The Right To Give Life

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.” 10 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. 11 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?” Jonah 4:6-11 ESV

This is the second time that Jonah has fled from Nineveh. On the first occasion, he had been somewhere in Israel, probably not far from his hometown of Gath-hepher, in the region of Galilee. This would have placed him more than 500 miles from Nineveh. But for Jonah, that was not far enough. So, when he received God’s call to go to Nineveh and announce their pending judgment, he refused and headed in the opposite direction. He attempted to avoid his commission by fleeing from the presence of the Lord. But his plan didn’t work out so well. God sent a storm to delay Jonah’s departure. Then, when the sailors cast lots to see who was the source of their troubles, God caused the lot to fall on Jonah. In a last-ditch effort to save their lives, the sailors cast Jonah overboard, at which point God appointed a large fish to swallow His disobedient prophet. Then, after Jonah had spent three miserable days in the belly of the fish, God caused the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. From there, Jonah made his way to Nineveh, where he finally delivered God’s message. And the people believed.

Now, Jonah sits outside the walls of the great city of Nineveh, waiting to see whether God will rain down judgment on the enemies of Israel or if He will show them mercy and compassion. Jonah hopes for the former but fears that the latter will be what takes place. Sitting in his man-made shelter, Jonah is burning with rage. He is furious that his message of God’s pending destruction of Nineveh had been met with repentance and mourning. Rather than turn on Jonah as the bearer of bad news, the people had turned to Yahweh in faith. And Jonah knew that Yahweh was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). He was afraid that the repentance of the Ninevites would cause God to change His mind about destroying them. But Jonah still held out hope that God might do to Nineveh what He had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. He was still longing for their destruction and not their deliverance.

But as Jonah fumed in his makeshift shelter, “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” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). It’s important to recall that when Jonah had been thrown off the ship and into the raging sea, God had appointed a fish to rescue him from certain death. Now, as Jonah raged outside the walls of the city, God appointed a plant to relieve his “discomfort.” Once again, the God of the universe intervened in the life of His rebellious prophet. Yahweh caused a plant to appear, virtually overnight, providing His sun-baked, pitty-soaked prophet with protection from the sun and relief from his anger. 

Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. – Jonah 4:6 ESV

The sudden and miraculous appearance of the plant had its intended effect. Jonah was relieved of his discomfort. But the author uses a very specific Hebrew word to describe the condition from which Jonah was relieved. It is the word, raʿ, which is most often translated as “evil” or “wickedness.” It can also mean “affliction.” It is the same word the author used in describing the behavior of the people of Nineveh.

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. – Jonah 3:10 ESV

And when Jonah saw the people of Nineveh repent of their evil way, he refused to see it as a good thing. Verse 1 of chapter four states that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly.” This phrase could actually be translated as “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” Jonah viewed the repentance of the Ninevites as evil or wicked. And yet, it was God who deemed Jonah’s reaction as evil. His anger was not only unjustified, but it was also unrighteous. That is why God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:4 NLT). Jonah’s response was not good or acceptable. He actually preferred that God do evil by destroying the Ninevites. That is exactly what he meant when he expressed his concern that God might be gracious to the Ninevites, “relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). In Hebrew, that phrase reads nāḥam raʿ, which means, “repenting of evil.” In essence, Jonah wanted God to respond to the Ninevites with evil. He longed for God to devastate and destroy them.

But even in his fit of unrighteous and unjustified anger, Jonah was met with undeserved grace and mercy. God appointed a plant that provided Jonah with relief – and he was glad. But notice what the text says: “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). He gladly accepted the gift of God’s mercy but failed to show Him any gratitude.

So, “God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered” (Jonah 4:7 ESV). All throughout this story, the author purposefully portrays the sovereign hand of God behind all that happens. God appointed the fish. He appointed the plant. Now, He appoints the worm. Every step of the way, God has been ordaining the events of Jonah’s life in order to accomplish His sovereign will. The Creator-God orchestrated the actions of a giant fish and a tiny worm, all to accomplish His grand redemptive plan. He caused the plant that had sprung up overnight to disappear just as quickly. And His removal of the plant was followed by His appointment of “a scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8 ESV). The soothing shade was replaced by the searing rays of the sun and a scorching sirocco wind.

The sudden change in his circumstances left Jonah in a foul mood. While he had gladly accepted the gracious gift of shade without uttering a word of thanks, he immediately declared his dissatisfaction when the shade was suddenly removed. He bitterly informed God that he would rather die than suffer any further.

…he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:7 ESV

But Jonah was missing the point. He was failing to understand the lesson that God was trying to teach him. So, God asks him a second question:

“Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” – Jonah 4:9 NLT

Did Jonah really have a right to be angry over the loss of his source of shade and comfort? Was he justified in expressing his desire to die? But before God could complete His thought, Jonah quickly interrupted and defended his actions.

“Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” – Jonah 4:9 ESV

Then God graciously exposes the absurdity of Jonah’s over-the-top response. He points out that Jonah was upset about the untimely demise of a plant he had done nothing to produce. He had no vested interest in the plant, other than the comfort he had received from it.

You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. – Jonah 4:10 NLT

Jonah was grieving over the loss of the plant, not because he had labored to produce it, but because he missed the benefit he had received from it. His motives were purely selfish and self-centered. Jonah’s only concern for the plant was in its ability to provide him with comfort – which was now gone. So, God uses the destruction of the plant to teach Jonah a lesson regarding His sparing of the people of Nineveh.

“But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” – Jonah 4:10 NLT

God describes the people of Nineveh as not knowing “their right hand from their left.” They are ignorant of the His ways. They were like children who lacked wisdom, discernment, and spiritual understanding. Unlike the people of Israel, the Ninevites had not enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Yahweh. They had not been given His law or instructed in His ways. The entire community was living in spiritual darkness, unaware of Yahweh’s identity and completely oblivious to the wickedness of their ways.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul would provide a powerful reminder to the Gentile converts who were part of that local fellowship.

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. – Ephesians 2:11-12 NLT

Jesus would also emphasize the inclusion of those who were outside the nation of Israel.

“I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” – John 10:16 NLT

The people of Israel had been chosen by God so that they might be a light to the nations. They were to shine in the darkness of the world, providing the Gentiles with a glimpse of God’s goodness, glory, and greatness. But they had failed to live up to their calling. The prophet Hosea declared of them: “Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel” (Hosea 8:8 ESV). Just as Jonah had been swallowed by the fish, Israel would ultimately be swallowed by the Assyrians. They would fall to the very nation to whom Jonah had been sent. And God had proven to Jonah that He could redeem and rescue the worst of sinners. He could even use a reluctant and rebellious prophet to bring about the repentance of a city full of wicked and spiritually ignorant Ninevites.

God cared enough about Jonah to send him a fish and a plant. God cared enough about Israel that He repeatedly sent His prophets to call them to repentance. And He cared enough about Nineveh to send His reluctant prophet to deliver His message of redemption. But Jonah missed all of this. He failed to grasp the significance of God’s grand redemptive plan for His creation. Even the author’s reference to “much cattle” is intended to reveal that God has a plan to redeem and restore all that He has made.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the entire creation is living under the weight of the curse that came as a result of Adam’s sin.

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:19-22 NLT

And the book of Jonah ends with God reminding His self-consumed prophet that He loves and cares for the people of Nineveh because He created them. Like the plant, they exist because God gave them life. And as the author of life, only God has the right to give or take it away. Jonah was asking God for the right to die. But God wanted Jonah to understand that He had the right to let the Ninevites live. Because He cared for them.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Blind to His Own Sin

1 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. Jonah 4:1-5 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds himself in an unexpected and unpleasant situation. This entire portion of the narrative parallels Jonah’s experience in chapter 2. But this time, rather than praying from the belly of the fish, Jonah cries out to God from inside the walls of Nineveh, where a spiritual revival seems to be taking place. But in both cases, Jonah shares with God his dissatisfaction with his uncomfortable circumstances. Upon finding himself trapped inside the gullet of the giant fish, Jonah turned his attention to Yahweh.

I called out to the Lord, out of my distress – Jonah 2:1 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “distress” is ṣārâ, which literally means “tightness.” Jonah was in a literal and figurative “tight spot.” To put it another way, he was in dire straits, something the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a very bad or difficult situation.” And it was the unpleasant conditions of his surroundings that produced in him feelings of anguish and distress. He wanted out. He was looking for a way of escape. And he ended that prayer with the confident assertion: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 ESV).

But fast forward to chapter four. Jonah now stands in the crowded streets of Nineveh, where the citizens, covered in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning for their sins, are calling out to Yahweh. But rather than rejoicing in this incredible display of repentance, Jonah is “displeased…exceedingly” (Jonah 4:1 ESV). In Hebrew, that phrase literally reads, “Jonah was displeased with great displeasure.” He is enraged by what he is witnessing. And raʿ, the Hebrew word describing his displeasure, is also translated as “evil” elsewhere in the book. The previous chapter ended with the statement, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil (raʿ) way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV). 

