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