When we begin to think of our favorite bible characters, Jonah is often mentioned. Perhaps that is because it was a favorite of ours when we were children. The story appeals to kids because it has elements of adventure, danger and gross body fluids. When you first hear the story, it amazes you! After all, it’s an everyday occurrence when a man eats a fish, but when a fish eats a man, well, the rest of us take notice!
As adults, we still cherish the story of Jonah. Let’s take a closer look for some of the lessons it holds for us today.
Jonah 1:1 – Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
Nineveh was located in the nation of Assyria. It was originally founded by Nimrod.
Genesis 10:8, 10-11 – Cush fathered Nimrod: he was the first on earth to be a might man. The beginning of his kingdom was Babel… in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh…
In Jonah chapter 3 we are told that it was an ‘exceedingly great’ city, meaning that it was large. Jonah tells us that it was three days journey in breadth. Since 20 miles was the distance a soldier could travel in a day, commentators assume that the city was roughly 55-60 miles in diameter. However, not all of the land was densely covered with streets and buildings. The city also included farm land. Scholars estimate the population to be around 600,000 people.
The sin of the city had reached a point where God decided to act. Rather than destroy them, he wants to make himself known to them, and give them a chance to repent. This is exactly what we would expect. God’s holiness demands an accounting for sin, but his mercy always provides a way of escape from judgment, if man is willing to accept it.
God’s concern for Nineveh and its heathen people is also a foreshadowing of his ultimate plan for all of mankind. I Timothy 2:3-4 tells us that salvation “… is good and pleasing in the sight of God our savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Our heavenly Father again expresses his desire through the apostle Peter Acts 10:34-35:
So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
So, we see that God sends Jonah to the people of Nineveh that they might believe in him, repent and be spared from judgment.
Jonah, however, chooses to completely ignore God. In fact, he tries to run from God by booking passage on a cargo ship to Tarshish.
Why do you suppose that Jonah overreacted to the command of God? Go ahead and think about that for a bit. We will present a likely answer later in the lesson.
God responds to Jonah’s rebellion by stirring up a great storm on the sea; scripture says it threatened to break the ship apart. Obviously, the crew was afraid and they all prayed to their gods to spare them.
Meanwhile, Jonah is asleep in below decks until the captain of the vessel wakes him up and instructs him to get on his knees as well! [So much for the old theory that people with a guilty conscience can’t sleep at night!]
Since the storm seemed to be getting worse instead of better, the crew decided to cast lots and determine who was responsible for their situation. Guess who comes up as the guilty party – Jonah!
Jonah then confesses everything to the crew. He explains that he is a Hebrew and he serves Jehovah, the God who made the earth and the sea. He also mentions that he was running away from God. This really got their attention. The seamen then asked what they should do to get the sea to calm down, before they all died.
Jonah responded this way:
Jonah 1:12 – He said, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”
The crew was unwilling to do this, because they feared it would be like throwing him to his death. So, they vainly tried to get to shore but when they could not, they prayed and then tossed him overboard.
Jonah 1:14-15 – Therefore, they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.
As you recall, God had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah.
I often wonder about the way that happened. Do you think Jonah saw the fish approaching and tried to get away? Can you imagine that moment of panic as he saw the gargantuan beast bearing down on him? What do you suppose went through his mind when he realized he was going to be swallowed? On the other hand, maybe he never saw it coming. Maybe the fish came up behind him and he didn’t even see it until it was too late. Or maybe he was drowning and the fish seemed like a safe haven. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll have the chance to ask him one day!
However, there is no need to speculate what he did after he was swallowed; the scripture tells us that he prayed.
Jonah 2:1-2 – Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me, out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”
I have never been in the belly of a great fish, and my guess is that you haven’t either, but I am imaging a grim situation. There would be a lot of sea water, plus I bet it would be pitch black. There might be other fish or sea life that had also been swallowed. Any air would certainly not be fresh (fish breath – yuck!). You can read Jonah’s description of the conditions in the fish’s belly in the remainder of chapter 2.