The Ninevites had repented of their evil ways while Jonah was consumed by evil thoughts. He was angered by the thought that God might spare these pagan idolaters. He was repulsed by their displays of mourning and their cries for mercy from his God. And at this point in the narrative, Jonah had no way of knowing whether their actions would result in God sparing their lives. He wasn’t yet aware that God had already “relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 1:10 ESV). But he suspected as much, and the very thought of it left him in a fit of rage. He is literally “hot and bothered.” The Hebrew word is ḥārâ, and it means “to burn up.”

In chapter 3, the king of Nineveh expressed his hope that God might “turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger” (Jonah 3:9 ESV). The Hebrew word translated as “fierce” is ḥārôn, and it comes from the same root word as ḥārâ. It means “burning anger.” So, while God relented or turned from His righteous anger against the Ninevites, Jonah found himself consumed by self-righteous indignation.

So, in his “distress,” he called out to Yahweh, trying to explain the source of his consternation and concern.

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. – Jonah 4:2 NLT

He justified his rage by claiming that his worst fears had been realized. The potential repentance of the Ninevites was exactly why he had run away in the first place. Now, as he stood in the streets of Nineveh, he realized that his compassionate, gracious, and loving God might change His mind and let the guilty Ninevites off the hook. And that prospect appalled and angered him.

Jonah described Yahweh as being “slow to anger” and yet, here he was filled with uncontrollable rage at the thought of the Ninevites literally getting away with murder, torture, idolatry, and immorality. But Jonah seems to have an inflated sense of his own righteousness and that of the people of Israel. Somehow he believed that the chosen people of God were somehow deserving of God’s mercy and grace, but not the Gentiles of the world.

Back in chapter 1, Jonah slept like a baby while the Gentile sailors desperately struggled to save the ship and their lives. Even when they discovered that Jonah was the source of their predicament, they made one last attempt to row to shore rather than throw him overboard. They showed him mercy and extended him grace. But Jonah seemed unconcerned with either the physical or spiritual well-being of these pagan men. And it was only after he got exposed as the guilty party that he offered to sacrifice himself. But it seems that Jonah was more interested in ending his own life than in saving theirs. He would rather die than have to obey God’s command and go to Nineveh.

And as Jonah considered the unacceptable prospect of Nineveh being spared, he called on God to put him out of his misery.

“Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” – Jonah 4:3 NLT

Jonah would rather die than have to watch the sinful Ninevites escape the wrath of God. But his arrogant attitude failed to recognize his own guilt and worthiness of God’s judgment. When he had been trapped inside the belly of the great fish, Jonah had called on God to extend him mercy and grace. And God had heard his cry and spared his life. But Jonah suffered from short-term memory loss. And he seems to have conveniently forgotten the words of his fellow prophets, who had repeatedly declared the guilt of the people of Israel. Poor Hosea had been commanded by God to marry a prostitute who ended up bearing him three children. The first child was a son, whom God told Hosea to name Jezreel, “because in a little while I will punish the dynasty of Jehu on account of the bloodshed in the valley of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel” (Hosea 1:4 ESV).

At the birth of Hosea’s second child, God told him, “Name her No Pity’ (Lo-Ruhamah) because I will no longer have pity on the nation of Israel. For I will certainly not forgive their guilt” (Hosea 1:6 ESV). When Hosea’s wife gave birth to another son, God told him, “Name him ‘Not My People’ (Lo-Ammi), because you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9 ESV).

And yet, despite these sobering and convicting words from God, Hosea had also recorded the good news of God’s gracious and merciful forgiveness.

“However, in the future the number of the people of Israel will be like the sand of the sea that can be neither measured nor numbered. Although it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it will be said to them, “You are children of the living God!” Then the people of Judah and the people of Israel will be gathered together. They will appoint for themselves one leader, and will flourish in the land. Certainly, the day of Jezreel will be great!” – Hosea 1:10-11 NLT

The nation of Israel was guilty of having rejected God. They stood condemned before Him and worthy of His just and righteous judgment. God would be fully justified in punishing them for having broken their covenant commitment to Him.

“…you broke my covenant and betrayed my trust.” – Hosea 6:7 NLT

God would go on to describe the people of Israel as “silly, witless doves” (Hosea 7:11 ESV). The Hebrew word for “dove” is yônâ, which should sound familiar because it just happens to be Jonah’s name. This arrogant prophet, just like the people of Israel, was worthy of death. He didn’t need to give God an excuse to kill him. He was already worthy of God’s judgment and deserving of death. Yet God had spared his life. Jonah had been miraculously rescued from “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2 ESV. He had been able to praise God for having, “snatched me from the jaws of death” (Jonah 2:6 NLT). After having been graciously spared by God, Jonah had declared, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 ESV). And yet, here was this same man demanding that God take his life so he wouldn’t have to witness the salvation of the Ninevites.

But God, who is all-righteous and yet slow to anger, asked his pouting prophet if his rage was justified.

“Is it right for you to be angry about this?” – Jonah 4:4 NLT

Did Jonah really believe he had a right to stand in judgment over the Ninevites? Was he so blind to his own sin that he couldn’t see the hypocrisy of his own actions? But Jonah refused to answer God’s question. Instead, he simply walked away. Jonah “went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there” (Jonah 4:5 ESV). Still unaware of God’s plans for Nineveh, Jonah erected a shelter from which he could view the city and wait to see what God was going to do. The fact that he sought shelter outside the walls of the city reveals that he still had hopes that the destruction of Nineveh was a possibility. And there he sat, “till he should see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5 ESV).

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Relented

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.”

10 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. Jonah 3:6-10 ESV

There seems to be little doubt that Jonah delivered his message of God’s pending overthrow of the Ninevites with “evangelistic” zeal. As a dedicated Hebrew, Jonah would have relished the opportunity to be God’s messenger of destruction to such a wicked and godless people. He fully recognized the danger associated with his task but enthusiastically and repeatedly warned them, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). So, when the Ninevites responded to his message with repentance and not revenge, Jonah was completely dumbfounded and extremely disappointed. This was not the outcome he had hoped for. But it was the one he had feared. In the very next chapter, Jonah will express to God the depth of his displeasure and anger over the repentance of the Ninevites.

“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…” – Jonah 4:2 ESV

His worst fears had come to fruition. Rather than destroy the Ninevites, God had responded to them with grace, mercy, patience, and love. But rather than rejoicing over the miraculous conversion of these former enemies of Israel, Jonah complained bitterly to God. This brings us back to the opening line of this book.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah… – Jonah 1:1 ESV

In the original Hebrew, the very first word of this entire narrative was intended to set the stage for all that was to follow. It can be translated as “and it happened.” This word usually serves to connect the narrative to something that has preceded it. The author is letting his readers know that what they are about to read is a story, but it is not an isolated or independent one. The book of Jonah was not intended to be taken as a free-standing narrative but as an integral part of a much larger story. The author is linking his chronicle of Jonah’s Ninevite mission to the writings of Amos and Hosea. These two men had been prophets to the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II, making them contemporaries of Jonah. And like Jonah, both of them have books that bear their names. In those books, they paint a bleak image of the spiritual state of Israel.

There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
    and no knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
    they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. – Hosea 4:1-2 ESV

They have deeply corrupted themselves – Hosea 9:9 ESV

…they multiply falsehood and violence – Hosea 12:1 ESV

…you turn justice into poison
    and the sweet fruit of righteousness into bitterness – Amos 6:12 NLT

Amos and Hosea describe God’s people as rebellious, idolatrous, immoral, unjust, and stubbornly unrepentant. In fact, God says of them, “The more they were called, the more they went away” (Hosea 11:2 ESV). Amos reminds them how God had punished them with drought, famine, disease, and destruction, yet they would not return to Him (Amos 4:6).

God had repeatedly called His people to repentance.

“Seek me and live…” – Amos 5:4 ESV

Seek good, and not evil, that you may live – Amos 5:14 ESV

Hate evil, and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. – Amos 5:15 ESV

But God’s gracious calls to repent and return to Him had fallen on deaf ears. So, He had warned them that he would raise up a nation against them (Amos 6:14). And that brings us back to verse 1 of Jonah chapter one.

“Now (and it happened) the word of the Lord came to Jonah…” (Jonah 1:1 ESV). And God told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). But was their evil any worse than that of Israel? That seems to be the point. God was sending Jonah to a people who were renowned for their wickedness but Amos and Hosea had clearly exposed the wanton sinfulness of the covenant people of God.

