(I presented this at the All-Faith Protestant Tuesday night bible study at Central Michigan Correctional Facility on March 1, 2016. The inmate leader of the church had previously called for others in the pews to step up and bring the word of God, so I did.)
The book of Jonah is found in the Old Testament near the back in a section referred to as the “Minor Prophets.” These books are called minor, not because they are unimportant, but rather because the ministry of the prophet was often of short duration and their impact on the nation of Israel was less than the major prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Often little is known of the lives of the minor prophets, but their messages from God to the people of Israel and the surrounding countries warning of God’s coming judgment were both timely and true.
The book of Jonah is a little different. Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom around the time of Jeroboam II, who reigned 41 years from 793-753 B.C. Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 regarding a prophecy he spoke about the king recapturing territory, to restore the boundaries of the kingdom. But the book of Jonah does not contain this prophecy. In fact, it contains only one prophecy that is eight words long in the English translation, regarding the capital city of the country of Assyria.
The book of Jonah instead focuses on the prophet himself, and his response to God when he received his commission. Unlike most of the prophecies that God gave to the prophets to speak to foreign nations, God wanted Jonah to go and deliver it in person, rather than send a letter. Jonah who was already serving as a prophet, was now being called as a missionary. But Jonah, a man who had a relationship with God, who heard His voice and saw God work was now being asked to step outside his comfort zone. I believe that the book of Jonah is real, that all the miraculous events recorded in it really happened, even it they can’t readily be explained. And that many Christians today can relate to Jonah because they see themselves in this man of God who lived nearly 3000 years ago. What I would like to do is read to you the book, only 48 verses long, and along the way share with you my observations and insights about the Christian life from it. The book of Jonah isn’t about an ideal or perfect man that is setting up some impossible standard, instead it is about how God can use a man to do great things in spite of his imperfections, rebellion, and selfish desires. I’ll be reading from the NIV, beginning in chapter 1 verses 1 through 3:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because it’s wickedness has come up before me.’
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port.”
Nineveh was one of the ancient capitals first mentioned in Genesis 10:11. Later it became the capital of the Assyrian empire. Modern archaeology has confirmed how cruel and brutal the Assyrians were. Documents and paintings discovered in the ruins of Nineveh detail how one king would torture his victims by tearing off their lips and hands, and how another flayed captives alive and made great piles of their skulls. They were a war-like people set on conquest during the time of Jonah. They had warred against Israel during the reign of King Hoshea, capturing the country and deporting some of the people to Assyria and both Jehu and Jeroboam II paid tribute as vassal states.
So, Jonah was familiar with the Assyrians and when God called him to go to Nineveh, he did what many of us would have done. He went running in the other direction as fast as he could. Nineveh was about 500 miles northeast of Israel. But Jonah went to Joppa, the nearest seaport on the Mediterranean Sea with the intention of sailing to Tarshish, which was a trading outpost in Spain, about 2000 miles away.
How many when faced with what we believe to be a dangerous or unpleasant task have tried to get out of it? Jonah didn’t bother to argue with God like Moses did saying send someone else, or that he didn’t have the necessary language or skill set. Instead he tried to run from God. How many of us have tried to run from God? I know I have. There was a time in my life when I was afraid God was calling me to the mission field, so I ran the other way. I choose a secular profession, got married, and stayed busy. However, because of my disobedience to God, the spiritual power and fervor for the Lord diminished in my life. Picking up in verses 3 through 6:
“After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to breakup. All the sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’”
Jonah thought he was through with God. In fleeing from God, he thought he could avoid his call as a missionary. But you can’t run from God. Psalms 139:7-10 says, “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.” Jonah should have known this. I believed he panicked, his fight or flight reflex kicked in and he chose to flee. But it is a long walk to Joppa, and he would have had more than enough time to think it through. So, it became a deliberate act of disobedience to continue and buy his ticket, get on the boat and sail away.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Don’t we do the same thing? Sometimes we run, sometimes we get angry and dig in our heals on some subject that in the grand scheme of things is relatively minor, but we chose to make a big deal out of it, like it is the end of the world. Sometimes we slow down or cool off, think better of it, and do what God asks, and other times we keep on going, stubbornly refusing to obey.
