Runaway prophet (Jonah 1)

The image of “Jonah and the whale” has been plastered across so many nurseries and adorned so many children’s books that it almost seems trite.  Yet embedded in this story is the very heart of the Christian gospel as well as the foundation for Christian mission.

The book of Jonah is typically classified as a book of prophecy, but it reads so differently from the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.  While books like Nahum or Habakkuk contain long sections of instructions and judgments, the book of Jonah weaves together the story of a reluctant prophet, his drift from God, and the finding of God’s grace.


Jonah opens with God’s call to a man named Jonah:

The Lord gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.” (Jonah 1:1-2)

Jonah’s name literally meant “Dove” or maybe even “Pigeon” (!).  He lived during the reign of King Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:25), placing him somewhere between 700-800 years before the birth of Jesus.  God called Jonah to be a prophet—that is, a messenger, someone who speaks for God.  But the people of Nineveh was among the last places that Jonah—or any Israelite—would ever want to set foot.  For its Assyrian occupants were known for preserving their culture through some of the most violent and oppressive means necessary.  The very mention of an Assyrian city would have sent a shiver along Jonah’s spine.  The closest analogy we can find today might be the attitudes we have toward radical Islam and ISIS.  Sure, we understand that God can save anyone, but deep inside us we might find a desire to see them bombed into oblivion.  And God says, “Go.”

In the time after Jesus, Christians find their purpose in what we call the “Great Commission.”  Before ascending back to heaven, Jesus tells his closest followers:

18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Slide1All Christians are called to be preachers.  I don’t mean that we preach a sermon in the same way as a pastor on Sunday mornings, or finding a soap box and a crowded street corner.  I’m talking about the way we share the gospel with others, the way we open our mouths and tell the story of what God has done in our lives, and what he can do for others.

Still, we might be tempted to react like Jonah did…


Jonah doesn’t exactly take to his assignment with a lot of enthusiasm:

3 But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the Lord by sailing to Tarshish.

4 But the Lord hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. 5 Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. (Jonah 1:3-5a)

Slide2.JPGAll of us have something we turn to when life becomes uncomfortable.  For Jonah, it was a physical place, a location that shielded him from the unpleasantness of his mission to the people of Nineveh.  Maybe for you it’s sinking yourself into a hobby, into career, into a relationship.  Maybe you sink yourself into the kinds of sins that numb you to the work of God.  In any event, we’ll see through Jonah that disobedience separates us from God and others.  Jonah disobeyed God by running away.  If you were reading this story in the original Hebrew, you’d see the repetition here of the word yarad.  It means “to go down,” to descend—the way that Jonah “went down to the port of Joppa.”  This movement downward will have some irony as the story unfolds.

But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. 6 So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”

7 Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. 8 “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?”

9 Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

10 The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. 11 And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”

12 “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” (Jonah 1:5b-12)

Jonah is strangely fast asleep through all this.  The sailors were frantic.  Imagine the confusion and running about on the boat as they sought to figure out what to do.  Being deeply religious people, they sought to manipulate nature by appealing to their various gods.  But none of their gods answered.  Jonah explains why—he believes that the evil swirling around them is his fault.  But the sailors deny Jonah’s instructions.  Maybe in their minds they were thinking: If this is what his God is like when Jonah’s alive, how much worse might it get if he drowns? 

13 Instead, the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it.14 Then they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. “O Lord,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. O Lord, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.”

15 Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! 16 The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him. (Jonah 1:13-16)

Do you see the irony?  Jonah’s disobedience prompted their obedience.  The sailors are the only ones taking God seriously at this point.  And what about Jonah?

17 Now the Lord had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. (Jonan 1:17)

Jonah had started his journey by descending—first going down toward Tarshish, but now descending beneath the waves and into the belly of a “great fish.”  Was this a whale?  Some sort of sea monster?  We don’t know, but we do know that it happened because “the Lord had arranged” it.  Jonah was fleeing the presence of God, but he would never be beyond the reach of God.  No one is.  That’s the whole point.  Jonah’s about to learn a valuable lesson in God’s grace in the face of willful disobedience.

I don’t pretend to know whether the suffering in our lives always corresponds to some piece of God’s will.  But I do know that when we step back far enough and survey the events of our lives—both good and bad—we can see how God shapes and molds our character even during seasons when we think we know better than the Creator of both land and sea.  No rowing can outrun the will of the Lord, and no mistake we make can place us beyond the capacity for God’s forgiveness.  Jonah reminds us that even the most rebellious among us can have a place in God’s kingdom, for if God can use suffering then maybe—just maybe—God can also use our disobedience for his glory.


This Thing Called Repentance – Part 1 – (Jonah Chapters 1 and 2)

We are all generally familiar with the story of Jonah the Prophet, who was called of God to go to Nineveh and preach God’s truth there. Instead, he went in the opposite direction toward Tarshish (Spain) and ended up creating a bellyache for the whale. Eventually, he got to the correct destination and completed his assignment, though with more than a wee bit of a grudging attitude. 

