The book of Jonah is, no doubt, familiar to all of us. We know about his commission to preach to the Ninevites, his disobedience, the great fish, and his later obedience to God’s call. Many of us with children have seen the Veggie Tales ‘Jonah’ movie. There is much we could say about Jonah, as every aspect of this little book is heavily laden with spiritual treasure. We could talk about Jonah as a negative example due to his disobedience. We could talk about the great fish, or Jonah’s prayer, or we could talk about Jonah’s prejudice, as we see in his response to God’s sparing of the Ninevites.
But the book of Jonah is not primarily about Jonah; it is about God.
We see in the book of Jonah, a God who loves pagan sailors and does a great work among them. We see a God who loves the wicked people of Nineveh and brings them to a place of repentance. The book of Jonah shows us an intimate relationship between God and his appointed prophet. We see a God who loves Jonah, despite his disobedience, and chastens his child as a father does his beloved son.
The book of Jonah shows us a God whose love is great beyond our comprehension.
The book of Jonah is about a God who loves us with a fiery passion that knows no limits. It shows us how God’s love is deep and personal, and how we who are his can have CONFIDENCE the he will NEVER leave us nor forsake us.
Before dealing with the text of Jonah, let us address the question of the nature of this book: is Jonah simply a parable, or is it history? Did the events of Jonah really happen? Or is it simply a nice story that shows us important spiritual truths without actually purporting to describe events that happened?
Obviously, the bible contains both sorts of narratives. The life of Jesus is clearly presented as historical fact, as is the creation, the exodus, and many events in the lives of the kings of Judah and Israel. But what about the Song of Solomon? Proverbs? The parables of Jesus? These are presented to us as true statements that are not historical narrative. They are true, but they are not meant to be taken as actual accounts of things that happened.
So what about Jonah? Which type of book is this? How are we meant to take Jonah?
Many would claim that because of problems they have imagining what kind of sea creature, from among all presently known sea creatures, could have actually swallowed Jonah and kept him alive for 3 days, the book of Jonah must be simply allegory or parable.
However, there are several facts which point to the book of Jonah being historical fact, which I think outweigh this objection. The first is that this objection is easily addressed by simply saying that this was a miraculous event, like Jesus walking on water, the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, the taking of Enoch, and many others. We do not have to ever see direct physical evidence of the fish described to believe that “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” We may one day have direct proof, or a modern example of this happening. But even if we never do, it is no more difficult to trust the scripture in this matter than it is to trust it in weightier matters.
But the bible itself clearly presents Jonah as historical: There are two passages which point to the historicity of Jonah. The first of these is 2 Kings 14:25:
“In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty- one years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from Lebo- hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.”
We read here that Jonah had a father, whose name was Amittai. He lived in Gath-hepher. Jonah lived and ministered during the reign of King Jeroboam II, son of Joash, king of Judah.
Jonah was a real person.
The second biblical text which points to the historicity of the book is Matthew 12:38-41 wherein Jesus refers to the events of Jonah as real:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here…
Jesus refers to Jonah, his 3 days and nights in the belly of the fish, and the repentance of the Ninevites all as real events. Notice especially how in verse 40, Jesus says “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” In other words, the historicity of the resurrection is equated with the historicity of Jonah’s time in the fish. Jesus did in fact spent 3 days and nights in the heart of the earth, and so we know that Jonah spent 3 real days and nights inside the belly of a real fish.
The book of Jonah is HISTORY.
Now let us look at the scripture. Please open your bible with me to the book of Jonah and we’ll start with chapter 1:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah, to preach in Nineveh. And what does Jonah do? He heads in the OPPOSITE direction!
“But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”
Jonah heads to Joppa where he boards a ship bound for Tarshish, which was about as far as you could go in those days from Nineveh.
We find out later why he did this but, for now, let us just let his disobedience sink in. This was not an oops. This was not a man struggling to have victory over sin in his life, this was the man of God saying “NO!” to his Lord. This is raw, naked rebellion. And while this rebellion does bring chastisement from the Lord, what is truly amazing here is the limited scope of that chastisement.
Wouldn’t you expect God to blast Jonah with a bolt of lightning? Shouldn’t the earth open up under him to swallow him up, never to be seen again?
God would be Just to pour his wrath on Jonah, and that is what we might expect, but that is exactly what we do not see. God sends a great storm to the ship, which threatens to break it up. This is the beginning of God’s chastisement of Jonah, but it is not wrath. God is rebuking his prophet, not destroying him. Jonah is going to live through this, though it will be very difficult for him.
But now look at the sailors: they worship a variety of Gods (v5), they use divination in an attempt to extract information from God (v7),
Yet despite their pagan sensibilities, they seem to be moral men, insofar as they attempt to row back to shore, rather than kill Jonah. When they realize that they must throw Jonah overboard, they call on the Lord and pre-emptively ask his forgiveness and pardon.