But the story doesn’t end there, God wasn’t through with Jonah. God loves his children too much to leave them the way they are, in their disobedience and sin. Proverbs 3:11-12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” God permits adversity to come into our lives to get our attention and call us back into obedience, to serve as a wake-up call. How many of you have experienced difficulties in life because of disobedience? Since we’re all here, we all have. How many of you have taken this experience as a wake-up call? I hope you all have. Moving on to verse 7 through 10:
“Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
So, they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’
He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’
This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’ (They knew he was running away from the Lord because he had already told them so.)”
Now this would have been an experienced captain and crew to be undertaking a long sea voyage and would have no doubt been familiar with the weather in the Mediterranean Sea. But this was a supernatural storm that God sent for Jonah’s benefit. The sailors did the routine storm survival activities; dropped the sail, let out the anchors, and lightened the load, but it obviously wasn’t enough. They were truly afraid for their lives.
It’s true what they say, ‘there are no atheists in fox holes.’ When faced with serious life and death situations men will call on their gods. They call on the gods they know, in the ways they know how. Sailors are not known to be a deeply religious bunch and the same was true 3000 years ago. Each man called on any god he knew from his childhood, in the hope that one of them would listen and save them. The method of determining the will of the gods was to cast lots, today we would roll the dice or draw straws.
How often do people seek to find someone else to blame for the problems they face? But a Christian needs to take responsibility. Jonah didn’t deny who he was. When confronted he didn’t do like Peter and deny Christ. In our lives, even when we have disobeyed God’s direction for our lives, do we acknowledge our relationship with God and the reason for the adversity we face? Picking up in verses 11 through 16:
“The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So, they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’
‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.’ Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him.”
Rather than jump overboard and commit suicide Jonah had the sailors throw him overboard. Jonah knew the storm would calm and thereby save everyone else by his sacrifice. Christians will often sacrifice themselves to save others and this selfless act can bring glory to God. And verse 17 says:
“But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
G.K. Chesterton said, “the incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” While Jonah may have thought it was the end, it was only the beginning of a second chance. The timing was perfect, God placed the great fish in the right place at the right time to rescue Jonah. It may be baseless speculation on my part, but I believe that if Jonah had not taken responsibility and acknowledged his disobedience, the story would have ended right here with Jonah drowning. Many people who have once served God have died unrepentant and unreconciled to Him because they didn’t accept the Lord’s discipline. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
In my own life I have learned that when I accept the Lord’s discipline, even during the storm I experience the peace that surpasses all understanding. His grace and mercy return and once again I can live life with power.
Note that each chapter in this short book represents a different scene with Jonah experiencing different situations which bring out different emotions, different aspects of his character and different spiritual conditions. This is the same thing that we as Christians experience in our own journey through life. Some situations bring out the best in us while others bring out the worst. We are works in progress, don’t think for a moment that we have reached perfection, but rather we are being perfected by God as He works in us and through us.
From the inside of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord God in Chapter 2 verses 1 through 9:
“’In my distress I called to the Lord and He answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help and You listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look again toward your holy temple. The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you Lord, and my prayer rose up to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
The only thing recorded about the time Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish is a prayer. A prayer of Thanksgiving that sounds an awful lot like the Psalms that David prayed when he was in trouble and fearing for his life. Jonah acknowledged his situation, but rather than ask God to rescue him from the newest disaster he thanked God for saving him from the sea and renewed his commitment to serve God.
Going through trials is one of the best schools of prayer. When faced with dire need many Christians call on the Lord with truly profound prayers. Helplessness not hopelessness leads to complete dependence upon God. So don’t despair, state the facts of your condition and steadfastly cling to your faith in God and trust in Him by obediently submitting to His call and let God bring about the miracle because He can do more than we ask or even imagine. And verse 10 says:
“And the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
God is large and in charge! If He can tell a fish where to go, when to be there, and what to do then He can, in his perfect timing rescue you from your trouble and open the door and set you free, when we have fully submitted to Him. Scripture doesn’t tell us where the great fish dropped Jonah off along the cost. I have visions of a stunned Jonah standing there soaking wet on the beach probably smelling like dead fish, looking back out to sea searching for any sight of the great fish, then looking up to heaven for a sign. Can you imagine how really confused the first person that he meets would be when he asks them where he is, and Jonah then tries to explain what has happened to him?
Scripture also doesn’t say how much time if any passes between chapters 2 and 3. Continuing on in chapter 3 verses 1 and 2:
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I gave you.’”