By sending His reluctant prophet to Nineveh and bringing about the repentance of its godless inhabitants, God was indicting His own chosen people. He was revealing just how faithless and spiritually adulterous Israel really was. Years of prophetic warnings had failed to produce repentance among the covenant people of God. But Jonah’s message produced a citywide revival in Nineveh. It reminds me of the words of Jesus, spoken to the prideful, unrepentant religious leaders of Israel in His day.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:7-9 ESV

Jonah had claimed to be a Hebrew who feared the Lord, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). Yet, he had refused to obey the One he claimed to fear. In a similar way, the people of Israel had claimed to know God.

To me they cry, “My God, we—Israel—know you.” – Hosea 8:2 ESV

But God exposed their hypocrisy.

“They do not cry to me from the heart…” – Hosea 7:14 ESV

Yet, the people of Nineveh, who had no knowledge of or past experience with Yahweh, repented and mourned at the word of His prophet. Even the king of Nineveh “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6 ESV). This royal ruler of the dreaded Assyrian empire humbled himself before God Almighty. Yet the kings of Israel had repeatedly refused to bow the knee to Yahweh, choosing instead to lead the people into apostasy and idolatry. These arrogant, pride-filled kings had made a habit of turning their backs on God. And the day was coming when the people of Israel would find themselves without a king. The very same Assyrians who repented at Jonah’s message would eventually come to Israel as God’s agents of judgment. And, as a result, “Samaria’s king shall perish” (Hosea 10:11 ESV). But rather than respond in humility and repentance, the people of Israel will continue to reject Yahweh as their true King.

“We have no king,
for we do not fear the Lord;
    and a king—what could he do for us?” – Hosea 10:3 ESV

But, in stark contrast, Sennacherib, the king over Nineveh, “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’” (Jonah 3:7-8 ESV).

This was a corporate call for the entire city to fast and mourn before God. And the king included men and animals in that call. Every living creature within the walls of Nineveh was to experience the pain associated with self-denial. The Ninevites were even expected to deny their domesticated animals food and water, as a sign of the entire city’s humble submission to Yahweh. They recognized the pervasive nature of their sin and wanted to do whatever was necessary to assuage the righteous anger of Israel’s God.

The king was well aware of their corporate guilt and wanted to ensure that their repentance was equally shared among every stratum of society – from the rich to the poor. And he set the example, declaring his hope that Yahweh may yet show them mercy.

“Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” – Jonah 3:9 ESV

And when God saw that their repentance was sincere and heartfelt, “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” (Jonah 3:10 ESV). The God of the nations had graciously declared His message of pending judgment and His loving offer of redemption, and the Ninevites had responded in repentance.

But the prophet of Israel found all of this to be disconcerting and disappointing. He failed to see the lesson contained in the miraculous conversion of the Ninevites. The God he claimed to believe in was capable of saving even the worst of sinners. Yet the people whom God had graciously set apart as His own, had repeatedly refused to accept His call to repent and experience restoration and redemption. Jonah had just witnessed the truth of God’s statement to Moses lived out.

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

But Jonah would find no joy in the display of God’s grace, mercy, and love. And rather than being convicted by the repentance of the Ninevites, Jonah would respond in anger and resentment.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

They Believed God

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. Jonah 3:4-5 ESV

Jonah arose and went to Nineveh. Those six simple words would have hit the author’s Jewish audience like a brick. The thought of the lone prophet of God entering the gates of the infamous city would have created in them a sense of fear and foreboding. The Assyrians had a well-deserved reputation for immorality, idolatry, and wanton cruelty. Their empire-building aspirations had been marked by incessant conquest and marred by violent savagery. During the ninth century to the end of the seventh century BC, they were an unstoppable military juggernaut that used the torture and executions of its conquered enemies as a powerful public relations tool. They eagerly promoted this less-than-flattering aspect of their success to create a sense of fear and subjugation among those nations that remained yet unconquered.

One of their kings, Ashurnashirpal II, referred to himself as the “trampler of all enemies…who defeated all his enemies [and] hung the corpses of his enemies on posts” (Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Part 2: From Tiglath-pileser I to Ashuer-nasir-apli II, Wiesbadan, Term.: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976, p. 165). He proudly chronicles his treatment of the nobles of one city that had refused to surrender.

“I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses]; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile…I flayed many right through my land [and] draped their skins over the walls” (Grayson, p.124).

It was not uncommon for the Assyrians to behead and dismember their conquered foes. One particularly gruesome form of torture was their impaling of prisoners on wooden stakes. These gory displays were intended to be a macabre form of outdoor advertising, informing the remaining citizens of a conquered city to cooperate or face a similar fate.

But the Assyrians were more than cruel. They were idolatrous and immoral. And as the capital city of this godless nation, Nineveh would have been the epicenter of Assyrian power and perversion. The author describes Nineveh as “an exceedingly great city” (Jonah 3:3 ESV). In Hebrew, the phrase actually says, “a great city even in God’s sight.” The word translated as “exceedingly” in the ESV is actually ‘ĕlōhîm, which was most commonly used to refer to a god or divine being. Throughout the book of Jonah, the author substitutes the name ‘ĕlōhîm for Yahweh when speaking of God in association with the Gentiles. So, when he describes Nineveh as “great,” he is essentially saying that “Nineveh was a great metropolis belonging to God.” Another interpretation of this enigmatic phrase is “an important city for God’s purposes.”

It seems that the author wants us to know that Nineveh’s greatness has been sovereignly ordained. It is an allusion to God’s divine role in Assyria’s rapid rise to power and fame. They are divinely appointed instruments in His hands, created to accomplish His coming judgment against the rebellious people of Israel. And if this book was written after the fall of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 BC, then its readers would have clearly understood the author’s reference to Nineveh as belonging to God.

The greatness of Nineveh had been God’s doing. And this brings to mind another powerful and pride-filled king whom God would raise up as His instrument of judgment against the rebellious southern kingdom of Judah. King Nebuchadnezzar would eventually rise to power and use his Babylonian army to conquer the city of Jerusalem in 587 BC. But this very same king would end up taking credit for his success. At one point, he would stand on the balcony of his palace, pridefully surveying the work of his hands.

“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV

But Nebuchadnezzar would learn an important, if not humbling, lesson. God told the arrogant king that he was about to lose his mind and his kingdom. He would suffer a sudden bout of insanity and be forced to live like a wild animal in the wilderness. And the prophet Daniel told the king that his condition would last “until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32 ESV).

Nineveh and Babylon were “great” cities ruled over by “great” kings. But their domains and dominion were the sovereign work of God. And, whether he realized it or not, as Jonah walked through the gates of the “great” city of Nineveh, he wasn’t entering into enemy territory. He was walking into the realm of Yahweh. Nineveh did not belong to Sennacherib any more than Babylon belonged to Nebuchadnezzar. And while Ishtar was the primary god worshiped by the Ninevites, Yahweh was the one true God of the universe.

Just imagine this lone prophet of God walking through the streets of this massive metropolis declaring, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). That took courage. He was delivering a divine ultimatum to the citizens of the most powerful nation on earth. Jonah’s little encounter with the fish had made a powerful impression. He was motivated and took to his task with a renewed sense of vigor. But despite his zeal and enthusiasm, it seems that Jonah was fixated on one thing: The destruction of Nineveh. The author only records one message coming from the lips of the prophet: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And Jonah was probably counting the days. He was hoping and praying that God would rain down judgment upon the wicked people of Nineveh.

Jonah had been given a message from God, but it seems that he might have misunderstood what God had in mind. The key to understanding his confusion is found in the Hebrew word translated as “overthrown.” While that is an acceptable meaning of the word hāp̄aḵ, it is more often translated as “turn” in the Hebrew scriptures. It conveys the idea of turning about or turning back. Or to put it another way, it can refer to conversion. What God was telling Jonah was that within 40 days, the people of Nineveh would turn to Him. But Jonah heard what he wanted to hear. To him, the meaning of God’s message was clear: The Ninevites were about to face the wrath of Yahweh. So, he eagerly and enthusiastically walked the streets of Nineveh, delivering God’s divine ultimatum.

But he was in for a shock. His message did get a reaction, but not the one he had been expecting. It is likely that Jonah had fully expected to be arrested and executed for his efforts. After all, he had spent days walking through the capital city declaring its pending destruction. It was only a matter of time before his message was conveyed to the authorities and his prophetic career came to an abrupt and less-than-pleasant end.

Yet, the author states, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). What’s fascinating to consider is that nowhere in Jonah’s message does he seem to share the nature of their crime or the form of their pending punishment. There’s no indication that he provided them with a way to avert their “overthrow.” And the most glaring omission is his failure to mention the name of Yahweh. And yet, the people “believed God (ĕlōhîm).” Whether or not Jonah told them about God didn’t seem to matter. The Ninevites inherently understood that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites was sending them a message. And they heard that message and believed.

They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. – Jonah 3:5 ESV

We can only imagine how this sudden and surprising reaction impacted Jonah. He must have been beside himself with frustration and anger. This was exactly what he feared would happen, and it’s what had motivated him to run away in the first place. He longed for judgment against his enemies but instead, God had shown grace, mercy, and love. Jonah had been hoping for their overthrow but, instead, God orchestrated their conversion. They believed and repented. And they exhibited their change of heart by entering a state of mourning. They knew they were guilty and deserving of God’s judgment, but He had graciously provided them with an opportunity to turn to Him.

