevites would cause God to change His mind about destroying them. But Jonah still held out hope that God might do to Nineveh what He had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. He was still longing for their destruction and not their deliverance.

But as Jonah fumed in his makeshift shelter, “the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). It’s important to recall that when Jonah had been thrown off the ship and into the raging sea, God had appointed a fish to rescue him from certain death. Now, as Jonah raged outside the walls of the city, God appointed a plant to relieve his “discomfort.” Once again, the God of the universe intervened in the life of His rebellious prophet. Yahweh caused a plant to appear, virtually overnight, providing His sun-baked, pitty-soaked prophet with protection from the sun and relief from his anger. 

Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. – Jonah 4:6 ESV

The sudden and miraculous appearance of the plant had its intended effect. Jonah was relieved of his discomfort. But the author uses a very specific Hebrew word to describe the condition from which Jonah was relieved. It is the word, raʿ, which is most often translated as “evil” or “wickedness.” It can also mean “affliction.” It is the same word the author used in describing the behavior of the people of Nineveh.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:10 ESV

And when Jonah saw the people of Nineveh repent of their evil way, he refused to see it as a good thing. Verse 1 of chapter four states that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly.” This phrase could actually be translated as “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” Jonah viewed the repentance of the Ninevites as evil or wicked. And yet, it was God who deemed Jonah’s reaction as evil. His anger was not only unjustified, but it was also unrighteous. That is why God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:4 NLT). Jonah’s response was not good or acceptable. He actually preferred that God do evil by destroying the Ninevites. That is exactly what he meant when he expressed his concern that God might be gracious to the Ninevites, “relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). In Hebrew, that phrase reads nāḥam raʿ, which means, “repenting of evil.” In essence, Jonah wanted God to respond to the Ninevites with evil. He longed for God to devastate and destroy them.

But even in his fit of unrighteous and unjustified anger, Jonah was met with undeserved grace and mercy. God appointed a plant that provided Jonah with relief – and he was glad. But notice what the text says: “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). He gladly accepted the gift of God’s mercy but failed to show Him any gratitude.

So, “God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered” (Jonah 4:7 ESV). All throughout this story, the author purposefully portrays the sovereign hand of God behind all that happens. God appointed the fish. He appointed the plant. Now, He appoints the worm. Every step of the way, God has been ordaining the events of Jonah’s life in order to accomplish His sovereign will. The Creator-God orchestrated the actions of a giant fish and a tiny worm, all to accomplish His grand redemptive plan. He caused the plant that had sprung up overnight to disappear just as quickly. And His removal of the plant was followed by His appointment of “a scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8 ESV). The soothing shade was replaced by the searing rays of the sun and a scorching sirocco wind.

The sudden change in his circumstances left Jonah in a foul mood. While he had gladly accepted the gracious gift of shade without uttering a word of thanks, he immediately declared his dissatisfaction when the shade was suddenly removed. He bitterly informed God that he would rather die than suffer any further.

…he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:7 ESV

But Jonah was missing the point. He was failing to understand the lesson that God was trying to teach him. So, God asks him a second question:

“Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” – Jonah 4:9 NLT

Did Jonah really have a right to be angry over the loss of his source of shade and comfort? Was he justified in expressing his desire to die? But before God could complete His thought, Jonah quickly interrupted and defended his actions.

“Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” – Jonah 4:9 ESV

Then God graciously exposes the absurdity of Jonah’s over-the-top response. He points out that Jonah was upset about the untimely demise of a plant he had done nothing to produce. He had no vested interest in the plant, other than the comfort he had received from it.

You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. – Jonah 4:10 NLT

Jonah was grieving over the loss of the plant, not because he had labored to produce it, but because he missed the benefit he had received from it. His motives were purely selfish and self-centered. Jonah’s only concern for the plant was in its ability to provide him with comfort – which was now gone. So, God uses the destruction of the plant to teach Jonah a lesson regarding His sparing of the people of Nineveh.

“But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” – Jonah 4:10 NLT

God describes the people of Nineveh as not knowing “their right hand from their left.” They are ignorant of the His ways. They were like children who lacked wisdom, discernment, and spiritual understanding. Unlike the people of Israel, the Ninevites had not enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Yahweh. They had not been given His law or instructed in His ways. The entire community was living in spiritual darkness, unaware of Yahweh’s identity and completely oblivious to the wickedness of their ways.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul would provide a powerful reminder to the Gentile converts who were part of that local fellowship.

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. – Ephesians 2:11-12 NLT

Jesus would also emphasize the inclusion of those who were outside the nation of Israel.

