John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Although the hymn was not yet written, and Jonah could not at that time sing one line of it for that reason, we can be sure that he agreed fully with the truths expressed in it; and that at specific moments in his life he realized these truths. I have reference particularly to these lines in the hymn:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His works in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Several days before Jonah came face to face with the truth concerning God that “He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm,” Jonah experienced the truth that “God works in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” And of the mystery which is made plain to us in such passages as Ephesians 1:9, 10, we can say that “God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.”
To put it mildly, Jonah was startled when the word of God came to him and ordered him to go to Nineveh, and to preach the gospel there. As a prophet he knew that his calling was to teach, and not merely to foretell the future. But it was a mystery to him as to why God would send him to that great and desperately wicked city to keep it from being destroyed by God’s holy wrath.
Jonah knew that God had gathered into His church Gentiles, those who were not the fleshly seed of Abraham. He knew of Rahab and Ruth. He knew that God had said unto Abraham that in his seed allnations would be blessed. But to be called to leave the promised land and go to the capital city of a heathen nation, and to preach repentance there, was quite a different matter. Rahab and Ruth were incorporated into Israel, and had never harmed Abraham’s seed. Nineveh was the capital city of Israel’s fiercest enemy at that period in history. Go there and seek to have them turn from their sins, so that the city is not destroyed, and the people’s lives are spared? The enemies’ lives are to be spared? The enemy of the church is to be protected by God, even as His people have been through the years?
Yes, it was the gospel that Jonah was to bring to Nineveh. He understood that clearly. And that is why he did not want to go and do this work. Pronouncing doom and destruction upon the enemies of God and of His church was no problem for him. But when God saved the city in the way of repentance, it became even a greater mystery to Jonah. His complaint and anger showed that. He knew full well that he was to preach the gospel there. How otherwise will you explain his attempt to flee from his calling? And must he go to this heathen city, to these Gentiles who lived outside of the promised land, these people who were not of the fleshly seed of Abraham, the covenant people that God had favored ever since He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, and Israel out of the bondage of Pharaoh? For Jonah it was a mysterious way for God to work.
Indeed there were dangers involved in this work; and they could frighten a man from doing as called. Assyria was, as pointed out, a fierce enemy. To come into the capital city accusing of sin before God, to pronounce destruction in forty days, to pronounce judgment upon the people, and call sinful the deeds they enjoyed, could evoke wrath against this Hebrew, who dared to come and to tell them such things. Would they not silence his mouth by putting him to death? Then too would he not incur the wrath of his own people for going there? Would they not call him a traitor? And would he dare to come back home after performing a deed such as this in the enemies’ land?
Yet what moved Jonah to flee and avoid his calling was not fear of what either Nineveh or his own people would do to him. If we take that position we do not understand the book, or God’s purpose in sending Jonah to these Gentiles. To understand and appreciate the book of Jonah we must see that God’s purpose in sending Jonah to decry the sins of the people there was to save the elect children in that heathen city. As pointed out last time, the eternal thoughts of peace which God had for His elect in the city moved Him to send Jonah to preach the gospel there. And this is what moved Jonah to flee and go away from Nineveh rather than go into the city. It was because he had to preach the gospel there, that he did not want to go. He revealed very plainly later on that he did not want Nineveh saved.
It is true that Jonah 1:1, 2 simply reveals that he must go and cry against the city because of its sins. Literally this means that all he had to do is prophesy coming judgment. And chapter 3 reveals that he had to be very specific and tell the people that in forty days the city would be overthrown. He must find fault with them, and in no uncertain terms must he tell them that punishment is coming very soon. He must let them know that they are sinning against God, and that all their sins have come up before Him. He has seen them; and these sins have provoked Him. Jonah must let them know that they are performing deeds of hatred against God, and that He will surely visit this rebellion.
It is worthy of our attention that the emphasis here falls upon what they have done to God. Undoubtedly in their sins, which are not listed in any detail and presented as to their exact nature, they did harm to each other. They broke the second table of the law (see Jonah 3:8). But one cannot escape the truth that the warning is given them because they have sinned against God. And implied is the fact that God warns them in order to get them to repent and flee from these sins. The implied desire on God’s part is that His elect children in the city turn from their sins and be spared this awful punishment. God’s purpose—which was reached, for all His purposes are always reached—was to bring His own to repentance and to salvation. Therefore it was the gospel, the good news of salvation that Jonah was called to preach in Nineveh. It was to save these people spiritually and not simply physically from calamity.