Our God is the God of second chances. When we stumble and fall, we get back up by the grace of God. He doesn’t say, “My bad, I gave you more than you can handle. Let’s try something else.” No, he calls us back to service because he has faith in us. He will never give us more than we can bear. Moving on to verses 3 through 5:
“Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city- a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city and he proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’ The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast and all of them from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth.”
Nineveh was a large city the walls of the ancient city were 7 3/4 miles around. The population was approximately 600,000 or more, and the greater metropolitan area was 30-60 miles across. The people of Assyria were a superstitious people who believed in magic and looked for signs and wonders to predict the future. Dagon was one of the ancient Assyrian gods who was part man and part fish. What better divinely sent messenger than a man who had been thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish? So, when this foreign prophet shows up with a message of disaster, the news spread like wildfire throughout the city. And the people believed.
Jonah didn’t have to set up a big tent and hold revival meetings every night for a month, with an alter call, singing endless verses of “I Surrender All.” He simply spoke to the people he encountered the message God gave him and God did the rest. Going on to verses 6 through 9:
“When the news reached the king of Nineveh he arose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation to Nineveh:
By decree of the king and his nobles: ‘Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let every man and beast be covered in sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish?’”
The Assyrian king was also the chief priest of their religion, so when he called a fast it had the effect of being law. In the archaeological records of Persia there was recorded a funeral for a general in the army where all the horses were covered in sackcloth. Sackcloth was the way people showed that they were in mourning. Even today, in a military funeral for the president of the United States, the horses drawing the carriage with the casket will have a blanket covering their backs, which represents sackcloth.
So, when the king and people put on sackcloth, they were humbling themselves and acknowledging their condition. Notice that the king commanded the people to urgently call on God. Jonah told them exactly how long they had before God would destroy them. I imagine that on the second day of Jonah’s visit he would have said, “only 39 more days!” The clock was ticking. And the king and his people repented. Verse 10 says it all:
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
True repentance results in salvation. God’s word never returns empty. Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” All we must do is speak the words of the message God wants us to deliver and He will take care of the rest.
There was a period of over 100 years between Jonah’s time and that of Nahum who prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C. Conversion is always an individual decision and never inherited. While Jonah’s generation turned to the true God, that didn’t mean that their successors could not fall back into idolatry. Just look at the history of the Israelite kings.
Ending the story here would have a happy ending for all concerned, but there is still one more chapter to consider and the real point of the book. Chapter 4 verse 1 says:
“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
Even after all he had been through, seen the mighty miracles God performed to save his life, had experienced God’s grace and mercy for himself, Jonah got upset with God. Why? Because he lacked compassion and harbored bitterness in his heart. Remember the Assyrians had attacked Israel, dragged off some of the people as captives and imposed a tribute on the Israelite kings who would have raised the money to pay it by raising taxes, which made life difficult for the common man. Most people love to see their enemies get what they deserve. But God spared Nineveh because by heeding the warning, the city qualified for mercy. Continuing in verses 2 through 4:
“He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I know that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love; a God who relents from sending calamity. Now O, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
But the Lord replied, ‘Have you any right to be angry?’”
Have any of you ever prayed an angry prayer to God? When you compare this prayer to the prayer in chapter 2, you’d think it was a different person. What happened to the beautiful language? The humility? The reverence? The acceptance of God’s will? Instead there is self-justification, accusation, and demands that are clearly not within the will of God.
How could the prophet who had just been a part of one of the greatest revivals in history be so disappointed that he would rather die than live? How could Jonah fail to be happy? How many of us today try to justify themselves before God? We know the truth, but we just don’t get it. We argue with God, demanding our own way even when we know it is contrary to the will of God.
As with many of us today, Jonah lacked peace, because although he obeyed God, he was not wholly reconciled to the will of God. True Peace comes only from full submission to and acceptance of the will of God in everything. Nothing saps spiritual activity more effectively than hidden rebellion against the divine will.
Consider a parallel from the life of Elijah. After his tremendous victory over the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18, the great prophet ran away from Jezebel, the evil queen. In 1 Kings 19:4 he prayed to God to end his life. How can Elijah go from seeing the power of God work in such a miraculous way as to send down fire from heaven to consume a water logged sacrifice, and then being filled with the spirit of God, kill all the priests of Baal, to such despair over a death threat from the king’s wife that he tells God to take his life? To go from a spiritual high to a spiritual low in a matter of a few minutes. How does this happen? Because we are human.