“I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” – John 10:16 NLT

The people of Israel had been chosen by God so that they might be a light to the nations. They were to shine in the darkness of the world, providing the Gentiles with a glimpse of God’s goodness, glory, and greatness. But they had failed to live up to their calling. The prophet Hosea declared of them: “Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel” (Hosea 8:8 ESV). Just as Jonah had been swallowed by the fish, Israel would ultimately be swallowed by the Assyrians. They would fall to the very nation to whom Jonah had been sent. And God had proven to Jonah that He could redeem and rescue the worst of sinners. He could even use a reluctant and rebellious prophet to bring about the repentance of a city full of wicked and spiritually ignorant Ninevites.

God cared enough about Jonah to send him a fish and a plant. God cared enough about Israel that He repeatedly sent His prophets to call them to repentance. And He cared enough about Nineveh to send His reluctant prophet to deliver His message of redemption. But Jonah missed all of this. He failed to grasp the significance of God’s grand redemptive plan for His creation. Even the author’s reference to “much cattle” is intended to reveal that God has a plan to redeem and restore all that He has made.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the entire creation is living under the weight of the curse that came as a result of Adam’s sin.

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:19-22 NLT

And the book of Jonah ends with God reminding His self-consumed prophet that He loves and cares for the people of Nineveh because He created them. Like the plant, they exist because God gave them life. And as the author of life, only God has the right to give or take it away. Jonah was asking God for the right to die. But God wanted Jonah to understand that He had the right to let the Ninevites live. Because He cared for them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

With God, All Things Are Possible

17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:17 ESV

Now we come to the part of the story that catches everyone’s imagination. The very idea of a giant fish swallowing a man is both terrifying and fascinating. It catches the reader’s imagination and creates a certain sense of incredulity. Up to this point, the account of Jonah’s life has had a decidedly biographical and historical feel to it. But when the big fish enters the scene, it all takes on the character of a tall tale. Suddenly, the chronicle of Jonah’s travels reads more like a page out of Aesop’s Fables. This one aspect of the story, while not entirely impossible, seems highly improbable. That is what has led so many modern biblical scholars and commentators to classify the book of Jonah as either allegorical or parabolic. They reject the historicity of the book, characterizing it as an allegorical story that portrays Jonah as a symbol of Israel and the fish as a representation of Babylon. The rebellious Jonah is swallowed by a divinely ordained monster, just as God’s rebellious and unrepentant people will be consumed and taken captive by the Babylonians. They will spend an extended time in “the belly of the great fish” only to find themselves graciously disgorged back into the land of promise at the end of their 70-year exile.

Others have chosen to interpret the story of Jonah as simply a parable. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a parable is a “short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” It is a common teaching methodology that attempts to convey deeper truths using simple, easy-to-understand stories that utilize simile and metaphor. Seen as a parable, the story of Jonah becomes a visual illustration that decries the danger of narrow-minded nationalism or promotes the universal love of God. Everything in the story takes on a comparative quality, requiring the reader to determine the symbolism behind each actor and action.

But for centuries, most Jewish and Christian scholars used the historical interpretive model when approaching the book of Jonah. They viewed Jonah as a real person and the contents of the book bearing his name as a record of actual events. They viewed the fantastic and somewhat fanciful scenes described in the story through their understanding of God’s omnipotence and the clear record of God’s inexplicable actions as found in the rest of the Scriptures. The likelihood of God causing a great fish to swallow Jonah is no less plausible than His dividing of the waters of the Red Sea so that the people of Israel could cross over on dry ground. In their minds, Yahweh was the God of the impossible. It was Jeremiah the prophet who wrote, “Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17 ESV). And God would respond to the prophet with a rhetorical question: Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27 ESV). Jesus Himself said of His Heavenly Father, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

To claim the historicity of the book of Jonah is not to say that it contains no allegorical elements or parabolic lessons. It clearly does. But to deny that the book has any credible historical value seems to contradict the view that Jesus held. Over in the gospel of Matthew, there is a record of Jesus’ encounter with some scribes and Pharisees who had demanded that He perform a sign. These skeptical Jewish religious leaders were attempting to set Jesus up. They were hoping they could entice Him to perform a miracle that would violate their laws against doing work on the Sabbath. But Jesus refused to take the bait. Instead, He recounted the story of Jonah in the belly of the great fish.

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” – Matthew 12:39-41 ESV

Jesus did not treat the story of Jonah as some allegorical tale or a parable with a moral lesson. He described Jonah as spending three days and nights in the belly of the fish. And this historical event was meant to foreshadow His own pending death and burial. These men would have been intimately familiar with the story of Jonah. Jesus doesn’t mention Jonah’s release from his aquatic confinement, but they knew that the “resurrected” Jonah eventually made it to Nineveh and declared the word of the Lord. And the result was the redemption of the city’s pagan inhabitants. Yes, Jonah was intended to be a sign of something greater to come, but that does not eliminate the fact that the events of his life actually happened. And Jesus will revisit the story of Jonah’s life again. As Jesus’ popularity increased so did the size of the crowds who followed Him. But He knew that many of the Jewish people were attracted to Him for the wrong reasons. They were intrigued by His miracles and wished to see Him do more. This led Him to compare them to the people of Nineveh.

