God works in mysterious ways…. that are as obvious as the nose on your face.

To me, one of the most sublime and understated passages in the Bible is Jonah 3:3: “This time Jonah obeyed the LORD’s command…” Jonah has been thrown overboard during a massive storm at sea, spent three days being digested alive in the belly of a fish, and has just been vomited up on the beach. God said, “Go” for the second time. OK, who wouldn’t obey “then”? I almost laugh when I read this passage. There’s a serious aspect as well since clearly God knows how to get the attention of His disobedient children, and yet the chapter reveals more than this about God’s ability to work with or in spite of us. Chapter 3 tells us that the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s prophecy of destruction and repented and were spared. If we’re not careful, we’ll read right over this passage with a quick “praise the Lord” without realizing they mystery and intricacy of God’s working. Sure, the Word is sharp as a sword and surely pierced their hearts, but God knows how to set the stage for the greatest delivery and the greatest good. Consider the following.

First, Jonah has just experienced God’s judgment and then mercy firsthand. He knows judgment! He can speak to it with the passion of someone who has “been there and done that.” Fresh on his mind are the waves that crashed over him as he sank into the sea. Then, in his watery grave a living coffin in the form of a great fish engulfed him. Surely, he felt his deserved doom as the fish swallowed him. But he repented and the coffin became a lifeboat. God’s instrument of judgment turned into His vehicle of mercy and of Jonah’s salvation. Spat up on the shore of Nineveh, Jonah understood God’s great judgment but also His great mercy and surely preached this with the fervency of someone who had experienced both. Even if he wanted to hide this, I’m sure he couldn’t. Even if the spiritual understanding of his recent experience had not yet fully been formed in him, the psychological state of having lived through this trauma of his own making would have come through in his preaching. But it gets better.

Jonah’s spiritual and psychological condition would have surely infused his preaching with a passion he didn’t have before spending three days in the belly of the fish. But consider his physical condition as well; he must have been a mess. Now, I must give credit where credit is due. This idea is not original to me. Years ago I heard Christian comedian Mike Warnke discuss this. Mike has had his own issues since I heard his presentation, but his point is yet a valid one. What must Jonah have looked and smelled like after spending three days in the digestive system of a fish. Gastric fluids have bleached him white. His hair has been digested right off his head. And I just don’t think a quick bath on the beach got the smell of fish guts off him before he hit downtown Nineveh.

Picture this. A guy walks into your town, bleached white and smelling of fish guts, and says something like this. “Hey, I’m one of God’s Chosen People and His prophet. He did this to me because I disobeyed. Oh, and now you’re on His list. He’s gonna destroy you because of your sins.” If you had been there, you’d have to think that if God did this to one of His own, what will He do to me. Well, I don’t know about you, but I guarantee I’d repent! And in a hurry! So did Nineveh, from the lowliest servant on the street all the way to the king in his palace. And God forgave them and didn’t destroy them. Yes, God is mysterious, but if we pay attention when we read His Word we can see His mysteries unfold. No, God didn’t make Jonah disobey, but I personally think He used this to fulfill his plan. Of course, the rest of the story is that the very reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh is that he knew God was merciful and would forgive if Nineveh repented. Nineveh was Jonah’s enemy, and he wanted it destroyed. How ironic, then, that Jonah’s disobedience is the very thing that God might have used to bring about Nineveh’s salvation.

I take two things away from this story. First, even when they’re as obvious as the nose on your face, God’s ways are still mysterious. Consider this. He saved both his disobedient servant and a sinful city, oh, and a boatload of sailors in the process, and all in spite of everyone. Second, sometimes His ways are hilarious, too. “This time Jonah obeyed…” It’s still funny.

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Stephen W. B. Rizzo

I am a Christian who is flawed but forgiven. I am a father who is blessed beyond measure with two amazing children. I am an educator who is fortunate to get paid for doing what he loves. I am a writer, a budding photographer, and a musician who really needs to practice more.

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