Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This is the first of two lessons on the book of Jonah. Jonah ministered in the northern kingdom (Israel) in the period before Isaiah’s ministry. 1 Kings 14 records him prophesying the restoration of the original boundaries of the northern kingdom accomplished under Jeraboam II (who died in about 753 BC). (Isaiah began to prophesy in the year king Uzziah died, namely 740 BC.) This was a period when, although very much the leading power in Israel’s world, Assyria was otherwise occupied and Israel was feeling her oats, having tossed Syria out of the northern territories. In the estimation of Israel, things were going pretty well, but Jonah’s contemporaries Amos and Hosea are about to come onto the scene and condemn her for apostasy and social injustice.
Jonah is from a town only a few miles from Nazareth, in Zebulun or Galilee. He is the only prophet to whom Jesus explicitly compares Himself, declaring that Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish prefigured His own experience in the tomb. We should take note that the prophets of Israel and Judah did not usually prophesy to non-Jews. There are a few small-scale exceptions to this (Elijah to the widow of Zarapheth in Sidon, and Elisha to Naaman of Syria), but by in large, God’s prophets spoke to God’s people.
Jonah 1:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
Nineveh was a leading city of Assyria, over 500 miles to the east of Jonah’s home town. Nahum later condemns Nineveh for cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution and witchcraft, and commercial exploitation. Though there was probably a bit of a lull at this time as far as Assyrian pressure on Israel went, this nation was the fiercest of the ancient world in terms of its dealings in war and with defeated foes. This was not a nation that Jonah would naturally relish addressing, or really would want to see receive God’s mercy. But God, in imperative terms, tells Jonah to get himself to Nineveh and preach. It’s not just “go,” it’s “Arise, go,” or even more literally “Up, go!”
3 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 on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Nineveh is east, Jonah heads west. The best guess seems to be that Tarshish was on the coast of Spain, 2000 miles from Israel. Jonah is headed about as far from his commission as he can get. When the Scripture says that he “ran away from the LORD” we ought not read it as saying that Jonah rationally believed that he could get out of God’s physical presence. He knows better than that. He’s heard
Psalm 139:7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
The physical running that he’s doing is just confirmation of what he’s already done internally. He’s rejected God’s clear command. He’s now just putting as much distance between himself and his commission as possible, saying to himself that he’ll make it physically impossible to do what he’s been told to do.
We hear this story, remember that later on Jonah admits that the reason he’s running is that he doesn’t want to see God’s mercy extend to the pagan people of Nineveh, and more or less chortle about his cute little attempt to get out of doing what he’s been told to do and the lumps he takes for it. At least I do. But it’s not really funny. Let’s consider how serious this story is and entertain the possibility that we too have played Jonah’s game.
Jonah has the clear direction of God. But he things wants his way, and on his terms. So he sets about to make it impossible to do what he’s supposed to do (God’s way). That’s a favorite human trick, to hustle around and misuse what we’re given, and then claim that we can’t do what we are supposed to do. Have we ever said to ourselves “These pagans that we’re dealing with are beyond hope, we’ll just take care of our own and let them reap what they’re sowing and find out the truth on judgment day. After all, it really is impossible to get through to them, is it not?” Frankly, there is some of Jonah in me and it’s not really a joking matter. If we chortle here, it ought to be the nervous kind of laugh we laugh when we know we’ve been found out.
4 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.
5 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.
The Hebrew here is apparently quite forceful here. It is something like the LORD “cast” or “threw with force” a wind upon the sea. These pagan sailors don’t know exactly what’s going on, but they know the situation is beyond them. They are probably Phoenicians and polytheists. The idea here is to try to cover all bases. They’re pragmatists. They’re going to try all possible avenues here and if one of them covers the situation, then good enough. This is a pagan reaction to adversity. The reaction of God’s people ought not be like this. Our hope in all situations is in the one true and living God. He is not simply one among several options, and He’s not just “the last resort.”
The LORD hurled the wind and the sailors hurled the cargo. But there’s no comparison in the effectiveness of the hurling.
6 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.”
