Jonah, an Uncooperative Prophet

JONAH 1

Jonah’s Rebellion and Flight from the Lord

1The 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.”

Okay, the first thing we see in chapter 1 is God’s recruitment of Jonah, a prophet from Gath Hepher in lower Galilee (8 or so kilometres sou’-sou’-west from Nazareth, the future birthplace of Jesus). Similarly to the Word of the Lord to Amos, Jonah was commissioned to travel to Nineveh and warn the people of God’s fierce anger towards their sin (see Isaiah 10:5-19).

Nineveh was the greatest city of Assyria, situated on the banks of the Tigris River. During the 8th Century BC, the Israelites and Assyrians weren’t on friendly terms. Although Israel was under the protection of God, Jonah would’ve been well acquainted with the cruelty, injustice, and oppression faced under Jeroboam II’s reign. If you have a look in the British Museum, you’ll find a selection of ancient reliefs found the king’s palace depicting the ruthlessness of their military escapades.

Nineveh is one of the most prominent foreign cities in the Hebrew Bible. Its portrayal is a complex blend of historical reality, symbolic force, and legendary embellishment.

Thomas M. Bolin, Nineveh as Sin City
The Monuments of Nineveh by Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1853″

The great city of Nineveh was a thousand or so kilometres northeast from Jonah’s home (near the seaport of Joppa, known today as Jaffa). However, Jonah wasn’t particularly interested in delivering God’s message of grace to the people of Nineveh (situated on the outskirts of Mosul in modern-day Iraq), so he bought a ticket to the port of Tarshish, a little north of Gibraltar in modern-day Spain, five-thousand kilometres west. Tarshish was undoubtedly the furthest westward port known to him.  

Why did Jonah disobey the Lord? Well, for starters, the Ninevites were notoriously wicked, they weren’t the kind of people who’d appreciate some bad news from a travelling prophet. Indeed, the widely known and feared atrocities carried out by the Assyrians are well explicated in the book of Nahum.

Secondly, Jonah knew of the Lord’s grace and mercy; he wasn’t all that interested in being used by God as a means to save the hell-bound people of Nineveh. Jonah was all too willing to sit back and watch God’s wrath and justice be unleashed on his people’s enemies.

Something that I find rather counterproductive is that in his rebellion against God, Jonah had to pay the boat fare, whereas, as we see exemplified throughout Scripture when you’re obedient to His will, the Lord provides all that is required.

While Jonah was on the boat to Tarshish, he was obviously now quite at ease, so he went down to the cabin and fell into a “deep sleep”. God, however, wasn’t finished with him yet. He sent a fierce storm to forestall Jonah’s disobedient departure.

The sailors were terrified and immediately prayed to their respective pagan gods. A bit annoyed that Jonah was blissfully unaware of their impending doom, the captain went down and woke him up.

It’s ironic that despite all their fruitless prayers for rescue, the captain implored Jonah to pray to his god, which effectively invited the Lord onto the scene. The sailors had also “cast lots” (rolled some dice) to determine whose fault the storm was. As we see in Proverbs 16:33,

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” God used the result of the die to fulfil his aforementioned plan.

The sailors cast lots to see who was responsible for the storm

The captain was told Jonah was Hebrew and believed in the Lord, the maker of the heavens, the earth, and the sea. As he embarked in Joppa, Jonah must’ve told them the reason for his flight, for they knew that he’d angered God by running away.

Jonah understood what needed to be done, and he told them to toss him overboard. The sailors were understandably reluctant, but they cried out to God, relented, and upon throwing him overboard, the fury of the storm was calmed.

This was an example of close-quarters spiritual warfare. The pagan sailors had swiftly recognised the pointlessness of their prayers, and “called out to the Lord “, they also made sacrifices and vows to Him. God used Jonah’s blatant disobedience to bring these sailors to repentance. Thus, irrespective of mankind’s rebellion, God will more than achieve His purpose.

We see that the wind, the waves, and the sailors feared and obeyed God, for,

The fear of the Lord leads to life; then one rests content, untouched by trouble.

Proverbs 19:23

…but Jonah was stuck in his disobedience and just wanted to die. Jonah’s life, of course, wasn’t his to take. So God called up a big fish to swallow him up, and over three less than comfortable days and nights, take him back to his prophetic commission.

In Hebrew, a gadôl was a sea creature large enough to swallow a man whole, perhaps a giant whale shark or an extinct giant marine creature or monster. And in Greek, a kêtos was a dog-headed sea dragon or serpent. It is named after Keto, the Greek sea goddess, daughter of the Titans Pontus and Gaea). The books of Job, Psalms and Isaiah also refer to an enormous sea reptile known as the Leviathan.

Further details of the “Leviathan” are given in Job 41, Psalm 104:26, and Isaiah 27:1

Here’s something to think about:

40For 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.