One part of the prayer I want us to take particular notice of:
Jonah 2:7 – When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
As a result of that prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah up on dry land.
Now that God has Jonah’s attention, he again instructs him to travel the 500 miles to Nineveh and tell them to repent or the city would be overthrown. This time Jonah obeys.
The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for fasting and repented from the greatest among them to the least. Even the king removed his royal robes, put on sack cloth and sat in ashes as a sign of repentance. He decreed that no one in the kingdom should eat or drink, but everyone should call out to God and turn from violence and evil so that they might be spared from destruction.
The result is exactly what we would expect – since the people chose to repent, God’s mercy wins over judgment; the entire city is spared.
Jonah 3:10 –When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
Sounds like a great thing to me, how about you? Jonah would disagree with us. He was mad that God spared the city! In chapter 4 verse 2 he actually complains that God is ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster’. He goes so far as to say that he wishes God would kill him, for it is better to be dead than alive if the people of Nineveh are spared!
Hmmm… how strange! When people complain about God, they don’t usually mention his abundant mercy and love. Normally, those are things we cherish about God. Clearly, something is bothering Jonah. Did you have a chance to consider what that might be?
The Jewish people had a very strong national identity. That identity was based upon them being the chosen people of God. Some of the elements of that national identity were circumcision, possession of the Law of God, sacrifices, prophetic words, signs and wonders, supernatural protection and provision, etc. Therefore, Jonah was very unwilling that any Gentile nations should find peace with God, because he feared that the Jews would lose their special relationship to Jehovah. He feared that the Gentiles would infringe upon the special place of the Jews.
What he failed to realize of course, was that God’s love is much too vast to be limited to one people group. As prior scriptures have shown, it is God’s will that all mankind be in right relationship with him.
God will save people from every ‘tribe, tongue, people and nation’. He has enough love and blessings for the Gentiles as well as the Jews!
Clearly, Jonah did not understand the full scope of God’s plan for mankind. This explains his great reluctance (rebellion) to share the message of salvation with the people of Nineveh.
Instead of rejoicing in what God was doing, Jonah has a tantrum and then he builds a temporary booth just outside the city. He sits down to see what would happen.
Little did he realize, but God had already made a decision regarding the people and animals of Nineveh. God was now going to deal with his prophet in a very tender way; he is going to attempt to give Jonah a glimpse of how precious the Gentiles were to him.
To this end, God causes the rapid growth of a giant plant, which provided Jonah with shade to comfort him.
The scripture says that Jonah was not just glad to have the plant, he was exceedingly glad. I can believe that. I know how much I love the shade of a tree on hot summer days! Any relief from the blazing sun is most welcome.
Jonah had about one day to enjoy that shade before God sent a worm to kill the plant.
As the plant withered and died, God turned up the heat. There was a scorching east wind and the sun beat down so hot, that Jonah almost fainted. Keep in mind that God was not doing this to be mean, rather he was using this situation to teach Jonah a very important lesson.
When the plant withered and died, Jonah again becomes bitterly angry. In fact he makes a second request for God to let him die (chapter 4, verse 8).
At that point, God confronted him about his attitude. God said to him “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”
To which Jonah responded, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
Then God shares this revelation of his love with Jonah:
Jonah 4:10-11 – And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Fortunately, God’s point was very clear and Jonah kept his zipped up at this point! That ends the book of Jonah.
While there are a number of useful lessons for adults in this passage of scripture, I am going to limit my comments to two things.
First of all, there is a message in this narrative about toxic relationships. Specifically, this applies to romantic relationships as well as ordinary friend relationships between two women or two men.
Notice how selfish Jonah was to those around him, especially the crew of the ship. We assume that the sailors on the ship to Tarshish were just ordinary men, earning a living for their families, when they make the acquaintance of Jonah. Immediately afterward, as a consequence of spending time around him, they find themselves in a place of storm and upheaval. All peace and rest was gone; they were afraid and worried from that moment on.
At that point, in order to preserve their lives, they begin to toss all the cargo overboard. So now their peace is gone, their confidence is gone and they are going broke or at least losing a great deal of money, all because of Jonah. Things are so bad, they are in danger of losing the entire ship. And how does Jonah treat them? With utter disregard! He is busy sleeping in the hold. He isn’t a bit concerned about the disaster that he is bringing upon all the crew of the ship and their families. He does not care one bit if they go broke or even die!
As you know, the captain forces him to get up. When the lot falls on Jonah and it is determined that he is the sole cause of all the destruction, how does he react? In a most shameful manner! He tells the crew of the ship that if they toss him overboard, the storm and upheaval will cease and they will be fine.
You see, if Jonah was a real friend, he would have taken responsibility for his actions. He would have asked the crew help him up onto the edge of the ship and he would have jumped in himself in order to save them. Instead, he puts all the pressure on the innocent sailors to literally pick him up and toss him overboard!
Of course, they are stunned and very unwilling to throw Jonah to certain death; but notice that he does not feel the same about them. Again, he was very willing for these men to die or go bankrupt for his bad choices!
Eventually, after doing everything in their power to ride out the storm, the sailors pray for forgiveness and toss him overboard. Only then were they able to pick up the pieces of their lives and business.
Does any of this sound familiar? Do you have any toxic relationships like the one between Jonah and the crew? Do you know certain people that always bring upheaval and drama to your life? Do they somehow sap all your energy, your peace and even your finances? Are they putting you in a position where you feel like you are fighting for your life?
Ask yourself this question: Is that person helping or hindering your ministry and your relationship to God? Are you so weary from that relationship that you have no time to seek God and his plans for you? Is your relationship with this person squeezing out the time you should be spending with your family? As a result of this relationship, do you do things that you would never do otherwise? Does this person influence you to make poor choices?
If so, you need to break off the relationship. Just like the sailors, you may balk at the idea. It may be uncomfortable, because they are not going to leave willingly. They will make you do the dirty work. But for your own sake and the sake of your ministry, you may need to do it immediately!
Do not be worried about being alone. God is standing by to bring you the right spouse; one who will assist you in ministry, not bring you down. He has plenty of good people who will be glad to enter into a friend relationship with you; a relationship that will bring you closer to the Lord and help you grow spiritually.
The final thing I want to point out about the story of Jonah is this: God is sovereign over all things. Clearly in this narrative God is sovereign over nature (the storm, the fish), but he is also sovereign over your life. He is vastly greater than all your failures, shortcomings or mistakes.
Even though Jonah made some poor choices that left him in dire circumstances (the belly of the fish), as soon as he called out to God, God was there.
The same is true for you and me. There is no mistake we can make that will test the limits of God’s power. There is no mistake we can make that will thwart God’s plans for the universe. Even if you made some poor choices, God is ready and waiting for you to call upon him. The moment you reach out to him, he will be there. In fact, the bible says that Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart right now. He desires to fellowship with you!
Revelation 3:20 – Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and eat with him, and he with me.
We have all blown it at one time or another; all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. We have all made some bad choices or been rebellious a time or two. But remember, you are not a finished product. The Holy Spirit is actively at work in your life, continuously making you over into the image of Christ. So put your sins under the blood and get back on your feet. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus!
Let me give you some encouragement: Don’t be discouraged about the mistakes you’ve made. God isn’t finished with you yet. The Holy Spirit will continue to work in you until the day Christ returns or calls you home.
Let me give you some relief: If you are in a relationship that is poisoning you, you have the right to lovingly but firmly end it. You don’t have to continue to carry around people that take all of the life out of you. Turn them over to God; he has the strength to deal with them.
Let me give you some strength: God gave Jonah the wisdom the opportunity and the ability to speak to the people of Nineveh. So don’t fret – God will also provide all you need to accomplish the good works he has planned for you.