John A. Heys is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Surely when in Psalm 14:l we read, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” we have a judgment of God that those who deny Him in their actions, as well as those who do so in words, behave in utter folly. For the psalmist speaks of those who say in theirhearts that there is no God. And out of the heart are all the issues of life. That heart determines what every part of the body will do. It says that there is no God, before the lips express it in human language. The heart moves the mouth to say what is in it. This is very plain from what the psalmist says further in the verse. He states, “They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” It is by these corrupt deeds, these abominable works, that the heart reveals that its opinion is that there is no God.
Likewise is it true that the child of God, the believer, says that there is no God when he sins. Sin is always an act of folly, for it always denies that there is a God Who must be obeyed, and Whose will must be done. The reborn child of God has a life that cannot and does not sin. Thus we read in I John 3:9: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” But it is also true that, until he dies, he retains his old man of sin, his depraved nature. And with that nature he sins every day of his life; and in all these sins he says that there is no God.
In the life of Jonah, which on these pages we are considering, all this becomes so very plain. He was a child of God with a new spiritual life in him. But he had weaknesses, and he displayed so clearly his folly in the sins recorded of him in this book. No, with his mouth he never said that there is no God. In his prophetic office he spoke boldly and clearly of the one true God; and he even called men to walk in the ways of Jehovah. Although he lived many centuries before the apostle Paul, he agreed one hundred percent with Paul, who wrote in Romans 7:21, “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.” We must then be careful, as we study this book, that we do not in any way excuse Jonahs sins; but we should also be careful that we do not accuse him of being an unbeliever, as for example the prophet Baalim. He, Jonah, sinned when he fled from the land of Canaan to try to escape his calling. But he was not a man who did not at all want to serve God, and to confess Him before others.
According to his flesh Jonah acted like a fool. And we do also every time we commit a sin. We act like fools also when we deny this truth. Then we have no room to say anything about Jonah’s folly. But note that folly of Jonah. What folly for the prophet, who a bit later confesses on the ship in the midst of the storm that his God is “the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.” What folly for Jonah to think that he could outwit and frustrate such a God!
Understand well that Jonah did not think that he could go where God’s eye would not see him. God’s presence here does not mean that there are places where He is not present. But God dwelt symbolically in the promised land. He called men in that land to be His prophets, priests, and kings for their work. Jonah’s folly was that he thought that if he left the promised land, God would not—it was not a case of God could not—follow him to repeat the call.
But could he not see that his wickedness would rise up before God as well as the wickedness of Nineveh did? Could he not see that if Nineveh is to be destroyed in forty days, he could be visited in forty minutes or less? In his folly he also overlooks the fact that it was only one sin of Adam that brought the curse and death to the whole human race. He acts like a fool, for in his actions he says that there is no God Whom he must obey.
If Jonah can outwit God and frustrate Him, then he has shown that there is no God. Is it not simply an undeniable fact that anyone who can outwit or frustrate God has replaced Him and become God? Of course, no one can outwit or frustrate Him; and such only try to be God. Jonah tried and failed miserably; and all who try will fail as miserably as Jonah did. But what a sinful, abominable, and foolish work that is, to try to outwit and frustrate the almighty God! Yet, that is what every sin, no matter what the shape, form, or size of it is, tries to do. It tries to get away with sin, and keep God’s will from being done on earth as it is in heaven. It is rebellion against God, an attempt to push Him aside, so that there is no God any more.
There is something deeper that we-ought to consider. In his folly Jonah thought that God had done foolishly. O yes, he did! Jonah considered himself to be wiser than God. God had said, “Arise go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it . . . .” Jonah in his heart said, “How foolish. This ought not to be done. Let hell fire fall upon this wicked city and destroy it. This is not a wise thing God wants me to do. I know better than He does what is good and ought to be done.”
We must not try to polish the sins of believers. They are as abominable as those of unbelievers. David’s murder was as wicked as unbelieving Cain’s was. Make no mistake about that. Jesus did not come to die for lesser sins. In sin we always raise ourselves up above God: And here Jonah repeats the sin of Adam- and Eve. His flesh made him flee from his duty, because he thought that he knew what was good and evil, and that God had made a mistake. Satan made Adam and Eve believe that. And that is our conceit and folly as well. We sin because we think that we are doing ourselves some good. Never mind what God says. We want to be like God and do our thing, and decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
Truly Jonah has a lesson to learn. There is a much needed lesson that God must teach hi. And in His mercy God does teach him in a way that brings him to repentance, and not into the destruction that falls upon the unbelievers. The question therefore is, Just what lesson must Jonah learn? And at once it may be stated that surely he must learn anew that there is a God from Whom he cannot flee, and so outwit and frustrate. But that is by no means the whole lesson. Nor does all this explain why Jonah fled and tried to outwit and frustrate God; or why he thought that he knew better than God; and what ought to happen in Nineveh. No, the lesson he stands in desperate need of learning is to know God’s sovereign love, and his own calling to love that sovereign God and his neighbor as himself.
Not only was Jonah not walking in love toward God when he rebelled against His command to go to Nineveh and cry against that wicked city; but he did not know God’s love for all His people in Christ, even though he thought that he did know that love. He rejoiced in all that which God had done for and unto Israel. He could not speak loudly enough or often enough about God’s grace and mercy upon Israel, as is plain from Jonah 4:2, to which we referred last time. And do not forget that grace and mercy are aspects of love. God’s grace is His love as it goes out to the elect sinner in his guilt and sends him the free gift of blessedness which he does not deserve, in fact is the opposite of what he deserves. God’s mercy is that same love as it goes out to that same sinner from the point of view of his misery and afflictions which he suffers under the curse that came upon the world because of Adam’s sin; it pities him in his woes, and seeks to deliver him from all of it as soon as His sovereign, eternal counsel makes it possible. Jonah saw all this love of God resting upon the fleshly seed of Abraham. That is why he speaks of it and even declares that he knew that God was gracious and merciful. It would seem as though Jonah knew God’s love and that he did not need to be taught a lesson in regard to it.
But what Jonah must learn about God’s sovereign love is that it also rests upon a host of elect Gentiles, whose names were eternally written in the Lamb’s book of life. It is of extreme importance’ that we see Jonah as living in the day of shadows, and in the measure of revelation which was given to the church in that day. Jonah loved the Old Testament church. We make a serious mistake if we take the position that Jonah fled to Tarshish in a certain nationalism, or patriotism that attached itself to all the Jews whether they were believers or unbelievers, as long as they were of the fleshly seed of Abraham. That is not true. We may not explain the events in the book of Jonah as though all this took place after the day of Pentecost. We must try to go back in our thoughts to the situation as it was in Jonahs day. And do not forget that after the Son of God did come in our flesh, did die for our sins, arose again the third day, appeared as risen over a period of forty days, and was ready in a few minutes to ascend up into heaven, that the disciples asked Him whether he would at this time restore the kingdom of Israel. (See Acts 1:6.)
Then too we must not overlook what God Him self declares through the apostle Paul in Romans 16:25,Ephesians 1:9, 10, and Colossians 1:25, 26. We took note last time that God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. And in the passages above God speaks of the mystery which was “kept secret since the world began.” This mystery was “that in the dispensation of the fullness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ.” Do not judge Jonah without taking all this into consideration. In the light of all of God’s dealing in the Old Testament dispensation, and up to his own day, Jonah could not understand that God would have a goodly number of Gentiles converted in Nineveh, resulting in sparing the city of the destruction concerning which Jonah was to preach. Surely the very fact that Jonah was sent to warn Nineveh meant that God was calling the Ninevites to repentance and an escape from the punishment they deserved. There just was no reason for sending him there and for warning the people that in forty days destruction would come, if God, was not seeking their repentance and salvation. This seemed all wrong to Jonah. He was perplexed. The mysterious way in which God worked he could not understand. And it was love for God’s church that figured in causing him to be so confused. He wanted nothing to happen to that church; and it was because he did not understand God’s love as sovereignly also including many, many Gentiles in a city far removed from the borders of the promised land, that he took things in his own hands. That is where he erred. He saw an earthly kingdom of Christ, Whom he expected would one day come; and even as the disciples in the day when Christ came still looked for an earthly kingdom over which a son of David would rule, Jonah could not fit this command of God in with the Old Testament revelation of that kingdom of Christ. Here is a nation separate from the nation in which God has been gathering His church. Here is a kingdom opposed to the kingdom over which God set David, to whom he promised that his son would sit on the throne forever. Must it be saved from destruction?
Jonah may have known Isaiah 55:8, 9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” But he could not see that a time would come when the Gentile believers would be more numerous upon the face of this earth than the Jewish believers. This does not excuse him; but it does reveal that there was a lesson he must learn and learn well. Of this we will have more to say in the next installment.