Matthew 12:40

Jesus’ identification with Jonah when at the lowest point of his life is explained in Hebrews 2:17,

17For this reason, he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.

A “kêtos: dog-headed sea dragon

JONAH 2

Jonah’s Prayer

1From inside the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 

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

Jonah getting vomited up on dry land after three days and three nights

After Jonah was flung into the water and started sinking into the depths, God could’ve said, “Fine then. If you want to die so badly, let it be!” but He had much bigger plans. So instead of letting him die, God sent a giant sea creature to swallow Jonah.

Notice how the chapter opens, “In my distress, I called to the Lord, and He answered me.” Understandably, as he was descending, Jonah pled to God. He realised that he didn’t genuinely want to die. It was when he’d nowhere else to turn that Jonah remembered the all-surpassing majesty of God. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you…” Jonah partakes in the vows and sacrifices he’d just seen the pagan sailors (who were all safe and sound) present to God.

 Raise your hand if this situation can be applied to you. So often, when we ignore the guidance of God, choose to go off in our own directions and allow our lives to veer off track, God sets in motion a series of events (which are often unpleasant) to pull us back into line.

After being saved, Jonah agreed to take part in God’s redemptive plan for the Ninevites.

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Nineveh, the “great” city of Assyria

JONAH 3

Jonah Goes to Nineveh

1Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”…10When 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.

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The Lord repeats his command to Jonah, “Go to the great city of Nineveh”, but the giant sea monster didn’t simply drop him off in the city’s harbour. Instead, after getting vomited out on dry land, Jonah had to make his own way.

 After examining the ancient evidence, although Nineveh is said here to be “a very large city” that “took three days to go through”, this is likely a poetic exaggeration or figure of speech.

The message God gave Jonah to tell the Ninevites was that the city would be overthrown in forty days because of its rampant sin. So God gave the people an armistice to repent and suspend the impending judgment. So, of course, the people got terrified and immediately repented of their callousness, arrogance, and culture of violence. The king, the nobles, and all the people put on sackcloth and sat down in humility, a visible demonstration of their change of heart.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is true-repentance-of-the-ninevites-1.jpg

We know that God never changes, but He does react to our actions. For example, God responded to the Ninevites repentance by withholding His righteous judgement. In this way, we see that God’s mercy was shown to Jonah, the pagan sailors, as well as the wickedest people on earth. He has enough patience and grace for everyone to hear His Word, repent and be saved.

JONAH 4

Jonah’s Anger at the Lord’s Compassion

1But to Jonah, this seemed very wrong, and he became angry… 4But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”…9“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

“…I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God…” Jonah 4:2

In this concluding chapter, Jonah isn’t happy with God. Even after he’d run away, sailed in the opposite direction, got caught in a terrible storm, was thrown overboard and swallowed by the giant sea serpent, God had extended His blessing to everyone in Nineveh. In effect, when he’d agreed to help, Jonah had hoped and expected the people wouldn’t accept his prophecy, and the Lord would soon annihilate them under fire and brimstone as he had done to Sodom and Gomorrah.

So, to avoid getting caught up in God’s wrath, Jonah camped outside of Nineveh. We read that “he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.”

As a demonstration of His love, God provided Jonah with a lovely leafy plant to give him some shade irrespective of his spiteful disobedience. However, God then instructed a worm to eat Jonah’s plant. Not only that, He directed a strong wind and scorching sunshine down upon Jonah’s position. Understandably, Jonah was more than a little upset and, once again, wanted to die.

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7…the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered…8“It would be better for me to die than to live.” Jonah 4:7-8

 God closes this story with a message that applies to us all today. Jonah had more concern for the plant than for the thousands of souls in Nineveh. He’d already seen God’s mastery of the wind, over the sailors, the giant sea monster and over the Ninevites, yet Jonah still couldn’t appreciate God’s grace. This shows that although Jonah was given God’s words, he didn’t share in the love pertinent to God’s heart.

You can’t be a beneficiary of God’s grace but not a dispenser of it. The book of Jonah teaches all of us that God’s love extends to the whole creation.

God’s final question to Jonah is intended for all the book’s readers:

11 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?” 

Jonah 4:11
5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth

5 thoughts on “Jonah, an Uncooperative Prophet

  1. I have a question. What if someone heard God’s call, answered it, and started on the long road to his destination. But, at the start of his journey he was ambushed by people claiming to be God’s own servants who blocked his way and forced him off the road. A few years latter he got another call. Another mission, another road. but after travelling this road for many years he has come to the realization that, while the end of the road is just in sight, there is nothing there. How does he read the book of Jonah and what does your critique of the story say to him?

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    1. Hello Brian, thank you for your great question.

