Jonah – Week One
If you grew up going to church, the story of Jonah and the whale has always been a familiar story to you. Much like the presumption that it was an apple that was the forbidden fruit for Adam and Eve, it’s always been presumed that it was a whale that swallowed Jonah although Scripture simply says “a great fish” or “a huge fish”. The truth is, we don’t know and it doesn’t really matter and I can just about guarantee that Jonah didn’t care at the time, either.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to have always thought of Jonah and the Big Fish more as a parable than a real situation that took place in history. I still have to check myself on certain Biblical stories as to whether or not they’re parables or true stories. The Good Samaritan, the woman who loses one of her ten silver coins, and the unforgiving servant who didn’t pass along the forgiveness of debt – all parables. Good stories which teach us how to live more like Christ. The three parables I just mentioned are all believable. None of them require much imagination to see them happen.
But Jonah? A man swallowed up by a big fish where he remained for three days and three nights, and then was spit back up onto dry land? C’mon! Seriously? Yes, seriously.
There indeed was a man, a prophet actually, who defiantly disobeyed God, was swallowed by a big fish, remained there for a few days, then was regurgitated alive and mostly physically unharmed as much as we know. Only God could pull that off.
We don’t know very much about Jonah. There is a reference to him in 2 Kings but it gives only his name, where he’s from, the fact that he is a prophet, and his dad’s name. That’s it. What we do know Jonah comes from the book in the Bible that bears his name. What are some adjectives that you feel describe Jonah? Selfish? Disobedient? Scaredy-Cat? Self-Righteous? Reluctant? Let’s be honest. It’s not easy finding complimentary words to describe Jonah based on what we know. The author of the book of Jonah is not revealed to us. Some Bible experts believe that Jonah or at least someone very close to him wrote it because of the events described that would have been unknown to others. If Jonah did indeed write the book, kudos to him for being honest because the book isn’t necessarily flattering to him when you read it.
Jonah 1:1 NLT “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.”
I would be interested to know how many other times God had called on Jonah to deliver His messages and if Jonah had been reluctant in the past. I imagine the line from the old Mission Impossible TV show, “Your mission, Jonah, should you choose to accept it…” God doesn’t see fit for us to know details of any previous missions Jonah had, so we must observe Jonah from just this one.
Let’s put some perspective on what Jonah hears from God. The city of Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians. The Assyrians were known for their brutality and evilness. When we discussed King Hezekiah in 2 Kings, I shared this quote.
“Known for their excellent combat strategies, they were also feared for ripping their prisoners alive and slitting different parts of their body. And while they pioneered in using iron weapons and light horse-drawn chariot, they also ranked high on having the bloodiest warfare method, callously displaying piles of human skulls to promote fear among other nations.”[i]
Nineveh was no Disney World. The Assyrians were not welcoming and hospitable people. Jonah was most likely feeling a whole plateful of emotions when he heard God. The Assyrians were vile people; in fact, they were THE enemy of Jonah’s people. Nahum, a prophet that comes some years after Jonah writes this about Nineveh. Nahum 3:1 NIV “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!” A later verse reads “All who hear the news about you
clap their hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
your endless cruelty?” (Nahum 3:19b NIV)
The very idea that God wanted His Words spoken to them was bewildering to Jonah. Why would God have anything to say to these horrible people? The Assyrians were Gentiles! But they were Gentiles “in desperate need of repentance, unbeknownst to them.”[ii]
What intrigues me about God’s message that He wants Jonah to deliver is that God only instructs Jonah to “announce His judgment”. Other translations use different phrases. “Speak out against it.” “Preach against it.” “Cry against it.” “The LORD has seen your terrible sins. You are doomed!” Later on, in the book of Jonah, we will read that Jonah is angered by the mercy God shows to the Assyrians. But at the onset of this mission, God tells Jonah to go and scold the Assyrians, to let them know God sees what they’re doing and there will be retribution. There isn’t mention of mercy or repentance or even the idea of God becoming their God. God is asking Jonah to go alone (except for the presence of God) to deliver a message to 120,000 enemies that God is going to punish them for their wickedness. Jonah was scared to deliver that message. Can I be honest? I would be too.