Then an amazing thing happens: after they pray and throw Jonah overboard, the sea stopped its raging. The men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” Now I am not saying that the Lord granted them a spirit of repentance and saved them, though that is possible. But clearly the Lord showed them lovingkindness in sparing them and the ship, in showing his greatness to them, and in giving them a fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).
God, in his mercy, showed LOVE and COMPASSION on these idolatrous, divination-using sailors. The full extent of his love for them we do not know, but we see here a glimpse into the heart of God.
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple. ’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
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!”
And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Oh the deep, deep love of God!
In this prayer, we see that God’s chastisement was having its desired effect. Rebellious Jonah, encased in a great fish, prays a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord along with a promise to obey.
God used a lot of force in Jonah’s life to get him to this point. Some commentators even say that between chapters 1 and 2, Jonah actually dies, only to be resurrected. That may be, but whether he comes close to death or actually dies, the point is the same: God was not content to leave Jonah in his rebellious state. God has a mission to the Ninevites in mind, but he is also concerned about Jonah. God will make Jonah his loving, willing, servant, and he will stop at nothing to accomplish his purposes in Jonah’s life. Both his purposes for the Ninevites and Jonah will be accomplished.
God’s love for Jonah is not conditional upon Jonah’s obedience, rather Jonah’s obedience is ultimately guaranteed because of God’s love for Jonah!
Let me say that again…
God’s love for Jonah is not conditional upon Jonah’s obedience, rather Jonah’s obedience is ultimately guaranteed because of God’s love for Jonah!
And this is how it is for you and me too. Brothers and sisters, is God bringing chastisement into your life? Are there storms? Have the sailors cast you overboard? If so, know first that if you are in Christ, this is not God’s wrath – it is your loving father bringing you to a place where you know him more fully, delight in him more completely, and obey him out of love.
Romans 8:1 says,
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Old testament believers may not have known the name of Christ – they were looking forward to their salvation, while we look back to it. But God’s people, old testament and new, are all saved in the same way. And just as it is God who wills and works our salvation today, he willed and worked it in Jonah’s day. And since we are His workmanship, created in Christ for the good works which he preordained that we should walk it, we WILL walk in them! And if we resist God’s good purposes in our life, he will take us through WHATEVER IT TAKES, NO MATTER HOW LONG IT TAKES to transform our hearts.
And so, while not all suffering is God’s chastisement, for those of us in Christ, none of it is wrath. Your disobedience and rebellion does not shake his love for you, but it will bring his loving hand of correction upon you. A storm. A fish.
But if you are in Christ and God is chastising you, let me encourage you brother, or sister… He chastens those he loves; listen to his chastening. Humble your heart before him. He is accomplishing good things in your life, not bad. Trust him. Because your heavenly father loves you so very much, and knows you so well, that he will bring everything into your life that is needed to teach you what he wants you to learn.
Oh! The DEEP DEEP LOVE OF GOD! Oh how he loves you and me!
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days ‘journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
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.
The first verse of chapter three of the book of Jonah is one of my favorite verses in the bible: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time,”’
God was not done with Jonah!
You or I might have said, “Well, that’s it for Jonah…now let’s use someone else”, but that is not what God said. God’s purposes for Jonah were just as important to him as were his purposes for the Ninevites. And God’s purposes for you are just as important as his purposes for Jonah.
In chapter 1, the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai and Jonah said ‘no’.
- God would have been just to destroy Jonah then and there, but he did not.
- God would have been gracious to allow Jonah to live, but with an unchanged heart, but he did not.
- God would have been generous to allow Jonah to live with a thankful repentant heart, but to never speak through him again, but he did not.
Instead, God poured his love on his prophet by allowing him to live, giving him a heart of repentance, and then commissioning him a SECOND time to take his word to the Ninevites.
It reminds us of the time when Jesus re-instates Peter after he had denied him three times:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you”
“Feed my sheep.”
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). If you belong to the Lord, no power in heaven or earth can snatch you away. So Christian, if you have messed up royally, do not think that God is done with you and has no further use for you. You are precious to God, you are a trophy of his grace, and you are His workmanship: his purposes in you can not and will not be thwarted.
But this chapter also tells us of God’s love for the Ninevites! Despite the terseness of the message he delivers, and Jonah’s apparent reluctance to deliver it, the Ninevites, from the highest to the lowest, REPENT! The king declares a fast for man and beast, and they humble themselves before the Lord!
And when God sees their response, he relents from the disaster he had planned!
Were the Ninevites saved unto salvation? Many would say ‘no’, but I think there are two things which suggest that this was a true transformation of the heart.
First, God relents. God knows the heart, and he would not be satisfied with mere outward conformity. Furthermore, such a transformation can only come from God, because apart from God’s intervention, natural man hates God.
Second, Jesus says they repented. Remember our passage in Matthew 12:
“The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here…”
But even if their repentance is not the kind that leads to salvation, it led to God relenting from the disaster he had planned for them. God showed here immense compassion on the Ninevites.
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. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle.”
