Following on from yesterday’s post on idolatry from the book of Jonah, we now want to consider what it means for us to examine our hearts and allow our own idols to be exposed.
From the beginning of the book, Jonah has been running from God and his call. And now we know why: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (3:10-4:2).
Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah because he feared their salvation. He knew the character of God. He knew that God was gracious and merciful, that he was compassionate towards sinners, and Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be on the receiving end of such grace. Why? Because Jonah’s idolatry is rooted in his identity as a Hebrew prophet, and he despised the thought of Israel’s pagan enemies receiving grace from covenant God of his people. In Running from Grace, Tullian Tchividjian says, “Idolatry is building our identity around something other than God” and that is exactly what Jonah had done.
But how do we know that? First of all, remember who Jonah is when this book begins. He’s a national hero. We read in 2 Kings 14 that while Israel was led by a wicked king and was, as a nation, a wicked people threatened by her enemies on all sides, God spoke through Jonah to assure them that they would not be destroyed. Imagine a similar scene today: the economy continues to struggle, Al-Qaida has declared its intention to avenge the death of bin Laden, and the government is run by wicked men (as evidence by the recent scandal all over the news). Now imagine a person is told by God to say tell everyone that he is going to be gracious to this country, protecting it from its enemies and restoring its economy. The person bearing that message would be a national hero! And that’s basically who Jonah was—a prophet who assured God’s people that he would protect them and bless them, even as he disciplined them for their sin and warns them to turn away.
But what’s happens to Jonah by the time we begin this book? He’s taken what is good and twists into something beyond what it should be. He makes the gift more important than the Giver of the gift. Jonah begins to find his identity—his sense of worth and importance—not in God, but in his role as a national hero. His idol becomes his ethnicity and his calling as prophet.
We see this throughout the book of Jonah itself. He’s called to go preach, not about Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, but to them. And he runs. Why? He tells us in chapter 4—he’s afraid, they’ll repent and be spared. When he’s on the boat in the storm, and the sailors ask who he is, what’s the first thing he says? “I am a Hebrew” (1:9). After he tells the sailors to throw him over the side and when God saves him from drowning, he prays from the belly of the fish, and seems repentant. At least he’s thankful for God’s rescue. But remember his final words? “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (2:9-10). What’s the last thing he saw in the boat before he was dumped in the drink? Pagan sailors calling out to their idols, their prayers falling on deaf ears. Go back and read his prayer in chapter 2, and what you will find is this: not someone who ever actually confesses his sin, only a man who knows that those idol worshippers don’t deserve salvation because salvation comes from Yahweh, the God of Israel. When he does finally get to Ninevah, what does he say? Nothing of the grace and mercy of God—only a message of judgment and destruction. Why? Because he doesn’t want to see them spared!
So the picture that emerges is this: Jonah is a man who has experienced God’s grace in salvation and calling to ministry, yet he has become more concerned with the expressions of God’s grace—his ethnicity and prophetic role—than God himself. This idolatry so twists his priorities that he refuses to heed God’s mission and wants Israel’s enemies to experience wrath, not grace from the Lord. Yet, in all of this then, from chapter 1 to chapter 4, God has been at work, bringing salvation to pagans, and in the process, revealing the idolatry in the heart of his prophet. But here’s the kicker—Jonah still doesn’t see it! He’s still completely unaware that this is sin and that God is exposing it so that he might repent of his own idolatry.
What about us? Have you allowed God to expose your idols recently? Or have you stubbornly refused to see them? What are your idols? What do you treasure and love more than God? Where is your identity found? In your job? In your kids? In your relationships? In your gadgets and gizmos and cars? In even your ministry for God? In something else? The only right answer to the question is this: our self-worth, our identity is found in God who has saved us in Christ. Read Ephesians 1 today; this is the basis of our identity. As a Christian, God has blessed us by choosing to us and make us holy; by loving us and adopting us as his own; by redeeming us from sin and revealing his will to us, according to the riches of his grace; by promising us an eternal inheritance and guaranteeing we will receive it be sealing us with this Holy Spirit as we heard the gospel and believed. He’s done all of this through his son, Jesus Christ.
When we know this and believe it–really believe it–then our idols will be exposed.