From Misunderstanding to Understanding (2) 2.0

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1Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish,

2saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 

3For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 

4Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ 

5The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 

6at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. 

7When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 

8Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. 

9But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” 

10And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2 ESV) 

Legend has it that an English sailor who was swallowed by a gigantic whale shark in the English Channel. As he was attempting to harpoon a monstrous shark, he fell overboard, and was swallowed by the creature. After forty–eight hours, the sailors saw the shark again. Finally, they killed it this time. When they cut open the whale shark, they were surprised to find the sailor unconscious but alive! It was said that the sailor was shown as a living exhibit in a London Museum, being advertised as ‘The Jonah of the Twentieth Century.’

A similar story is about James Bartley, who was swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falkland Islands more one hundred years ago and lived inside it for 36 hours. Professor Edward Davis tracked the origins of the story through old newspapers, the British library, and through the history of the South Atlantic and New Zealand. Finally, he found James Bartley, on whom the story was based, hadn’t fallen overboard. According to the wife of Bartley’s captain, the sailor has told a great sea tale.

Jonah 2 speaks of Jonah’s unusual experience in a fish’s belly. Is it a fabricated or a real-life story? According to Jesus Christ, it isn’t a fable but a piece of important history (Matthew 12:40).

1) Misunderstand the Genre of the Book of Jonah

Understanding the Genre

If you desire to understand a book better, it’s best to identify the genre. Genre is the style of literature. If you want to understand the Book of Jonah, it’s important to find out the genre. Sadly, many Bible scholars have misunderstood the genre of the Book of Jonah.

Various Suggestions

Bible scholars have come up with various suggestions on the genre of Jonah. In recent years, scholars classify the Book of Jonah as fiction and they have produced a wide range of suggestions. For example, allegory, midrash, parable, prophetic parable, legend, prophetic legend, novella, satire, didactic fiction, satirical, didactic and short story, etc. Traditionally, Jonah isn’t seen as a fiction but a historical book. If you refer to the New Testament, Jesus Christ relates His death to Jonah’s three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish. (Matthew 12:40 ESV) Jesus doesn’t see the Book of Jonah as fiction.

Didactic History

Without a doubt, the Book of Jonah teaches important truths and it is a piece of historical literature as well. Some Bible scholars conclude didactic history would be the most appropriate designation for the genre of this book.

Foundation of Our Faith

It’s true that many people don’t like history. However, Bible history provides the foundation of Christianity. God reveals His character and plans in Bible history. Jonah is a Bible character and so is Jesus.  

Perspective on Today’s Problems

Bible characters have committed errors and have made right choices alike. An old saying: “He who will not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” With the knowledge of history, it gives us perspective on present problems. We might skim through the Book of Jonah many times, but have missed the important lessons that we should learn. In short, we should learn from Jonah’s mistakes.

2) Misunderstand the Focus of the Book of Jonah 

Anti-Semitic Typology

At the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, Jonah has been reshaped as an example of a prideful and haughty Jew or arrogant Israel. This anti-Semitic typology began to have its influence on sermons and commentaries. Jonah has become a stingy prophet who refuses to share the word of Yahweh with the non-Jews. Although the intent of this view is to remind believers not to be narrow-minded in relation to God’s forgiveness and grace, it leads to anti-Semitic sentiments instead.

Anti-Semitic Sentiments

Throughout human history, some evil people have tried very hard to eradicate the Jews. In the medieval times, Europeans wrongly persecuted and used excuses to kill the Jews. There is a surge of anti-Semitism in Germany and America now, as Christians, we should beware of its dangers. If we wrongly interpret the Book of Jonah, it might lead us to anti-Semitic sentiments. As students of God’s Word, beware of anti-Semitic interpretation! As Christians, we should denounce anti-Semitism and always pray for the wellbeing and salvation of the Jews.

3) Misunderstand the Heart of Jonah

The Introduction

Jonah 1:1 (ESV) 1Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, … Like the other books of the minor prophets, it is customary to introduce the author at the beginning of the book. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Jonah is the author of this minor prophet book. 

Jonah’s Frankness

Personally, I think it is unfair to label Jonah as a self-centred disobedient prophet. Honestly, I admire Jonah’s frankness. He doesn’t mind the readers to know his infamous history. As a servant of Yahweh, Jonah determines to be transparent before God’s people, a lesson that we should learn as Christ’s followers. Many people misunderstand the intent of this book, the heart of Jonah is to reveal his flaws to the readers.

Pretentious Human Beings

Humans are pretentious at times. Well, some people say it is an art of survival. When you are invited to a dinner, when the hostess asks you if you like the food, not only you pretend you like it, but you tell her that it is the best food that you have eaten so far. When people ask you about her new hairstyle and new dress, deep down you think it’s funny looking, but you pretend you like it. 

Brave Face

There are so many brave faces in churches. Believers and nonbelievers alike, they put on a brave face when they go to church. Deep down inside of us, we are consumed by our troubles and hurts, but we pretend to be well in public.

Perfect Pastor

Many Christians have the false hope of finding the perfect pastor. I can assure you that there isn’t a perfect pastor in the world. By the way, if a pastor goes to heaven, he or she will lose his or her job and title. There are only perfect Christians in heaven but not on earth. In the Book of Jonah, the author doesn’t portray Jonah as a perfect prophet. Jonah doesn’t pretend to be perfect and so should we.

