Jonah and the Worm: Forgiveness and Second Chances
As any regular reader of my blog or listener of my podcast knows, my father was not a good man and caused countless people untold misery during the course of his life, and while I have forgiven him for his actions, some of my family has not. Not too long before my father died, in prison, I visited him to let him know that I had forgiven him for all he had done to me. Of course, my father was not even slightly repentant and insisted that he had never done anything that he needed to be forgiven for. The last thing my father ever said to me was that I was his worst enemy and that he wished I had never been born, and the last thing I ever said to him was that he was forgiven, by me at least. I could not speak for anyone other than myself.
After my father died my grandmother said she hoped that he was suffering in hell. There was a time I would have shared my grandmother’s feelings about my father, but I sincerely hope that he repented of his sins and got right with the Lord before he died and that he is in heaven. I somehow doubt my father did get right with God because he always though he was right with God, even when he was committing the most vile and wicked of sins, but it is not for me to say whether or not he repented, but I still hope that he did.
It was not easy for me to forgive my father and it took years of prayer and therapy to get to the point where I could do so, and if I am honest, I had not actually forgiven my father when I told him that I had though I thought that I had at the time. Even after I forgave my father I had to forgive him every time one of his evil deeds crossed my mind, and occasionally I have to forgive him again, and I think that is why Jesus stressed the importance of forging a person time and time again.
I think it was actually easier to forgive my father and move on from the hatred I felt in my heart for him than it was to forgive my sister in-law, Ruby, and I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to forgive her. The magnitude of evil my sister in-law committed against me and others, so far as I know, is many degrees of magnitude less than that of my father, and yet it was more difficult to forgive her. I think it is partially because my father is dead and can no longer hurt me or anyone else and Ruby is still alive and speaking evil of me.
To this day I am not rightly sure why Ruby, which is not her real name, by the way, hated me so much, but from the start it was evident that she did. I tried to like like Ruby and went out of my way to be nice to her, but to no avail and I think it would be fair to say that the majority of the problems in my marriage could be contributed to her influence. My ex-wife, Tonya, was always close to ruby and she spent a great deal of time with her, and as the older sister, Ruby had a lot of influence with Tonya. Sometimes Tonya would visit Ruby for weeks at a time, even though we lived hundreds of miles away from her, and every single time she returned home after visiting Ruby she was unreasonably angry with me, without a cause.
In the divorce I found out that Tonya had been seriously thinking about leaving me every since we found out that I was would never be able to father children, just before our one year anniversary. Actually, I knew the day before our anniversary that I could not have children because the doctor called me to give me the news, but I waited until after our anniversary celebration to tell Tanya because I was afraid that it would change things between us, and it did, immediately.
In the divorce proceedings I found out that a lot of the reason Tanya started thinking about leaving me was because Ruby was pressuring her to do so. We made it five years, but everything after the first year was pretty rough, and Ruby was a large contributor to that.
One of the things Ruby used against me was that I no longer believed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day -Saints (Mormonism) and somehow was able to convince Tonya that I was a bad person because I did not believe in the Church, even though Ruby has stopped believing in the Church and was antagonistic toward it long before I ever started doubting it. Apparently it is just fine for your sister to abandon your childhood faith and it doesn’t make you a bad person, but it is not acceptable for your husband to leave the faith, and if he does, it makes him a horrible person.
I am in no way saying that I did not contribute to the death of my marriage, but without Ruby’s contribution I am confident that we would have had a happy marriage for longer than we did. Truth be told though, I see no way that our marriage would have ever survived long term, regardless of outside influences, because my leaving Mormonism was such a divisive factor, and I could not pretend to believe the lies in order to save the marriage. Even if I had stayed in Mormonism, which knowing what I know about it now I never could have, we still would have wound up divorced because all Tonya ever wanted out of live was big family and I could not give that to her. Adopting would not even have been enough for Tanya because she wanted her own children.