“This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.…The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” – Luke 11:29, 31 ESV

In this case, Jesus doesn’t mention Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Instead, He declares that Jonah himself was “a sign” to the people of Nineveh. After his “resurrection” from the dead, Jonah appeared in Nineveh preaching a message of pending judgment.

“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” – Jonah 3:4 ESV

But this message of doom was accompanied by a call to repentance because the text goes on to say, “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” ( Jonah 3:5 ESV). And Jesus goes on to commend the wicked people of Nineveh for heeding the words of Jonah and experiencing the salvation of God. Then He declares boldly declares Himself to be greater than Jonah. He had come preaching a message of repentance but the people of Israel were refusing to respond and believe. They wanted to see signs, but were rejecting the “sign of Jonah” – the call to repent.

On yet another occasion, a contingent of Sadducees and Pharisees came to Jesus demanding that He perform a “sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1 ESV). They were looking for verifiable proof that He was the Son of God. They refused to believe that He was the Messiah and viewed all His previous miracles as nothing more than the works of Satan. But, once again, Jesus refused to give in to their demands. Instead, he exposed their inability to see “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3 ESV). They could successfully predict the weather by looking at the sky but were blind to the many visible proofs of Jesus’ identity and mission. So, He told them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4 ESV).

These religious leaders were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been very familiar with the story of Jonah. They would have believed in the historicity of Jonah’s encounter with the fish and his ultimate rescue by the hand of God. The story of the prophet’s venture into the Assyrian capital and the repentance of its wicked inhabitants would have been familiar to them. But Jesus wants them to know that the only sign they are going to receive will be His own death and resurrection. And even that miraculous sign will refuse to convince them. Despite the incredible nature of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the majority of the Jewish people will remain “an evil and adulterous generation.”

As the apostle John wrote in his gospel account, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). The light of God penetrated the darkness of the world, but “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).

Jonah was a Hebrew prophet who had ministered to the king of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). Yet God had commissioned him to go to a pagan city full of wicked idolaters. But Jonah chose to disobey God’s orders by seeking passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. In his attempt to escape God’s call, he soon found himself surrounded by pagan sailors in the midst of a life-threatening storm. And his stubborn refusal to obey the word of Yahweh resulted in him being thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant fish.

Preposterous? Possibly. Difficult to believe? Most certainly. But the story’s believability does not invalidate its credibility. Everything about this story is meant to be beyond the scope of human reason. Why would God send His prophet to a nation that was marked by wickedness and evil beyond description? Why would He threaten the lives of the men on board the ship, by hurling “a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV)? What was the purpose behind the sailors casting lots and Jonah being exposed as the guilty party? And what are we to do with the unbelievable statement that “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17 ESV)?

Simply put, we are to believe. The story of Jonah is real and it points to the even greater and more implausible story of God sending His Son into a world darkened by sin so that He might be the light to the nations. And the apostle John succinctly summarizes the incredible story of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:9-13 ESV

Jonah was swallowed by the fish. Jesus was swallowed by the grave. But both were resurrected by the sovereign will of God the Father and went on to declare the gracious plan of redemption to all those who would believe.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Glory of God’s Grace

1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Jonah 1:1-3 ESV

When most of us hear the name, Jonah, we immediately think of his encounter with the big fish. But long before Jonah found himself in the “belly of the whale,” he had a divine encounter with God Almighty. The opening line of the book describes Jonah receiving “the word of the Lord.” In this verse, the Hebrew name used of God is Yᵊhōvâ, which is sometimes translated as Jehovah. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it was written as YHWH. This is because, in its written form, ancient Hebrew did not include the vowels. Also known as the tetragrammaton, this abbreviated name of God has been the center of much debate regarding its exact pronunciation. Some argue that it should be pronounced, “Yahweh” (YAH-way), while others prefer “Yehowah,” which, in its more modernized form, became “Jehovah.” But regardless of how the word is pronounced, it’s important that we understand that YHWH is the central character of this story, not Jonah. Within the context of 48 verses, the author will mention God 39 times, using three different names in the process. And these varying names of God are directly associated with the different characters and circumstances found in the story.

For instance, YHWH (Yahweh) is used 22 times and almost exclusively in those instances when God is dealing directly with Jonah, who happens to be a Hebrew. Yet when God interacts with Gentiles in the story, the author uses the more generic name Elohim or El. He does this 13 times. Finally, there are four occasions when God is referred to as YHWH Elohim or Lord God. We see this in verse 9 of the opening chapter when Jonah tells the sailors the name of the God he worships.