Jonah is initially oblivious to the fact that the consequences of his rebellion are spilling over onto others. We tell ourselves that our sin is private, that only we will feel its effects. That’s wrong for Jonah and its wrong for us. The captain’s words are ironic. He says “Arise!” (or again, more literally, “Up!”). That was God’s word to Jonah in verse 2! “Call out to your god!” he says. God told Jonah to “call out” to Nineveh! Jonah’s in no position to provide any aid here. People who live in conscious rebellion against God usually find that when push comes to shove, even though life and death are on the line, they don’t have it in them to call out for mercy.
The attitude of the captain is noteworthy in his recognition that he’s not calling the shots. It’s “Perhaps” Jonah’s God will have mercy. He doesn’t have all the facts about Jonah’s God, but he knows that it’s not a human’s business to be prescribing to any real “god” how things ought to be.
7 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.
8 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?”
9 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.”
The words of Jonah technically put things into their right perspective for these pagan sailors. “I fear the LORD, Yahweh, the one true and living God, the One who made the sea and the dry land.” There is no equivocating here about who is who and why there is this great storm. Jonah, who will not preach to pagan Ninevites, finds himself declaring what is true to these pagan sailors. These guys are hoping to sort out which one of a bunch of possible (false) gods they might be dealing with. Jonah says clearly that there is but one God, who made all, and it’s Him who stands behind this storm. But at the moment his doctrine is better than his obedience. His “I fear God” is hollow in light of his willful disobedience. He does not truly “fear God” in any Biblical sense of having a holy reverence and awe, or of having a terror of His power and perfection. He knows his catechism, but it hasn’t gripped his soul. There’s no obedience here, ergo there is no real “fear.”
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.
“What have you done?” in the sense of bringing all of them into danger. It is more or less “Look Jonah, you’ve just told us that your God is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. You’re defying Him? And consequently we’re in danger!!??” It seems like they have a better grasp on the seriousness of Jonah’s sin than he does. In verse 5, a literal rendering would be “the sailors feared.” In verse 10 this has escalated to “the men feared with great fear.” In verse 10, their situation has been informed. They know Who it is that opposes them, and they are terrified.
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.”
The prophet knows he’s responsible for the mess. He says he’s ready to forfeit his life, if it will straighten things out for the bystanders. But then again, he’s not repenting! He’s not yet offering to do what God has told him to do. Rather, it’s more “I guess I’ll take my licks, but I’m not bowing the knee.” Jonah will grant God’s power and right to rule, but he won’t yet yield to Him. In fact, he’d rather die than do so.
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.
The ESV wording doesn’t quite capture the desperateness of the men’s effort. They really dig with their oars, trying with everything they have to deliver the prophet back to land.
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.”
These guys, even pagans that they are, are honorable in this matter. They recognize that though Jonah is perhaps guilty before his God, they personally have no basis on which to take his life. They don’t want his blood on their heads, especially in that he’s the property of his God! They have no personal experience with Yahweh, and have to go on the word of Jonah. And they’re trying to explain themselves to Jonah’s God.
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.
It seems that this experience was enough to drive these sailors to the truth about God. It is the LORD (Yahweh) that they have come to fear here, and to whom they sacrifice. The double use of God’s personal name in verse 16 confirms for us that these guys are now aware of exactly who they are worshiping. From verse 5 to verse 10 to verse 16, the description has gone from “the sailors feared” to “the men feared with great fear” to “the men feared with great fear the LORD.”
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.
As far as the sailors know, the ocean is the end of Jonah. But God isn’t done with Jonah, and this fish is to be Jonah’s salvation. It’s not particularly pleasant, but nevertheless his deliverance. The word “appointed” here (and in fact this whole story) should say something to us about God’s calling. Romans 11:29 says (of the Jews) that “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable.” It is true that upon Jonah’s rebellion, God could have punished him and replaced him with a more compliant servant. But instead, He pursued him, preferring to capture Jonah’s heart and see him carry out what he was given to do in the first place. That is, in a word, amazing. Jonah blew it, but God was faithful and gracious. That gives the rest of us hope as well.
In the belly of the fish, Jonah finally finds it possible to pray.
Jonah 2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish,
2 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.
3 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.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; Yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head
6 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.
7 When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
Here is the fundamental truth of all true faith. Salvation belongs to the LORD. It is His to give, and He does so on His own terms out of mercy, under no obligation to any person.
10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
It’s time to start walking east instead of sailing west.