For the longest time after the divorce I was a lot more angry with Ruby than I was with Tonya, and every time I thought about her my blood boiled. When I left Mormonism I lost all faith in God for a few years, which I talked about in detail in earlier episodes, and during that time I made no effort to forgive Ruby, but once I became a born-again Christian I strove to forgive Ruby for any wrong or perceived wrong she had done to me, in part, because I realized that my own sins, while not as repulsive to me, were every bit as repulsive to God, and that I deserve forgiveness no more than anyone else does.
It is easy for each of us to expect mercy for our actions while hoping the people who wronged us gets justice for their actions, but luckily God is not like us. The Bible is full of people who were given chance after chance to turn to God, and while some did repent and turn to God, some did not, but all were given the chance to come to God and none were judged unfairly.
Today I am going to talk about a little known story within a well known story. Everyone knows about the story of Jonah and the whale, despite the fact that the Bible never said it was a whale, but this is not a fish story so the fish is not going to be the focus of the message, nor was the incident with the fish the point of the story of Jonah in the Bible.
In the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo mentions to Gandalf that the Baggins family were well thought of before Gandalf came around, so Gandalf said in response, “If you are talking about the incident with the dragon, I was barely involved,” and that is precisely what the large fish, that may or may not have been a whale, would have said about the story of Jonah, only it would be the truth when the fish said it, unlike when Gandalf said it. Gandalf actually had quite a bit to do with the incident with the dragon, even though he was not in town then the dragon attacked.
The story of Jonah is ultimately a story of second chances because not only did God want to give the people of Nineveh a second chance, he also wanted to give Jonah a second chance. It would have been easy for God to send someone else to Nineveh when Jonah refused, and the result would have been the same for the people of Nineveh, but not for Jonah.
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth
-1 Timothy 2: 3-4
As Christians, we often give Jonah a hard time for not wanting to preach to the people of Nineveh, but I think most of us would have done the same thing in his situation. The people of Nineveh were not merely Hugh Hefner evil, they were Jeffery Dahmer or Adolf Eichmann evil. The Ninevites didn’t commit atrocities because they thought it was necessary, they reveled in their wicked deeds, and for all we know, some of Jonah’s family may have been tortured and murdered by the Ninevites.
Jonah had a serious bone to pick with the Ninevites and didn’t just want to see them destroyed, he wanted them to suffer horrible and painful deaths before being thrust down to hell! The thought that such horrible people could be allowed to live, much less forgiven and accepted into heaven with open arms was unthinkable to Jonah.Despite Jonah’s hatred of the Ninevites, he knew that God is merciful and if they repented God would forgive them and that is why he refused to preach to them because he was afraid they would repent if he preached to them, and he could not bear the thought.
Nineveh was one of the four great cities of Assyria, and at this time was the famous capital city of Assyria. The capitol of Assyria used to be Dur-Sharrukin but after the death of King Sargon II his son, Sennacherib (705-681 BC) , moved the capitol to Nineveh to distance himself from his father who died in battle. To the Assyrians such a death, to be killed by your enemy, was considered to be shameful and was viewed as a punishment from the gods (1). Nineveh was one of the greatest cities ever to have been built in the ancient world, and after its fall it was spoken of by famous Greek historians such as Herodotus and Aristotle, and while they spoke of the great splendor of the city, their description of the people was much less flattering (2).
Sennacherib was not the king during the time of Jonah, but I brought him up because he was one of the most successful, and violent, kings of the Assyrian empire and his exploits were recorded in detail for later generations to read and one entry gives a little insight into his mindset and his love for glory and for bloodshed, which was shared by the kings who proceeded him and the kings who succeeded him, and the Assyrian people at large.
I cut their throats like lambs. I cut off their precious lives (as one cuts) a string. Like the many waters of a storm, I made (the contents of) their gullets and entrails run down upon the wide earth. My prancing steeds harnessed for my riding, plunged into the streams of their blood as (into) a river. The wheels of my war chariot, which brings low the wicked and the evil, were bespattered with blood and filth. With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain, like grass. (Their) testicles I cut off, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers (3).