      The first thing I want to say is that God is our King who desires our trust and obedience, and the book of Jonah vividly details the sovereignty of our Lord over everything; we see God in full control over the sailors, the weather, the whale, the Ninevites, the plant and the worm.

      Jonah’s task was to obey God. He wasn’t told that his missionary journey would be easy or that he wouldn’t face opposition. Unfortunately, Jonah didn’t trust God. He let his fear of the powerful Assyrians cloud his spiritual perspective. So, to get him back on track, God allowed Jonah to flee on the ship but sent a storm and a whale to demonstrate His power and infallible trustworthiness.

      Upon his arrival in Ninevah, Jonah is given a single line of prophecy to deliver, “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4). Jonah expected the Assyrians to ignore him, so he camped on the top of a hill, eager to watch God’s wrath be delivered. However, against Jonah’s expectations, all of the people of Ninevah repented. God is in authority; Jonah was just His mouthpiece.

      Like Jonah, we have no chapter by chapter idea of where our roads will take us. But if we trust God, we know that the final destination will be worth all the hurdles and hardships. Indeed, opposition often gives rise to opportunity.

      While he was in the belly of the sea creature for three days, Jonah prayed to the Lord, and God heard him. Thus, the book of Jonah teaches us about faithfulness and the power of God during our times of happiness and distress.

      “You may go through difficulty, hardship, or trial – but as long as you are anchored to Him, you will have hope.” — Charles F. Stanley

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      1. Thank you for your response to my question. However, while I may be seen as hard to get along with, I have a few problems. You say that the book of Jonah details God’s full control. My wife and I committed ourselves to each other and to God. We did this in front of God’s alter and in front of God’s representative. We asked God to enter our marriage and to bless our marriage. Fifty years have passed and there are just the two of us. If God had a plan for us it was never revealed. There was no storm, no sailors and no whale. If God was in full control what does that mean? Even our church community has failed to understand and support us. It has no (NIL/NOTHING) concept of childlessness. As a result it, the church community, has drifted away from us despite the fact we still attend service. Also, what do you mean by final destination? At three years of age I had a very serious accident and was saved from death by the quick actions of my grandmother with just a couple of seconds to spare. If my life has been a journey to my final destination, considering the fact I could have been there when I was three, and considering that when I do get there I will leave nothing behind, What is the point? How do the hurdles and hardships make it all worthwhile? At least Jonah delivered his message.

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  2. Okay, to start, God’s plan for us all is detailed in Scripture:
    “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” Ecclesiastes 12:13.

    Let’s break this down a little. The “fear of God” relates to our honour and respect of God and for His Word. We are to live obediently to everything He has said, instructed and example.

    Moreover, as Paul teaches in Romans 8:22-29, God’s purpose for our lives is “to be conformed to the image of his Son”. Such conformity relates to our submission and our like-mindedness with that of Jesus Christ.

    Even after accepting Jesus into our lives, we’ll continue to wrestle with sin because our mortal bodies and minds are contaminated by sin. The new life planted within us, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is still in seed form. When Jesus Christ returns, our sinful flesh will be erased, and we’ll be welcomed into the new, sinless and divine creation.

    We must remember that although “We know that we are children of God and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), on the cross, Jesus defeated Satan, “it is finished”. (John 19:30); the penalty for sin has been eternally paid.

    It sounds like your church isn’t grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ. Yes, we see throughout Scripture that children are a gift from God (see Psalm 127:3-5). However, childbearing is not a guarantee, commandment or obligation.

    Remember also that the Christian “church” isn’t confined to a particular place or building. It relates more to the people who attend. Therefore, if most of your church community is behaving in an un-Christlike manner, I’d pray, inform the pastor or pastoral body of the situation, and then change your place of worship.

    “Like Jonah, we have no chapter-by-chapter idea of where our roads will take us. But if we trust God, we know that the final destination will be worth all the hurdles and hardships.”This “final destination” is the Kingdom of heaven, spending eternity alongside Him.

    When I was 19, I was a soldier in the Australian Army. I’d always been a Christian, and I’d just been formally baptised. A couple of weeks later, I was involved in a motor vehicle accident that nearly killed me (a 98% probability of death). So we have to appreciate that God is sovereign over everything.

    Would I have gone to heaven if I’d died? That’s not something I can answer. God alone knows. None of the trivial and temporal material achievements or experiences we have on earth will apply in heaven.

    I rest assured that God allows us to experience difficulties as a means to draw us back to Him. Moreover, He’s working behind the scenes, so to speak, in every fortunate and unfortunate event.

    “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.

    Jonah didn’t want to participate in God’s plans, but the complete redemption of Nineveh in response to the handful of words God had given him illustrates that God’s love and plans for humanity cannot be limited by the will of our flesh. He is in full control.

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