Once again, this story would have conveyed a powerful and convicting message to its original readers. The Jews living in exile in Assyria would have understood that they were being exposed for their own stubbornness and refusal to turn to Him. God had given them ample opportunities to hear His calls of repentance and respond in humility and belief. But they had refused – time and time again. And yet, here were the pagan Ninevites, hearing the message of God’s prophet for the very first time and responding in belief and humble repentance. Centuries later, Jesus recognized the underlying message found in the book of Jonah and conveyed it to His Jewish audience.

“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.” – Luke 11:32 ESV

Even in 1st-Century Israel, the people of God remained just as obstinate and unwilling to hear God’s message of repentance. Jesus, the greater Jonah, had appeared, declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). But as the apostle John points out, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). They refused to believe His message and rejected His offer of salvation. But John goes on to write, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13 ESV).

Jesus’ message of the Kingdom would be heard by Gentiles and they would believe. But the majority of His Jewish brothers and sisters would continue to reject His offer and remain stubbornly unwilling to repent and believe.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Something Greater Than Jonah

10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

1 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 2:10-3:3 ESV

Though the book bears Jonah’s name, it is really less about him than it is about the God he claims to worship. When quizzed by the sailors about his identity, Jonah had told them. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). And his summary statement concerning Yahweh was far truer than even Jonah imagined. He knew that his God was the creator of all things. Yahweh was all-powerful and the one true God. Jonah also viewed Yahweh as “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). And this great God of his, who had made the sea and the dry land, had been the one who sent the storm and had “appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17 ESV).

Jonah had failed miserably in his attempt to flee from the presence of God. Yahweh had never lost sight of Jonah and had been sovereignly orchestrating each and every aspect of his life, including the wind, the waves, and the giant fish. Once again, as the original Jewish audience read or heard this story, they would have been reminded of the greatness of their God. They would have recalled the words of the psalmists:

O Lord God of hosts,
    who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
    with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
    when its waves rise, you still them. – Psalm 89:8-9 ESV

Yahweh had made all the creatures in the seas and oceans of the world. And not only that, He had sovereign control over each and every one of them. When the author states that God “appointed” the fish that swallowed Jonah, he is essentially claiming that the fish was sovereignly ordained for its role. God had created this particular fish for this specific occasion. It had a pre-ordained role to play in God’s grand redemptive plan. Just as Jonah did. But Jonah didn’t like the part he had been assigned by God. So, he had run. But he didn’t get far.

In the vast depths of the Mediterranean Sea, the fish found Jonah and fulfilled the will of God. But the story doesn’t end there. God was not done with Jonah. And while Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish was far from pleasant, it was not intended as a form of final judgment. The fish would actually be the God-appointed means of Jonah’s deliverance. In his prayer, Jonah described his 3-day confinement as “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:1 ESV). As a Hebrew, Jonah understood Sheol to be “the place of the dead” or “the place of departed souls/spirits.” From his perspective, he was as good as dead. But he cried out to God and was graciously delivered. But notice how God brought about that deliverance.

…the Lord spoke to the fish… – Jonah 2:10 ESV

Yahweh didn’t address His reluctant but seemingly repentant prophet. He talked to the fish. He gave the fish instructions and it obeyed.

it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. – Jonah 2:10 ESV

God spoke, and the fish obeyed. And that minor detail should not be overlooked. It stands in stark contrast to the opening lines of the book, where God spoke to Jonah and His self-willed prophet responded in disobedience. God had told Jonah to go, and Jonah had basically told God, “No!” He expressed his autonomy by rejecting God’s command. And it was his stubborn determination to live according to his own will that had resulted in his unpleasant “captivity.”

But Jonah had been miraculously released from his imprisonment in Sheol. The fish had conveniently, albeit unceremoniously, vomited the renegade prophet on dry ground. His life had been spared. And he soon found that his original mission had been preserved. God had not changed His mind regarding Nineveh or chosen another prophet to fill Jonah’s sandals. Jonah’s flight and three-day ordeal in the belly of the fish had changed nothing. God was just as determined as ever for Jonah to deliver His message to “Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). And it seems that even before Jonah’s clothes had time to dry, God delivered His message a second time.

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.” – Jonah 3:1-2 ESV

Jonah’s flight, the deadly storm, and his unpleasant confinement in the belly of the great fish, while all significant to Jonah, were of little consequence to God. They had done nothing to alter God’s original plan. In fact, from God’s divine perspective, they had been part of the plan all along. God had not been caught off guard or surprised by Jonah’s actions. The prophet’s refusal to obey and his plan to run away had not forced God to come up with “Plan B.” No, every aspect of this story reflects the sovereign will of God over the affairs of men. God had sovereignly raised up Jonah to be a prophet, and He had preordained Jonah’s role in the redemption of Nineveh.

Now, stop for a moment and consider the significance of what is happening in the opening verses of chapter 3. Jonah has rejected the word of God and responded by attempting to run from the expressed will of God. But his disobedience did nothing to change God’s mind or alter the divine plan. After all the running, sailing, hurling, drowning, swallowing, pain and suffering, Jonah found himself standing before God and faced with the same unpleasant task.

“Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.” – Jonah 3:2 NLT

God had created the nation of Israel so that they might be a blessing to the nations. He had called, consecrated, and commissioned them to be a part of His divine plan of global redemption. They were not to be an end unto themselves. While they were the apple of His eye (Zechariah 2:8) and His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5 ESV, they had been set apart for a grand and glorious purpose that was bigger than their status as God’s chosen people. And whether they realized it or not, God was going to use them, in spite of them. Like Jonah, they would run away from His divine calling, choosing to live according to their own wills rather than obey His. For generations, they would rebel against God’s commands and pursue their own selfish agendas. But while they could run from God, they could never successfully escape His presence or avoid His will for them. He had told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV), and that promise would ultimately be fulfilled. Centuries of disobedience, seeming delays, defeats, and deportations would not keep God from accomplishing His plan. In fact, all these things would be part of the plan.

So, as the recently regurgitated Jonah stood on the shore, he heard those familiar words once again: “Get up and go…” And this time, he went.

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. – Jonah 3:2 ESV

Nineveh was still there, and the people of Nineveh were just as wicked as they had ever been. But there was one more thing that remained unchanged: God’s plan for the city and its inhabitants. And whether Jonah liked it or not, God was going to use him to pour out a blessing on the immoral and totally unworthy people of Nineveh.

For those of us living on this side of the cross, this scene should remind us of the words of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son… ” – John 3:16 ESV

God loves the people of Israel, but His love is not exclusive to them. They were intended to be the conduit through which His divine love flowed to the nations of the world. And God had planned all along that His Son would enter the world, born a descendant of Abraham, and of the seed of David so that He might be the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. The apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus was the means by which God had always intended to bless the nations.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

Jesus wasn’t “Plan B.” He wasn’t some kind of last-minute stand-in, a divine proxy sent to fix what the people of Israel had failed to do. Jesus had been the plan all along, and Peter makes this point powerfully clear.

God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:20 NLT

In a sense, the story of Jonah is like reading the Cliff Notes of a much larger work. It provides a synopsis of the greater story of redemption that runs from the opening lines of Genesis to the final verses of the book of Revelation. Jonah is a bit player in the grand narrative of God’s divine plan for the restoration of all things. He, like Israel, is portrayed as a reluctant and sometimes rebellious tool in the hands of the sovereign God of the universe. He is one of many characters found in the Scriptures who, despite their flaws and failings, are used by God to accomplish His plan to bless the nations. Ultimately, Jonah points to Jesus. And, centuries later, Jesus would use the life and ministry of Jonah and the repentance of the Ninevites to condemn the unbelieving, unrepentant Jews of His day.

“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. – Luke 11:32 ESV

Something greater than Jonah is here. And it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the ultimate blessing to the nations.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God’s Plan of Deliverance

1 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!” Jonah 2:1-9 ESV

Does the story of Jonah contain allegorical elements? It seems quite clear that the author is attempting to convey more than just a historical recounting of Jonah’s life. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he has recorded the details concerning Jonah’s ordeal in order to convey an important message to his primary audience: The chosen people of God. He reveals distinct and not-so-subtle parallels between Jonah’s life and the descendants of Abraham: The Hebrew nation. But this allegorical connection does not in any way diminish or dismiss the historical nature of the book’s content. If anything, it reinforces it. The real-life experiences of Jonah are meant to be a powerful reminder of God’s sovereignty, power, grace, mercy, and love. And the fact that these events really did take place would have provided the book’s original readers with a sense of God’s control over all things.