Of course, the Assyrian empire was not just ruthless to the armies that challenged them but also to the civilians of the lands they conquered, even women and children. The Assyrians were fond of torture and they practiced ritual human sacrifices to their gods (4). The Assyrians even auctioned off their own women off to the highest bidder (1). The Assyrian empire was one of the greatest godless nations, ruling with terror and bloodshed, and Nineveh was arguably their greatest capitol city.
Jonah had good reasons not to want to go to Nineveh. For Jonah, to try and provide salvation to the people of Nineveh must have felt much like a Holocaust survivor would have felt if asked to offer not only forgiveness but a spot in heaven to the very men who had tortured and starved them, raped their wives and daughters and murdered their children and desecrated their holy places, and derived intense pleasure from the experience.
When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach Jonah was having none of it and headed in the opposite direction, intent on disobeying God and never going to Nineveh. We don't have to give them the opportunity to hurt us or those we love again, but we are required to forgive everyone, regardless of what they have done, and the Bible tells us that if we don't preach repentance to the lost then their blood is on our hands.
When I say to a wicked person, “You will surely die,” and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself. -Ezekiel 3:18-19.
When Jonah was commanded to go to Nineveh he was approximately 550 miles away in Joppa, but in an attempt to flee from the will of God and get as far away from where he was told to go as possible, he paid the passage and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish some 2500 miles away. Tarshish is another city that played a major role in a lot of Bible stories, but other than being the destination Jonah chose instead of where he was told to go, it is not relevant to today's story.
We don't know how far the ship made it from Joppa with Jonah on board, but when the storm arose and the crew sailors were freaking out Jonah was fast asleep below deck. It is of note that these sailors were, according to the footnotes in the Faithlife NIV Bible, legendary for their seamanship and navigational skills, so if they were scared than it was quite the storm as legendary sailors don’t get scared by ordinary storms. The Bible tells us (Jonah 1:4) that it was God who sent the wind and the violent storm, and the storm was so bad that the ship was about to break apart, and yet Jonah was asleep below deck.
In a sermon a few years ago my pastor, Scott Smith of Wellspring Church in Webb City, Missouri, said, “You will never commit a sin that affects only you,” and I firmly believe that to be true and this is a good example of it; these sailors were about to die at sea because of the sins of Jonah, and instead of worrying about what danger he might have been putting the other men in, Jonah went to sleep. I guess running from God is tiring work.
The storm got so bad that the sailors each cried out to their gods and then threw the cargo into the sea, meaning that even though their lives were ultimately spared and they did not die for the sins of Jonah, they payed a heavy monetary price for his sins because they had to not only pay for the repairs to their own ship but also had to bear the cost of the cargo they threw overboard into the raging sea, never to be seen again. Eventually the captain of the ship decided that calling on their gods was not working and woke Jonah up and told him to call on his God that perhaps he would take notice of them and not allow them to perish.
The sailors cast lots to determine whose sin it was that caused the calamity, which is not a good way for determining fault, but I think God had a hand in making sure the lot fell to the guilty party in this instance. When the lot fell on Jonah, to his credit, he was honest and told the sailors that he was running from God and that it was because of him that they were about to die. I think most people would have said they had no idea why God might be angry with them and feign innocence, but not Jonah. Jonah was rebellious and unforgiving, but he was honest.
The sailors and Jonah were having a conversation about their predicament, actually it was probably a lot of shouting so they could be heard above the wind and driven rain, and all the while the storm was intensifying. At this point the sailors asked Jonah what they should do to him to appease God and save them from disaster so he said, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you,” (Jonah 1:12). There is a lot to be said for taking responsibility for your mistakes, and I could have a whole episode on that, but for now I will move on.
At first the sailors refused to throw Jonah overboard and rowed furiously against the storm in a desperate attempt to get back to land, which indicates they probably didn’t make it far from Joppa before the trouble started.
