This is part 1 of a three part post on the book of Jonah focusing on Jonah 1:1-2:10. Part 2 and 3 to follow over the next couple weeks.
Have you ever been jealous? Have you ever gotten angry at a sibling for getting something you already have? Jonah is a book all about the gracious compassion of God towards all people. God shows his love to everybody, and the story of Jonah is of a man who wants the mercy of God, but doesn't want God to show it to others. The story of Jonah is a historical one, and it serves to teach us about how great God's mercy is towards the nations, and it teaches us how we must respond.
Jonah lived in a time of prosperity in Israel. The Assyrian Empire resided to the North-east and was growing in prosperity. Jonah is told to go to the capital city of the Assyrian empire, Ninevah. Israel didn't like Ninevah. They were pagans who did'nt worship the true God and were enemies of Israel. However, even though God asked Jonah to go, he decides to get a ticket and take the next boat to Tarshish, which is in the west. He goes the opposite direction from where God calls him.
Many of us respond to God in the exact same way. God asks us to do something and we do the opposite. He tells us to share the Gospel with our friends, and we avoid them. He tells us to repent sin in our lives, and we indulge. He directs us to a particular career path, and we choose the opposite. He calls us to ministry and we pursue comfort. Each and every one of us, just like Jonah have the tendency to rebel against what God has asked us to do. We try to run away from what God asks us to do, and as we will see in the life of Jonah, you can't run from God.
So Jonah gets on the boat and heads out to Tarshish across the Mediterranean Sea. In Jonah 1:4, we are told that God sends a might tempest out on the sea. A big theme in the book of Jonah is God's power of his creation. He rules it with absolute sovereignty. If he wants to bring in a huge wind to sink Jonah's ship, he can do so. If he wants Jonah to get swallowed by a Big fish, the Lord makes it happen. God reigns as the absolute supreme King of the universe. Creation bends to his will. He rules with awesome power.
So the sailors begin to get worried. They ship could capsize and the power of the wind and waves. Each of the pagan sailors begin to cry out to their pagan gods. These sailors are not good Torah believing Jews. They do not know or worship the true god. They are worldly and worship false gods. Jonah, the worst missionary ever, is down stairs sleeping during this turmoil. He is so self-centered he ignores the calamity of the sailors and is resting peacefully down below the deck. The captain comes to Jonah and asks him to call out to his god in hopes that they might not perish. Again, the pagan sailor did not know that Jonah's God, the God of Israel was the true God of the whole world. The captin is simply in desperation. Any god will do, the captain thinks, as long as we will be saved! The irony here is that a pagan sailor summons the Israelite prophet to prayer. The Pagan sailor is concerned that people might perish, while Jonah is asleep below the deck. How great is the apathy of the prophets of God! We who have been given a task to herald the Gospel to the nations lie in the comforts of our bed beneath the deck while the world around us is on the verge of perishing. May we not be like Jonah. May we rise to the challenge to be obedient in sharing the good news of Jesus with others!
The sailors cast lots (role dice) to decide the will of god, a common thing to do, because they believed that god controls how the dice lands. Even the Israelites practiced this to discern gods will. The lot is cast, and it lands on Jonah. The sailors inquire about who he is and where he is from. Jonah tells the sailors he is a Hebrew that fears the Lord who made the sea and dry land. The irony here is that Jonah is obviously a hypocrite. If he feared the Lord he would have never gotten on the boat to flee the God who made the very seas.
When the sailors hear what Jonah has to say, they get "exceedingly afraid". Why? Because they know that Jonah is fleeing from the Lord, because that's what Jonah said (v. 11). The sailors ask Jonah, "How do we fix this problem so we can survive?". Jonah tells them to hurl him into the sea. It is interesting that the sailors ignore Jonah for the time being. The don't want to throw him into the sea, because His blood will be on their hands. These pagan sailors don't want anyone to perish. So they try to keep rowing to dry land, but the sea is get worse and worse. Then they finally decide to throw Jonah in, it seems to be the only option. These pagan sailors call out to the Lord and ask that they not perish for this mans life, and then they threw him into the sea.
As soon as Jonah is tossed overboard, the sea ceased from its raging. The men respond in fear of the Lord. These pagan come to faith in the God of Israel. Notice the transition of the sailors emotions in the text. They sailors go from fear, to exceedingly afraid, to fearful worship of God. The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, again we see God's absolute power over creation. God appoints this to happen. Jonah begins to pray from inside the fish. One commentator said, "Jonah’s prayer is not a request to be saved from the fish but is thanksgiving for being saved by the fish." Jonah is praising God for saving him from his near death experience. Notice again, how selfish Jonah is, even in his prayer. He is not praising God for the safety of the sailors, he is praising God for his own safety and his own deliverance. In response God vomits Jonah up for a second try at obedience in prophesying to the city of Nineveh.
The interesting thing is that Jesus himself referred to the event of Jonah as talking about himself. The account of disobedient prophet Jonah, points us to the coming of the obedient prophet, Jesus. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus says, "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Just as Jonah went went down to the pit of death and survive, so would Jesus. Just at Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish, so Jesus would spend three days in the tomb. Just as Jonah was delivered on dry land, Jesus would rise from the grave conquering sin and death! Jesus is the greater Jonah. Jesus rose from the grave and purchased our redemption!
May we respond to this event in awe of the grace of Jesus. We are just like Jonah as we run from God. We are selfish consumed with ourselves. We disobey God daily. But where you and I fail, Jesus succeeds. Jesus was obedient to the point of death. He took on the death that you and I deserved. He was tossed overboard in your place. He went to the pit of death for you and me, and he rose victoriously from death on the third day! He lives and reigns supreme. May we fall on our face and worship Jesus today! May we be amazed at his grace and mercy. May we put our faith and trust in Him.