Each of our stories have “but God” moments in them, and Jonah, an Old Testament prophet of God, is no exception. This particular part of Jonah’s life story starts when he receives a very important assignment from his boss, God.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.” (Jonah 1:1-3)
So Jonah is not only refusing the assignment he’s been given, he also decides to run away and hide from God. I guess that seemed like a good plan to Jonah at the time but he obviously hadn’t read Psalm 139:7-12 or he wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble to try and run from God. After all, the words King David wrote are pretty clear –
“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.”
Jonah was on a ship sailing to “the far side of the sea” but he was not escaping God’s presence. God was pursuing Jonah as we see in what happens next.
“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god.” (Jonah 1:4-5)
Eventually the sailors determined that Jonah was responsible for their plight, so they began to question him, demanding to know who he was and who he worked for.
“He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’ This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’ (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)” Meanwhile, we are told that, “The sea was getting rougher and rougher.” (Jonah 1:9-11)
Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard in order to save the ship and themselves. They didn’t want to do this, but eventually they did throw Jonah into the sea even as they cried out to God, begging Him not to hold them responsible for taking Jonah’s life.
“Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.” (Jonah 1:15)
So the sailors and their ship were saved and Jonah was cast into the sea and left to drown. Seems like a fitting and just ending for someone who defied God, someone who refused to obey God’s explicit instructions, someone who instead, ran away in the opposite direction. That someone was Jonah and now Jonah was drowning in the sea, the same sea that he had hoped would be his means of escape from God and from God’s plans for him. Now, however, Jonah’s escape route had become his death trap, his path to freedom was now his watery grave.
Jonah’s story appears to have reached its predictable ending, given Jonah’s outright rebellion against God. Except that his story is not over at this point, even though it would seem to be at its inevitable conclusion. What happens next, is the unforeseen plot twist, the unanticipated “but God” moment. Jonah is drowning –
“But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)
Probably not the most comfy place to be for someone needing to do some soul searching and repenting – but it was just the right place for Jonah to do both – and he did just that. Our story continues –
“From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said: ‘In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and You listened to my cry. . . . The engulfing waters threatened me, . . . But You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered You, Lord, and my prayer rose to You, to Your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.’ ” (Jonah 2:1-9)
God could have let Jonah drown, but He is a merciful, forgiving God – a God of second chances – infinite second chances. How glad I am for that truth! What happened next?
“And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” (Jonah 2:10 & 3:1-3)
Jonah let that large city know they were going to be destroyed in forty days. This was the message God had sent Jonah to deliver – a warning to the city. In response to Jonah’s warning, the people of the city fasted and prayed and turned from their evil ways. Next we read –
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened.” (Jonah 3:10)
Like Jonah, the Ninevites also got a second chance. Their city was not destroyed. They called upon God and God showed them mercy, just as He had with Jonah in providing the great fish. A happy, hopeful ending all round.
Our story ends with Jonah being miffed at God for not destroying the formerly wicked city of Nineveh. Which is odd, because Jonah received a second chance. Why would Jonah begrudge the Ninevites the same mercy he himself had so recently received? (note to self – don’t be like Jonah!)
I have to ask myself – how many times has my Heavenly Father sent a proverbial great fish to rescue me when I am drowning due to my own disobedience? or drowning simply due to the unavoidable storms in this life? Being swallowed by a fish isn’t pleasant, but sometimes it’s the only way to the second chance that I so desire.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)
Jonah received some training during his days in the belly of the great fish, no doubt. He was drowning and the great city of Nineveh was doomed to imminent destruction. “But God” – “But the Lord provided a great fish” – Jonah was saved and Nineveh was spared. “But God” – those “but God” moments always change the outcome of the story by providing a second chance. Jonah summed it up when he said this to God –
“I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
The circumstances surrounding you and I, dear readers, in the world today, may suggest that the endings to the stories that you and I are living out have already been decided, written in permanent ink, as it were. But this is not true. There is always hope because there is always a “but God” moment in each and every one of our stories – usually more than one of those moments along the way.
Thank You, Heavenly Father, for all the great fish You have sent to rescue me each and every time I have been drowning.
“But God will redeem my life from the grave; He will surely take me to Himself.” (Psalm 49:15)
sincerely, Grace Day