This week we’ll spend some time in the book of Jonah and observe some very strange things. Those peculiar things start with the book itself. The Old Testament has many books of prophecy that record the words of the prophets, spoken as God instructed them. But the book of Jonah is the only book about the prophet, Jonah himself.
Jonah lived during the 700’s B.C. The book of Jonah gives us no historical landmarks to establish when these events happened but he is also mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 when he prophesied to Jeroboam II, who reigned over Israel from 790-749 B.C. So this narrative possibly took place sometime around 760 B.C.
Most people have at least heard about Jonah and a big fish (the Bible doesn’t call it a whale). There are many children’s books about Jonah that you may have read when you were a child or read to your children. Or you may be VERY familiar with the entire narrative of Jonah having studied it in scripture. This week, I’m asking you to read this narrative as though it is the very first time you’ve heard it. Take note of each character and their reactions to the situations taking place around them noting who does what you’d expect and who doesn’t.
Take a few minutes now to read Jonah 1:1-16.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah, son of Amittai. Jonah 1:1. So far, so good. You’d expect God to be speaking to and sending His prophet. However, when God said “go to Nineveh because I’m going to confront the wickedness I’ve seen there”, Jonah got up and went…in the opposite direction.
(See the map above.)
He went down to Joppa and found a boat headed for Tarshish, which was in Spain, the furthest point he could go to the west in the known world at that time. Nineveh was just northeast of where he lived in Gath Hepher, Israel in the opposite direction. Once they set sail, he went down below deck for a nice nap. While above deck, a violent storm came up and everyone else was dealing with the wind and waves threatening their ship and all lives aboard. The sailors all prayed to any god they could think of while throwing their cargo overboard. The captain woke Jonah and asked him to pray to his God, covering all bases. Jonah told the sailors he was a Hebrew and that he worshiped the LORD, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land. As the storm got worse, they asked Jonah what they should do. He said “just throw me into the sea. It’s my fault all this is happening to you.” After trying to get the ship to shore, the sailors finally prayed to Jonah’s God asking Him not to hold them accountable and threw Jonah into the sea. The sea grew calm and the sailors feared God, offered sacrifices and made vows to Him.
Did you notice how many things are upside down here? Jonah is going the wrong way. The man of God had to be reminded to pray and never did. The pagan sailors were the first ones to speak to God in prayer and as a result of the calmed sea, they began to revere Him. Jonah’s decision to walk away from God and His command to go to Nineveh had affected the lives of an entire crew and now he was on his way down to the bottom of the sea.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly things fall apart when someone who knows God and claims to worship Him, walks away in the other direction. We haven’t yet explored why Jonah may have chosen this path but he obviously felt as though he had no need for God. It seemed he thought he was going to be perfectly fine. He was so convinced of it that he “checked out” and went to have a nice sleep on his “cruise to freedom.?” He ignored his own rebellion and sin.
Have you ever “checked out” of what God was trying to tell you and found yourself feeling alone and in a mess. I don’t know why Jonah thought dying at sea would be better than praying and telling God I’ll go to Nineveh, turn the ship around and the storm will stop. Sometimes what God asks of us may seem like too much and we might be tempted to think our lives would be better off without Him. The decision to walk away from God and ignore His direction can have results that affect not just us but those around us. God did not turn His back on Jonah and write him off as a failure. That storm was part of His loving yet powerful arms reaching out to call him back to Himself.
Name something God has called you to do or to address in your life that makes you want to run the other way? You can trust Him to be with you. Take some time to journal with God about what He may be saying to you and be honest about the emotions you are feeling. He knows what He is asking and He will not let you face the follow-through alone.
Yesterday it seemed as though Jonah’s life was over. He’d been thrown into sea at his own request in order to save the pagan crew. Jonah was headed down. He’d gone down to Joppa to find the ship. He’d gone down below deck on the ship to sleep and he was now going down to the bottom of the sea to die. It seemed Jonah was about to reach rock bottom, literally!
So grab your Bible or Bible app and let's pick up the narrative. Take a few to read Jonah 1:17 - 2:10.
Jonah 1:17 is well known to most everyone. God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah and there he remained inside the fish for the next three days and three nights. Great, right?! Inside a fish, no oxygen supply, digestive juices and fish guts, waiting to die. I told you there would be strange things.
As Jonah sat in the belly of the fish, he prayed to the Lord God. He said, I called the Lord and He answered me. He remembered sinking in the sea and calling out to the Lord knowing God listened to his cry. As his life was ebbing away he remembered God and prayed. He realized that banishing himself from God’s sight was not at all what he wanted and he held on to hope that he would see God in His temple again. Jonah had idolized his own direction and lost sight of God and who He is. But at the brink of death, he remembered how good God is and became grateful. We become grateful when we see who we really are and who God is in comparison. Jonah was ready to sacrifice to God making good on what he had vowed.