For the author, these varying designations for God serve an important purpose. They help to establish the difference between God’s relationship with His chosen people and the rest of the Gentile world. As was stated in yesterday’s post, Jonah is intended to represent the Jewish people. But as the story unfolds, we will be introduced to Gentile sailors and an entire city comprised of evil Gentile Assyrians. As a Hebrew, Jonah would have had an intimate understanding of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the Gentile captain of the boat on which Jonah attempted to flee from God would have had little knowledge of the God of Israel. So, in verse 9, when he begs Jonah to “call out to your god!” he uses the more generic term, “Elohim.”

The entire story found in the book of Jonah is about God’s relationship with mankind. It begins with YHWH commissioning Jonah, a privileged member of the Hebrew nation. But the task Jonah is given reveals that, while YHWH is the God of Israel, He has a vested interest in all of humanity. He is YHWH, the God of Israel, and Elohim, the God of all the nations of the earth. And this small book presents a stark contrast between God’s interactions with His chosen people and the non-Israelites who share planet earth with them.

God had set the descendants of Abraham apart for a reason. He had chosen them so that they might be a light to the nations. Their unique relationship with Him was to have been a living witness to the rest of the world, illustrating how sinful, undeserving humanity might be restored to a right relationship with their creator. And throughout the book, we will see how Jonah, as the representative of Israel, interacts and interfaces with the Gentile world. He will receive a clear call that requires him to deliver a message from God to “to Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). And when the author describes Nineveh as “evil,” his Hebrew audience would have viewed this as a flagrant understatement.

The Assyrians were known for the cruelty. In fact, they actively advertised their brutality, using it as a form of psychological warfare. Detailed descriptions of their atrocities have been found in their own records and carved into the walls of their palaces and administrative buildings. It was not uncommon for the Assyrians to practice torture on their victims that ranged from the gouging out of eyes to the cutting off of limbs. These non-lethal disfigurements were intended to strike fear into their conquered foes, eliminating any threat of insurrection. But the Assyrians were also known for their mass executions, which included the impalement of victims on large stakes. Once again, these gruesome public displays were meant to be a powerful deterrent to rebellion.

With these images in mind, consider how the original Jewish audience who heard the words of this book must have felt. Better yet, consider how Jonah, the one who received the commission to go to Nineveh must have felt. He was being sent into the belly of the beast – right into the heart of darkness. FromJonah’s perspective, there was no more wicked place on planet earth than Nineveh. And God was commanding Jonah to travel all the way to this pagan kingdom with a message of doom and gloom.

“…call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” – Jonah 1:2 ESV

Jonah seemed to know exactly what God was saying. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah was a prophet of YHWH. And as a prophet, he would have been familiar with God’s views on Nineveh. Another prophet, Nahum, who happened to be Jonah’s contemporary, had issued some strong words against the Assyrian capital city. He accused them of plotting against God (Nahum 1:9, 11). He described them as vile or despicable (Nahum 1:14). He used highly inflammatory and unflattering terms to describe their insatiable desire for global domination:

What sorrow awaits Nineveh,
    the city of murder and lies!
She is crammed with wealth
    and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
    the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
    and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
    as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
    heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
    people stumble over them.
All this because Nineveh,
    the beautiful and faithless city,
mistress of deadly charms,
    enticed the nations with her beauty.
She taught them all her magic,
    enchanting people everywhere. – Nahum 3:1-4 NLT

Just imagine the fear that filled Jonah’s heart at the prospect of delivering God’s news of judgment to a city filled with idol-worshiping pagans who made a habit out of torturing their enemies. Everything in Jonah stood opposed to this divine assignment. He had no desire to travel into enemy territory and deliver a message that would most likely result in his death. But there is more to Jonah’s reticence than meets the eye. He is not just afraid of death. He is petrified that his message of coming judgment might produce repentance among the people of Nineveh. How do we know that? Just fast-forward to chapter four of the book. There we find Jonah expressing his displeasure to God for having spared the people of Nineveh because they had repented.

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. – Jonah 4:2 NLT

As much as Jonah may have feared the Assyrians, he had a greater fear of God showing them mercy. He knew enough about YHWH to understand that there was always the possibility of the Assyrians escaping judgment and receiving forgiveness instead. And that prospect was unacceptable to him. So, when God said, “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh” (Jonah 1:2 NLT), Jonah “got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 NLT).