Amos, as we just finished studying, was at least sent to prophesize to fellow Jews. The Northern Kingdom wasn’t necessarily on the friendliest terms with the Southern Kingdom from where Amos came, but they weren’t known for ripping people alive. Jonah, on the other hand, probably feels as if he’s being asked to dress in a suit made of prime rib and dropped into the middle of the safari at nighttime. This mission required unwavering and solid faith and Jonah just didn’t want to put his faith to the test.
I remember when my girls were in elementary school and there were certain tasks that needed to be done each day to help. So for one week, a child would be responsible for handing out papers. Another child would hold the doors for the class. Another child would take the roll up to the front office. The coveted position was to be the line leader for the week. But there was a job that wasn’t anyone’s favorite. Each week, two or three children would be responsible for wiping off the lunchroom tables at which their class sat. Sounds simple, right? Callie, my oldest, didn’t quite see it that way. After the first day of this particular assignment, Callie tells me she’s not going to do it the rest of the week. When I asked her why, she simply said, “I don’t wanna.” We had a discussion that night about being asked to do things that we didn’t want to do, but that was how life worked. I bribed her and said that I would have lunch with her the next day if she would not complain about wiping down the tables. I know, not a great parenting tool, but it worked! After we finished eating lunch in the cafeteria, a cart was wheeled over with a big bucket of nasty, filthy water. Several soiled rags were flung over the side of the bucket and that’s what the kids were expected to “clean” the tables with. In my own mind, I was thinking, “I don’t wanna.” However, I knew it was important that she do what she was assigned. But Callie’s mission, even though it was disgusting and not at all pleasant, was not dangerous or deadly as Jonah’s mission.
We may not say out loud to God, “I don’t wanna” when He prompts us to do something, but we sure do ignore Him which is basically the very same thing. I can’t help but find it ironic that we judge Jonah for not wanting to travel to the homeland of his enemies to deliver a blistering message, but we hesitate to invite our next-door neighbors to join us at church.
Jonah was instructed to go deliver God’s message to Nineveh.
Abraham was told to deliver his son Isaac to the sacrificial altar.
Moses was sent to Pharoah in order to deliver God’s people from captivity.
Mary was put in a position to deliver the Son of God from an unconventional conception.
Jesus willingly came to Earth to deliver God’s message and sacrificed His life so that those of us who accept Him as our Savior are released from the captivity of an eternity in hell. Jesus even makes a comparison between Himself and Jonah in Matthew 12:41 CSB “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching; and look—something greater than Jonah is here.”
When you think about it, we all have a Nineveh. It may have been in your past, your present, or your future, but if we are a child of God, He has a task for us. In fact, our days are filled with God-ordained tasks. Some may be relatively easy and ones that we do by reflex, but some of them are like Nineveh was for Jonah. We just don’t wanna. Whatever it is for each of us, God is simply asking too much of us; at least we think so.
Our Nineveh may be giving up something we just can’t imagine living without. Our Nineveh may be forgiving someone that, let’s be honest, doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. Our Nineveh may mean packing up and moving away from our hometown, our job, our place of comfort to go to a new place. God wants to bend us, not break us. He wants to stretch us, not snap us in two. He wants to grow us, mature us, and strengthen our faith in Him and that can only be done if we are bent and stretched.
Our friend Jonah isn’t willing to be bent or stretched in the way God desires at the moment.
Jonah 1:3 NKJV “But Jonah arose 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 from the presence of the Lord.”
Jonah had three options. He could have followed God’s directive and immediately gone to Nineveh. He could have stayed right where he was and said he needed to pray about it a little bit more before he was sure of what God was telling him. Or, his third option, and apparently his first choice, was to hightail it out of town in the opposite direction saying under his breath, “I don’t wanna!”
Jonah had to physically go down and he had to pay his own fare. That’s what happens in our disobedience to God. It takes us down to a lower level than where we need to be and it costs us.
