The Book of Jonah is one of the most controversial in the Old Testament. Some scholars believe it is history and others think it is fiction. If the story is factual, then Jonah either wrote it himself or he dictated it to someone. Everything in the book stems from the direct personal experiences of the prophet, and even the details outside of his personal knowledge could have been learned by him at a different time. This would include the sailors making a sacrifice to the Lord and the ritual lamentation of the king of Nineveh. If the story is fiction, it’s author is unknown. If we assume Jonah’s story is factual, the book was addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.). This was a time of great territorial and commercial expansion for Israel. Nineveh’s situation during this time period may explain why the Ninevites were so ready to accept what Jonah had to say. Assyrian power was at an especially low point. They had suffered many military reverses, diplomatic setbacks, famine, and domestic uprisings. In addition, an eclipse had taken place on June 15, 763B.C. This would have been regarded as a terrible omen. There had also been an eclipse in 784 B.C. With all of this going on it is not surprising that the Ninevites would have been especially jittery and ready to pay attention to a foreign prophet who suddenly appeared in their city.
Here are a couple of things to watch for as you read. Be attuned to Jonah’s negative attitude as he never the less followed through on what the Lord had called him to do. He suffered through a major act of rebellion and a dramatic turnaround with his God given mandate. Also, notice his pronouncement to God that he was angry enough to die when the vine withered and his shade was gone. There are a couple of themes as well in the Book of Jonah. First is God’s sovereignty. God is in control of life, nature, and all circumstances. The God of all people is concerned about everything…people, animals…everything He has created. And there will be a time when God will bring His all encompassing plan to fruition. Second Is God’s compassion and mercy. God loves even the adversaries of his people and he will show them mercy when they repent. God demands obedience but He is also the God of second chances. Third is mission. Jonah foreshadows the New Testament mission to proclaim God’s message to the whole world, even to those who oppose it. As God’s ambassadors they are to announce this call: “Be reconciled to God” for wickedness brings punishment but salvation comes from the Lord.
Now the word of the Lord came. This is how the Book of Jonah begins. This phrase affirms the divine source of the message to Jonah. Jonah was the son of Amittai and they hailed from Gath-hepher, a town located on the border of the tribal areas of Naphtali and Zebulun. Jonah ministered to the northern kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II. By Jonah’s day Nineveh already had a long history. It was located on the Tigris River and was the capital of ancient Assyria. Today the ancient ruins of Nineveh sit across the Tigris River from Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was over 500 miles away from Gath-hepher, Jonah’s home near Nazareth in Israel. The Lord called Jonah to go to Nineveh because the city was very wicked and their sins had come before the Lord. According to the prophet Nahum, Nineveh’s flagrant sins included plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution, witchcraft, and commercial exploitation. They were also prideful, greedy, brutal, and adulterous. The language here pictures evil swelling up to confront the Lord. But Jonah got up and ran in the other direction away from Nineveh. Tarshish was west of where Jonah lived and far west from Nineveh. The city represents the most distant place known to the Israelites. Going to Joppa was a journey of about 50 miles for Jonah. Today Joppa is a modern suburb of Tel-Aviv. But his escape attempt was futile. No one can escape God or disobey His will without consequence. Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh is understandable because they were enemies of Israel, and they were known for their violence. AND, Jonah didn’t want these non-Israelites to have the opportunity to repent and be saved.