In essence, Jonah did what the people of Israel had been doing for generations. By running away from God’s presence, Jonah became an apostate. The Greek word apostasia, means “a defiance of an established system or authority; a rebellion; an abandonment or breach of faith.” Jonah’s determination to reject the revealed will of God was a blatant act of apostasy or rebellion. But in this story, his action is meant to reflect the heart of the people of Israel. He was acting out what the people of God had been doing for generations. They had repeatedly turned their backs on God, refusing to obey His commands and abandoning their commitment to the covenant they had ratified with Him. Jonah was a Hebrew, but also a prophet of God. As such, he had a double commission. He was a chosen member of God’s set-apart people and a divinely commissioned messenger of God’s word. But like his fellow Jews, Jonah chose to reject his calling and place his own will over that of God. He got up and went in the opposite direction. And the narrative will repeatedly describe Jonah as “going down.” He will go down to Joppa (1:3). He will go down into the boat (1:3). He will go down into the inner part of the ship (1:5). Eventually, he ends up in the belly of the fish, where he goes down to the depths of the sea. He describes himself as going “down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (2:6). The trajectory of Jonah’s life mirrors that of the people of Israel. Once they chose to turn away from God’s presence, their descent into immorality, idolatry, and apostasy was steadily downward.

The book of Jonah is not meant to be a moral lesson on obedience. It is a picture of the unstoppable plan of God for the redemption of the world. Despite the disobedience of Jonah, God would bring salvation to the people of Nineveh. And despite disobedient Israel, God would bring salvation to the nations of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. This entire story is a summary of God’s grand redemptive plan for bringing the light to the nations. Israel had been commissioned by God to do just that but had failed. Jonah is being commissioned to bring light to the Ninevites, but he will do everything in his power to resist that call. And he too will fail. But God will be victorious.

Back in the book of Exodus, we have recorded the story where Moses begged God to allow him to see His glory. And in response to Moses’ request, God responded:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

Notice closely what God said. He was going to allow Moses to see His glory, but it would be accompanied by the declaration of His name: YHWH. And the greatest lesson Moses was to learn from this experience was that YHWH, the God of Israel, was free to extend His grace and mercy to whomever He chose. Moses had not earned the right to see YHWH’s glory. Neither had the people of Israel. And Jonah, the reluctant prophet, would ultimately learn the invaluable lesson that he too was undeserving of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

 English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

More Than A Fish Tale

1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Jonah 1:1-3 ESV

The rather diminutive book of Jonah contains one of the most familiar and well-loved stories in the Bible. This seemingly far-fetched but delightful tale about a disobedient prophet who gets swallowed by a whale has been recited by generations of parents to their children as a cautionary warning of what happens to those who fail to obey God. Over the centuries, countless children’s books have been printed that depict the adventures of Jonah and his aquatic companion with colorful cartoons and kid-friendly language.

But could there be more to the story than a moralistic Sunday School lesson about obedience and faithfulness? Do the four chapters of this Old Testament book contain a deeper and more significant message than most of us realize? I think the answer is yes. And over the next weeks we, like Jonah, will go to great depths to see what God may be trying to tell us through the pages of this timeless book.

To truly understand the book of Jonah, we have to remember that its author was not just telling a story, he was communicating a message from God. Like every other book included in the Canon of Scripture, Jonah was “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). And Paul goes on to tell us that each and every book in the Bible has a far more important purpose than simply conveying a story. They exist so  “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

In the end, the 66 books of the Bible are not just a collection of ancient stories, poems, historical records, or biographical accounts. They are the Spirit-inspired revelation of God to man. Together, they contain the story of God’s relationship with humanity. It is, in reality, a single book with one solitary author: God Almighty. And like all good books, it has a beginning (Genesis) and an end (Revelation). And between its opening chapters and its closing epilogue, it contains a wide range of divinely-inspired stories that are designed to provide its readers with a greater grasp of and appreciation for God. And the book of Jonah is no exception.

Yet, over the centuries, scholars and biblical commentators have debated the authenticity and veracity of the story of Jonah. Some have labeled it as nothing more than an allegorical tale containing hidden intended to convey important spiritual truths. Others have deemed the book of Jonah as parabolic in nature. In other words, it is nothing more than an extended parable designed to teach a heavenly message through a fictional story – much like Jesus did.

What makes the story of Jonah so hard to accept as a historical or biographical record is the very thing that makes it so compelling: The part about Jonah being swallowed by a whale or large fish. This one aspect of the story challenges its credibility and forces many to deem it a fictional account that was never intended to be considered factual. But the book of Jonah is not unique in its depiction of inexplicable and seemingly unbelievable stories of supernatural phenomena. In fact, in many ways, the book of Jonah mirrors the biblical records of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The lives of these two men, as described in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings, are filled with seemingly impossible and incomprehensible stories that defy explanation and stretch the bounds of credulity. Elijah called down fire from heaven that “consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” ( 1 Kings 18:38 ESV). On another occasion, Elijah met the needs of a starving widow by providing her with a  jar of flour that never went empty and a jug of oil that never ran dry (1 Kings 17). And when it came time for Elijah’s prophetic career to come to an end, God removed him from the earth in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2).