I can see Jonah having the thought that he certainly wasn’t the only prophet and God could just as easily pick someone else for this mission. I can see that because I’ve had the same thought myself. When I’ve felt impressed by the Holy Spirit to do something and my response is, “I don’t wanna. Let someone else do it.” I’m hesitant to think that upon our arrival in Heaven we will be shown all of our missed opportunities and the blessings that would have followed. Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.”
Jonah had been given the privilege of hearing God’s voice, but instead of obeying, Jonah foolishly tried to hide. But God is the champion when it comes to hide and seek and He’s about to let Jonah know there is no way to hide from Him.
Jonah 1:4 ERV “4 But the Lord brought a great storm on the sea. The wind made the sea very rough. The storm was very strong, and the boat was ready to break apart. 5 The men wanted to make the boat lighter to stop it from sinking, so they began throwing the cargo into the sea. The sailors were very afraid. Each man began praying to his god.
Jonah had gone down into the boat to lie down, and he went to sleep. 6 The captain of the boat saw Jonah and said, “Wake up! Why are you sleeping? Pray to your god! Maybe your god will hear your prayer and save us!”
In her Bible study on Jonah, Priscilla Shirer lists possible reasons why Jonah was sleeping during this fierce storm.
“He was exhausted from running away.
He felt justified in going to Tarshish.
He knew the storm was a consequence from Yahweh.
His heart was hardened, and he was numb.
He wanted to ‘sleep away’ the conviction.”[iii]
We may not physically go to sleep to avoid hearing His voice, but we sure do our best to tune Him out, don’t we? You can’t help but miss the irony that the captain of the ship asks Jonah to pray to his God when their gods don’t answer. They wanted Jonah to get in touch with the very God he was doing his best to ignore. And ignore is exactly what he does. Scripture never tells us that Jonah prayed to God at this point. He knew. He knew God well enough to know that there was no chance of hiding from Him. He knew God well enough to know that He alone could calm the storm. He knew God well enough to know that He doesn’t give up easily. But his fellow shipmates don’t know God…yet.
They then cast lots to figure out why they now found themselves in this deadly storm. We don’t know if casting lots was something they frequently did when storms came up or if this particular storm was so fierce that they were urgently trying to figure out the cause. But the lots revealed Jonah had the answer. And he identifies himself as a Hebrew who worships the very God that made the heavens and the seas which were now threatening the lives of all of them. And he confesses that he is running away from God.
It’s at this point that Jonah comes to realize that HIS disobedience has now put others in jeopardy. Isn’t that how life works, though? Our actions or lack of actions affect so many others. We live lives that are very much like dominoes. As long as we are in close proximity to others, their lives affect ours and our lives affect theirs. If you have that one domino that just doesn’t fall in the right direction, the other dominoes can’t do what they’re supposed to do.
Jonah again has options. He could either stay right where he is and risk the lives of those in the boat with him. He could ask them to return him back to shore so that he could follow through with God’s mission. Or he could see to it that he finds himself flung into the angry waves to almost certain death.
Jonah 1:12 NASB “12 And he said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, because I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” 13 However, the men rowed desperately to return to land, but they could not, because the sea was becoming even stormier against them.”
Those men cared more for Jonah’s well-being than Jonah did. But they soon realized that their attempt to save themselves as well as Jonah was just not going to happen. So what did they do? Verse 14 tells us “so they prayed to the Lord” (Jonah 1:14 CEV) These non-believers who had just prayed to their pagan gods turned and prayed to the one true God. Even though Jonah’s disobedience had put these men in danger, his disobedience now caused them to turn to God.
Jonah 1:15 CEV “Then they threw Jonah overboard, and the sea calmed down. 16 The sailors were so terrified that they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made all kinds of promises.
