Who is YHWH?

The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) begins with a land that is fertile and ready for humanity and ends with the people of Israel on the cusp of moving into the land of promise. Beginning in Genesis 12 through Deuteronomy 34, the promise of land is a key theme for the people of Israel. This is what they continue to move toward and keep their minds on—home. This may be a common destination throughout these five books, but what holds the Pentateuch together is the nature and character of YHWH, the One God with any significance. The Pentateuch is answering the question, as Pharaoh asked Moses, “Who is [YHWH] that I should obey His voice…?” (Exodus 5:2b NASB) Not only this, the Pentateuch is also answering the, implied, question of how God’s people should act and live in this world and this life.

YHWH is the only God that is above all of creation. This is made clear, in Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2 NASB) This transcendence means that YHWH can be involved, but not necessarily impacted, by the actions of the people. He is able to act and move in the best interest of what needs to be done. The Pentateuch is making the case that YHWH is not made by humans so he is not manipulated by any spells or incantations other cultures and peoples might do to get the god(s) to do their bidding. YHWH stands alone above all the other gods. Holiness, love, just, true (promise keeper and fulfiller) are some of the attributes that the Pentateuch teaches about the nature and character of YHWH. Because YHWH is transcendent, he is able to be all of this, and more, and expect his people Israel to be holy as well. The Pentateuch is held together by the character of YHWH that the people are supposed to demonstrate to the world and live as.

The phrase “I am the LORD” (אני יהוה) is one of the recurrences that helps to make the case God is the only God with any significance and is above all others. This recurrence is used throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, especially when YHWH is making a statement about what he has done. Most of the time, “I am the LORD” (אני יהוה) is combined with his action of delivering the people of Israel from Egypt (הוֹצאתין מארץ מצרימ) “brought you out of the land of Egypt.” This recurrence comes at key points within the Pentateuch and serves as a reminder of who did the delivering for Israel. This is one of the major characteristics of YHWH—redeemer and deliverer. YHWH does not desire his people to be held captive by anyone or anything, except for his covenant. His name implies he is able to be and provide anything the people need. YHWH’s provision is shown through the storehouses of grain in Genesis when the famine struck the land, deliverance from Egypt, water from rocks, manna, quail, new life in the wilderness journey, guiding with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, giving of the covenant, and even bringing the people to the border of the promised land. YHWH is able

How can the people of Israel live up to the holiness YHWH requires? The covenant is what makes the people of Israel unique. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people are constantly being called back to the covenant life taught in the Pentateuch. The people are called to be holy because YHWH is holy. The covenant is central to demonstrating the faithfulness of YHWH and how the people are supposed to live. This brings up a contrast in the way other people live versus the way YHWH expects his people to live. “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine: and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a NASB) If the people of Israel followed the guidance and kept the covenant of YHWH they would be set apart and be different from the rest of the nations and people groups. Because YHWH is transcendent, above all other gods, he is able to say he own everything and can set the people of Israel apart from everyone else. “There is only one being in the universe who can rightly be called ‘holy.’ Thus it becomes possible for the first time to describe ‘holy’ behavior: it is the behavior of the Holy One.” (Alexander, 850) This makes the covenant vital to the way of life for Israel.

Covenants were not new to Israel at YHWH’s revelation on Mount Sinai. Covenants have been part of the people of God from the very beginning. When YHWH makes covenants he is showing his faithfulness and love to and for his people. Other deities would have expected something from the subjects, YHWH gave himself (Genesis 17) and said Israel needed to follow him and they would be his own people (Exodus 19). This was done so YHWH could show his love for the world through the people of Israel. Not only this, but YHWH is demonstrating his loyalty to the people of Israel, something different from other cultures who worshipping other deities.

At the core of the character of YHWH is his hesed (חסד), his holy love, his unfailing love. YHWH’s hesed is highlighted over fourteen times in the Pentateuch (Gen 19:19, 24:12, 24:24, 24:27, 32:10, Ex 15:13, 20:6, 34:6, 34:7, Numb 14:18, 14:19, Deut 5:10, 7:9, 7:12) which shows that YHWH is acting out of his love and mercy for Israel, for the purpose of the nations knowing who YHWH is. “…the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” (Exodus 14:4c NASB) The biggest revelation about the hesed of YHWH is found in his own self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness [hesed] and truth; who keeps lovingkindness [hesed] for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin…” (NASB) This is a key verse that is found throughout the Old Testament and recurs in the Pentateuch (Ex 20:5,6, Numb 14:18, Deut 4:31, 5:10, 7:9) This is another example of contrast between YHWH and the other deities other people worship. However, this could also be a climax of the Pentateuch because this describes the nature of YHWH, by his own words, the people of Israel know how their God will be with them, treat them, even offer opportunities to forgive their sins against him and their fellow Israelites.

