The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.”
But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish.
But the Lord hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship.
But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. – Jonah 1:1-5 ESV
Jonah and the whale. It sounds like the title of a best-selling children’s book, complete with colorful pictures of Jonah and his new, oversized friend. But this is not a fairy tale told for the sake of children. It is a true story that describes real events and real people, and points to the gracious and merciful nature of God Almighty. One of the main reasons we believe this story to be true is because Jesus, the Son of God, believed to to be true. In one of His many confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” And He responded, “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” (Matthew 12:39-42 ESV).
Jesus refers to the story of Jonah and mentions the people of Nineveh, not as it they were make-believe characters in a made-up story, but as flesh-and-blood people who lived real lives and experienced a radical redemption by God because they repented. Jesus viewed the story of Jonah, as found in the Old Testament Scriptures, as an illustration of the redemption of God that was coming to the people of the world through His own death, burial and resurrection. Like all of the Old Testament, the book of Jonah pointed to Jesus. And Jesus not only believed this to be true, He proved it. We are told that when He appeared in His post-resurrection body to the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus, He provided them with a comprehensive Bible study, showing them how all of the Scriptures pointed to Him.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. – Luke 24:27 ESV
The book of Jonah, like the rest of the Old Testament, contains real events about real people. And it is, like the rest of the Bible, part of God’s revelation of Himself. The Bible is a comprehensive story about God and His relationship with mankind. It tells us how we got here. It describes how sin entered the world and how man’s relationship with God took a dramatic turn for the worse. It reveals God’s decision to choose a people as His own possession, the Jews, and graciously provide them with an undeserved relationship with Him, in spite of their sins and stubbornness. He gave them His law, in order to show them the life of holiness He expected, but then provided them with the sacrificial system, because He knew they could not live up to His holy standards. He knew they would sin and require forgiveness in order to maintain a right standing with Him. And the Jewish people were to be examples to the rest of the world, showing them that a relationship with God was only possible through either perfect obedience, which was impossible, or reliance upon His forgiveness, made possible through the shedding of blood. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that, under the law of Moses, “almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).
But the people of Israel proved to be lousy models to the rest of the world. Their relationship with God was hit-or-miss, marred by rebellion and stubbornness, characterized by disobedience and marked by a sense of privilege. They saw their relationship with God as a badge of honor. They viewed themselves as special and somehow better than all those around them. And while they were God’s chosen people, they failed to understand and live up to their role as His witnesses to the nations. So, when God commanded Jonah, a Jew, to go to the people of Nineveh, he was not interested. Nineveh was a city in Assyria, in what is now modern-day Iraq. The Assyrians were enemies of the Jews. They were pagans and a constant threat to the Jewish people, so you can see why Jonah was less-than-enthusiastic about God’s call to go and prophesy among them. Jonah knew he would be facing a hostile crowd, and the message he was given by God was not exactly a pleasant one. God had told him to, “Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). Can you imagine the kind of welcome Jonah, a Jew, would receive from a crowd of anti-Jewish Assyrians, when he tells them that Yahweh, the God of the Jews, is bringing judgment on them because of their wickedness? So, Jonah came up with a plan B. He decided to run rather than risk his life.
But there is another motive behind Jonah’s refusal to do what God had called him to do. He was a prophet of God and he knew that, as a prophet, his message of God’s judgment had a more important purpose behind it: Repentance. Just as every other prophet of God had been commanded to preach God’s coming judgment to the people of Israel in order that they might repent and return to Him, Jonah was being commanded to preach God’s coming judgment to Assyrians. He was the first and only prophet of God to be tasked with the job of taking God’s message of judgment and call to repentance to a pagan nation. And he was smart enough to know that his message was not going to be well received. And, if by some miraculous means, the people of Nineveh listened to what he had to say and repented, Jonah knew that God would forgive them. And that was probably a worse fear to Jonah than the thought of them putting him to death. He hated the Assyrians and did not want to see God extend His mercy and grace to them.
So he ran. He refused to do what God had called him to do. The text tells us Jonah, “went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV). That line sounds almost a bit humorous. Did Jonah really think he could get away from God? Was he dumb enough to think he could somehow escape the sight of the all-knowing, all-seeing, God of the universe. As a good Jew, Jonah would have been familiar with the psalm of David, where he wrote:
I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you. – Psalm 139:7-12 NLT
And yet, Jonah disregards the wisdom of David and take off. He books passage on a boat headed in the opposite direction. But God does not let him get far. He sends a storm – a violent, sailor-scaring storm, that had them all praying to their respective gods for help. All except Jonah. He was fast asleep in the hold of the ship. The anger of God was clearly recognizable to the sailors, even though they did not know Yahweh as their god. But they knew they were in trouble and assumed it had something to do with their deity of choice, so they each prayed, and did all they could do to keep the boat afloat in the crashing waves and relentless winds. And all the while, Jonah slept.
Jonah was content with his decision. He obviously lost no sleep over his choice to disobey God. He had been given a command by God and a crystal clear message to speak to the people of Nineveh, but he had refused to obey.
But before we make this story all about Jonah, let’s remember who instigated this whole affair. It was God. Like the rest of the Bible, the story of Jonah is really the story of God and His relationship with mankind. It is about the God of the universe and His sovereign will over the lives of those He had made. The story of Jonah is the story of God’s redemption of lost, sinful men and women. The people of Nineveh did not deserve to hear from God. They had done nothing to merit a chance to hear of God’s judgment and escape by repenting of their sins. But neither had the Jews. In fact, God had made it clear to the Jews, all the way back in the days of Moses, that there had been nothing special about them that had earned them His favor.
For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.
The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT
It was simply God’s love and faithfulness to His own word that provide them with their unique relationship with Him. They had done nothing to deserve or earn it. And Moses went on to warn the Jews:
But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him. Therefore, you must obey all these commands, decrees, and regulations I am giving you today. – Deuteronomy 7:10-11 NLT
And they had failed. They had not lived up to God’s holy standard. They had proven to be rebellious and disobedient to God. And now, God was sending His message of judgment and call to repentance to a pagan nation. He was going to use non-Jews to show His own people how they should respond to His call and escape the coming judgment. And Jonah wanted no part in it. So, he slept. But God was not done with him yet. His will was going to be done, whether Jonah like it or not.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.