Implied in the warning that in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed and all its people killed, because of their wickedness before God, is the truth that if they believe God’s servant, repent of their evil and flee from it, the threatened punishment would not take place. Note what Jonah prays in Jonah 4:2, “I pray Thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, and slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest Thee of the evil.” Quite revealing, is it not? Jonah realized the possibility of salvation in Nineveh. He knew the gospel as used by God had that powerful effect. He knew that he was preaching the gospel and not simply pronouncing an awful judgment that would not be reversed, or in God’s mind was not a warning given in love, but a pronouncement of what had eternally been decreed as about to come to pass.
We do well therefore to take note of the divine lesson here. Let it not first of all be overlooked that it is God Who sends Jonah to decry the sins of Nineveh. On the mission field, and on the pulpit today, it is so tempting to shun such decrying of sin; and instead to emphasize God’s love. Make no mistake about it, I do not mean to say that we must not emphasize God’s love, mercy, and grace. You can never overemphasize them. Let me say that again: You can never overemphasize God’s love, mercy, and grace. They are infinitely great; and it takes an eternity for us to praise God and thank Him for making us experience them. What I mean is that we so often do not emphasize enough the need to decry sin from the pulpit and on the mission field. There are two facts to consider here.
There is plenty—sometimes too much—decrying from the pulpit of social problems, crime, fraudulent practices, injustices, dangers of alcoholic indulgences and the like. But are they decried as sins against God, or merely against fellow men? Usually it is because man is hurt, or because he hurts himself. Indeed there is a horizontal circle of crime on the earth; and that is sinning against God as well as against man. But are they presented as sins against God? Are they exposed as acts of hatred against Him? There is besides that horizontal circle of sin a wide vertical line of rebellion against God in heaven. Is the pulpit any different from the outbursts of unbelieving civil servants, government officials, men who are concerned only with man and his physical well-being? If we do not see and preach against sinful deeds as rebellion against God, and as acts of hatred toward Him, we have a very low opinion of Jonah for fleeing from his calling to decry it in Nineveh. But then we also have a very low opinion of God. If it merely hurts us because it hurts our friends and countrymen, we show a very callous nature that is not touched because sin is an act of hatred against God. And then we sin against God, because we are not interested in His glorification.
Then, too, it is so easy to say, “Jonah, you sinned by taking that ship.” But are we not Jonahs when we go to the mission field and are afraid to preach against sins against God, and to decry them, because we are afraid that we will drive men away from our meetings? To be sure, the matter must be preached in love and with spiritual tact. But if we are afraid to preach and decry sin against God, and false doctrines which misrepresent Him, we in our hearts say, “God, you made a mistake sending Jonah that way to Nineveh. You should have told Him to go there and tell the whole city how much You love them. That ought to come first. Do You not see that, Jehovah?” And at home on the pulpit, if you dare not preach against sin against God and against false doctrines, for fear of losing members, and because you want to grow numerically, you raise yourself above the living God (in your thoughts) as one who knows better than He does. O yes, you can decry the sins of the world round about you; but you must soft pedal such things in the congregation, because you want to emphasize Gods love, and by your words persuade men to believe in and love God? But listen: If you do not decry sin against God, you do not yourself show love to God. Allow acts of hatred of God to exist and develop—for that they will do—and you show lack of love for God.
But Jonah was called in Gods wisdom. He made no mistake here, or ever. The Heidelberg Catechism has rightly grasped the truth presented here when it speaks of three things being necessary for us to know in order to live and die with the only comfort in life and in death. We must know our sins and misery; our redemption in Christ; and how to express gratitude to God for our deliverance. Knowing that redemption is not only necessary but wonderful. However, we will never know it until we know our sin and misery. In the measure that we know that we sinned against God, we can appreciate His love in saving us. In the measure we see how much we by nature hate Him, we can see the wonder of His love. The clearer we see the heresies that deny Him His glory, the more we can and will appreciate the truth that He have given us.