Because the hesed of YHWH is so prevalently known and shown (through the acts of deliverance, giving of the law/covenant, people of Israel growing and thriving, providing food in wilderness, not destroying the people when he had the chance) we can also get a glimpse of how just YHWH is. He is not a God who acts on a whim. YHWH acts for justice (setting things right) in the world. The plagues of Egypt were judgements on the gods of Egypt, the deaths of Aaron’s sons in Leviticus 10, Moses and Aaron not able to enter the land, and many more examples happened because YHWH cannot allow sin to remain and go unpunished. This can also be one of the most loving things YHWH could do. He is not punishing for the sake of his own amusement or “just because”. The punishment comes into motion because of the effects of sin. Through the law/covenant, YHWH has already stipulated how to live. Moses, in Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” (NASB) This is an act of hesed, and the justness of YHWH because he gives the people a chance to choose life, to choose the way of life he is telling them to live, in order for them to thrive and live a long time in the land. 

In Exodus 32, the people of Israel were waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain after he had already been up there 40 days and 40 nights. The people became anxious and pleaded with Aaron to make them a golden idol so they could worship it. So Aaron made a golden calf from the gold the people took from Egypt when they left. This is where the hesed of YHWH is shown as well as justice. “In simple justice, God was obligated to destroy them. But in fact he invited Moses to intercede for them by saying that he would destroy them if Moses would ‘let me alone’ (Ex 32:10).” (Alexander, 851) Justice was still played out because the sin damage had been done so the Levites killed many people by the sword for bowing down to an idol. Justice needed to happen because of who YHWH is. YHWH always acts in consistently “right behavior” because of his holy character. (Alexander, 851)

Because YHWH does the right thing, all the time, he can be counted on to keep his promises. This is shown throughout the Pentateuch in the covenants he makes with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. YHWH also demonstrates he is trustworthy to Abraham and Sarah who received the child of promise, Isaac. He also tells Abraham his descendants will be slaves to another nation for four hundred years. This also comes to reality when the Exodus story begins. His promise of land to Abraham and the Israelites is mentioned many times throughout the Pentateuch. Ironically, this is the only promise that was not fulfilled in the course of these books. But we can be assured the people will receive the promise because of this important inclusio.

What is consistent throughout the Pentateuch is this is the same God who creates, who delivers, who guide, who provides for the people. The inclusion deals with the Spirit (רוחּ) of God. In the beginning, Genesis 1:1, the Spirit (רוחּ) of God is over the waters of creation. In Deuteronomy 34:9, Joshua son of Nun is filled with the Spirit (רוחּ) of wisdom to become the leader the people need to carry them into the promised land. It is the Spirit (רוחּ) of God that holds the people together, this is the presence of God that is with the people.

Even though the Pentateuch is made up of five individual books that tell the narrative history and story of the people of Israel and how YHWH redeemed and delivered them. The consistency of YHWH’s character throughout demonstrates he is the one God with any significance and he is the same. When Pharaoh asked, “Who is [YHWH]…?” He got displays of power and saw how fiercely loyal he is to Israel. The God of Israel desires to make himself know to the world through the people of Israel. Because YHWH is holy and just and loving in his character, the people of Israel know how they should live and act in the world to be living, tangible examples of the God who is above all.

Bibliography

Alexander, T. D., & Baker, D. W. (2003). Dictionary of the Old Testament : Pentateuch. InterVarsity Press.

Arnold, Bill T., and Choi, J.H. (2003). A guide to biblical Hebrew syntax. Cambridge University Press.

Dozeman, Thomas B. “Deuteronomy,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995 (pp 271-538)

God’s Story, Your Story: The Old Testament

How well do you know the biblical story? If we’re honest, we all should say we don’t know it as well as we want.

One of the most beautiful things about scripture is that it continually speaks, even today, the words of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

If I were to ask you how to easily explain the biblical storyline, how would you do it? Think about it.

If we look at the biblical story, we can look at it in 2 acts, each with 3 parts:

Act 1: Creation, Fall, Israel

Act 2: Jesus, Church, New Creation

What we have to realize is how each of these “parts” is really a representation of our life here: we’re created (born), we know we sin, we believe God is real and calling us apart, we meet and encounter Jesus, we become part of the family and movement of God, Jesus makes us into new creations. So, when we read the Bible, we’re really looking at a mirror of our lives, in many ways.

Today, we’re looking at the Old Testament storyline. This is how God (YHWH) has moved in, through, and with his people, Israel. Throughout these 39 books we see how Israel comes to God, follows God, gets excited about obeying God, decides to do her own thing and ends up going against God leaving her alone and exiled. See how the Old Testament is our story also? When is the last time you did everything right, and followed God to the perfect “T” you wanted to? For me it was in the split second I woke up today, before I had a chance to think or do anything.

Yes, I know the Old Testament is long, has a bunch of traditions we don’t practice today, has some strange names, and I’d downright confusing. But what we have to understand is the point of the scriptures. The point is to know who the God is Israel was/is supposed to know, follow, and reflect in the world.

