These days the church is preparing to start Jonah's Fast or the Fast of Nineveh. This fast is known to be the fast of repentance, humility and the return to God. This is why many of the young and old in the church hold fast to this specific fast and abstain totally from food and drink for long periods of time, some even abstain for three continuous days. Thus, the church considers this fast to be one of the fasts of the first degree, similar to the fasts of Lent and Wednesday and Friday.
The primary message of the book is clearly that God's interest and mercy extend far beyond the Jews to the human race. This reminds us of the story of the child who asked his teacher the question "was Jesus white or black?" According to the story, the teacher replied that He was born with a fair complexion, but the strong sun of Israel tanned him dark. In the book of Jonah, we see how God was concerned not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too.
INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF JONAH
Even though the book of Jonah is only four chapters, it is considered one of the special books of the Bible since it combines the prophetic element with the historical element. When we examine this book, we find ourselves considering many deep spiritual meanings.
WHO IS JONAH ?
Jona or Jonas is the Syriac and Hebrew dialect version of the Hebrew name Jonah meaning "dove". Jonah, the prophet son of Amittai, from the tribe of Zebulon (Joshua 19:10), came from the city of Gath-hepher located about 3 miles away from Nazareth. It is said that he is the son of the widow of Zerephath (1 Kings 17:17-24) who was raised from the dead. Some critics have attacked the story of Jonah as a symbolic story but the words of the Lord Jesus indicate the literal interpretation of this book: "This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet... The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here" (Luke 11:29-32).
Let us study certain aspects of Jonah's Life:
1. Jonah the Stubborn
This book unveils to us, from its beginning, the details revolving around the sin of disobedience, for Jonah has sinned and he is the prophet of God. This is why the waters are salty and bitter, and his needs are very great. Furthermore, the water is filled with rocks. Every problem under these circumstances is enough to end a person's life. He becomes counted as one of the dead, but when he finds himself in the belly of the great fish, he discovers that he is surrounded by a river that has sweet water, not by waves or any danger of drowning or dying. That is how we experience the work of our wonderful God to whom we pray to in the Holy Liturgy of St. Gregory, saying "You have changed my punishment to salvation."
The most beautiful thing in Jonah's praise to God is that it's full of hope and confidence in God's response to his requests. That is why we find him saying "out of the belly of hell cried I and thou heardest my voice" (Jonah 2:2).
Jonah says in confidence "yet I will look again toward thy holy temple" (Jonah 2:4). And we see him also saying "yet hast thou brought out my life from corruption, O Lord my God" (Jonah 2:6). Therefore, we find that there is a difference between the person who prays, simply to say words, and the person who prays in faith, finding that God calls us saying all that you ask in prayer and faith you will receive. God also says "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place and it shall remove" (Matthew 17:20).
The Bible emphasizes that all are weak. Therefore, we see that Abraham, the friend and companion of God, falling into the sin of lying and David, whose heart is with the Lord, falling into the sin of adultery and murder. We observe the loving Peter, who is one of the apostles, denying our Lord Jesus. In spite of all this, God remains loving. Just as we describe him in the Holy Liturgy "Thou hast changed my punishment to salvation."
Jonah appears in his disobedient attitude in many instances such as God's direct invitation to his saying: "Rise and go to Nineveh." Then God speaks to him through a mighty wind and this is a method that God uses to talk to us in that He allows us to go through trials and tribulations so that the person can wake up. But, Jonah goes to the bottom of the ship to sleep. God also speaks to him through the innocent sailors who, when faced with trials and tribulations, call each one to his Lord. Jonah's heart is still unmoved, on the contrary, he increases his sleep and finally the Lord sends him the captain of the ship to ask him to call on his God. Instead of remembering the voice of God saying: "Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me" (Psalm 50:15), Jonah refuses the captain's request. Finally, the sailors cast lots to see who is responsible for this evil. The lot falls on Jonah and he is sentenced to death because he confesses. "For the men know that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them" (Jonah 1:10).
These circumstances often happen with us since God talks to us in many ways. We refuse to listen because we are searching for comfort for our bodies or sleep, or that we are preoccupied with many things and forget to respond and that each one of us should get up and pray to his God. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock..."
2. The Praying Jonah
Jonah is thrown in the sea and is considered dead. When he reach the stage of death, Jonah finally arrives at the stage where he is praising and giving thanks to Him. He does this in the belly of the great fish. All through the previous stages, Jonah did not see God or hear his voice, but now he begins to see God. Jonah starts to say with Job: I heard of Thee, but now my eyes have seen you. Also like the three youths who saw God in the midst of the burning fire and just as Daniel the prophet who enjoyed a visit by an angel of the Lord in the midst of the lion's den. In just the same way Jonah starts to speak to God. He talks to God about His love and His protection for him. As if Jonah is telling the Lord how the people have condemned him by throwing him in the dangerous sea.
3. Jonah Warning the People
After the whale has thrown Jonah onto the land, Jonah goes to the city of Nineveh according to the order of the Lord as it was given to him a second time. "Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee" (Jonah 3:2). We find that Jonah carries the message to the city of Nineveh and says to them "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jonah 3:4).
Instead of Jonah talking to the Ninevites about the God who loves the salvation of all, has gentleness, compassion, love, mercy and motivates us to repent, he preaches about the angry God, the vengeful God and the powerful God. Here we see the personality of Jonah who does the work of God with a mild attitude and instead of going all over the city for three days, he goes in one day and that is sufficient for him...
In general, there are many instances in which we lock out the picture of a loving God. Even worse is when we forget many times the work of God within us and we revert to our stubbornness and disobedience once again. Very often, we do the work of God with loose hands, but, in spite of this, God still works in our souls and hearts
We must realize that we are responsible for witnessing to others as our Lord Jesus Christ said: "Ye are the light of the world." And again, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14, 16). We must live the life of continuous thanksgiving "in every condition, for every condition and in whatever condition" and thank the Lord for his great mercy towards us. Remembering always that "cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully (Jeremiah 48:10) and "those that seek me early shall find me" (Proverbs 8:17).
4. Jonah the Rebellious
Here we see Jonah the prophet after he has glorified God and God prepared to do His evangelizing and work through Jonah's weakness. Therefore, God has become fruitful through Jonah so as to show him that He is a powerful God, and can save with little or with much. God wants to show us that "neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase" (1 Corinthians 3:7). We notice that the people of Nineveh have fasted, have worn sackcloth from the youngest to the oldest, they have called to God and each one has repented of his or her evil ways. God responds to their repentance, since it is the most important thing that moves the heart of God towards mankind. "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not" (Jonah 3:10).
Therefore it is proclaimed, from the beginning, that God's heart moves from the repentance of sinners. This is evident in the parable of the lost sheep where God leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one lost sheep. God leaves His chosen people and He goes, assisted by Jonah, to look for the lost sheep, which is the city of Nineveh. Just like how God leaves the 9 coins and lights up the candles and sweeps the whole house in order to find the lost coin. Other parables also point this out to us, like the parable of the prodigal son, where the father did not ask anything of his son, but gave him everything simply because he had returned to his father's house. This is the God that Jonah proclaims when he says "for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil" (Jonah 4:2).
In general, the characteristics that angered Jonah from God were that He was merciful and slow to anger. It is by this wonderful love, which God uses towards all of us, that He produced the gourd to grow and shadow Jonah's head from the sun. Then the Lord sent a worm to wither the gourd, an eastern hot wind and again the sun beat upon Jonah. God did all of this so that He would move the heart of Jonah a second time in order to remove the anger and weakness and replace it with joy in the work for His glory. It is within this context that we remember the words of our teacher St. Paul when he said that it is the long-suffering of God that gives us the ability to be led towards repentance. St. Jerome sees that the secret of Jonah's unhappiness is not the saving of the people of Nineveh, but Jonah's realization of the unfaithfulness and unthankfulness of His own people the Jews.
LESSONS FROM THE BOOK OF JONAH
1. God Wants the Individual and the Group
The title of this book refers to the people of Nineveh, but the book itself talks about God who seeks for the salvation, repentance and return of His people. In doing that, God uses many methods in order to arrive at the end that He has in mind which is the salvation of the people of Nineveh, Jonah and even any strangers such as the pagan sailors on the ship.
2. God Uses Nature for the Salvation of Man
Here we see, throughout the whole book, the natures of God and man. Man who is disobedient and rebellious and God who uses the sea, wind, waves, gourd, eastern wind and hot sun, which all work towards one goal - the good of man. It is for this reason that we see God at the beginning, preparing paradise and then creating man to be lord over it. In just the same way, God uses nature at the time of Noah and to free His chosen people from their slavery under Pharaoh. He also used animals to warn the prophet Baam, through a talking donkey (like Mr. Ed). In just the same way, we see the prophet David saying "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork" (psalm 19:1). And again "Praise ye him, sun and moon... Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens" (psalm 148:3,4).
3. The Intense Care that God Has for His Children
God cares for His children even at the time of their rebelliousness and evil. That is why we find God's promises towards his children truly marvelous. "Can a woman forget her sucking child... they may forget, yet will I not forget thee" (Isaiah 49:15). "But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered" (Luke 12:7). "For he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his (God's) eye" (Zechariah 2:8). All these promises we find fulfilled in the person of Jonah even when he was under the sin of disobedience. That is why St. Paul talks about God being faithful even when we are unfaithful. He cares for His children irrespective of their condition, appearance, or the circumstances under which they live. That is why David talks about this heavenly care as he experienced it: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1). David also says "I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread" (Psalm 37:25). This is God and we are His children.
4. Jonah a Symbolical Representation of Jesus
Here we find many points, some of which are the following:
A. The book of Jonah is a message intended for people to understand that repentance is important. In just the same way, Jesus came carrying a message to the world: "Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand."
B. Jonah goes into the ship, and Jesus Christ goes into the alter. Jonah is condemned to death by the sailors, and Jesus Christ is condemned to death by the high priests or the people who existed in the temple at that time
C. Jonah is thrown in the sea and we find him discovering the river around him. Jesus Christ came for the salvation of the whole world.
D. Jonah remains in the whale for three days and while there, he cries out and talks to God. Jesus Christ dies and goes into the tomb, remaining there three days. During those three days, He goes down to Hades and takes with Him all those who have slept, with the hope that He would take them back with Him into paradise.
E. We must not forget that Jonah was part of Jesus' family tree and thus Jesus literally became the son of Jonah
written by : unknown
Edited & submitted by: George Andraws, Coptic Orthodox Church
by HH Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch and All The East
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