From the creation account found in Genesis to the record of Jesus’ resurrection contained in the gospels, the Bible is filled with stories that defy the imagination and explanation. But, after all, it is the story of God. And according to Jesus, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

In studying the book of Jonah, we must keep in mind that its author had a Jewish audience in mind when he wrote it. There are aspects to the story that would have immediately resonated with them as the chosen people of God. They would have recognized the bigger story contained in the description of Jonah’s epic and ill-fated journey from the land of Canaan to the depths of the sea in the belly of the whale. Written at a time when the Assyrian empire was reaching its zenith of power, they would have understood Jonah’s reticence to heed God’s call to go to Nineveh. The Assyrians were immoral and brutal. They were feared for their excessive acts of cruelty and their insatiable hunger for conquest.

But the Jews who heard the account of Jonah would have recognized that this was far more than a story about an individual man and his stubborn refusal to heed the call of God. They would have clearly understood that Jonah was intended to be a not-so-subtle representation of them. He was a Hebrew who had been called by God to deliver a message to the most powerful and sin-plagued city on the planet. But he would refuse God’s commission, choosing instead to run from God’s presence and accept the consequences for his disobedience. He would rather die than run the risk of watching the despised Assyrians repent and be spared by a merciful God.

When the author’s Jewish audience heard God order Jonah to “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh” ( Jonah 1:2 NLT), they would have been reminded of God’s call to Abram, the great patriarch of the Jewish people.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Genesis 12:1 ESV

Abram, a resident of Ur, located in the region of the Chaldees, had been ordered by God to pack up his family and belongings and head to the land of Canaan. And God had promised this Gentile unbeliever that He would make of him a great nation.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

Don’t miss that last statement. God had promised Abram that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations of the earth. And God would later explain to Abram’s descendants how that was going to take place.

Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out,
    who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
    and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
– Isaiah 42:5-7 ESV

And God would later reiterate that promise through the prophet Isaiah.

“I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 ESV

Now, centuries later, God is issuing a call to Jonah, a descendant of Abram, and demanding that he leave the land of Canaan and head to “Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). He is being commanded to leave the land of promise and head to a people who epitomize godlessness and unrighteousness. The city of Nineveh is evil incarnate and yet God is calling Jonah to carry the light into the darkness so the blind may see and those imprisoned by sin might be set free.

And when Jonah refused God’s call, the Jewish audience would have recoiled at his stubborn act of disobedience. But as the story of Jonah’s flight from God unfolds, they would have recognized that his rebellious response was intended to condemn their own failure to be a light to the nations. Jonah will later describe himself as “a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). Yet, here he was refusing to obey the very one He claimed to fear. He was running from God. And this story of his flight from God rather than be the light of God, is the story of Israel. Jonah becomes the stand-in for the people of God. And this story will reveal how God’s rebellious people failed to play their appointed role as His light-bearers to the world. But this very same story will point to God’s unwavering love for the world and His grand redemptive plan to save the lost from every tribe, nation, and tongue. In a sense, Jonah foreshadows the coming of another Hebrew who will heed the call of God and take the message to the Gentile nations, opening the eyes that are blind, bringing out the prisoners from the dungeon, and releasing from the prison those who sit in darkness. Jesus will become the faithful Jonah and the true Israel who would fulfill God’s call to be a light to the nations.

Centuries later, Jesus would read from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, not far from the place where Jonah was born.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
    and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:17-18 NLT

And when He was finished, Jesus would close the scroll and boldly proclaim, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT).

So, there is far more going on in the book of Jonah than a tall tale regarding a runaway prophet and a large fish. And it is so much more than a moral lesson about obedience. The book of Jonah is ultimately about the love of God for a lost and dying world and His unstoppable redemptive plan that no stubborn prophet or rebellious people will keep from being fulfilled. This entire book is about the faithfulness of God, not the unfaithfulness of Jonah. And it is about His unstoppable plan to shine the light of His grace and mercy into the darkness of sin that pervades His creation.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Light On the Horizon

22 And over the people who remained in the land of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had left, he appointed Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, governor. 23 Now when all the captains and their men heard that the king of Babylon had appointed Gedaliah governor, they came with their men to Gedaliah at Mizpah, namely, Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, and Johanan the son of Kareah, and Seraiah the son of Tanhumeth the Netophathite, and Jaazaniah the son of the Maacathite. 24 And Gedaliah swore to them and their men, saying, “Do not be afraid because of the Chaldean officials. Live in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you.” 25 But in the seventh month, Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, son of Elishama, of the royal family, came with ten men and struck down Gedaliah and put him to death along with the Jews and the Chaldeans who were with him at Mizpah. 26 Then all the people, both small and great, and the captains of the forces arose and went to Egypt, for they were afraid of the Chaldeans.