One of the challenges we have today is that we live in a time when we tend to focus more on devotional thoughts, meditations, and books/teachings about  the Bible and we have missed out on reading and absorbing the actual words of scripture themselves.

Over the last 2 years, I have developed a love for the Old Testament because I have now realized that unless we take the time to read and study the Old Testament, the New Testament doesn’t make as much sense.

One of the things we have to understand is that what we call the Old Testament is what Jesus referenced. Why? Because there was no New Testament yet. Also, the Apostle Paul says that all scripture is God-breathed, know he is talking about the Old Testament.

So let’s take this time and go over the Old Testament and see how this is our story as well.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. This is the foundational statement to show who (not how) the earth was created. We live in this world because God set everything in motion and spoke everything into existence for his people.

Everything was all well and good, until…

Imagine how it would be to live in paradise. Can you imagine everything in a state of perfection? Unfortunately, we can’t because we will always expect something bad to happen. Why? Because of the presence of the serpent in Genesis 3. The serpent planted the seeds of doubt into Adam and Eve. Now doubt, in and of itself, is not bad. When doubt turns to unbelief, we begin to not believe in God: who he is, what he says he’ll do. This is when we begin to take matters into our own hands and sin corrupts us.

The fall is found in Genesis 3-11. It’s amazing how quickly the later generations embraced the life of sin. It goes to show that “what one generation tolerates, the next generation embraces.” Genesis 3-11 is important to read because it shows the state of the world we’re still in. If we get upset about younger generations acting a certain way, or embracing certain values/opinions, we do have to ask what it is we tolerated in our life.

Now the Old Testament is about who God is. God is the God of hope and second chances. We see this in the flood narrative, and especially in the calling out of Abraham. This is where the storyline of the Old Testament moves from the universal scope of all of creation and begins to tell the story of a particular people group.

The people of Israel have begun. To see the family tree from Abraham, take time to read through Genesis.

The people would not last long on their own. They became (over time) slaves to Egypt and remained in that state for over 400 years. There was still the hope from the promises of God to Abraham the people held tight to. God may have seemed absent, but Exodus gives us the picture of a God who pays attention and knows what’s going on. God acts in a mighty way, and delivers the people of Israel by having Moses lead them. The Exodus is the foundational story for Jewish people—how they were brought from a life of slavery to freedom. This is also, in a sense, our story too since we were slaves of sin until Christ broke the curse of sin over humanity.

Something we have to take time to realize is that when Israel was freed from the slavery of Egypt, they really moved into a different kind of slavery—into the service of God. The paradox is that unless we live our lives as servants of God, then we really don’t know or understand freedom. True freedom if found in the expression of love that if only found in God.

When you live for God, you see his character is that of holiness—he means what he says and he says what he means…he should be feared/revered. The holiness of God is laid out in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This is where the people learn that there can be no sin in their presence, that sin will not be tolerated in the presence of God. There were some strict punishments for sin, but the people knew exactly what would happen. I do wonder if we took sin as seriously as the Bible does, how would the world look? How would the church look?

This is a very brief and basic look at the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Understanding these books is key to seeing where the rest of the story takes place.

Now we move into the history books (Joshua – Esther).

The first thing we see is God is a God who keeps his promises. His covenant with Abraham included land. Now the people of Israel were entering the land which was promised to them.

What we see, in these books, is what happens when the people live by their part of the covenant (which is following God and listening to him). We also see what happens when the people do not live up to their part of the covenant. Everything goes south.

The Israelites had incredible victories but soon became cocky and prideful and found themselves trying to be like other people, other nations. The kingdom of Israel was established with Saul and further expanded by David and Solomon. Now before we say Israel went against God and got their king after God said not to, that’s not true. God laid out specifications for how a king should be when the people asked for a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) But the reality is absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This teaches us how patient God is.

The history books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther all shows the ebb and flow of how the people yearned for God yet did their own thing. The cycle is what we still see today:

  • Revival happens and the people follow and decide to obey God
  • Life gets a little too comfortable and sin corrupts
  • The people do their own thing (and blame God for not providing)
  • Punishment – exiled
  • Repentance happens and the people return to their first love – God

See how this is our story today? What do you think we need to repent of as individuals? As a church? As a state? As a nation? As a people?

Moving from the historical books, we move into the Writing and Wisdom books. These are really the heart of the Biblical story (that’s why they’re in the middle 🙂 )

It is here we can see heartfelt prayers and wisdom that is needed to keep our hearts and minds open to the movement and presence of God.

Job reminds us God has not left us, even in the midst of tragedy.

The Psalms are beautiful cries and expressions to God.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes tells how a person should think and live.

Song of Solomon (Songs) is a beautiful expression of God’s love and affection for his people.

Then we move into the Prophetic books. There are 2 groups (major and minor prophets). The “major” ones are only called so because they are longer, not because thy have more value. The “minor” prophets just have shorter books.

