God called me, again. He had called me before to speak on His behalf. I had given messages to my people—God’s people, the Israelites—many times. Some people called me a prophet, others a seer. I don’t know why, but God’s Spirit worked in me in a special way that enabled me to “see the mind of God” as it were. And to share what I saw and heard with those of my people for whom the messages were given. And now, today, He called me once again.
God chose my people to be a light to the world. Many different tribes and communities in the past came to know and love God through their relationship with my people. I don’t think they would in my day, though. Not today. For today, my people are a rebellious, disbelieving, unjust, idol-worshiping nation. They have drifted so far away from God that they look more like their heathen neighbors than the people of a loving, just, and merciful God.
Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when the Spirit of God came upon me and gave me a message. My people needed to wake up and change their attitude and behavior, to see the evil of their ways, and to become more like God. “The city,” God told me, “is to be destroyed in forty days!” (see Jonah 3:4).
What city? What did You say, God? The city of Nineveh! (see Jonah 1:1, 2). Another prophet described the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, as a people who plotted evil against God (Nahum 1:9), who exploited the helpless (2:12), who were excessively cruel in war (2:12, 13), and who worshiped false gods (3:4). They certainly weren’t the offspring of Abraham, so why would God be interested in them?
After some thought, I decided I wasn’t the one to travel some five hundred miles to tell the Ninevites that God had judged them and found them wanting. True, I knew that God was gracious and longsuffering. I’d seen Him act that way toward my own people. So if by some miracle the people of Nineveh did change their ways, how would that look for me? One of the definitions of a true prophet of God is that their predictions always come to pass (see Deuteronomy 13:3). What if I told these people that God was going to destroy their city, but then God in His grace and mercy changed His mind? And so I went down to the port of Joppa and took a ship that was sailing for Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Nineveh, “to get away from the Lord” (see Jonah 1:3).
We put to sea in a ship crewed by some very rough and rugged men. Not the kind of people you would want to meet down a dark alley at night. I didn’t want anything to do with them, so I found my way deep inside the hold and promptly fell asleep. I should have known better. After all, I was a prophet of God. But prophets are human and not always perfect.
I’m not sure why God chose to use me for His purposes, but for some reason, He did. So it was that God “hurled a powerful wind over the sea that threatened to break the ship apart” (see 1:4). The captain and crew feared for their lives.
And here I was, God’s man, down in the hold sleeping, while those rough and tough, no-good sailors were on deck holding a prayer meeting to their gods (1:5). The captain found me, woke me up, and asked me to pray to my God. As I began to pray (somewhat embarrassed that a heathen would be the one suggesting it), the superstitious sailors began to cast lots to determine who was to blame for their misfortune.
Naturally, the lot fell on me, so I told them the straight story. “I am a Hebrew,” I confessed. “And I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (see 1:9). I also told them that I was AWOL, running away from God.
This terrified them, and they asked me what to do. I told them to throw me overboard—and, this is embarrassing— the men tried to save my life! Not wanting to throw me into the deep, they rowed even harder “to get the ship to the land” (see 1:13). Eventually, though, they realized that the storm was too great and they would perish, so they pleaded with my God, “Don’t make us die for this man’s sin!” Then they threw me overboard.
Amazingly, the storm immediately abated, although I didn’t know it. Later I discovered the sailors had been “awestruck by the Lord’s great power” at this, and “offered Him a sacrifice and vowed to serve Him” (see 1:14).
But as I sank into the sea, a great fish swallowed me whole. I lived inside its putrid stomach for three days. There I had time to reflect on my ways. After those three terrifying days wallowing in fish bile, the fish regurgitated me onto a beach. Once again, God told me, “Get up and go to Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you” (see 3:1). This time I went!
I entered the city, where I proclaimed His message for three days. I walked those streets, and to my surprise and dismay, all the people “from the greatest to the least” repented (see 3:5). Even the king! I should have been happy. I should have praised God. Instead, I sulked. In fact, I was angry. Why? Because, “When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, He changed His mind and did not carry out the destruction He had threatened” (see 3:10). I’d suspected from the beginning that He’d do this. Now I looked like a fool. Humiliated and angry, I cried out to Him, “I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen!” (see 4:2).
I left that city, and out in the countryside I made a crude shelter and sat in misery, still hoping that some disaster might befall Nineveh and its inhabitants. But nothing happened! Well, not to the city, as it turned out. But over my shelter a leafy plant grew rapidly. Soon its broad leaves cast a welcome shade, making life much more pleasant for me. However, the next day a worm ate the stem, and the plant withered. As midday approached, the hot sun beat on me, and my anger rekindled. For a second time, I complained, “God, death is certainly better than living like this!” (see 4:8).
God answered me with two questions: “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” to which I retorted, “I’m angry enough to die!” (see 4:9).
Then He asked, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I [God] feel sorry for such a great city?” (see 4:10).
Again I was made to think. I was a prophet of God, called to speak on His behalf; to share God’s love with others; to counsel and encourage God’s people; to unite and protect the community of God from false beliefs and failings; to warn God’s people about future challenges and to affirm God’s people throughout times of hardship. The problem is that I thought I understood who God’s people were, but I was wrong. I thought I understood how God would reach the lost, but I was wrong. I thought I understood God’s justice, but I was wrong. I thought I understood what spiritual unity looked like, but I was wrong. Nevertheless, God demonstrated His great mercy toward me, His prophet, by using me for His purposes despite my limited understanding, personality flaws, fears, and doubts.
God still uses the words of His prophets to show us the defects in our characters, to help us solve our problems in a godly manner, and most importantly, to lead into His eternal kingdom.