This relatively short book is packed with Old Testament scriptural references that its original readers would have quickly recognized. There are allusions to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, two renowned prophets of God. Its narrative style brings to mind the stories of Ruth and Esther, two other Old Testament books that convey powerful messages concerning God’s sovereignty and power. Both are stories about individuals that carry much broader truths concerning God’s interactions with His chosen people. And the book of Jonah contains countless references to the Psalms. In today’s passage alone, there are at least 21 direct links.

These Old Testament references are intended to provide an indisputable connection between Jonah’s current circumstances and the historical record of Israel. This one man’s ordeal is meant to reflect the corporate experience of the entire nation. And through it all, the reader is encouraged to recognize the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes to accomplish His divine will – not just for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. And they were intended to apply this powerful truth to their own lives. God was in full control and had a plan in place that would bring about His will concerning the redemption of the world through His chosen instrument.

So, as the Jewish audience read of Jonah’s flight from God, the ensuing storm, and his eventual imprisonment in the belly of the great fish, they were meant to see themselves in the story. If the book of Jonah has a post-exilic date of authorship, as many scholars believe, then the people of Israel would have been reading its content while living as slaves in Assyria. The conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel began in 740 BC and culminated nearly 20 years later when the capital city, Samaria, was overtaken by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V. This devastating defeat resulted in the deportation of thousands of Israelites to Assyria. And this terrible plight could have been avoided had the people listened to the calls of Elijah and Elisha to repent and return to Yahweh.

So, reading of Jonah being trapped in the belly of the fish would have had a particularly powerful impact on these exiles. They were in a similar predicament. But what did Jonah do? How did he respond? Chapter two provides us with the answer.

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish – Jonah 2:1 ESV

And it’s important to recognize that it was only when he found himself confined to the fish’s stomach that Jonah cried out to God. Earlier, when the storm was raging and the sailors were desperately calling on their various gods to save them, Jonah had been sleeping like a baby. The ship’s captain even chastised Jonah for his lack of concern, shouting, “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives” (Jonah 1:6 NLT). But there is no indication that Jonah ever uttered a single word to Yahweh on their behalf. 

But now, in the darkness and dampness of his aquatic prison, Jonah cried out to God. And the record of his prayer provides a glimpse into Jonah’s knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and his basic understanding of Yahweh. He begins by quoting Psalm 120:1:

In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.

Jonah is clearly referencing one of the songs of ascent, psalms that were sung by the people of Israel as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual feasts established by God. These were songs of thanksgiving that celebrated God’s many acts of deliverance. Jonah, in the midst of his predicament, is thanking God for what He is about to do. He expresses confidence in God’s compassion and willingness to deliver the repentant. And clearly referencing Psalm 30, Jonah speaks in the past tense, reflecting his belief that God will hear his prayer and respond.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” – Psalm 30:1-2 ESV

Like King David, Jonah cries out to God from the literal depths of his despair.

“Save me, O God!
    For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.” – Psalm 69:1-12 ESV

Jonah finds himself in a hopeless situation, unable to save himself and forced to call out to God for deliverance. He is surrounded by darkness and sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean, further and further away from God. And yet, even in this dire circumstance, his mind recalls the words of King David.

I had said in my alarm,
    “I am cut off from your sight.”
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
    when I cried to you for help. – Psalm31:22 ESV

The man who had attempted to “flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV), is now feeling cut off from God. Yet, he is able to express his confidence that God will deliver him. “I shall again look upon your holy temple” (Jonah 2:4 ESV). This is a direct reference to another psalm of David: Psalm 5, verse 7. Jonah is attempting to keep his focus on the faithfulness of God by recalling the many psalms that reflect God’s goodness and past acts of divine deliverance. And he speaks in terms that project hope in the face of adversity.

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. – Jonah 2:5-6 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds comfort in the psalms of David, reminding himself that God is far greater than his worst predicament.

O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. – Psalm 30:3 ESV

As Jonah sank deeper and deeper into the sea, he cried out louder and louder, believing that his God could and would hear him from His holy temple. Distance and darkness are no problem for God. As King David said:

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. – Psalm 139:9-12 ESV

But Jonah ends his prayer in a somewhat prideful and arrogant tone, seemingly comparing himself to the pagan sailors who had tossed him overboard.

Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love. – Jonah 2:8 ESV

What Jonah didn’t know was what had happened to those men when they threw him overboard and the storm subsided.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. – Jonah 1:16 ESV

These former idolaters believed in Yahweh and expressed their gratitude for His goodness by offering sacrifices and making vows. But Jonah assumes that these men remained worshipers of false gods. He viewed them as pagan Gentiles who would never understand or experience the steadfast love of Yahweh. But he was wrong. And he arrogantly bragged about how he would pay God back for His deliverance.

“But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9 ESV

Notice that nowhere in his prayer does Jonah mention Nineveh or the people who live there. He offers up no prayer of intercession on their behalf. Instead, he seems to echo the words of the self-righteous Pharisee from the story told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

“I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

Jonah shows no regard for the nations of the earth. He had been more than willing to sleep while the Gentile sailors went to their deaths. And he had chosen to disobey God rather than deliver His message to the wicked citizens of Nineveh. Yet, when he found himself in desperate circumstances, Jonah called upon his gracious and merciful God. As a Jew, he believed he somehow deserved to be saved. And his self-consumed prayer seems to reflect the hearts of the people living in exile. They too had come to believe that they were deserving of God’s deliverance. Even their prophets were prophesying falsehoods, proclaiming that their days in exile would be few. These men were guilty of leading the people astray, allowing them to think that, despite their captivity, all was well between them and God.

After Jonah completed his prayer to God, the author records, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10 ESV). Don’t miss the significance of that statement. It says that God spoke to the fish, but not to Jonah. Yahweh does not respond to Jonah’s pious-sounding words. Instead, He speaks to the fish and commands that it deliver Jonah to dry land. The fish in which Jonah had been imprisoned suddenly became God’s instrument of deliverance. And not only for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. God would use the fish to accomplish His divine plan of redemption, and God would use His reluctant and rebellious prophet as well. The sovereign will of God would be done.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

With God, All Things Are Possible

17 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. Jonah 1:17 ESV

Now we come to the part of the story that catches everyone’s imagination. The very idea of a giant fish swallowing a man is both terrifying and fascinating. It catches the reader’s imagination and creates a certain sense of incredulity. Up to this point, the account of Jonah’s life has had a decidedly biographical and historical feel to it. But when the big fish enters the scene, it all takes on the character of a tall tale. Suddenly, the chronicle of Jonah’s travels reads more like a page out of Aesop’s Fables. This one aspect of the story, while not entirely impossible, seems highly improbable. That is what has led so many modern biblical scholars and commentators to classify the book of Jonah as either allegorical or parabolic. They reject the historicity of the book, characterizing it as an allegorical story that portrays Jonah as a symbol of Israel and the fish as a representation of Babylon. The rebellious Jonah is swallowed by a divinely ordained monster, just as God’s rebellious and unrepentant people will be consumed and taken captive by the Babylonians. They will spend an extended time in “the belly of the great fish” only to find themselves graciously disgorged back into the land of promise at the end of their 70-year exile.

Others have chosen to interpret the story of Jonah as simply a parable. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a parable is a “short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” It is a common teaching methodology that attempts to convey deeper truths using simple, easy-to-understand stories that utilize simile and metaphor. Seen as a parable, the story of Jonah becomes a visual illustration that decries the danger of narrow-minded nationalism or promotes the universal love of God. Everything in the story takes on a comparative quality, requiring the reader to determine the symbolism behind each actor and action.

But for centuries, most Jewish and Christian scholars used the historical interpretive model when approaching the book of Jonah. They viewed Jonah as a real person and the contents of the book bearing his name as a record of actual events. They viewed the fantastic and somewhat fanciful scenes described in the story through their understanding of God’s omnipotence and the clear record of God’s inexplicable actions as found in the rest of the Scriptures. The likelihood of God causing a great fish to swallow Jonah is no less plausible than His dividing of the waters of the Red Sea so that the people of Israel could cross over on dry ground. In their minds, Yahweh was the God of the impossible. It was Jeremiah the prophet who wrote, “Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17 ESV). And God would respond to the prophet with a rhetorical question: Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27 ESV). Jesus Himself said of His Heavenly Father, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

To claim the historicity of the book of Jonah is not to say that it contains no allegorical elements or parabolic lessons. It clearly does. But to deny that the book has any credible historical value seems to contradict the view that Jesus held. Over in the gospel of Matthew, there is a record of Jesus’ encounter with some scribes and Pharisees who had demanded that He perform a sign. These skeptical Jewish religious leaders were attempting to set Jesus up. They were hoping they could entice Him to perform a miracle that would violate their laws against doing work on the Sabbath. But Jesus refused to take the bait. Instead, He recounted the story of Jonah in the belly of the great fish.