What do the prophets do? They warn of impending judgement and doom, if the people do no return to their part of the covenant and follow/obey/listen to God. That brings us back to the Pentateuch. The prophets are calling the people back to the way of life and loyalty the Pentateuch says.

In a nutshell, this is the basic storyline of the 39 books of the Old Testament. There is so much more we could say right now, but studying the scriptures is really a lifetime of God revealing himself to us.

To understand the Bible, understanding the first five books is essential. When you read it, see what the Bible is teaching about God and about who he says the people are.

I pray we can continually see how our story today, is the same story as the Israelites, which is played out in the story and life of God. Next week, we’ll dive into the New Testament and see how the New Testament reteaches covenant loyalty, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Discovering God through the book of Jonah (Part 2)

HEAR OUR PRAYER

“From inside the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” (Jonah 2:1 NIV

Many of us attend worship each week with hidden concerns, hidden feelings, harboring resentment, coming with doubts about your faith. The challenging thing is how do we allow the message of God to shape us into who God is making us to be?

One of the biggest doubts we seem to face is whether or not we believe God is done with us. Now, this can take on a variety of characteristics. One can become controlling to try and make sure things get done in the order and manner you want. One may stop trying to do anything new. One may begin to pray only at meal times, because this is when we are supposed to pray.

If we fall into these, or any other similar categories, it becomes harder to go to scripture. Why is this? I have learned that when we go to scripture, we tend to focus on what we know (or think we know) and disregard the rest. It is easy to go to verses that give us the good feels like Philippians 4:13, John 3:16, Psalm 23, Jeremiah 29:11, Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8, etc. I bet you even know what these (or most) verses are.

The point is, we like to have the Bible tell us what we want. We’ll even read our own ideas, our own culture into the scriptures. As we said last chapter, remember the point of the scripture is to teach us who God is and who we are now, and who we will become.

I can hear it now, I learn most of what I know about God through nature. That is true. The Apostle Paul writes to the people in Rome, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what was made.”[1] The issue with this thinking is that we believe we learn about God just through nature (or other people) and the Bible is our manual for how to get into heaven.

As we dive into the scriptures we can see the main point is not for us to go to heaven. The main point is to love God and love people which brings heaven to us. This means, as we read, study, and pray the scriptures, we learn God is telling us so much about who he is so we can learn more and more about our own character.

One of the fascinating things about scripture that I love is how we can see something new each and every time we read and meditate on the passages. The same thing is true for the book of Jonah. 

Maybe viewing the purpose of the book of Jonah is to tell us about the nature of God is a new or different concept than you have been taught before. That is good. The more we study scripture, the more layers we find. This reminds me of the movie Shrek. The donkey and the ogre are on their to rescue Princess Fiona from the dragon. Donkey is upset Shrek did not do more damage to Lord Farquaad’s castle and knights.

Shrek is telling Donkey how there is more to ogres than people realize. He gives the illustration that ogres are like onions. There are many layers to peel back before you can understand what an ogre is about. We also have to remember that scripture is the same way. 

Scripture has many layers, the more we read, the more we study, the more we hear God’s voice speaking, the more we begin to understand about what the text is teaching us about humanity, what we should learn, but also what we should learn and know about God.

The book of Jonah is no different. Take some time, right now, to write down anything you have learned about God so far in this short book of the Bible.

In the last chapter, we left Jonah in the belly of the fish. He has been in the fish for three days and three nights. Remember we said this was actually grace because God did provide a way for Jonah to live. 

You are probably going through something right now that makes it seem as if you are in the belly of a fish. The circumstances and situation you are in are not what you expected them to be. You are living with a diagnosis. Maybe you have gotten away from an abusive situation. Maybe you are running to find out who you are. Maybe, just maybe, you are in a situation you believe you don’t deserve to be in and are angry about it. It is in moments like this we find people may not be as open as they say they are, or we find it difficult to know where to turn.

One thing I can promise is this: God has not forgotten you. God still is with you and is doing a great work in, and hopefully, through you. It may seem as if you are all alone, but God has not left you. 

Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights before the fish ejected him onto the dry land. I’m sure there were times he felt as if his prayers did not get past the scales. There are many times I pray I feel as if the words, or thoughts, do not get past the shingles. But, as we read Jonah chapter two, we learn something about God.

GOD ANSWERS PRAYERS

This is huge. God will give an answer to our prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes”. Sometimes “no”. Sometimes “not yet”. Sometimes it’s a combination of “not yet because you haven’t done what I’ve already told you to do.” God will answer prayers. The question now is, are we ready to pay attention for the answer.

Back to Jonah. He has been in the fish for three days and three nights. The scripture does not say when this prayer was prayed, just that he prayed. What is interesting is what it was Jonah prayed: 

“In my distress, I called to the Lord…” (v 2)   Did he really?

“yet I will look again to your holy temple.” (v 4b)   Has he done this already?