Jonah 2:10 ‘And the LORD commanded the fish and it vomited him on dry land.’ God provided a fish that looked like the instrument of certain death, to become the instrument of new life for Jonah. After three days and nights, he was unceremoniously vomited onto dry land. We’ll look at how he responded to this second chance in the next few days. But let’s look at what we learn from what happened.
Because of Jonah’s own rebellion against what God asked, he ended up in the fish headed for sure death but, by God’s grace, when he repented, he was returned for a new chance to follow God. Jesus, because of the sinful rebellion of mankind, gave up His own life and spent three days in the grave, the place of death, but by God’s grace, was raised to life and became hope of new life for each of us who will believe and follow Christ.
Think of a time in your life when you felt you’d reached rock bottom and cried out to God for help. Maybe you are in that place today. We don’t always reach those places because of our own decisions like Jonah did. Sometimes, we are there because of what someone else has done. But like Jonah, when you cry out to God, you can be sure He is listening. His priority is not our smooth passage but to mold and shape our character.
Take some time to read through Jonah’s prayer again and list the ways he acknowledges God’s involvement in all that happened. What evidence of God’s attributes do you see reflected in his prayer and how does remembering those attributes give you hope in your own life?
Today our focus turns to the great city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. Nineveh was a huge city with over 120,00 residents and a city wall with about an eight mile circumference. It was located near the present day city of Mosul in Iraq.
The Assyrian’s were the largest empire of that day with strategic military prowess and a reputation for heartless brutality to their prisoners. Their siege of a city ended in capture and torture of residents and total destruction. This pattern was cause for surrounding nations to hate and fear them.
Before we go any further, read Jonah 3:1-10. Notice Jonah’s message and the response. Take special note who responded first and how that response spread.
Verse 3:1 should sound familiar. The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time. The great restart. Proclaim to it the message I will give you. Somehow Jonah traveled from where the fish vomited him, to Nineveh and went a day's journey into the city. At this point, if you’d never heard this narrative before, what would you expect to hear in Jonah’s message to Nineveh? I’m fairly certain that you didn’t expect an eight word message with no mention of God, repentance or the account of all the evil going on in the city. (Side note, the message in Hebrew was 5 words). 40 more days and Nineveh will be overturned.
By now, even if you had never read this book before, you’d certainly have realized that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. After hearing just a bit about this country, you can understand that he probably hated these evil people. We won’t know exactly why he ran from this task the first time until chapter 4 but he certainly hasn’t gone in there with his preaching guns blazing to speak to them now. We don’t get to see the message God gave him to speak but it’s hard to believe it didn’t include God’s name, an example of the evil he was to speak against or anything about repentance. I do wonder if Jonah didn’t decide to do some creative editing in hope that the people wouldn’t understand it and would get what was coming to them in 40 days.
However, in this book where nothing seems to go the way you’d expect, you read what happened. Somehow when Jonah preached his 8 word sermon, the people believed it was from God and repented! When news of this reached the king, He got down from his throne, took off his symbols of authority and sat in the dust in sackcloth. He then called everyone to give up their evil, violent ways. He proclaimed they should each call urgently on God and maybe He would have compassion and relent. Which is exactly what happened. He did not bring the destruction He’d threatened. God had pronounced judgment on Nineveh but when the people responded and turned to Him in humility putting away their wicked ways, He gave His grace instead.
It seems almost too easy, doesn’t it? This was the worst nation in the known world, famous for their evil and violence! Does it bother you that God showed them grace so quickly? There was no guarantee that the king would stay off the throne or that the next king would abide by his repentance.
God’s goal in pronouncing judgment was restoration not destruction. It was meant to confront their wickedness, But God planned to show His love and grace if and when they repented. If you study history, Assyria did eventually return to their evil ways with a vengeance and they were eventually brought to destruction by God’s hand. But at this moment God chose to forgive and show grace.
We have the blessing of living on this side of the cross of Jesus. Because Jesus’ righteousness covers our sin, we continue to be molded into His image and can confess, repent and be forgiven of the sin in our lives. God’s judgment for believers was settled at the cross.
Reflect on your own life and list some ways God has used to let you know you were going the wrong way causing you to repent and change direction. Pray a prayer of gratitude as you remember His sweet grace.
Take a few moments to read Jonah 4:1- 11 as we begin today. Did it seem to you that something was missing, like the end of the book? I don’t think any other book in the Bible ends with a question mark.
So let’s explore. At the end of chapter 3, Nineveh repented, God had compassion and did not destroy them. It seems that Jonah should have seen this as a successful end to this mission as prophet. The people heard and obeyed God. But he was angry. I mean’ jump up and down, hopping mad’ as my mother used to say. So what did he do? He chewed God out.
Can you hear him yelling? “I knew it! I knew this is what You’d do. That’s why I left for Tarshish. I knew You were a gracious and compassionate God. Slow to anger and abounding in love. Now just kill me. It’s better for me to die than live.” WOW.