And now we see most intimately the tender heart of God as well as the motivation for Jonah’s disobedience. Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord because he KNEW that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah KNEW that God would be gracious to the Ninevites, and Jonah HATED the Ninevites. They were a powerful, brutal people, whose cruelty was known by all. They were the enemies of Israel and Judah, and Jonah wanted to see them destroyed.
Perhaps Jonah thought that if fled to Tarshish, perhaps he could at least forestall their repentance and so perhaps God might still pour out his wrath on them. Perhaps he was even willing to suffer the wrath of God himself, if it would bring about Nineveh’s destruction. And he is so upset with seeing the Ninevites spared that he asks God to take his life!
“Do you do well to be angry?” the Lord asks in verse 4.
There are two things which amaze me about this question. The first is how gentle it is. This same God who sent a storm to shake Jonah out of the ship bound for Tarshish now almost whispers to Jonah: ‘Do you do well to be angry?’ It is not even quite a rebuke, just a question. It comes from a heart that desires that his hearer would learn something. It sounds exactly like a parent talking to a young child “would you want to be treated the way you just treated your sister?” The question, asked at this point in time shows us a God who is sooooo patient with us. It shows us a God who only uses as much force with us as is needed, and who delights not in our destruction but in our restoration.
And Jonah’s response, or lack of one, is the second thing which amazes me about this verse. Jonah is now obedient, but his heart is still against God’s purposes for the Ninevites. Doesn’t he remind us of the child who promises to hold their breath until we relent? Jonah is having a temper tantrum, a fit. He is stamping his foot and holding his breath, and doing everything he can to change God’s mind.
And so God appoints a plant and a worm to teach Jonah. And in the conversation that follows we see once again into the wonderful heart of our God.
“It is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah is angry to have lost the plant which shaded his head.
“Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” The question is simply meant to establish the fact that Jonah’s anger is because of the loss of the plant.
“Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” This time Jonah answers – perhaps he feels he is on more solid ground to be angry for the plant than he was with his anger over God’s mercy to the Ninevites.
And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle.”
“SHOULD I NOT BE CONCERNED?” This is the plea of God to Jonah as he entreats him to see the world as God sees it. This world and the people in it are God’s creation, for which he has labored. His justice requires that he punish wickedness, but he takes no pleasure in their destruction.
“Should I not be concerned?”, the Lord asks to Jonah.
“Should I not be concerned? There are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left…” There are CHILDREN there Jonah! Shouldn’t I be concerned at least about the children? They don’t know their right hand from their left, they don’t know right from wrong, should they be destroyed too Jonah?
God LOVES the Ninevites and wants to spare them! He is not content to leave them as they are but is doing a great work among them so that he will not have to destroy them.
And God LOVES Jonah and is not content to leave Jonah’s heart where it is, focused only on the good of the Jews, but he wants to expand Jonah’s vision and show him his heart of compassion on all kinds of people and that no people, no matter how wicked are beyond his reach!
This little book shows us so much of the tenderness of God, his loving-kindness, his long suffering nature, his gentleness, and his compassion.
How can we read this book and not fall deeper in love with our savior!
The book of Jonah ends with God having the last word. We do not see the subsequent transformation of Jonah’s heart, but I believe that transformation did in fact take place, because in order to write so candidly about the state of his own heart, Jonah had to in fact see and repent of his own prejudice and hatred. I am confident that after the events of this book, Jonah came to see how wrong he was to be angry. I imagine him breaking down and crying before the Lord as he realizes how good God is to be good to the Ninevites, and how wicked he was to oppose that. I imagine God speaking to Jonah on some later day, saying “write it all down”.
I hope that those of us in Christ today will have gotten a deeper sense of just how good God is, and in seeing that, have grown more in love with him. But if you are not in Christ today, I hope you too have seen just how good God is.
He is so good that he will not allow sin to go unpunished, though he takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked.
He is so good that just he called to the Ninevites, he calls to you today.
He is so good that he sent his Son to die on the cross in payment of our sins, so that his justice would be satisfied and he could show mercy on us.
He is so good that if we will repent of our sins, and trust Jesus to save us, he will save us!
Lastly, Jonah is upset because he doesn’t want God to show mercy to an entire people group whom he hates. I think this speaks to the intrinsic tribal nature of the human heart – we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. But all men are made in God’s image. And people from every tribe and tongue will be among the saved people of God. And so, just as God loves people from every people group, we too must see the people we meet in the world as potential recipients of God’s grace, no matter what ‘group’ they come from. Every man, woman, and child that you meet in this life may possibly spend eternity with you. And we need to pray for people groups, that God will pour out his mercy on The Muslims, The Homosexuals, The Liberals, The Wealthy, The Poor, Entertainers and Celebrities, My Extended Family, The People on My Street, Politicians, or any other group we tend to write off. If the Ninevites were not beyond God’s mercy, and if you and I are not beyond God’s mercy, then no one is.
Should we not be concerned?