“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord,” (v 7a)   Interesting…

“But I, with shouts of grateful praise…” (v 9a)    Has he done this before?

“What I have vowed, I will make good.” (v 9b)   What did he vow?

“I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” (v 9c)  Has he said this before?

The reason we should look closely at the prayer Jonah “prayed” is that it doesn’t seem consistent with what we have read so far about this prophet of God. It almost seems as if he is praying the prayer from memory because he has not lived the life the prayer suggests.

Besides looking at the life of Jonah to get the clues as to whether or not he believed this prayer, we can look at verse 10: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” 

Notice the word vomit. “The verb vomit, which returns him to dry land…evokes negative connotations. Rather than using a delicate word for ejection, the narrator uses a distasteful image. The fish does not stomach Jonah.”[2] Based upon this, and of course Jonah’s past actions, according to the text, even the fish cannot handle Jonah’s behavior and sarcastic prayer.

As we have seen, Jonah was not having his attitude adjusted. He was most likely mulling around in the fish’s stomach upset because he did not get his way. What does he do? He “prays” this prayer, maybe trying to get God to do what Jonah wants to do—run away from doing what God wants.

The interesting thing is that, maybe Jonah though his life was over in the fish and his prayers did not go past the scales, but God delivered Jonah by having the fish dump him on the dry land.

Yes, Jonah’s prayer may not have been sincere for him; but this teaches us God cares enough for his people that God will answer our prayers, even when our heart is not tuned toward God. Look at what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him![3]

As we learn about the nature of God, we also learn more about the condition of humanity. Jonah is trying to make himself look good by “praying” to God and saying the “right” things in the prayer. This is something we all try to do. 

We know that we cannot make God do anything by saying the right words in the prayers we pray, but we also try to keep ourselves looking good in the presence of God. Jonah is still trying to hide who he really is by praying this Prayer of Thanksgiving. It is possible that he is recalling the only prayer he could think of in that moment.

From Jonah we learn that humanity tries to cover sin up by attempting to make ourselves look good in the presence of God. It is difficult to reveal our true nature because we do not like it when people look down on us, especially God. But remember the words in the book of James:

“Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” [4]

And also hear the Apostle Peter’s words: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.”[5]

What we have to understand is God knows who we really are on the inside (see chapter 1). God knows the condition and state of our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7, John 2:25) So we should be completely open and honest with God. This vulnerability reminds us of God’s unconditional love for you and I. We also remember that God never expects us to be perfect, humanity is not perfect; therefore, we come to God as we are.

There are times we will try to hide who were really are because we do not want to face the reality of God humbling us. But we also try to hide who we are by pretending everything is okay with our lives, even though we do not believe everything is right.

Through all of this, no matter what situation or life circumstance we find ourselves in, part of the nature of God we see in Jonah is: providing an answer to prayer.

When a mother has a sick child, it is marvelous how quick her ears become while attending it. Good woman, we wonder she does not fall asleep. If you hired a nurse, it is ten to one she would. But the dear child in the middle of the night does not need to cry for water, or even speak; there is a little quick breathing—who will hear it? No one would except the mother; but her ears are quick, for they are in her child’s heart. Even so, if there is a heart in the world that longs for the things of God, God’s ear is already in that poor sinner’s heart. He will hear it. There is not a good desire on earth but the Lord has heard it.[6]

Jonah’s prayer was trying to get him out of that situation, whether he meant the words he was praying or not, God still heard the prayer.

God has not forgotten you. God will answer your prayer. The answer may not be what we are expecting, or coming from where we want, but God answers every prayer offered to him. 

No where, in the text, has Jonah proved he has done or said anything he has prayed. He was running away from God. The sailors had to ask Jonah to call on his God to help them (Jonah 1:6) but Jonah still sent to sleep instead of being concerned about the safety of the other sailors.

Now, let’s look at our own prayer lives.

I find it interesting the only thing Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them was how to pray (Matthew 6:5-14, Luke 11:1-13). When was the last time you or I asked another person, or Jesus for that matter, how we should pray.

Yes, there are many formulations on the best type of prayer. We can pray spontaneously, read prayers from the past, pray the Psalms, and more. But God is more interested in what is the state of our heart.

There are times we do not know what we should pray, and God has this covered as well. The Apostle Paul writes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself interceded for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our own hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” [7]

It is because of God’s grace the Spirit he has given us prays to him. Too often we can neglect our prayer life and try to do things our own way. We try to do things on our own because, as I have heard many people say through the years, “I don’t want to bother God with this small situation.”

See, it is in the midst of difficulty that we learn how deep our prayers can be. We learn if we’re just focusing on ourselves and our own situation, or if we are truly trying to seek out and accept the will of God for our own lives. 

Jonah stays inside the belly of the fish for three days. You and I may in the situation we’re in longer than we want, but there will come a time when we will be set free.

