Chapter 13 – Jonah or the Shadow of Self

“Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah 4:3.

This was the best prayer that Jonah ever uttered, if he had only really meant it in the right sense. The greatest need of Jonah’s life was to die to Jonah, and his life is just a great object-lesson of the odiousness and the foolishness of the spirit of selfishness in any mortal, especially in any one who professes, or pretends to work for God and the souls of men.

The story of Jonah is soon told. He was the first of the prophets whose writings have come down to us in the Sacred Canon. He lived in the reign of Jeroboam II, and it was through the instrumentality of the prophet that the monarch was enabled to raise Israel from the depression into which the nation had fallen, and lift her to the highest point of power and greatness in all her history.

Sent as the prophet of good tidings to his own people, Jonah gladly went, and by his inspired messages cheered on his countrymen, until they had subdued their enemies on every side, and won back long-lost territory from all their foes.

Had Jonah’s career terminated at this point he would have gone into history as one of the most successful and brilliant of Israel’s long line of prophets. But God gave him a new commission, and sent him with a message of warning to the city of Nineveh, the mighty capital of the Assyrian Empire. This was to Jonah not only unexpected but unwelcome. An enthusiastic patriot, he did not want to do anything that could bring the favor of God to the hated enemies of his country. And so the whole self-will of the man rose up in rebellion, and he determined not to go. Disobedience always brings separation from God, and so Jonah was inevitably driven from the presence of God, and looked about for some place where he might escape from the All-Seeing Eye whose glance he could not bear.

It was not difficult to find a chain of providences all working in the direction which he desired. And finding a ship at Joppa bound for the coast of distant Tarshish, he secured a passage at once and started for the chosen hiding-place. He was soon overtaken by the messengers of God’s mercy and judgment, and, thrown into the sea as a sacrifice to appease the storm, he was swallowed by the great fish which God had prepared, and then flung out from his living tomb, a resurrected man.

God’s message met Jonah again — his commission was renewed to go to Nineveh, and preach the preaching that God commanded.

This time he went without any evasions or questionings, and for a time it really seemed that he was indeed a crucified man. But, alas, for human self-assertion! It was not long before Jonah came to the surface again. As long as his work succeeded and the people listened and repented, he was satisfied. But when God met the penitence of the Ninevites with His mercy, and canceled His judgment upon them, Jonah was disappointed and fiercely angry, because his reputation as a prophet had been ruined by the failure of his threatenings. Sitting down under the shade of a gourd, outside the city gates, he fretted and scolded like a petulant child; and finally passed out of sight altogether, under his withered gourd, as a spectacle of humiliation and contempt, all the glory of his really wonderful work blighted by the dark shadow of himself, which he threw over it in his folly and selfishness. There are many lessons taught us by this extraordinary life.

We see a man who succeeds most wonderfully in religious work so long as his work is congenial, but fails completely and utterly breaks down under the first severe test of real character. Jonah did splendid work so long as everything went all right; but the moment things went against him he went to pieces.

How many of us there are who, in the sunshine of religious prosperity, seem to be extraordinary workers and even ideal saints. It is the test that tells. Character is more than work, and God is leading us, if we will only let Him, through the tests which will bring us to the death of self, and to the place where He can use us as

“Only His messengers, ready
His praises to sound at His will,
Or willing should He not require us
In silence to wait on Him still.”

We see in Jonah a man who obeys and serves God, as long as it suits him, but is a stranger to that obedience which knows no choice except the Lord’s will. “Ye are My friends,” the Master says, “if ye do whatsoever I command you.” It is no evidence of friendship to Christ to do some things to please Him; to do much that is good and right. The true friend does whatsoever He commands.

We see in Jonah a man destitute of the true missionary spirit, a man who thought he was full of zeal, yet had no deep love for God or the souls of men. Jehu had zeal enough, but it was zeal for his own cause. Jonah represents those people who will work as hard as you please for their own cause, even for the Church, and the work which centers in their own sect, or family, or country, but they know nothing of the real missionary spirit. They care not for the Ninevites, the Chinese, or the Africans, and they think it unreasonable waste to pour out hundreds of thousands of pounds for the evangelization of the world, instead of spending it at home, and using it to promote the welfare of our own people.

When we disobey God, we shall soon want to leave His presence altogether. Adam’s single sin soon led to Adam’s separation from his Creator, and we find him hiding from the presence of God. It is idle to think that you can indulge in any act of disobedience and still look up in your Father’s face and call yourself His child.

Jonah had no difficulty in finding means to carry on his purpose. The devil has his providences as well as the Lord. The ship was all ready, and it was going to the right place, and Jonah was soon on board and comfortably asleep in his berth. Alas, the saddest thing about backsliding is that it brings with it the devil’s sedatives, and the soul can calmly sleep amid the fiercest storm, and complacently dream that all is well. There is nothing in all the judgments of God so terrible as a reprobate mind and a soul past feeling.

Jonah was a man pursued by God’s police, and brought to his senses by the trials and troubles which he brought upon himself and others. Thank God for the mercy that will not let us rest in our self-complacency and sin. Happy for us that we have a Father who loves us well enough to hurt us, and drive us home to His loving breast. The saddest part of the trouble of the backslider is, that others have to suffer because of his sin and folly.

Jonah’s shipmates were the first to feel the effects of his disobedience, and to wake him up to his foolhardy insensibility. Many a time it is not until our fortunes have been wrecked, and our families broken-hearted, that we find out the secret of all our troubles, and come back to Him who has smitten only that He might heal us, and broken only that He might bind us up.

What a pity that we should compel God to bring us back to Himself by the officers of judgment, instead of flying to the arms of His love, and choosing the blessing which He is determined we shall not lose.

