Ships That Pass in the Night
By Greg Albrecht—
Many, even those unfamiliar with the Bible, have heard of Jonah. Most remember the story of Jonah as it is depicted in children’s books—a man named Jonah who was swallowed by a big fish and lived to tell the tale.
As we go a little deeper into the story (deeper even than the whale went with Jonah) we see that Jonah is yet another biblical example of how humans can completely misunderstand God. We can misunderstand God as Jonah did, and in terms of our relationship with God, be, as he was, like two Ships that Pass in the Night.
The book of Jonah begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire. But Jonah had no intention of going to Nineveh
(Jonah and God didn’t see eye to eye on this task).
Why didn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh? The most probable reason Jonah didn’t want to go is that he didn’t want to give the people of Nineveh a chance to change their ways. It becomes clear as we read the book of Jonah that Jonah felt that Nineveh didn’t deserve any warning. Jonah felt that God should just destroy the people in Nineveh, who didn’t even try to keep God’s law like Jonah did.
In terms of mercy and compassion, Jonah and God were like two Ships that Pass in the Night. Jonah was fine as long as mercy and compassion were experienced by people he liked. But the people of Nineveh? They were enemies of God’s people. They were perverted and wicked and evil—they didn’t deserve any mercy.
Jonah probably knew that he couldn’t run away from God, but that didn’t stop him from giving it the old college try.
Jonah boarded a ship heading to Tarshish—another evil place, in terms of people who didn’t obey the laws of God like the Jews did.
After the ship sailed God caused a huge storm, and the sailors on the ship wondered if someone on the ship was causing God to be upset. Jonah thought that he might be the reason for the storm, so he volunteered to be thrown overboard so that they could be saved. It worked! The storm stopped, the ship and its crew were saved, and not only that, but Jonah was swallowed by a great fish on its way to (guess where?) Nineveh.
There’s a lot of humor in this book—the whole idea of trying to run away from God is, of course, preposterous. And then when Jonah does try to run away from him, God turns him around, using the unconventional vehicle of a big fish, and makes sure that Jonah ends up where God wants him to go.
So the great fish spits Jonah out on the beach, at Nineveh. Once Jonah has cleaned himself up from all the stuff that must have been sticking to his skin after he was disgorged on the beach, God asked him to go do what he asked him to do in the first place.
Now the story really gets interesting. Jonah delivered the message, and the people of Nineveh actually changed. Jonah couldn’t believe it! They actually listened to his doom-and-gloom preaching and they responded, and God decided to have compassion on Nineveh, and not destroy them.
You would have thought Jonah would have been delighted. But the news of Nineveh’s en masse repentance hit Jonah like a ton of bricks. As far as Jonah was concerned, God chickened out. God didn’t follow through on the judgment that Jonah wanted to see.
Jonah wanted Nineveh to receive their religious reward—to get what Jonah felt they deserved, and instead God gave grace and compassion to Nineveh. Jonah wanted revenge and payback, not compassion. Jonah wanted an angry God of wrath, not what he felt was a compassionate, weak, wishy-washy God of grace and compassion. Jonah was more concerned with religion than he was with grace.
Jonah wasn’t even close to being on God’s wavelength. He was a prophet who wanted people to get what they deserved. He lived to see people “get theirs”—and when they did, maybe other people would hear and fear, Jonah reasoned.
But by God’s grace, the people of Nineveh who Jonah thought were so deserving of absolute destruction received the very opposite—an outpouring of God’s grace.
Jonah wanted his religion vindicated—he wanted people who didn’t do all the right things, like he thought he did, to suffer.
Christ-less religion and grace—they’re heading in the opposite directions. They just barely cross paths, ever so briefly, like two Ships That Pass in the Night.