Every request we make to God is heard and answered. God had the fish spew Jonah onto the dry land. This signifies Jonah given the chance to begin anew.

Maybe you and I are given a chance to renew our commitment to Jesus, or even begin our calling, our mission, our life with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit anew this day.

Think about that, we are given a new opportunity to do what God has called us to do. Live with that grace, accept this incredible gift from God, called life (here and now and in the life to come). 

You have been given this incredible gift of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit within you. God has not forgotten nor abandoned you just like God never abandoned Jonah.

Let our cry to God, each day, simply be “Lord, hear our prayer.” Then, look earnestly for the answers that will come.


[1] Romans 1:20a NIV

[2] Tribble, Phyllis. New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes Volume 7. (1994). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Page 504

[3] Matthew 7:7-11 NIV

[4] James 5:16 NIV

[5] 1 Peter 4:8 NIV

[6] Flashes of Thought: 1000 Choice Extracts from the Works of C. H. Spurgeon, Charles Spurgeon

[7] Romans 8:26-27 NIV

Discovering God through the Book of Jonah (Part 1)

A WORD FROM GOD

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:” (Jonah 1:1 NIV)

Take some time to read the first chapter of the book of Jonah in you Bible.

I recently told my congregation, there are two things to know about me, right off the bat. Number one, I am a really smart guy. Now, I know I do not always do things that make it seem like I am smart, but I do work really hard. I also had to tell them, I promise I am safety conscious. This was really important because the weekend before, I had gotten the church’s zero-turn lawnmower stuck in a ditch. It would have been funny if this had been a one-time incident, but alas, it was not. 

See, the parsonage has a few inclines that would make mowing them challenging. If you did not go at the right angle, I learned, the mower will slip back down the hill. And that is what got me caught in the ditch, the first time. Don’t worry, we were able to get the mower out easily and I was able to finish what I needed to for the day.

This might be a good point to say this is my first time using a zero-turn lawnmower. Over the course of three mowings, I was able to get more confident and do more of the yard safely.

The next day, I decided I needed to finish an area of the yard that had not been able to be mowed because it had been real marshy and I needed that to dry up. The time had come. I put on my rain boots, walked through knee-high grass, and found the ground was dry enough for me to finish this patch of grass. I was excited!

I got the mower out, put in my headphones and turned on Pandora Radio on the Contemporary Christian station. I was getting more and more of the yard mowed, and it was looking good! At this point, I felt myself getting prideful and decided to go up a hill, close to the driveway, so I could easily go back and make another pass. This worked great, until…there was a little culvert ditch I did not see until it was too late. This time, the lawnmower had been backed up into the ditch.

Most of the time I am not easily embarrassed. When people drove by and saw the mower, and then the vehicle pulling a rope (that kept breaking), I felt I just needed to laugh at this situation. Then, a friend came by, called his son, and they were able to get me unstuck.

The other thing I told the congregation they needed to know about me was that I do not like to be told something is too much of a challenge, or it is impossible. I have had this character trait verified on multiple occasions. My wife says this is one of the reasons we are married. J

I do not believe there are impossible situations. There is always a way out and people who can and will be there when needed. Because of this, I was able to get the yard mowed before rain started the next morning. Every time I drive up to the house, I am thrilled to see the yard mowed! Mission accomplished, this time.

Now many people, including me at times, when faced with a seemingly impossible situation, will try to run and hide until the problem goes away. We see this all the time. People will run to drugs, alcohol, the arms of someone who is not their spouse, and more, just to try and run away from the situation for the moment and not think about it. 

It really is amazing what people will do to get out of doing something or face a situation or issue without really dealing with it. Most of the time, when the situation is faced and worked on, it turns out better.

As I study the scriptures and get older, I am understanding more and more how important it is to know who God is and what God’s nature is like. If we do not understand this, we do not clearly or fully understand who we really are. (I’m not talking about who we think we are. I am talking about who God created us to be.)

Now we get to the biblical book of Jonah.

There was something my Old Testament professor, in seminary, said. Think about this. “If you only had the book (or passage) of __________ from the Bible, what could you tell people about God from the text?” This is essentially what we get to do and experience from the Bible. We get to learn more about the nature of God. Yes, we learn about human nature, but as we learn about human nature, we also learn about who God is and how God interacts in this world and with flawed humanity. The book of Jonah is no different. 

As we take this time to study this short book in the minor prophets, take time to go to a new level of looking at the Biblical text. Take the time to see what the text is saying about who God is and what God’s nature is. This is something important for us to do because we can miss out on knowing God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit if we’re only looking for what peaks our interest or what makes us feel good.

Enter Jonah.

The prophet. The whale. The story many have heard from childhood. This is a book that has captured the minds and hearts of many throughout the centuries. So much so that many stories and movies have used something from this short book of the prophets. In 48 verses, Jonah gives us a good picture of what happens when we try to run from God and how persistent God is to get us to do what he wants.

