Chapter 5 – 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 anyone who professes, or pretends, to work for God and the souls of men. Selfishness is always odious and out of place; but it is never so much so as it is in the man who professes to represent a crucified Redeemer and a loving God.

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 his instrumentality that that powerful monarch was enabled to raise Israel from the deep depression into which the nation had fallen, and restore her to the highest point of power and greatness in all the history of the nation.

Sent as the prophet of good tidings to his own people, he gladly went and by his inspired messages cheered on his countrymen, until they had subdued their enemies on every side, and won back their 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 splendid prophets. But God gave him a new commission, and sent him unexpectedly with a message of warning to the city of Nineveh, the mighty capital of the Assyrian Empire. This was to Jonah most unexpected and 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 he wanted to go. 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 thrown out from his living tomb, a resurrected man, where God’s message met him 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, in His mercy, met the penitence of the Ninevites with His mercy, and cancelled His judgment upon them, Jonah was bitterly disappointed and fiercely angry because his reputation as a prophet had been ruined by the failure of his threatenings; and sitting down under the shade of a gourd outside the city gates he fretted and scolded like a petulant and angry child, and finally he passes 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 egregious folly and unspeakable selfishness.

There are many lessons taught us by this extraordinary life.

1. 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.

2. We see in him 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 Master’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.

3. We see in Jonah a man destitute of the true missionary spirit, a man who thought he was full of zeal, yet had no real 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 our hundreds of thousands of dollars for the evangelization of the world, instead of spending it at home, and using it to promote the welfare of our own people.

4. A man running away from God. 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.

5. A man pursued by God’s police, and brought to his senses by the trials and troubles which he brings 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 back-slider is, that he brings it upon others, and that he has to suffer because of the backslider’s sin and folly.

Jonah’s shipmates were the first to feel the effects of his disobedience, and to wake him up from his fool-hardy insensibility. Many a time it is not until our fortunes have been wrecked, and our families brokenhearted, 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.

6. 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 lovingly slaying the selfish prophet, and trying to put Jonah out of his own way, so that God could bless him as He really wanted to. Surely, if ever a man had a good chance to die, it was Jonah, and if he didn’t, 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 the old Jonah was going to be out of the picture 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.

7. 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 rostrum 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, in thinking of his own success and his own glory.

God never can use any man very much till he has grace enough to forget himself entirely while doing God’s work; for He will not give His glory to another nor share with the most valued instrument 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 the 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.

8. 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 Master; 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 unto 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 whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” “If any man serve me, let him follow me; … if any man serve me, him will my Father honor.”

Poor Jonah lost this 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.

9. 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 petulance, “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.

10. 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 forevermore.

Not unwillingly, but with His whole heart did He lay down His precious life for us that in His dying we might be saved from death eternal, and then learn to die with Him, and live by Him, the life of unselfish love for God and men.

Not for His own glory did He 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 which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

Then let us learn to die, and thus let us live, and some day we shall know all the meaning of these mighty words:

He died for me that I might die,
He lives for me that I might live,
Oh, death so deep! oh, life so high!
Help me to die, help me to live.


Resurrected with my Risen Savior,
Seated with Him at His own right hand;
This the glorious message Easter brings me.
This the place in which by faith I stand.

Men would bid you rise to higher levels,
But they leave you on the human plane.
We must have a heavenly Resurrection;
We must die with Christ and rise again.

Once there lived another man within me,
Child of earth and slave of Satan he;
But I nailed him to the Cross of Jesus,
And that man is nothing now to me.

Now Another Man is living in me,
And I count His blessed life as mine;
I have died with Him to all my own life;
I have risen to all His life Divine.

Oh, it is so sweet to die with Jesus!
And by death be free from self and sin.
Oh, it is so sweet to live with Jesus!
As He lives the death-born life within.