One theme we see in this book is God’s power over nature. The storm that arose was so ferocious even the most experienced sailors were terrified. Jonah was so sure he had averted God’s will he was fast asleep in the hold of the ship. It is possible that his sleep was God induced so that the storm would reach a crisis point where it was clear the sailor’s gods could not help. It is interesting that the ship’s captain urged Jonah to pray to his God as well, not realizing Jonah was running from his God! But Jonah’s God is the only true God who had caused the storm in the first place. The sailors turned to practices common among them to seek the will of the gods. The Lord permitted casting lots in some cases but in general, divination like the ancient world practiced was displeasing to Him. It was common belief that bad fortune was the result of a god taking offense. When they cast lots, the lot fell on Jonah. He was singled out as the guilty party. They fired off a series of questions to Jonah, looking for the reason for the trouble and why Jonah was on the ship. Right off the bat, Jonah identified himself with the people of the covenant. He began by saying I am a Hebrew. Jonah worshiped the Lord who had made the sea and the land, and controlled them. This was in direct contrast to the sailors false gods which may have included the land and the sea. Jonah told them he feared the Lord, fear here meaning awe, faith and obedience. But his actions spoke differently. Jonah’s God is the God of the heavens, not some local or state god. Perhaps Jonah was trying to distinguish the Lord from Baal, the Canaanite gods of the sky. The sailors were terrified. After all, the God who created the universe and everything in it was after Jonah. They had no chance whatsoever. Because God was after Jonah, and he was with the sailors, they believed God was after them as well. They had every right to be afraid. So they asked Jonah what they should do. This was his God. How could they appease Him?
Jonah instructed the men to toss him overboard. He knew the only way to calm the storm was for him to go into the sea. Jonah was surprisingly calm but he was willing to face death rather than give the hated Assyrians a chance to repent. Now the sailors were in a quandary. They kept fighting against the storm because they couldn’t decide which was worse. Should they perish at sea in the storm and not harm a prophet of the Lord, or should they ask for forgiveness of the Lord and toss Jonah overboard. These pagans prayed to Lord on behalf of His rebellious prophet. In fact, Jonah needed God’s Grace as much as Nineveh did. The sailors feared the Lord and the power of the storm left them Awestruck. They had the same reverential awe that Jonah claimed to have. They offered Jonah up as a sacrifice to the God of Israel. Nowhere is it clear if they converted from worshiping their false gods and idols. Perhaps they simply added the Lord to the list of gods they already worshiped. The contrast here in the book is stark. The pagan sailors honored the Lord while the Lord’s prophet, having dishonored Him, apparently plunged to his death.
The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah and Jonah was inside the fish for three days. The parallels to Jesus being in the tomb for three days here are striking. We read in Matthew 12:39-41 that Jesus said His death was foreshadowed by Jonah’s experience. Some critics believe it is impossible that Jonah could be delivered from death in the belly of the whale but when they say this they negate one of the great themes of this book…that God is sovereign over nature. If we believe God exists, and He created and controls nature, then a miraculous event such as this is not outside the realm of possibility. There is no indication given as to what kind of fish swallowed Jonah and it is not crucial to the significance of the account. While he was inside the fish Jonah realized that the Lord had graciously saved him by sending the fish. It was then Jonah composed this psalm like prayer in chapter 2. It is written like a song of thanksgiving, as though Jonah wrote it after the ordeal, when he was looking back on what had happened. Jonah acknowledged God’s help and thanked Him for it. Jonah prayed to the Lord his God, a sign that Jonah was a true believer even though he was disobedient. Twice in verse 2 Jonah said I cried. They come from two different verbs. The first is a more general term meaning to call aloud. But the second I cry is more of a cry for help, especially like a scream to God. Jonah was sure he was going to die. When the sailors tossed Jonah overboard he seemed to be as good as dead. So for Jonah the sea became like Sheol, the place of the dead. Jonah’s use of the words you and your in verse 3 are not words of accusation here. Instead he is acknowledging Gods sovereign control over his life. When he speaks of the deep these are the same words used to describe the mysterious and terrifying sea in the creation story. Jonah pictures himself so deep in the waters that it is as if he had found the roots of the mountains. This too is like the realm of the dead. But, the transition is powerful. Jonah, though certain of his death, was not beyond God’s gracious reach. Instead of death, the Lord snatched Jonah from the pit, the place of the dead.