4) Misunderstand the Causes of His Suffering

The belly of Sheol

2saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. In his prayer, Jonah mentioned he is “in the belly sheol”, that is, “the land of the dead”. (NLT) “The land of the dead” is often associated with the grave. Metaphorically speaking, the fish’s stomach is like a tomb. Jonah thought he was dead, and perhaps he literally was at some point. If you like, Jonah experienced some sort of near-death experience. According to my understanding, it seems to me that Jonah misunderstands the causes of his suffering. Jonah suffers because he chooses to be disobedient to God.

Near-death experiences

As for those who experienced near-death experiences, some have become another person after that. Near-death experiences cause people to think and change their way of life differently. 

Car Accidents

Many years ago, I was involved in a serious car accident on the highway. I could have died! I could have left my wife as a young widow! My kid would end up fatherless that night! Although I didn’t encounter near-death experience, this accident made me reflect.

Asthma Attacks

As for those who are healthy all the time, you might not understand the pain of asthma patients. Imagine someone tries to suffocate you – horrifying and painful! As a kid, I have always suffered from asthma. One day, I had an asthma attack. It was so bad that I ended up in the ER. I could have died as a kid. After all those years as an asthma sufferer, I’ve finally realized I’m allergic to cats and dogs. When I was a child, I had a cat, a dog and a few hamsters; no wonder I had asthma! Pain and suffering made me more mature than my peers. 

Response to Suffering

Dear friends and believers, of course we don’t like suffering, but it’s unavoidable in life. If we have to face suffering, let’s respond to it with a positive attitude.

Jonah’s Self-induced Pain (Jonah 2:3)

God’s Sovereignty

3For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. (Jonah 2:3) Jonah spoke of God as the one who cast him into the sea. In a way, it speaks of God’s sovereignty. But, if you read chapter one again, you would have found out that it was Jonah’s own decision. In order to calm the stormy sea, Jonah asked the sailors to throw him into the ocean.

Self-induced Pain

I want to point out one thing. The pain that Jonah suffered was self-inflicted. What is self-induced pain? Let me give you an example. If you want to die by jumping from a high-rise, but somehow you survive and have become crippled for the rest of your life. Consequently, you blame God for your suffering. Throughout the centuries, many people including Christians misunderstand God, thus wrongfully blame the Creator for their self-induced pain. 

5) Misunderstand God’s Justice (Jonah 2:4)

Jonah Blamed God in a Subtle Way

4Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ Jonah used strong words to express his suffering. Reading between the lines, Jonah is blaming God in a subtle way. If Jonah really understands that God is just and He has every right to punish people for their wrongdoings.

Jonah Is Unaware of His Fault

Why is Jonah banished from God’s sight? Apparently, Jonah is unaware of his big mistake. His sin of disobedience is the obstacle between God and him. In modern terms, Jonah doesn’t have any self-awareness. Self-awareness is a kind of self-knowledge that everyone needs.

Jonah’s Self-centered Heart Condition

In the prayer, Jonah anticipates full restoration, yet there has been no indication of a change of heart on his part. What is this kind of spiritual condition? Self-centeredness!

Jonah Mistakenly Thought He Was Accepted by God Again

Jonah is confident that he has been accepted in the temple and he can enter God’s presence again (Jonah 2:4). If Jonah hasn’t repented before God, would his broken relationship with God be restored? Doubtful! Perhaps, Jonah mistakenly thought he was accepted by God again.

Jonah Thank God Instead of Turning to Him for Repentance

9But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” In his prayer, Jonah expresses his gratitude and trust in God (Jonah 2:9), but one thing is missing here. As Jonah has rebelled against God, he should turn to God for repentance. 

6) Misunderstand God’s Plan (Jonah 2:2)

Jonah Thank God for Being Merciful to Him

2saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. Jonah thank God for saving him. In other words, he has sensed God’s mercy, but the thing is that, if God is being merciful to him, and why couldn’t he be merciful to the Ninevites as well? 

Jonah’s Hypocritical Attitude

In the fish’s belly, Jonah prays in saying, 8Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. Theologically, Jonah is right. The pagans are idol worshippers who wouldn’t turn to Yahweh’s faithful love. However, in chapter one, the pagan sailors eventually turned to Yahweh for help, but as God’s prophet, Jonah didn’t even pray. What do you call it? I call it hypocritical attitude.  

Jonah Promised to Offer A Thanksgiving Gift

but as for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the Lord! (Jonah 2:9 HCSB) Has Jonah repented of his sin of disobedience? Although Jonah preached to the Ninevites after he came out from the belly of the fish, his words and actions didn’t show he was truly repentant. Interestingly, Jonah promises to offer a sacrifice with a voice of thanksgiving. Jonah hasn’t vowed to be obedient but he expresses he is grateful that he hasn’t died. Aren’t we like Jonah? We promise to thank God but we wouldn’t promise to obey Him.

Jonah Was Brought Back to Joppa

Jonah might have thought he would die in the fish’s belly, and he has misunderstood God’s plan in store for him. God doesn’t want Jonah die, but sends him back to Nineveh. In a nutshell, Jonah has unfinished business that he has to finish.

Unfinished Business

I don’t like unfinished business. I don’t like unfinished projects. If it stays untouched and unfinished within my sight, I would feel uncomfortable.

Unfinished Mission

The ending of Matthew 28 is interesting. It speaks of our unfinished mission. As Christians, making disciples is Christ’s unfinished mission on earth and we are responsible to finish it off. Look around, the world is in a mess now. As Christians, we can bring real hope to the people around us!

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