As Christians we are not to let our emotions rule us. We are to take captive every thought and make it obedient to God. To walk by faith and not by sight. To crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. To put off the old man and put on the new man in true righteousness and holiness. We don’t have the right to be angry with God, we can’t presume to judge God and his motives. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thought.’”
When God responded to Jonah it’s a lot like when he responded to Job in Job 40 when God asks, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?” Job’s response in chapter 42:1-6 is the response that we as Christians should make. “Then Job replied to the Lord, ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You ask ‘Who is this that observes my council without knowledge? Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you and you shall answer me. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
But what did Jonah do? Verses 5 through 8:
“Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’”
Jonah was like many of us. He was stubborn and prideful and let his anger get the best of him. He pulled up a front row seat to watch the destruction of Nineveh. He pitched a tent on the east side of town, so he was facing west. He would have had morning shade, but full sun during the hottest part of the afternoon. You ever notice that when you’re angry you don’t make the best decisions? It’s like he’s throwing a temper tantrum trying to coerce a parent into doing what he wants. But God doesn’t give in to his demands, instead he provides Jonah with another teachable moment. He grew a plant to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun and it made Jonah incredibly happy. But then just as quickly God took the shade away and Jonah gets angry again. An emotional roller coaster and again tells God he just wants to die. First, because God didn’t destroy Nineveh, now because he lost his shade, just a downward spiral of emotions.
Compare this to how Job handled all the adversity that came into his life. In Job 1:21 Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” If anything, Job’s wife responded to adversity more like Jonah when she said in Job 2:9, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” And Job’s response was, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” So which character are you? Are you a Job or a Jonah? Do you handle adversity well or are you an emotional basket case? I know which one we are called to be, God wants us to be men of integrity like Job.
Concluding chapter 4 verses 9 through 11:
“But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?’
‘I do’ he said. ‘I am angry enough to die.’
But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about the vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up over night and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who can not tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Shall I not be concerned about that great city?’”
How many of you have received an unexpected blessing only to lose it shortly afterwards? Something that you got that you didn’t have to work for, but it was stolen or taken away? Did it make you mad to lose it? I bet it did. It didn’t cost you anything to get it, so why are you so upset? We grow attached to things very quickly don’t we? We value things that cost us nothing. God’s object lesson to Jonah is about what has more value from the kingdom perspective – the shade plant or the city with 120,000 children in it. Jonah walked through the city, he interacted with the inhabitants, he saw the repentance that took place. A repentance that far exceeded anything ever done in Israel, and yet he was unmoved.
In Luke 19:41 as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it says he wept over it. He had compassions for the people who were shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and Jesus knew a week later they would be shouting “Crucify Him!” And yet Jesus was willing to die for them. Jesus knew his Father’s will and acknowledged it by saying “Thy will be done.” It wasn’t easy. The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane spoke of his anguish, his earnest prayer, how his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Jesus was more than obedient to the Father’s will. He not only accepted it, he gave everything he had to see it carried out, and in the end said, “It is finished.”
That is what we are called to, nothing less, obedience is only the first step. Don’t be like Jonah who tried to avoid the call on his life and then only did his job grudgingly. We need to be men of integrity, accepting what the Lord gives us and completely surrendering to the will of God. Then you will have peace, then you will have power, then you will have wisdom and knowledge. Then you will hear “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
We thank you for your Word, for the Truth that it contains. You have called us to be obedient and because of your love, grace, and mercy we want to be obedient. But as we’ve seen in the book of Jonah, that is not enough. We not only need to accept your will Father but work to see your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To accomplish this, help us to surrender our foolish pride, our personal agendas, our right to retribution against our enemies, and instead have compassion, as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had compassion.
Forgive us Father, for our disobedience, help us to say “Yes Lord” the next time you call us into ministry. Through the power of the Holy Spirit lead us deeper into relationship with you, to trust you more, to not rely on our own understanding, but to walk by faith. We acknowledge the discipline you have sent into our lives we accept it and commit ourselves to learn from it and not despise it.
Lord, plant these lessons from the life of Jonah into our hearts and minds to encourage us to speak boldly the message you would have us speak, to get ourselves out of the way and praise you when it returns a harvest of righteousness and salvation.
In Jesus name. Amen.