Jonah’s description of who he knew God to be may sound familiar. ‘Gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love’. These are the words God spoke to Moses just after the incident with the golden calf in Exodus 34:6. This description of God is repeated no less than 12 times throughout the Old Testament. Jonah knew God’s character and he threw God’s own words back at Him. He was not in favor of God showing compassion to the Ninevites, who Jonah saw as enemies and undeserving. Jonah had pronounced his own judgment on Nineveh as unworthy in comparison to himself.
After his rant, God asked Jonah a question. Do you have any right to be angry? But Jonah didn’t answer. Instead he went outside the city and set up a little shade shelter for himself to watch and wait and stew. What happened next was another of those strange things in this book. God provided a vine to shade Jonah which made him happy for the first time in this narrative. Then He provided a worm to kill the plant and a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. Once again, Jonah thought death would be better than living his life. When God asked him if he had a right to be angry about the vine, Jonah replied with an emphatic yes.
Do you see the contrast in verse 10-11. Jonah had compassion on a plant in which he had no investment. God had compassion for the people He had created. Jonah would have gladly watched them be destroyed. God gave His grace. Jonah’s compassion was not really for the plant but what the plant could do for him. His compassion was all self centered. God’s compassion was for a people who had greatly sinned and offended Him but repented.
God’s final question, Should I not be concerned about that great city?, isn’t answered by Jonah. It isn’t answered at all. As I’ve recently looked at this book more deeply than I ever have before, I realized that God is asking me, the reader, this question. I have the same difficulty that Jonah had when I think of God pouring out His compassion and grace on my enemies. Jesus asks me to love them. But, if I’m honest, deep down inside, I don’t want Him to love them. Jonah knew God was compassionate and that He poured out His grace on repentant hearts. I think Jonah had fallen into the trap of thinking he deserved God’s grace by his status as a Hebrew. But grace, by definition, is unmerited favor.
You and I don’t get to decide how God should distribute His grace. It’s so easy to arrive at the end of the book severely judging Jonah, thus making ourselves superior to him. That is called self-righteousness pure and simple. It was his sin and it can so easily become ours.
Now, think about the people in your life who you may call ‘enemies’. Perhaps they’ve deeply hurt you or someone you love. Maybe they have a very different moral or political view than you do. There are any number of reasons why certain people in our lives are on our “avoid at all costs” list. However, Jesus asks us to love them, bless them, pray for them and this is not easy.
Jonah’s only desire for his enemy was that they receive God’s severe judgment. You may feel the same way. But God loves our enemies as much as He loves us. We are no more worthy than they are. None of us is deserving of His righteousness yet it is offered to all by God’s grace and through Jesus, the true source of our righteousness.
Reflect on the question that closes the book of Jonah but substitute a specific name of someone in your life for “that great city”. Should I not be concerned about _______? As God brings a name to mind to put in that spot, write out your prayer for them. Release your anger or resentment toward them and ask God to replace it with the love He has for them. This may be a very difficult prayer for you but writing that prayer as your heart cries out may make it easier to stay focused on God’s love for you and for the person you are praying for. Now look forward to God’s blessing on the person you’ve lifted to Him as He pursues them just like He pursued you.
What have we discovered about the God we love and serve through the story of Jonah.
He is a God who offers His grace to those who will believe and repent.
He is a God who cares for those who can’t or won’t care for themselves.
He is a God who values and encourages our total honesty.
He is a God who isn’t angered by our anger.
He is a God who finds creative ways to teach us about ourselves.
He is a God who doesn’t hold grudges.
He is a God who talks to us.
He is a God who encourages thinking by asking questions
He is a God who follows us.
God used Jonah’s call to Nineveh, the violent storm, the near death experience in the depth of the sea, the belly of the fish and even a vine and a worm to show Jonah his blind spots. To teach him that self-righteousness does not bring life. Those were difficult things for Jonah to walk through but sometimes God chooses to use “severe mercy”. That is a phrase coined by C. S. Lewis in a book by Sheldon Vanauken called A Severe Mercy: a Story of Faith, Tragedy and Triumph. Some of those hard times in our lives that God permits are there because they take us to a place where He can do a work in us that couldn’t happen any other way but by His severe mercy.
The story of Jonah is left unresolved but you can’t help but hope that Jonah finally realized he needed to repent as much as the people of Nineveh and that he had received God’s grace even though he was unworthy. But if Jonah ever realized these things, it was only because he served a God who was willing to follow him—to follow him when he ran away to Tarshish, to follow him into the belly of the fish, to follow him to Nineveh, and to follow him out into the foothills and keep talking to him.
This is our God. He will not give up on us. If we refuse to go where He sends us, He will follow us. If we insist on holding a grudge, He will reason with us. And if we resist all His invitations to come to Him, He will come to us.
As we close out this week, listen to this song by Laura Story called Grace.
May the words remind you of just how much God loves you and how patiently He extends His grace to you so that you may extend it to others. “Seek God’s face and you’ll walk in the power of His daily sufficient grace.”