“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 12:39-41 ESV

Jesus did not treat the story of Jonah as some allegorical tale or a parable with a moral lesson. He described Jonah as spending three days and nights in the belly of the fish. And this historical event was meant to foreshadow His own pending death and burial. These men would have been intimately familiar with the story of Jonah. Jesus doesn’t mention Jonah’s release from his aquatic confinement, but they knew that the “resurrected” Jonah eventually made it to Nineveh and declared the word of the Lord. And the result was the redemption of the city’s pagan inhabitants. Yes, Jonah was intended to be a sign of something greater to come, but that does not eliminate the fact that the events of his life actually happened. And Jesus will revisit the story of Jonah’s life again. As Jesus’ popularity increased so did the size of the crowds who followed Him. But He knew that many of the Jewish people were attracted to Him for the wrong reasons. They were intrigued by His miracles and wished to see Him do more. This led Him to compare them to the people of Nineveh.

“This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.…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.” – Luke 11:29, 31 ESV

In this case, Jesus doesn’t mention Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Instead, He declares that Jonah himself was “a sign” to the people of Nineveh. After his “resurrection” from the dead, Jonah appeared in Nineveh preaching a message of pending judgment.

“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” – Jonah 3:4 ESV

But this message of doom was accompanied by a call to repentance because the text goes on to say, “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” ( Jonah 3:5 ESV). And Jesus goes on to commend the wicked people of Nineveh for heeding the words of Jonah and experiencing the salvation of God. Then He declares boldly declares Himself to be greater than Jonah. He had come preaching a message of repentance but the people of Israel were refusing to respond and believe. They wanted to see signs, but were rejecting the “sign of Jonah” – the call to repent.

On yet another occasion, a contingent of Sadducees and Pharisees came to Jesus demanding that He perform a “sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1 ESV). They were looking for verifiable proof that He was the Son of God. They refused to believe that He was the Messiah and viewed all His previous miracles as nothing more than the works of Satan. But, once again, Jesus refused to give in to their demands. Instead, he exposed their inability to see “the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3 ESV). They could successfully predict the weather by looking at the sky but were blind to the many visible proofs of Jesus’ identity and mission. So, He told them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4 ESV).

These religious leaders were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been very familiar with the story of Jonah. They would have believed in the historicity of Jonah’s encounter with the fish and his ultimate rescue by the hand of God. The story of the prophet’s venture into the Assyrian capital and the repentance of its wicked inhabitants would have been familiar to them. But Jesus wants them to know that the only sign they are going to receive will be His own death and resurrection. And even that miraculous sign will refuse to convince them. Despite the incredible nature of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the majority of the Jewish people will remain “an evil and adulterous generation.”

As the apostle John wrote in his gospel account, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). The light of God penetrated the darkness of the world, but “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).

Jonah was a Hebrew prophet who had ministered to the king of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). Yet God had commissioned him to go to a pagan city full of wicked idolaters. But Jonah chose to disobey God’s orders by seeking passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. In his attempt to escape God’s call, he soon found himself surrounded by pagan sailors in the midst of a life-threatening storm. And his stubborn refusal to obey the word of Yahweh resulted in him being thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant fish.

Preposterous? Possibly. Difficult to believe? Most certainly. But the story’s believability does not invalidate its credibility. Everything about this story is meant to be beyond the scope of human reason. Why would God send His prophet to a nation that was marked by wickedness and evil beyond description? Why would He threaten the lives of the men on board the ship, by hurling “a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV)? What was the purpose behind the sailors casting lots and Jonah being exposed as the guilty party? And what are we to do with the unbelievable statement that “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17 ESV)?

Simply put, we are to believe. The story of Jonah is real and it points to the even greater and more implausible story of God sending His Son into a world darkened by sin so that He might be the light to the nations. And the apostle John succinctly summarizes the incredible story of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:9-13 ESV

Jonah was swallowed by the fish. Jesus was swallowed by the grave. But both were resurrected by the sovereign will of God the Father and went on to declare the gracious plan of redemption to all those who would believe.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Man Overboard

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.” 10 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.

11 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. 12 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.” 13 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. 14 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.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. Jonah 1:8-16 ESV

Proverbs 16:33 states: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” In other words, the sovereign God of the universe is the final determiner of all matters. And a similar thought is expressed in Proverbs 16:9: “A man’s heart plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” Jonah had come up with a plan to “to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV). But God was determining his every step – from the boat he sailed on to the crew he sailed with. And God was the one who “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). And when the frightened sailors cast lots to discover the identity of the one with whom the gods were angry, Yahweh determined the outcome. Lot was divinely exposed as the cause of the storm. The violent wind and waves were directed at this unidentified stranger who had been sleeping soundly in the hold of the ship. He was the guilty party.

And these weary sailors stop their frantic efforts to save the ship just long enough to pepper Jonah with questions. First, they diplomatically avoid any direct accusations against Jonah. Instead, they simply ask him to explain what had happened to bring down the wrath of the gods.

“Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us.” – Jonah 1:8 ESV

Had someone placed a curse on Jonah? Had he done something to offend his god? This led them to ask what he did for a living. Perhaps he was a priest or some kind of royal dignitary. Could his occupation have something to do with their current dilemma?

These questions seem to come in rapid-fire succession, with the fear-filled sailors shouting them out over the noise of the storm. One demands to know where Jonah comes from. They know his destination is Tarshish, but they have no idea about his place of origin. Another sailor hones in on the identity of Jonah’s home country. Where does he hail from? Maybe this will shed some light on their desperate situation. Finally, one of the sailors asks Jonah to reveal his nationality?

It seems obvious that these men were looking for an answer to their pressing problem. Their ship was beginning to succumb to the relentless crashing of the waves and the damaging impact of the wind. They had bailed water, discarded cargo, and rowed until their muscles ached, but nothing was working. So, when the lot fell to Jonah, revealing him to be the one responsible for their predicament, they redirected all their attention to him. But his response to their questions provided little in the way of an explanation as to what was happening and no hope as to a solution.

“I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” – Jonah 1:9 ESV

Evidently, this was not the full extent of Jonah’s answer. At some point, he confessed that he was attempting to run from God.

the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. – Jonah 1:10 ESV

Even these pagan sailors recognized that this was a very bad idea, and they express their consternation to Jonah. “What is this that you have done!” (Jonah 1:10 ESV). Their shock and confusion seem to be based on Jonah’s admission that he worships “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). They are dumbfounded that Jonah was attempting to escape by sea from the very God who created the sea. What was he thinking? To their simple way of thinking, Jonah’s God had dominion over the sea and the land because He had created them. So, how did Jonah think he could ever get away from his God? His venture had been doomed from the beginning and now he had dragged them into it.

While this dialogue between Jonah and the sailors was taking place, the storm continued to rage. In fact, it actually increased in intensity.

the sea grew more and more tempestuous. – Jonah 1:11 ESV

By this time, the sailors are desperate to find a solution to their growing problem. So, they turn to Jonah for an answer. They had no knowledge of Jonah’s God or what kind of sacrifices He might require to assuage His anger. This led them to ask Jonah, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” (Jonah 1:11 ESV).

At this point in the narrative, it’s important that we pause and reconsider the original audience to whom this story was directed. The author had a Hebrew readership in mind when he penned this epic tale. His retelling of Jonah’s story was intended to strike a nerve with the people of God. In a way, this entire book is a historical record of one man’s life that serves as a powerful allegory for the nation of Israel. As the Jews read this riveting account of Jonah’s life, they couldn’t help but see the striking similarities to their own national story.

The children of God had a long and infamous track record of running from God. And like Jonah, they were proud of their Hebrew heritage and would have gladly claimed to “fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). Yet, they had constantly turned their backs on Him. They were guilty of apostasy and disobedience. God had called them to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3), but they had failed to live up to that calling. Through their countless acts of disobedience, they had actually damaged the name and the reputation of God among the Gentiles.

“I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them.” – Ezekiel 36:23 ESV

And as they read this account of Jonah’s life, it was like looking into a mirror and seeing their own reflection. Jonah was on a boat in the middle of a raging storm, surrounded by pagans who were desperately seeking to know what they needed to do to be saved. These helpless Gentiles were asking the sole Hebrew on their sinking ship for advice. Like the Philippian jailer in the book of Acts, each of these hapless sailors was asking Jonah, “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 ESV). And God had positioned the nation of Israel to be a light to the nations, shining the brightness of His grace and mercy in the darkness of a sin-stained world.

But look at Jonah’s answer to the sailors’ desperate plea for direction. When they ask, “What shall we do?,” he simply responds, “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” (Jonah 1:12 ESV). Jonah’s solution to their plight is the sacrifice of his own life. But before we assume that Jonah is driven by some sense of compassion for his pagan shipmates, we have to recall that Jonah had made a conscious decision to reject God’s call to go to Nineveh. And as we will see later in the story, Jonah’s offer to be thrown overboard was little more than a death wish. He would rather die than obey God. And, once again, the Jews who read this story would have been reminded of their own obstinate refusal to repent and return to God. Over the centuries, they had proven that they would rather face the wrath and judgment of God than live in keeping with His commands.