27 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. 28 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 30 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived. – 2 Kings 25:22-30 ESV

The scene in Jerusalem was one of utter destruction and devastation. The once-formidable walls of the city had been reduced to rubble. The massive doors that stood at the gates into Jerusalem had been torn from their hinges and burned. The homes of both the rich and the poor had been destroyed, leaving the city virtually uninhabitable. Even the king’s royal palace had been ransacked and turned into a smoldering ruin. And the Babylonians had not spared the house of God either. It had become a place of refuge for many trying to flee from the bloodthirsty Babylonians, but they found no help or hope within the walls of the temple they had long neglected.

The Babylonians killed Judah’s young men, even chasing after them into the Temple. They had no pity on the people, killing both young men and young women, the old and the infirm. – 2 Chronicles 36:17 NLT

The grand house that Solomon had constructed, the long-standing symbol of God’s presence and power among His people, was desecrated and then destroyed.

The king took home to Babylon all the articles, large and small, used in the Temple of God, and the treasures from both the Lord’s Temple and from the palace of the king and his officials. Then his army burned the Temple of God… – 2 Chronicles 36:18 NLT

And none of this should have come as a surprise to the people of Judah. On the very day that Solomon had consecrated the newly opened temple, God had warned him:

“I have answered your prayer and your request for help that you made to me. I have consecrated this temple you built by making it my permanent home; I will be constantly present there. You must serve me with integrity and sincerity, just as your father David did. Do everything I commanded and obey my rules and regulations. Then I will allow your dynasty to rule over Israel permanently, just as I promised your father David, ‘You will not fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’

“But if you or your sons ever turn away from me, fail to obey the regulations and rules I instructed you to keep, and decide to serve and worship other gods, then I will remove Israel from the land I have given them, I will abandon this temple I have consecrated with my presence, and Israel will be mocked and ridiculed among all the nations. This temple will become a heap of ruins; everyone who passes by it will be shocked and will hiss out their scorn, saying, ‘Why did the Lord do this to this land and this temple?’ Others will then answer, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord their God, who led their ancestors out of Egypt. They embraced other gods whom they worshiped and served. That is why the Lord has brought all this disaster down on them.’” – 2 Kings 9:3-9 NLT

More than three-and-a-half centuries had passed since God had issued that warning to King Solomon. And during that time, the majority of the kings of Judah had chosen to abandon Yahweh for the false gods of the nations around them. They had led the nation into idolatry and apostasy and now, as the people of Judah made their way in chains to Babylon, they could look over their shoulders and see the fiery fulfillment of God’s words to Solomon.

As Nebuchadnezzar and his forces departed Judah, they left a destroyed city and decimated populace behind.

King Nebuchadnezzar took all of Jerusalem captive, including all the commanders and the best of the soldiers, craftsmen, and artisans—10,000 in all. Only the poorest people were left in the land. – 2 Kings 24:14 NLT

And he appointed a man named Gedaliah as governor over the greatly diminished and demoralized citizenry of Jerusalem. There would no longer be a king to rule over Judah. Gedaliah was a Jew, but not a descendant of Solomon. He had no royal blood and would wield no kingly authority. He served at the behest of Nebuchadnezzar and was under the watchful eye of the ever-present Babylonian garrison. His was a thankless job that was more managerial than magisterial. And in time, he would come to be seen as nothing more than a puppet of the occupying Babylonian forces.

The commanders of Judah’s army who had fled from the city of Jerusalem when the walls were breached, returned when they heard that Gedaliah had been appointed governor. But they didn’t like the pro-Babylonian rhetoric that Gedaliah was spouting.

Gedaliah vowed to them that the Babylonian officials meant them no harm. “Don’t be afraid of them. Live in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and all will go well for you,” he promised. – 2 Kings 25:24 NLT

This compromising stance would ultimately cost Gedaliah his life. One of the former military commanders, a man named Ishmael, orchestrated the assassination of Gedaliah. It’s not exactly clear what Ishmael had hoped to accomplish by the murder of the Babylonian-appointed governor. But it seems obvious that this was an act of rebellion against the occupying forces. Along with Gedaliah and his Jewish officials, Ishmael murdered members of the Babylonian garrison, and this resulted in a swift reprisal from Nebuchadnezzar. Ishmael’s attempt to drive the Babylonians out of Judah backfired on him. Instead, “all the people of Judah, from the least to the greatest, as well as the army commanders, fled in panic to Egypt, for they were afraid of what the Babylonians would do to them” (2 Kings 25:26 NLT).

This scene is intended to convey a strong sense of irony. The disobedient people of God were returning to the very place from which He had free them centuries earlier. While some of their friends and family members had been deported to Babylon as slaves, this remnant of God’s chosen people would seek refuge in the land where their forefathers had been captives for more than 400 years.