17 The Lord sent a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.”
What went through Jonah’s mind, do you think? If you’ve been through a period of disobedience to God’s call, you know. Those of us who have experienced such a time can tell you that you try to reason out your stubbornness to serve God. You attempt to justify your response (or lack of response). What He’s asked of you is too difficult, too costly, and impossible. It doesn’t make sense and it would put you in a vulnerable state. And after a while after telling God, “I don’t wanna” you look around at your circumstances and you are living a life surrounded by filth and unpleasantness. You find yourself drowning and being swallowed up in misery and sadness, loneliness and voidness. You desperately try to figure a way out on your own. You spend your time trying to find light in the vast darkness that your rebellion has created. You wonder if there’s any hope of recovering because you feel as if you’re just too far gone. You start to think of how angry God must be with you but then you remember His love. His promises. You begin to feel that nudge to return to Him and reconcile. Because God had that big fish save Jonah from drowning so that he had a second chance. And God allows our consequences to swallow and hold us for a bit to drive us to take our second chance with Him.
After three days and three nights in the belly of the big fish, Jonah gets to that point. He cries out to God. The fact that Jonah didn’t call out for God’s help for three days speaks volumes of his desire to be out of the presence of God. When the mouth of that big fish opened up, most of us would be screaming to God for help. As the mouth began to close and the only way out was getting smaller and smaller, most of us would be pleading for God to hear us. But not Jonah; not yet. And not a man from Massachusetts.
In June of 2021, 56-year-old Michael Packard, a commercial lobster diver, had a similar experience as Jonah. He was on his second dive for the day and was approximately 45 feet under when the unexpected happened. “All of a sudden, I just felt this huge bump, and everything went dark,” he told CBS Boston. “And I could sense that I was moving. And I was like … did I just get bit by a shark? And then I felt around, and I realized there was no teeth. And I felt really no great pain. And then I realized … I’m in a whale’s mouth, and he’s trying to swallow me. And I thought to myself, Okay, this is it. … I’m going to die.”
“It was happening so fast. My only thought was, how to get out of that mouth? And I realized there was no overcoming a beast of that size. He was going to do with me what he wanted to do. It was either he spit me out, or he swallowed me. … I was actually in his mouth probably a good 30 seconds. But I still had my regulator on my mouth. I was still breathing.”[iv]
Michael Packard escaped being trapped in the whale’s mouth for less than a minute and he suffered only minor injuries. One of the persons who covered his story ended with this. “Packard hasn’t mentioned faith or how the ordeal may have impacted him spiritually, but some friends now call him Jonah. This isn’t Packard’s first near-death experience. When he worked as an abalone diver on the West Coast, some of his friends were killed by sharks. He also survived a plane crash in Costa Rica that claimed several lives.”[v]
If he’s not a Christian at this point in his life, I’d love to know his reasoning.
But Jonah knew God. Jonah had heard God. Jonah had received specific instructions from God. But Jonah tried to hide from God. When Jonah found himself alive and in the belly of a large sea creature, what did he think? “Jonah had wanted to run away from God’s presence, and now it appeared as if God was finally giving him what he had set out to do. One of the worst things that can happen to believers when they refuse to say to God, ‘Your will be done’ is for the Lord to say to them, ‘your will be done.’ Believers will always come to regret God’s allowing them to have their own way when they refuse to obey Him. Yet God sometimes does so to show us our need for Him, just as He did with Jonah.”[vi]
I want to condense chapter 2 down to what Jonah did and what God did in response.
Jonah prayed. God listened. (v.2)
Jonah begged. God answered. (v.2)
Jonah sunk down. God rescued. (v.6)
Jonah remembered God. God heard Jonah’s prayer. (v.7)
Jonah praises. God saves. (v.9)
And then “The Lord commanded the fish to vomit up Jonah on the shore. And it did.” (Jonah 2:10 CEV)
For every action that Jonah took, God responded. God never abandoned Jonah. He waited to hear Jonah cry out to Him and He answered.
We cannot hide from God no matter how hard we try. He will hang up spiritual “Missing Child” posters in our lives to remind us that He wants us back with Him. The reward money has already been paid. If you have been hiding in the belly of disobedience, it’s time to call out to God. He’s got a mission that’s just perfect for you.
[iii] Jonah, Navigating a Life Interrupted by Priscilla Shirer
[vi] Explore the Bible, T.J. Betts & Liz Sherrer