The book of Jonah is filled with the concept of “repentance.” And we asked in the sermon yesterday, “What does it mean to repent?”  While certainly a biblical word, repentance often concurs up in our modern minds some wide-eyed, hair-disheveled, twang-tongued, sweating, Bible-pounding evangelist yelling “REPENT, or burn in hell!”  Is it about fear? Is it about emotion?

When disciplining children, we want to get them to a point where they turn away from whatever attitude of rebellion that led to an altercation needing correction; and we want to see them genuinely break and understand what they did wrong, and therefore desire to not do that deed again and now behave in a proper way. And that is essentially what it means to repent. More on that in a moment (actually tomorrow), but let’s go to the story of Jonah.

Jonah was one of the earlier prophets, being a contemporary of Amos and Hosea – whom we have recently studied. Though these two were prophetic voices to the nation of Israel, Jonah was called by God to speak to the big, bad boys on the block in the ancient world at that time – the Assyrians. These were bad, bad people. They were brutal to captured foes in particular – known to impale people on a pole – making a human popsicle of them. The Assyrians were the enemy of Israel, and though they would later be used by God to punish Israel, their power to do so had not yet reached sufficient strength.

It was not as if Israel had her own act together as a nation – recall the messages of Hosea and Amos. Though this was the peak of their territorial expansion and material success under the reign of Jereboam II, there was nothing that really set them much apart from the heathen nations around them in terms of the true worship of God rather than idols and materialism.

So for Jonah to be called of God to go preach to these people seemed extraordinarily odd to him. Who would want to go to the center of such a place and tell them they were in trouble with God? If they did not like the message, they could make a popsicle out of Jonah. And if they repented, that would not be good for Israel. To Jonah, the whole thing looked like a lose/lose.

Over the years, I’ve used this slick little outline of Jonah to help remember the big idea of each of the four chapters of this short little Old Testament book…

Chapter 1 – Jonah makes the sea sick.

Chapter 2 – Jonah makes the whale sick.

Chapter 3 – Jonah makes the Ninevites sick.

Chapter 4 – Jonah makes God sick!

Jonah Flees From the Lord

1:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Nineveh was a huge city by ancient standards. It was seven times larger than the old city of Jerusalem for example. From Israel it was about 500 miles to the northeast – in modern Iraq near the border with Turkey … in fact, it is the modern city of Mosul, which we heard much about in the Iraq War.

Jonah essentially went in the opposite direction – catching presumably a Phoenician boat sailing to the coast of Spain to Tarshish – about 3,000 miles in the wrong direction!

4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

It is interesting to see that these pagan, idolatrous men had more compassion for Jonah than God’s prophet had for them or the Ninevites. This whole story is filled with counter-intuitive elements. But Jonah’s sin had caused the sea to get sick, so reluctantly they tossed him overboard.

Jonah’s Prayer

1:17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

2:1  From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.

So Jonah has a personal revival in the belly of the whale (or whatever large fish it was). There have been accounts of whalers who have been swallowed by whales and survived the ordeal, but without doubt, this was a God-ordained intervention, as are many other elements of the story. We don’t need to have natural explanations.

Jonah continues with his prayer of repentance …

3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.

4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’

5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.

6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.

7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.

9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

So, chapter 2, Jonah made the whale sick, but the fish did his job, presumably depositing Jonah again on the eastern Mediterranean coast where he could resume his trip to Nineveh, now in obedience to God, even if grudgingly done.

Let me share some application thoughts from these first two chapters …

1.  Obeying and serving God may often go against our natural sensibilities and desires… and we may foolishly just go the other way.

We may not personally like the paths that God chooses for us. We may resent his calling and want to do what we would rather do. There is no shortage of people who can testify from their lives how for so long they resisted what God wanted them to do, until finally finding peace and satisfaction by doing what he directed and desired.

2.  We may often find ourselves in denial or justification of our desires over obeying God’s call… and just sleep through reality.

Again, there is no shortage of stories of people who knew God wanted them to do something, but they fought it and denied it and went their own way. Is there something – large or small – that you know God has put in your heart to do … but you are fighting this thought / idea / feeling / open door out of fear or resistance?

3.  You can know all the right answers, but still not be in obedience to God.

This is a real warning for those of us who like the academic side of things … believing that all is right because we are thinking the correct things theologically… Jonah knew all the right answers for the seaman who questioned him.

4.  God may chose to bring an unpleasant experience into our lives to get us back on track with following him.

Unpleasant experiences are not always God getting our attention. Bad things happen because we simply live in an imperfect world. But there are times when in light of God’s work in your life and what the Spirit is telling you through the Word, that God intervenes to get you turned to a new and proper direction.

Check back tomorrow to finish Jonah and to gain some final, additional thoughts on repentance.