Amazingly, the sailors show more compassion than Jonah. Rather than listen to his advice and throw him into the sea, they make one last attempt to reach landfall. But the storm only grows worse and they are forced to call out to Jonah’s God.

“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.” – Jonah 1:14 ESV

These men become instruments in the hand of God, meting out His judgment on the disobedient prophet. They reluctantly hurl Jonah over the railing of the ship and, immediately, “the sea ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:15 ESV). The action of these unbelieving Gentiles accomplished the will of God and satisfied the wrath of God. And they believed.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. – Jonah 1:16 ESV

As Jonah sank beneath the waves, these unregenerate Gentiles sank to their knees in adoration of “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). They worshiped Yahweh, the God of Jonah, by offering Him sacrifices and making vows. Jonah had remained unrepentant to the bitter end. He would rather drown than return to Joppa and obey the command of God. And as the Jewish audience reached this point in the story, they should have learned a powerful lesson. God was going to bring the light of His glory and grace to the Gentiles one way or the other. God wasn’t dependent on Jonah to accomplish His will for the nations. And God’s plan of redemption for the world would not be stymied by Israel’s refusal to live in obedience to His commands. His will would be done. And like Jonah, they would discover that their own day of judgment. But their seeming demise would not be the end. Their “death” would only serve to bring life as God would graciously preserve His people so that He might send His Son as the seed of Abraham and the light to the world.

And God foretells the coming of His chosen servant through the prophet Isaiah.

“You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 NLT

God was not done with Israel and, as we shall see, He was not done with Jonah.

 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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

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. Jonah 1:4-7 ESV

God told Jonah to “get up and go” and that is exactly what he did. But in the wrong direction. Rather than head to Nineveh as God had commanded, Jonah decided to “to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV). While we have no idea of the exact location of Tarshish, we do know that it was nowhere near Nineveh. In fact, to go there, Jonah headed east to the city of Joppa on the Mediterranean coast, where he hired a boat. Some speculate that Tarshish was another name for the city of Tartesus in southwest Spain. In Jonah’s day, the 2,500-mile journey to this remote location would have been like traveling to the end of the world.

But for Jonah, the trip was well worth the effort and expense. He was determined to get as far away from the land of Israel as he possibly could. Among the people of the ancient world, it was a common belief that the gods were regionalized deities whose domains were restricted to specific geographic locations. We have an example of this mindset recorded in 1 Kings 20. In this account, the Israelite army finds itself encamped in a valley, facing a much larger Syrian force. But God delivers a word to the king of Israel.

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” – 1 Kings 20:28 ESV

Based on his actions, it seems that Jonah believed that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was somehow restricted to that region of the world. After all, the temple where God’s presence was said to dwell was located in Jerusalem.

Three separate times in this opening chapter, the author stresses that Jonah was attempting to flee from the presence of the Lord. In other words, his decision to go to Tarshish was motivated by a desire to get away from God. Having found the task assigned to him by God to be unacceptable, Jonah chose to avoid doing God’s will by escaping His presence. And this raises some serious questions about Jonah’s theology. Did he really think he could run from God? As a good Hebrew and a prophet of God, was he not aware of the concept of God’s omnipresence? Had he never read the words of King David?

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.” – Psalm 139:7-12 ESV

To think that Jonah had a fully formed theology of God would be a mistake. Later in the book, he will display an intimate understanding of God’s nature.

“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” – Jonah 4:2 ESV

But we should not assume that Jonah’s concept of God was fully complete or entirely accurate. Even his understanding of God’s grace and mercy seems a bit skewed. He almost describes these divine traits as weaknesses, that might somehow allow God to relent from pouring out His judgment on the Assyrians. Jonah describes his understanding of God’s grace, mercy, patience, and love as the very reasons why he ran away in the first place. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish” (Jonah 4:2 ESV).

Rather than run the risk of having to watch God spare the Ninevites, Jonah simply ran away. But he was about to discover the truth behind David’s words – the hard way.

The author matter-of-factly states that “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). It’s almost as if, at the very moment Jonah stepped foot on the boat, his plan began to fall apart. His hope to escape the presence of the Lord was met with a divine reminder that running from God is not only futile but utterly impossible.

The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all the children of man;
from where he sits enthroned he looks out
    on all the inhabitants of the earth,
he who fashions the hearts of them all
    and observes all their deeds. – Psalm 33:12-15 ESV

And the prophet Amos, a contemporary of Jonah, had declared God’s words of judgment against the rebellious people of Israel.

“Even if they dig down to the place of the dead,
    I will reach down and pull them up.
Even if they climb up into the heavens,
    I will bring them down.
Even if they hide at the very top of Mount Carmel,
    I will search them out and capture them.
Even if they hide at the bottom of the ocean,
    I will send the sea serpent after them to bite them.” – Amos 9:2-3 NLT

Little did Jonah know that he was about to experience the words of this prophetic statement in real life. He could run but he couldn’t hide. Jonah had no idea that he had just purchased a ticket to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

One of the things that will become readily apparent as we work our way through the book of Jonah is the author’s habit of repeating certain words for emphasis. He states that God “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). One verse later, he writes that the sailors “hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them” (Jonan 1:5 ESV). And in verse 15, he will bring this part of Jonah’s story to a climax by stating that “they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea” (Jonah 1:15 ESV). The Hebrew word for “hurled” is ṭûl and it was often used to describe the act of casting a spear. Like a divine warrior, God uses the elements of nature like a weapon, flinging the wind and the waves at his reluctant and rebellious prophet. And the psalmist describes the Lord’s sovereign authority over the wind and the waves in graphic terms.

Some went off to sea in ships,
    plying the trade routes of the world.
They, too, observed the Lord’s power in action,
    his impressive works on the deepest seas.
He spoke, and the winds rose,
    stirring up the waves.
Their ships were tossed to the heavens
    and plunged again to the depths;
    the sailors cringed in terror.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards
    and were at their wits’ end.
Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress. – Psalm 107:23-28 NLT

That is the scene being played out in the opening chapter of the book of Jonah. God is hurling his divine weapons of judgment against the ship in which his prodigal prophet has sought refuge. And the sailors responsible for Jonah’s safe passage find themselves in a state of abject fear as their vessel begins to break up under the relentless wrath of God Almighty. As a sign of their desperation, they begin to jettison the ship’s valuable cargo, willingly sacrificing any hopes of profit in order to preserve their lives. In 1 Kings 10:22, we are given a description of the potential value of the cargo contained on ships traveling to and from Tarshish.

…the king [Solomon] had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. – 1 Kings 10:22 ESV

These seasoned sailors were terrified by the intensity of the storm. So much so that they “each cried out to his god” (Jonah 1:5 ESV). These men were non-Israelites and the fact that they each had their own god would seem to indicate that were from different countries and cultures.  Little did Jonah know that his traveling companions were a mixed bag of pagan idol worshipers. And these men were in fear of losing their lives. But while they were busy calling out to their respective deities and throwing cargo overboard, Jonah was fast asleep in the hold of the ship.

It’s amazing to think that Jonah was able to sleep through the storm and the constant noise associated with the sailors’ frantic efforts to jettison cargo. But the author is very specific in the word he uses to describe Jonah’s slumbering state. The Hebrew word is rāḏam and it conveys the idea of a sleep bordering on unconsciousness. Jonah is in a state of stupefaction. He is out like a light. Perhaps Jonah had imbibed in some liquid refreshment that contributed to his coma-like condition. But regardless of what caused Jonah’s deep sleep, it was soon interrupted by the angry cries of the ship’s captain.

“How can you sleep at a time like this?”Jonah 1:6 NLT

It was all hands on deck. This was no time for anyone to be sleeping while sinking. He demanded that Jonah join the rest of the crew by calling on his particular deity of choice. He was an equal-opportunity idolater who was more than willing to accept the aid of any and all gods. At this point, he had no idea who Jonah was, where he was from, or what religion he practiced. He just knew that, without divine intervention, they were dead men.

“Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.” – Jonah 1:6 NLT

It should not go unnoticed that these pagan sailors displayed far more spiritual awareness than the Hebrew prophet, Jonah. While they had been praying, Jonah had been sleeping. He almost seems resigned to the fact that his life is not worth living if he has to do what God has commanded him to do. Jonah shows no signs of remorse or regret. He was not tossing and turning in sleepless anxiety, questioning his actions, or agonizing over his decision to disobey God. He was sleeping like an innocent baby. But these pagan sailors seemed to recognize that this storm had divine retribution written all over it. Someone was guilty of something and the god(s) were angry. So, in the hopes of assuaging the divine wrath, they come up with a plan to discover the identity of the guilty party.

“Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” – Jonah 1:7 ESV

And, not surprisingly, “the lot fell on Jonah” (Jonah 1:7 ESV). These sailors discovered what the readers of the book already knew. Jonah was the cause of all their troubles. This unknown and unnamed passenger had uncaringly jeopardized the lives of the entire crew. And whatever deity Jonah worshiped was going to kill them all if they didn’t figure out a way to appease its wrath.

Jonah, the Hebrew prophet, showed no concern for the suffering sailors. At no point does this servant of Yahweh display a heart for these pagan idolaters who were desperately calling out to the gods in hopes of experiencing salvation. Jonah was a follower of the one true God, but he had no desire to share what he knew with these desperate and dying men. There is no indication that Jonah ever prayed to Yahweh on their behalf. He was too busy running from the presence of God to take time to call on the power of God. And as the representative of Israel, Jonah displayed their ongoing reticence to be a light to the nations.

 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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Glory of God’s Grace

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. Jonah 1:1-3 ESV

When most of us hear the name, Jonah, we immediately think of his encounter with the big fish. But long before Jonah found himself in the “belly of the whale,” he had a divine encounter with God Almighty. The opening line of the book describes Jonah receiving “the word of the Lord.” In this verse, the Hebrew name used of God is Yᵊhōvâ, which is sometimes translated as Jehovah. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it was written as YHWH. This is because, in its written form, ancient Hebrew did not include the vowels. Also known as the tetragrammaton, this abbreviated name of God has been the center of much debate regarding its exact pronunciation. Some argue that it should be pronounced, “Yahweh” (YAH-way), while others prefer “Yehowah,” which, in its more modernized form, became “Jehovah.” But regardless of how the word is pronounced, it’s important that we understand that YHWH is the central character of this story, not Jonah. Within the context of 48 verses, the author will mention God 39 times, using three different names in the process. And these varying names of God are directly associated with the different characters and circumstances found in the story.

For instance, YHWH (Yahweh) is used 22 times and almost exclusively in those instances when God is dealing directly with Jonah, who happens to be a Hebrew. Yet when God interacts with Gentiles in the story, the author uses the more generic name Elohim or El. He does this 13 times. Finally, there are four occasions when God is referred to as YHWH Elohim or Lord God. We see this in verse 9 of the opening chapter when Jonah tells the sailors the name of the God he worships.

For the author, these varying designations for God serve an important purpose. They help to establish the difference between God’s relationship with His chosen people and the rest of the Gentile world. As was stated in yesterday’s post, Jonah is intended to represent the Jewish people. But as the story unfolds, we will be introduced to Gentile sailors and an entire city comprised of evil Gentile Assyrians. As a Hebrew, Jonah would have had an intimate understanding of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the Gentile captain of the boat on which Jonah attempted to flee from God would have had little knowledge of the God of Israel. So, in verse 9, when he begs Jonah to “call out to your god!” he uses the more generic term, “Elohim.”

The entire story found in the book of Jonah is about God’s relationship with mankind. It begins with YHWH commissioning Jonah, a privileged member of the Hebrew nation. But the task Jonah is given reveals that, while YHWH is the God of Israel, He has a vested interest in all of humanity. He is YHWH, the God of Israel, and Elohim, the God of all the nations of the earth. And this small book presents a stark contrast between God’s interactions with His chosen people and the non-Israelites who share planet earth with them.

God had set the descendants of Abraham apart for a reason. He had chosen them so that they might be a light to the nations. Their unique relationship with Him was to have been a living witness to the rest of the world, illustrating how sinful, undeserving humanity might be restored to a right relationship with their creator. And throughout the book, we will see how Jonah, as the representative of Israel, interacts and interfaces with the Gentile world. He will receive a clear call that requires him to deliver a message from God to “to Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). And when the author describes Nineveh as “evil,” his Hebrew audience would have viewed this as a flagrant understatement.

The Assyrians were known for the cruelty. In fact, they actively advertised their brutality, using it as a form of psychological warfare. Detailed descriptions of their atrocities have been found in their own records and carved into the walls of their palaces and administrative buildings. It was not uncommon for the Assyrians to practice torture on their victims that ranged from the gouging out of eyes to the cutting off of limbs. These non-lethal disfigurements were intended to strike fear into their conquered foes, eliminating any threat of insurrection. But the Assyrians were also known for their mass executions, which included the impalement of victims on large stakes. Once again, these gruesome public displays were meant to be a powerful deterrent to rebellion.

With these images in mind, consider how the original Jewish audience who heard the words of this book must have felt. Better yet, consider how Jonah, the one who received the commission to go to Nineveh must have felt. He was being sent into the belly of the beast – right into the heart of darkness. FromJonah’s perspective, there was no more wicked place on planet earth than Nineveh. And God was commanding Jonah to travel all the way to this pagan kingdom with a message of doom and gloom.

“…call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” – Jonah 1:2 ESV

Jonah seemed to know exactly what God was saying. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah was a prophet of YHWH. And as a prophet, he would have been familiar with God’s views on Nineveh. Another prophet, Nahum, who happened to be Jonah’s contemporary, had issued some strong words against the Assyrian capital city. He accused them of plotting against God (Nahum 1:9, 11). He described them as vile or despicable (Nahum 1:14). He used highly inflammatory and unflattering terms to describe their insatiable desire for global domination:

What sorrow awaits Nineveh,
    the city of murder and lies!
She is crammed with wealth
    and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
    the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
    and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
    as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
    heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
    people stumble over them.
All this because Nineveh,
    the beautiful and faithless city,
mistress of deadly charms,
    enticed the nations with her beauty.
She taught them all her magic,
    enchanting people everywhere. – Nahum 3:1-4 NLT

Just imagine the fear that filled Jonah’s heart at the prospect of delivering God’s news of judgment to a city filled with idol-worshiping pagans who made a habit out of torturing their enemies. Everything in Jonah stood opposed to this divine assignment. He had no desire to travel into enemy territory and deliver a message that would most likely result in his death. But there is more to Jonah’s reticence than meets the eye. He is not just afraid of death. He is petrified that his message of coming judgment might produce repentance among the people of Nineveh. How do we know that? Just fast-forward to chapter four of the book. There we find Jonah expressing his displeasure to God for having spared the people of Nineveh because they had repented.

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. – Jonah 4:2 NLT

As much as Jonah may have feared the Assyrians, he had a greater fear of God showing them mercy. He knew enough about YHWH to understand that there was always the possibility of the Assyrians escaping judgment and receiving forgiveness instead. And that prospect was unacceptable to him. So, when God said, “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh” (Jonah 1:2 NLT), Jonah “got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 NLT).

In essence, Jonah did what the people of Israel had been doing for generations. By running away from God’s presence, Jonah became an apostate. The Greek word apostasia, means “a defiance of an established system or authority; a rebellion; an abandonment or breach of faith.” Jonah’s determination to reject the revealed will of God was a blatant act of apostasy or rebellion. But in this story, his action is meant to reflect the heart of the people of Israel. He was acting out what the people of God had been doing for generations. They had repeatedly turned their backs on God, refusing to obey His commands and abandoning their commitment to the covenant they had ratified with Him. Jonah was a Hebrew, but also a prophet of God. As such, he had a double commission. He was a chosen member of God’s set-apart people and a divinely commissioned messenger of God’s word. But like his fellow Jews, Jonah chose to reject his calling and place his own will over that of God. He got up and went in the opposite direction. And the narrative will repeatedly describe Jonah as “going down.” He will go down to Joppa (1:3). He will go down into the boat (1:3). He will go down into the inner part of the ship (1:5). Eventually, he ends up in the belly of the fish, where he goes down to the depths of the sea. He describes himself as going “down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (2:6). The trajectory of Jonah’s life mirrors that of the people of Israel. Once they chose to turn away from God’s presence, their descent into immorality, idolatry, and apostasy was steadily downward.

The book of Jonah is not meant to be a moral lesson on obedience. It is a picture of the unstoppable plan of God for the redemption of the world. Despite the disobedience of Jonah, God would bring salvation to the people of Nineveh. And despite disobedient Israel, God would bring salvation to the nations of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. This entire story is a summary of God’s grand redemptive plan for bringing the light to the nations. Israel had been commissioned by God to do just that but had failed. Jonah is being commissioned to bring light to the Ninevites, but he will do everything in his power to resist that call. And he too will fail. But God will be victorious.

Back in the book of Exodus, we have recorded the story where Moses begged God to allow him to see His glory. And in response to Moses’ request, God responded:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

Notice closely what God said. He was going to allow Moses to see His glory, but it would be accompanied by the declaration of His name: YHWH. And the greatest lesson Moses was to learn from this experience was that YHWH, the God of Israel, was free to extend His grace and mercy to whomever He chose. Moses had not earned the right to see YHWH’s glory. Neither had the people of Israel. And Jonah, the reluctant prophet, would ultimately learn the invaluable lesson that he too was undeserving of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

 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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson