Jonah and the Second Word of the Lord
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 3:1-3a, emphasis added
I’ve been captivated lately by these few words from the story of Jonah. Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
You remember the old story. God told Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. Instead, Jonah ran away and ended up in the belly of a big fish.
But … then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. The first time he disobeyed. But the second time he headed to Nineveh.
I can’t help but wonder what it would look like to be someone who obeyed the first time the word of the Lord came to me. The kind of person who didn’t have to be swallowed by a fish to be obedient—which seems like a holy desire.
In a recent conversation, a good friend of mine described years of his life lying down to bed every night feeling like he hadn’t done enough for God. Every morning, he woke up and opened his Bible with a fearful burden: “What if I say ‘no’ to something God wants me to say ‘yes’ to today?” That possibility wore him into the ground. His holy desire made him hellishly anxious.
Yes, some of us lack any urgency at all when it comes to God’s business—a problem this old story addresses. God was ready for the message to get to Nineveh. Jonah’s delay wasn’t helping. There is an urgency to God’s kingdom and our part in it.
But urgency does not equal anxiety. And obedience out of anxiety is not what God is after. Now you might say, “But look at Jonah. He got swallowed by a whale. And if that’s possible, that’s something to be afraid of. Anxious about. A good reason to be obedient—or at least stay out of the water.”
But notice how Jonah interpreted being swallowed by a fish. He said,
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
Isn’t that fascinating? We tend to tell the story of the fish as divine punishment for Jonah’s disobedience. But Jonah saw the fish as divine rescue when he was drowning. So his decision to obey God wasn’t one of fear; it was one of gratefulness.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
Here’s why I can’t get those few words from this old story out of my mind. Seems to me, that the good news of Jonah is simple: when it comes to God, you get more than one shot. The word of God will come a second time, maybe a third, maybe even more.
Like the poet Francis Thompson described, the God of Jonah is the Hound of Heaven, always pursuing us. Not only once, but constantly.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Hum, down the labyrinthine ways…
From those strong feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
(Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven)
I love that imagery. I’m reminded of the parable Jesus tells of the shepherd who has 100 sheep and loses one. You can just see him, as he leaves the 99 and begins to climb over hills and valleys, through rivers, and woods, until he that finds that sheep.
And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” (Luke 15:5-6)
Just because you were lost once … doesn’t mean you can’t be found a second time.
A few weeks ago, I met a man at the end of worship services. He’d never been to our church before. He told me that for months, he had felt God “tugging at my heart.”
He admitted he’d grown up in church. “But at some point,” he said, “I went the other way. Still, I just can’t shake this feeling that God isn’t done with me.”
He woke up that Sunday morning, got in the car and ended up at our church. We baptized him. He came up smiling.
I couldn’t help but think of Jonah. Deep in the water, God took of hold of him. Even though the word of the Lord had come to him before—the first time—something in the water prepared him for the word—a second time.