A Study of Jonah

A Study of Jonah


The book of Jonah is one of the most severely debated books in the Bible because the rationalistic pseudo-scientific element in our culture find it unacceptable. A man swallowed by a fish? “impossible they say!” However, as I am sure you know, Jesus referred to the book as real history when he compared His burial and resurrection to Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the great fish. Matthew 12:40, For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Thus the book of Jonah shares with other mentions of miracles in the prophets. But, in one thing Jonah is unique. The entire message is delivered in parabolic or story form. There is no preaching, no message in words, no verbal form as in Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Malachi, all of which preach to Israel and to us. The entire message here is in the story. Thus we look at the story as it develops and draw our own lessons. We consider Jonah’s plight, prayer, preaching, and passion.


We read of his plight in Chapter 1, The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me. 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. Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 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. 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.” 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. 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?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 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.) 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?” “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.” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 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.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice t o the Lord and made vows to him. Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah runs from the Lord because he is a patriot. He does not want Assyria to swallow up his people. Like many, however, even in our own time, he is more concerned about the salvation of his own people than the salvation of anybody else. He was afraid that the merciful God would forgive the oppressing heathen city, if it should repent at his preaching. Jonah was a narrow-minded patriot. We must observe that to us it may seem ridiculous that anyone would think that they could escape from God by running. In Jonah’s day people had a much more localized concept of God. Their examples would include the tabernacle and temple in Jerusalem where God’s throne was in the Holy of Holies. Secondly we must observe that Jonah was not a coward, as we see when he tells the sailors on the ship to throw him overboard. He is simply against Assyria. Lastly, the irony here is that in his first experience we see the pagan sailors turning to the Lord. Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.


From inside the belly of the fish Jonah cries out to the Lord. Obviously this is a man who knows he has sinned and his prayer does nothing but repent and praise God. The content is found in 2:1-10, From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 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. 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. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 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. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. 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.’” And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. According to the authentic account from Jonah this prayer is uttered in the belly of the great fish. Many scenarios have been proposed for this prayer including that it was actually uttered on dry land later. We dismiss that as contrary to the testimony. Here is my understanding of the historic situation. When Jonah is thrown overboard in the turbulent sea, as He is drowning, he cries out to the Lord in faith. This is what he rehearse in his prayer in the belly of the fish. The great fish is actually part of God’s rescue plan. The fish is his conveyance to dry land. The fish is not part of the problem, but rather part of the solution. God has prepared the great fish, and God provided the fish as part of Jonah’s rescue. Jonah is swallowed and then spit forth on dry land. Jonah’s repentance is real, because it leads to obedience in preaching which is what we read about in chapter three.


Jonah’s preaching and its results are recorded in chapter 3:1-10, Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Many people find the story of Jonah and the great fish difficult to believe. Personally the greatest challenge to believe is the repentance of this wicked city and empire. Obviously the Spirit of the Lord is powerfully working through Jonah. This suggests to me that the key to what we would call a successful ministry is not in our skill or our rhetoric, but in our prayer. It reminds us that it is not by might or power but by the Spirit of the Lord. We should study how to perfect our preaching, but that is not the cause of ministry success. Missions without the Spirit always fail, and missions with the Spirit always succeed. A little humility in the pulpit would bless the church greatly.


The final chapter reveals the emotional response of Jonah to his mission. He believes so firmly in his political analysis that he opposes God’s miraculous work in Assyria. And so we read in chapter 4:1-11, But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” I can almost laugh at the folly of Jonah telling God “I told you so” in prayer. It shows how blind he was to God’s intent and how much this message was needed. Jonah is a story with a message. You might almost compare it to Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. The Jews hated the Samaritans, but God loved them. Jonathan Swift wrote some verse that expresses Jonah's frame of mind: “We are God's chosen few, All others will be damned; There is no place in heaven for you, We can't have heaven crammed.” When we are more concerned about momentary and fleeting comforts than people, including our those we consider enemies, we are in a bad place. The tragedy of God’s people in the Old Testament is clear. They committed the same sins as the people around them whom they despised, and they justified themselves as God’s chosen. God is telling them that is not the way My chosen should behave. Repent, repent, repent.