We see in Jonah a man who had to die to himself before he could do any real good. The great lesson of Jonah’s life is the need of crucifixion to the life of self. Our Savior has used the story of Jonah as the special type of His own death and resurrection, and we know that our Savior’s cross is the pattern of ours, and that as He died so we should die to the life of self and sin. In the story of Jonah we see God trying to put Jonah out of his own way, so that God could bless him as He really wanted to do. Surely, if ever a man had a good chance to die, it was Jonah, and if he did not, it was his own fault. He speaks of that living tomb himself as the belly of Hades — the very bosom of death, and the prayer that he uttered, when in those awful depths, certainly sounded like the voice of a man who meant what he said; and when he came forth it really did seem as if Jonah was going to be out of the question henceforth. But, alas, as we shall see later, he was only half dead yet. God cannot use any but a crucified man to preach about the crucified Savior.

When Jonah came forth from the depths of death he was ready to go anywhere that God wanted him; and when we are dead to self and sin we will not have any question to ask except this one: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” Then we will go to Nineveh or China, or any place the Master sends us, with glad and willing hearts.

But we see in Jonah a man who, after all, was only half dead, notwithstanding all his suffering and humiliation. For a time he goes right on, faithful and obedient. He preaches to the Ninevites the preaching that God bids him, and the most wonderful revival that ever attended any ministry follows his words, until, from the king on the throne to the meanest of his subjects, the people of Nineveh are prostrate at the feet of Jehovah and pleading for mercy. But the moment that God hears their cry, and disappoints Jonah’s predictions of their destruction, the prophet breaks completely down, and falls into a fit of petulance and anger, because God had failed to do what He had threatened, and destroyed his reputation as a prophet.

It was but another form of the same old self-life, A man may give up the selfishness that seeks its gratification in the pleasures of the world, and yet may seek the gratification of the same self-life in some religious form. A woman may cease to be the queen of society and the idol of her hero-worshipers, yet she may drink in the sweet delight of her influence and sway over the minds and hearts of men in her very work for Christ, and the influence that she wields over the hearts that she brings under her religious sway.

The orator, as he holds spellbound the hearts of thousands, even when he tells them of Jesus and salvation, may be just as selfish and self-conscious as the actor on the stage or the politician on the platform, who speaks only for his personal triumph and ambition. Jonah’s very success was his snare, and led him to forget his Master’s glory and the real good of the people that he was sent to save.

God never can use any man very much till he has grace enough to put himself entirely out of sight; for He will not give His glory to another nor share with the most valued instruments the praise that belongs to Jesus Christ alone.

We can never succeed in our service for God till we learn to cast our own shadow behind us and lose ourselves in the honor and glory of our Master. It is said that Alexander the Great had a famous horse that nobody could ride. Alexander at length attempted to tame him. He saw at a glance that the horse was afraid of his own shadow, and so, leaping into the saddle one day and turning the horse’s head to the sun, he struck his spurs into the flanks of the noble steed, and dashed off like lightning. From that hour the fiery charger was thoroughly subdued, and he never gave his master any trouble again. He could no longer see his own shadow.

Oh, that we could look into the face of our Lord, and then forever forget ourselves! Then He could use us for His own glory, and afford to share with us the glory and gladness of our work.
We see in Jonah a man whom God had to humble in the dust to save him from destroying his own work.

God loves to make us partakers with Him in the fruits of our work. So He honored Moses and Samuel and Paul, and their names have come down to us associated with their blessed service for the Lord; but this was because they loved to forget themselves, and seek only their Master’s glory. How different it was with poor Jonah! He was seeking his own glory, and God had to humiliate him, and let him fail altogether in the very thing he wanted. Surely, “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” Surely he that would be chiefest may well become the servant of all; for the Master has said, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me; for he that will save his own life shall lose it, and he that will lose it shall keep it unto life eternal.” “If any man serve Me let him follow Me, and if any man serve Me, him will My Father honor.”

Poor Jonah lost his honor because he sought it, and Paul found it because he renounced it, and sought only to live that Jesus might be satisfied, even if Paul should be forever forgotten. This is the spirit of true service, and surely this is the solemn lesson that comes down to us through that humiliating spectacle, sitting, disappointed and rejected, under his withered gourd, after the most successful ministry ever given to a human life, but one which brought no recompense to him, because he did it for himself.

We see in Jonah the picture of a man who wants to die when he is least prepared to die. It was a very great mercy that God refused to take him at his word, when he cried with childish impatience, “Lord, I beseech Thee, take away my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” Let us be very careful how we utter reckless prayers. Poor Elijah asked to die one day in a fit of discouragement, and we only hear of him once again as a prophet.

Jonah asked in a petulant moment that he might die, and from that moment Jonah disappears from the page of history, and passes into an oblivion which has upon it no ray of hope or light of recompense. The best way to be prepared to die is to be living for some high and noble purpose. The men that are ready to die are the men that are needed most to live for God and their fellow-men.

We learn one more lesson from Jonah’s life, and that is the true secret how to die, and then how to live for God and our own highest interest and blessing.

Thank God, Jonah’s life lifts our thoughts to another and a nobler life, even that of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has died for us, and taught us not only how to live with Him, but also how to die with Him, and live the life that has been crucified with Christ, and is alive for evermore.

Not for His own glory did Christ live and die, but for us and for His Father. He died for us that we might live; yes, He died for us that we might die, and then live the crucified life and the life that is dead to self and sin.

Only through His dying can we truly die. We never can crucify ourselves, but we can be crucified with Christ, and say, “Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh, I live not unto myself, but unto Him that died for me and rose again.”

Thus let us learn to die, and thus let us live, and someday we shall know the meaning of these mighty words:

“He died for me that I might die
To Satan, self, and sin;
Oh death so deep, oh life so high!
Help me to enter in.”