Eventually the sailors realized that either Jonah had to be thrown overboard or the ship would go down so they called out to Jonah’s God, the only true God, and said, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased,” (Jonah 1:15). With that prayer Jonah was thrown overboard into the raging sea and the storm ceased. If there had been any doubt before that the God of the Hebrews was God there could not have been any at that point. I imagine the sailors had a similar reaction to that of the apostles when Jesus calmed the sea.
After Jonah was unceremoniously thrown overboard he was swallowed up by a great fish, that may or may not have been a whale, that God sent to and transport Jonah to the destination God had told him to travel to. I have never done it personally, but I am certain that traveling inside of a fish is not first class travel, but there was probably food if Jonah was desperate enough to eat it.
The story of Jonah is one of the story that those who are critical of the Bible like to rag on and I was once told the story of a man who had stopped attending church and was living as a hermit in the mountains, wearing only a loincloth, and when he heard that a famous preacher was coming to preach he came to hear the sermon. At the conclusion of the sermon the hermit asked the preacher how Jonah could possibly have survived three days in the belly of a fish so the preacher said, “I’ll tell you what, when I get to heaven I’ll ask him.”
“What if Jonah isn’t in heaven?” The hermit asked.
“Than I guess you can ask him,” the famous preacher replied.
That joke really didn’t have anything to do with the message I am trying to get across, but I saw a segue way and took it. Deal with it. The second chapter of Jonah covers the prayer Jonah prayed during the three days and three nights he was in the belly of the great fish, a fish that was never specified as being a whale, and then God caused the fish to vomit Jonah on the beach of Nineveh. The other fish probably thought, “I don’t know what that fellow ate, but I don’t want any of it if it makes you vomit like that.”
Jonah still wound up where he was supposed to be, a little worse for wear, and smelling horrible, and the Bible passage gives us no indication that he cleaned himself up before he went to preach to the Ninevites, and judging on how much he did not want them to repent, I would have to wager that he intentionally did not clean himself up first. If I didn’t want people to believe what I said I would probably try to look and act crazy as well.
It took Jonah three days to walk through the great city of Nineveh, and he made no special attempt to convert or even to have a convincing message, he just proclaimed to the people that they would be destroyed in 40 days the that city would be overthrown. In my mind’s eye I see Jonah as a rather smelly, crazy looking old man wearing clothes that had been bleached out by the stomach acid of the fish, draped with seaweed, shouting that the city would be destroyed in 40 days.
It must have come as a great surprise to Jonah when the people actually listened to his message and repented but his message was taken extremely seriously and, as the Bible says, “The people of Nineveh believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth”
Even the great king, upon hearing Jonah’s message, took of his royal robes and clothed himself in sackcloth and covered himself in ashes and started fasting, and ordered his people to do the same. The King even ordered the people to cover the animals with sackcloth and ashes and to cause them to fast! (Jonah 3:5-10).
The biggest indication that something we are doing is wrong is when it is goes against the will of God and instead of rightly assuming we are wrong we lay the fault at God’s feet and accuse him of wrong doing. It says in Jonah 4:1 “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.” Instead of praising God for being so merciful Jonah was angry with God because he was merciful and thought that he, and his people, deserved mercy but the people of foreign lands, especially the people of Nineveh, did not. In this instance, Jonah made himself god and decided who was and who was not worthy of forgiveness. How many of us, if we were honest, have been guilty of the same sin Jonah was committing? Jonah, and many people both then and now, have the idea that it should be mercy given to us and justice served upon them.
In the foot notes in my Bible it says that the same word used to say that Jonah thought what God did was very wrong was the same word used to describe the vile evils of the Assyrians, so Jonah was making himself greater than God and judging God’s act of mercy to be wicked.
Jonah was so angry that he wished to be dead because he would rather be dead than live in a world where the Ninevites were shown mercy. What an absolutely horrible mindset, and yet so many of us have that same mindset toward those who have wronged us, all the while judging Jonah for doing the same. There have been times when I hoped that people would go to hell, and I am profoundly ashamed for ever feeling that way. It is good that God’s mercy extends to people like the Ninevites or none of us would have a chance because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, making us dead in sin, and there are no degrees of deadness, dead is dead.