The story, we know, goes like this: Jonah hears from God to go to Nineveh to get them to repent. Jonah says no and decides to get on a boat to try and run from God. A storm hits the sea and the sailors are scared. When they figure out Jonah is the cause of the storm, they throw him overboard and he gets swallowed by a whale (though the text just says big fish we tend to still think whale). He spends three days in the belly of the fish and then gets spewed out on the land. Jonah hears God again and this time he goes to Nineveh. While he is walking through the city, Jonah proclaims the message of the Lord and the people are scared so everyone, including the animals, put on sackcloth as a sign of repentance. God does not destroy the city. Jonah throws a fit. The end.

That pretty much sums it up, right? But, since this is one of the books in the Bible, we have to understand there is always something beneath the surface. There is something God wants us to know through this inspired story, this inspired word. 

This really is a fantastic story. It is easy to try and say this book is about how we should not try to run from God. It is easy to say this book is about God’s compassion for the people. It is easy to say this book teaches us about the human condition. But, if we take time to read and understand this story, we can see this book, like the rest of the Bible, is teaching us about the nature of God.

Our task, over the next four chapters is to see how, if we only had the book of Jonah, we could still teach about the incredible nature of the God who created the universe, including each individual person.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.

Before we go any further into this story, we have to pause and think about who Jonah is. The only other time we learn of a prophet named Jonah is in 2 Kings 14:25, which says, “[Jeroboam, king of Israel (Northern Kingdom)] was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea,[a] in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” (NIV) There really is not much about this guy. Even though we do not have much information, we do know who Jonah was supposed to be, a prophet of YHWH. 

Look at his name. Have you ever thought about Jonah’s name before? Jonah son of Amittai. “The proper name means ‘Dove son of Truth (or Faithfulness).’”[1] Can you sense the irony and humor right off the bat? Jonah is supposed to be a faithful prophet of God, yet he does something very unfaithful and runs away from his assignment. We are not told why he does this in the first chapter, but he tries to run from God and hide.

When else have you heard about people who tried to hide from God, in the Bible? There are numerous accounts, but the one that stands out is Adam and Eve. This is the account you can read about in Genesis chapter 3.

Right after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”[2]

The story of the fall and trying to hide ourselves from God has saturated and become part of just about every story we know. It seems to be human nature to try and hide from people and/or God when we are ashamed or feel guilty.

When we tell about the beginning of the fall, when the fruit was eaten, notice how we tend to focus on the people’s actions and their sense of separation from God. Have we noticed the great care and grace God offers by “searching” for the man and women in the garden? God knows where they are located but God is asking where their heart is. The man tells God they were afraid. Their hearts were in fear, instead of peace.

Through the fear in their hearts, God still comes to the man and woman and offers them a chance to live, even if it is not in perfect peace as they were used to. God does this because the state and condition of every heart is known by him. Remember what God told the prophet Samuel when he went to anoint the next king of Israel after Saul, “the Lord looks at the heart.”[3]

Back to Jonah. 

JONAH LEARNS HE CANNOT RUN OR HIDE FROM GOD

God knows what Jonah will do. God knows that Jonah will try to run and hide, but God still offers grace from the beginning by giving Jonah the chance to do what he is supposed to do.

Jonah does not surprise God when he flees. God knows everything about us.[4] Jonah thinks he can run away from God by running away from his assignment.

Notice how the text says Jonah “went down to Joppa,”[5] “gone below deck.”[6] Jonah kept going down. The author is showing how the condition of Jonah’s heart is going deeper and deeper away from the presence and calling of God.

What we learn from this is God is not a person we can run and hide from. God is omniscient, meaning God is everywhere. There is no place God is not. Here, we can remember the words of David from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.[7]

So now we have to ask if there is anything you are hiding from God? Do you wish God was with you and answering your pleas? Rest easy, God is always with you. God has never left you. There is nowhere you can go God is not. The presence of God is always seeking to give your heart peace and vanquish any fear within.

God is everywhere. That is good news for us. This is not all this first chapter of Jonah teaches us about God.

GOD CREATED EVERYTHING

This might seem like a no-brainer but this is a reality and truth we have to understand, or at least believe. Jonah seems to know this, yet he does not seem thrilled about it.

When he gets on the ship, Jonah goes below the deck to take a nap. Suddenly, a great storm comes upon the sea and is threatening the boat and the crew on board. The sailors are terrified and are trying to figure out why they are having this bad luck. They want to know who “cursed” the boat by coming aboard.

After casting lots, which is similar to drawing straws, the sailors find it was Jonah who caused the storm. They rush to get him and bring him to the deck to question him. Now, they already knew why he was on the boat because he told them he was running away from God. This never sunk in until the storm hit.

The sailors questioned Jonah about who he is. 

It’s interesting they did not want to know who he was before, they only wanted to know his reason for going to Tarshish. 