Once again, all of this had been predicted by God. Centuries earlier, as the people of Israel stood on the shore of the River Jordan, preparing to enter the land of promise, God had given them a word of warning through Moses. He had told them that if they would faithfully obey Him, they would experience His blessings. But if they chose to disobey God, Moses warned them that they would experience “long-lasting afflictions and severe, enduring illnesses. He will infect you with all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will persistently afflict you. Moreover, the Lord will bring upon you every kind of sickness and plague not mentioned in this scroll of commandments, until you have perished” (Deuteronomy 28:59-61 NLT).

And Moses had been very specific when outlining the devastating nature of the curses they would encounter should they failed to “fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:58 NLT).

The Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of wood and stone. Among those nations you will have no rest, nor will there be a place of peaceful rest for the soles of your feet, for there the Lord will give you an anxious heart, failing eyesight, and a spirit of despair. Your life will hang in doubt before you; you will be terrified by night and day and will have no certainty of surviving from one day to the next. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were evening!’ And in the evening you will say, ‘I wish it were morning!’ because of the things you will fear and the things you will see. Then the Lord will make you return to Egypt by ship, over a route I said to you that you would never see again. There you will sell yourselves to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.” – Deuteronomy 28:64-68 NLT

Some 850 years after God had redeemed the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, a remnant of their still rebellious descendants would return. But it’s interesting to note that these poor disheveled exiles will find no hope in Egypt. They won’t even be able to sell themselves as slaves. They will become paupers and aliens living outside the land of promise and under the curse of the God they had chosen to reject.

But despite all the dire imagery portrayed in this closing chapter of the book of 2 Kings, there is a silver lining on the dark cloud of Judah’s history. The author ends his book with a new king ascending to the throne of Babylon. These closing verses seem to be a mirror image of the scene found in the book of Genesis that preceded Israel’s 400-year enslavement in Egypt. Exodus 1:8 records, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This new Pharaoh came to power and, having no first-hand knowledge of Joseph and the people of Israel, decided that they were a threat to his administration. So, he launched a campaign to afflict and enslave them. This would lead to four centuries worth of unprecedented misery and maltreatment.

But when Evil-merodach replaced Nebuchadnezzar as the ruler over the Babylonian empire, he made a decision to release King Jehoiachin of Judah from his enslavement. He released him from prison and “spoke kindly to Jehoiachin and gave him a higher place than all the other exiled kings in Babylon” (2 Kings 25:28 NLT). For the remainder of his life in Babylonian, Jehoiachin lived like a king. He was given royal robes to wear and allowed to dine at Evil-merodach’s table.

But why is this important? Because it foreshadows something highly significant. Back in the book that bears his name, the prophet Jeremiah pronounced a curse on Jehoiachin, who was also known as Coniah.

“Why is this man Jehoiachin like a discarded, broken jar?
    Why are he and his children to be exiled to a foreign land?
O earth, earth, earth!
    Listen to this message from the Lord!
This is what the Lord says:
‘Let the record show that this man Jehoiachin was childless.
    He is a failure,
for none of his children will succeed him on the throne of David
    to rule over Judah.’”– Jeremiah 22:28-30 NLT

And yet, if we fast-forward to the gospel of Matthew, we find the following words in his genealogy of Jesus.

Josiah was the father of Jehoiachin and his brothers (born at the time of the exile to Babylon).
After the Babylonian exile:
Jehoiachin was the father of Shealtiel.
Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel.
Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud.
Abiud was the father of Eliakim.
Eliakim was the father of Azor.
Azor was the father of Zadok.
Zadok was the father of Akim.
Akim was the father of Eliud.
Eliud was the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar was the father of Matthan.
Matthan was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah. – Matthew 1:11-16 NLT

Here, in the genealogy of Jesus, we find the name of the Jehoiachin. The very man who was told that none of his children would succeed him as king is listed as a progenitor of the King of kings. Of Jehoiachin’s seven sons, not one of them would ascend to the throne of David. But Jesus would. God would graciously reverse the curse, producing a royal heir who would reign in righteousness and deliver His people from their enslavement to sin and death.

Notice one more name in the lineage of Jesus: Zerubbabel. This descendant of Jehoiachin would later become the governor of Judea when the exiles returned from their captivity in Babylon. And the prophet Haggai would pronounce a blessing on Zerubbabel that foreshadowed a great reversal of fortunes for the people of God.

“Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother. On that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the Lord, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the Lord of hosts.” – Haggai 2:21-23 NLT

The book of 2 Kings ends on a positive note because God’s will concerning the people of Israel was far from done. The story of the redemption of His chosen people and the restoration of the world He created was not yet over. The Messiah, the Savior of the world, would one day come. And His arrival would usher in a new day and a new hope for the people of God and the nations of the world.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson