This summer has seen its share of shark attacks. Victims have told horrific stories of their confrontations with merciless fish who clamped down on their flesh with their unyielding teeth causing injuries that are life-changing. When I hear of a shark attack, I often think of an encounter recorded in the Bible between a prophet named Jonah and an enormous fish (Jonah 1-4). This story may be hard to believe, but Jesus authenticated it (Matthew 12:39-41; 16:4).
A Shark biologist is often interviewed to get an explanation of why sharks attack people. Why did the huge fish swallow Jonah? The Lord told Jonah, “Arise go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). Jonah was not willing to go. Instead he boarded a ship going to Tarshish which was in the opposite direction of Nineveh and what he thought would be away from the presence of the Lord. He soon found out he could not run from the Lord. A violent storm came upon the ship and its crew and passengers were in danger of losing their lives because of Jonah’s disobedience. Realizing that the Lord had sent the storm because of him, Jonah told the ship’s crew to throw him into the sea. The Lord showed compassion towards those on board by putting an end to the storm and towards Jonah by having him swallowed by the great fish. Jonah remained in the belly of the fish for three days.
Why was Jonah so unwilling to go to Nineveh? Quite possibly Jonah did not like, maybe even hated, the Ninevites because they were a Gentile nation. He may have thought his fellow Jews, the Lord’s covenant people, were the only ones worthy of a compassionate warning. The prospect of a grueling journey to a foreign country that could put Jonah’s life in jeopardy would not have set well with him either. Several questions come to mind for me to answer. Are there people I dislike so much that I am unwilling to go and tell them about the Lord? Do I think others are unworthy to hear about the Lord because of who they are or what they have done? Do I doubt the Lord’s protection when He calls me to do something difficult?
Finally, on the third day, “Jonah prayer to the Lord his God, from the stomach of the fish” (Jonah 2:1). He cried out to the Lord for help and was willing to go to Nineveh. Then the Lord had the fish vomit Jonah onto dry land. Yuk, what a sight he must have been! Unlike Jonah, I have never been in the stomach of a fish but the Lord has led me to some uncomfortable places because of willful disobedience so that I would repent and call out to Him for help.
The Lord gave Jonah this message, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4); and Jonah went to Nineveh and declared it to the people. The people, including the king of Nineveh, believed in God and repented. Because of this God had compassion on Nineveh and did not topple it.
If only the story ended there! Jonah was not happy in fact he was angry about God’s compassion towards the Ninevites. Jonah even said, “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life” (Joshua 4:3). The Lord demonstrated his compassion to Jonah after he left Nineveh by providing a plant to shade him and he was happy. On the next day God had a worm attack and kill the plant. Jonah again begged God to let him die. God questioned Jonah about his anger, his compassion for the plant and his disapproval of God’s compassion to Nineveh. Jonah totally missed what God expected of him, compassion towards the Ninevites. Likewise, God requires me to be compassionate to others, after all He certainly is.
I read an interview with a man recently bitten by a shark and he said, “I didn’t see it coming.” Often times I do not even consider the consequences before disobeying. Reading the story of Jonah reminds me to be mindful of and deliberate in being obedient or I might just find myself thrown overboard, swallowed by a great fish, and swishing around in its belly!