As Miracle Max says in The Princess Bride, When a person is dead there is not much you can do except go through their pockets and look for loose change. It is a mistake to think that one person’s sins will or should send then to hell and yet expect mercy for our sins. God’s ways are always right, even if it does not seam to be so to us. If there is a disagreement between us and God we can always know that we are wrong and God is right. If people were only forgiven by God when other people think they deserve it than no one would ever be forgiven because there will always be someone who thinks you don’t deserve it, and the truth is that you don’t, and neither does anyone else.
The Ninevites were not forgiven because they deserved it, far from it, and none of us are forgiven because we deserve it. All any of us actually deserve is an expedited trip to the lowest depths of hell. The Ninevites were forgiven because they believed God, and that is the only way any of us can be forgiven.
Jonah had been so sure that the people would not repent and would be destroyed, or at least that is what he hoped for, he camped up on the mountain overlooking the city and waited for it to be destroyed. When Jonah realized their repentance was sincere and that it was accepted by God he was angry with God and said, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is why I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Take away my life, for it is better to for me to die than to live,” (Jonah 4:2-3).
At this point, and at any other point, God would have been justified in granting Jonah’s wish and ending his life and sending him to hell, but he wanted to give Jonah the chance to repent just as he had the people of Nineveh. God replied to Jonah by saying, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and of course, the answer was no.
Since Jonah was camped out in the hot sun and feeling sorry for himself God caused a plant with large leaves to grow up and shade him from the fierce rays of the sun to ease his discomfort, and of course, Jonah was very happy about the plant, but the plant was not long for this world. Just as God had provided the storm, and the fish, and the plant, he provided a worm that was all to happy to do as worms do and eat the stalk of the plant causing it to wither and die, once again subjecting Jonah to the unforgiving rays of the hot sun. The unrelenting and unmerciful rays of the hot summer sun is a perfect representation of Jonah’s attitude toward the people of Nineveh, a people Jonah would have been all to happy to see suffer and die, and I dare say he would have even been giddy about their destruction.
Camped out in the hot sun without water, Jonah became faint and again wished for death, but it was not granted unto him. God was being a good good father and was trying to extend mercy to Jonah, but he was intent on not accepting it. Luckily for Jonah, God did not give up easily on him, and luckily for us, God does not give up easily on us either. As C. S. Lewis famously said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it,” (The great Divorce ).
When the plant died Jonah was again angry with God and said that he would be better off dead, but God did not want Jonah to die, he wanted to teach him a life lesson.
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh,in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
-Jonah 4: 9-11
Since the passage above is the last we know about the story of Jonah we will never know for sure whether or not he had a change of heart, but I hope that he did. When God asked Jonah whether or not it was right for him to be angry about the plant he said that it was, in a way challenging God, but God knew Jonah would answer that way and had provided the plant to prepare for the conversation.
God pointed out to Jonah that he was angry about the loss of a stupid plant that was there one day and gone the next, a plant that had no feelings or emotions, and a plant that he did not labor for, but that he did not think God should have cared about the people of Nineveh, a people he had a lot invested in.
Jonah was unforgiving and unwilling to contribute to the salvation of the people of Nineveh, and once they were forgiven by God he was angry about it because he did not think they deserved it. The point, of course, is that none of us deserve it and God does not forgive us because we are good but because he is. We are required to forgive all people, even if it is never safe to allow them back into our lives, even if we can never trust them, we are required to forgive them.
I think it is important to mention that forgiving someone does not mean that they are forgiven of the consequences of their sins, just for the sins themself. If a person stole my car and was arrested for it, I could forgive them for stealing my car but the courts system would still expect them to pay their debt to society.
If you haven’t learned anything else from this post, I hope you learned that repentance should be offered to everyone, regardless of the sins they committed, and that we are not to judge whether or not they are worthy of forgiveness, oh, and that there is far more to the story of Jonah than the fish that may or may not have been a whale.