But then Jonah remembered. He reaffirmed his faith and renewed his commitment to the Lord. He turned his thoughts to the Lord in prayer, just like he was in the holy temple of the Lord. The phrase worthless idols condemns every alternative to God. Jonah promised to fulfill his vows, and keep his promises. This is a pledge to both sacrifice and to acknowledge God’s help. It is the Lord who delivers His people and He acts on behalf of His creation and the redeemed community. And the Lord ordered the great fish to spit Jonah out onto the dry land. Remember, God controls everything.
Once again God commanded Jonah to preach to Nineveh. This time Jonah obeyed , leading to a great irony. The city repented , as Jonah feared, and Jonah was angry with God. Chapter 3 begins much like chapter 1. Jonah’s new commission is very much like the first, except this time Jonah obeyed the Lord and goes to Nineveh. The city was a very large with a circumference of about eight miles. The three day walk was most likely the larger administrative district of Nineveh, made up of several cities, with a circumference of about 55 miles. God desired to save rather than destroy such a vast city, one teeming with people and natural resources. And this desire on God’s part was exactly what Jonah fought against. Jonah proclaimed that there were only 40 days before the destruction of Nineveh. Both the announcement and the specified delay show God’s mercy. It was this mercy that bothered Jonah. Nowhere did Jonah tell the people that if they were to repent God would not destroy them. Now, for the second time in the Book of Jonah, pagans responded favorably to God. In ancient Israel fasting would often accompany prayer and repentance in times of distress. So did wearing sackcloth and sitting on a heap of ashes. The king of Nineveh was either an unknown governor or perhaps the king of Assyria, who might have used Nineveh as a regular seat of government. When he heard the announcements, he too put on sackcloth and sat on a heap of ashes. The king even issued an edict that extended the fasting and mourning rituals to the animals. All normal operations were to cease so that everyone might pray earnestly and repent of their evil ways. The violence that permeated their society topped the list here. I especially like the kings question in verse 9, “who knows? God may relent and with His compassion turn from His fierce anger so we will both perish.” It is as though he is saying..it could happen. God relented. The Ninevites repentance moved the Lord to extend grace and mercy to them. Had the people of Nineveh not repented, God would have destroyed them. But God was ready to meet their repentance with mercy.
What happens next makes us scratch our heads. Jonah, himself a recipient of God’s Grace and mercy complains, gets angry even, that the Lord would show the same to the Ninevites. Jonah had no compassion on the Ninevites. His irritation belied the good news that the city would be spared. Jonah himself had just been spared God’s fair judgement, but he was not able to see the parallel. Jonah’s worst fears had just been realized. He knew God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. And it was ok for God to offer these things to His people, but not to he wicked and dangerous Assyrians. Jonah’s desire to die rather than embrace God’s will, and his willingness to wait in hope for the city’s destruction are signs of his hard heartedness and his hate for the Assyrians. We can contrast Jonah and Elijah here. Jonah’s death wish came from disgust at the people’s repentance; Elijah’s came from a yearning for the people’s repentance. Only a few days prior,Jonah had screamed for God to keep him alive. Jonah planted himself on the east side of the city to wait. We do not know how long he waited. The Lord sent a leafy plant to grow up and give Jonah shade. First the Lord had rescued Jonah from drowning and now he would relieve his misery from the sun. Jonah was thankful for the plant. What we see here is God’s reach of mercy to the undeserving. But then God prepared a worm that ate the plant the next morning and it withered and died. Next God sent a scorching wing and the burning sun down upon Jonah and again he wished for death. We see Jonah’s heart here. God questioned Jonah about his anger that planet died. Was it right for him to be that angry and Jonah replied yes, it was. It was if God said to Jonah; let me get this straight. You feel piety for the plant that grew and then withered and died, but you feel no pity for the citizens of Nineveh who are living in a spiritual darkness. They too will wither and die if they do not repent. God had graciously sent the light of His prophetic word into the city and the people received it. And then the book ends..on a question. God would rather save than destroy.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W