Jonah begins to tell them, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”[8] It is easy for us to hear Jonah with a confident, prophetic voice declaring who he is; but we have to keep in mind Jonah is running from God because he seems to be unhappy with the task he was called to do.

Instead of hearing a bold voice proclaim, “I am a Hebrew and worship the Lord…” Maybe we should instead hear Jonah speak with a snarky, disgusted tone because, yes he is a Hebrew, but he does not or has not shown he worships the Lord since he has run away. 

There are those who would try to make others feel guilty about running away, but pay attention to how Jonah is also showing us the human condition while teaching who God is. People run from God for many reasons. People will claim they worship God but live a life doing the opposite.

Jonah is telling the crew who he is supposed to be and what he is supposed to do. Maybe he has given up trying to pretend because at this point, Jonah is still trying to figure a way to get out of the assignment at hand, for unknown reasons at this point.

Yes, Jonah is a Hebrew. Yes, he is supposed to worship the Lord, but Jonah is unhappy with his lot in life. When the crew tries to decide what to do, Jonah steps in and says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”[9] Jonah has thought about ending his life. He gets in his head that if he were gone, the lives of those around him would be better, would be safer.

But Jonah underestimates the image of God within humanity. He forgets that God desires people to live and to live in community with others.

What is remarkable is how the sailors try to avoid throwing Jonah overboard. They come up with every other idea. They even tried to row back to the land, back to safety. But the storm was too strong for them to row and they finally relented to Jonah’s plea.

GOD CAN BE SEEN IN THE MOST UNLIKELY PEOPLE

The sailors throw Jonah overboard. But before they completed that task, they cried out to Jonah’s God. “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”[10] The sailors began to plea to the Lord. They cried out to the Lord. What this means is they worshipped the Lord, in that moment.

We never know how our lives are going to touch those around us. Even if we are not living up to the life God set out for us, there is still his Spirit within us to touch the Spirit of another person. Pay attention to how people begin to act when you are around. You or I may not be the most perfect example of living for God, but maybe there is something about us that helps bring people to him. 

I cannot remember where I heard this quote, but it sticks with me: “Your fingerprints never leave the lives you touch.” Because of the grace of God, the Holy Spirit within us reaches out to another person and offers the grace of knowing the God in heaven, the Creator of the universe.

As the sailors were worshipping God, they threw Jonah overboard. All of a sudden, the storm ceased.

They realized the Lord is the One who created the heavens, the earth, and they sea. The Lord created everything. So, they continued to worship the Lord by offering sacrifices to him and made vows to him.[11]

Jonah is in the sea. He thinks his life is over, but notice this: God shows great compassion by allowing Jonah to live. God provides a huge fish, speaks to it, and the fish swallows Jonah. Jonah is kept safe in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Even though it is in the belly of a fish, God still desires his people to live and to experience real life, life in God’s presence here and now not just in the life to come.

What an interesting way to end this chapter. But here we are, in the belly of the fish, learning about the nature of God. Remember this, the circumstance you might be in now could be something God is using to keep you alive and trust in God. You may not be in the best situation, in your mind, but you may just be exactly where God is wanting you to be. You never know who God has placed in your life that has the tools to get you out of the ditch. It is in these situations we are becoming more and more transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. Just look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And weboast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.[12]

So, if this were the only book of the Bible you had in your possession, how much could you teach about who God is and what his nature is?

So far, we have learned:

  1. Even though God knows our real heart, he still calls to us and speaks to us, giving us his mission.
  2. There is no place we can hide from God. This should give us great encouragement because God never leaves us.
  3. The Lord is the One who created everything.
  4. People come to see and know God by our lives.
  5. God offers grace and desires life for people

As we can see, this is who God is and what God is like. Fast forward to the New Testament, we can see all of this lived out in the person of Jesus Christ.

Bringing this chapter to a close, I am invited us to begin to memorize Hebrews 3:15, “today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your heart.” God’s word comes to us in many different ways. Do we have the ears and heart to hear?

Maybe someone needs to hear this word, as if it is from God:

“I know who you are and what you’re capable of, yet I still choose you for this life, for this calling, for this special mission I created you for. You can try to go as far from me as you want, but remember, I’m already there and I’m pursuing you with a love so great that I will do everything I can to keep you alive. I created this whole world. I created you! Because of you (whether it’s done perfectly or not) the most unlikely people will come to believe in me, know me, and worship me. You have a great role to play in expanding the Kingdom of Heaven.”


[1] Tribble, Phyllis. New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes Volume 7. (1994). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Page 493

[2] Genesis 3:8 NIV

[3] 1 Samuel 16:7c NIV

[4] Psalm 139:1-6

[5] Jonah 1:3 NIV

[6] Jonah 1:5 NIV

[7] Psalm 139:7-12 NIV

[8] Jonah 1:9 NIV

[9] Jonah 1:12 NIV

[10] Jonah 1:14 NIV

[11] Jonah 1:16

[12] Romans 5:1-5 NIV