Lessons from a Reluctant Prophet
As we take this rather brief, but I pray useful overview of this intriguing little book, I have a confession to make. I Never liked Jonah as a man.
I always saw him as a whiney, cowardly, self-centered, graceless, merciless jerk.
Now, he’s my hero.
Because when it is all said and done, this book is autobiographical.
So that by the time we reach the end – this man Jonah, doesn’t care what you think about him and his various and deep sins. Which are evident, severe and many…
He only cares that you know how good his God is.
He becomes absolutely thoughtless about trying to preserve a good opinion of himself.
He wants his readers – at the expense of any negative thoughts we might have about him – to see a God who is gracious, kind, merciful and who delights in showing mercy to the lost.
The 1st verse actually tells us quite a bit about Jonah.
Jonah 1:1 “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai,”
2 Kings 14:23–27 gives us some needed background. “In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 25 He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher
As we see in 2 Kings – Jonah was an active and important prophet. And one of the key aspects of being a prophet of God was that whatever he prophesied, must come to pass. If it didn’t Israel was to disregard him as a prophet.
Deuteronomy 18:18–22 “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. 20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”
This is going to play a vital role in how we view Jonah’s dilemma.
Jonah 1:1–2 “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
Of course here is the first problem.
Jonah is a Jewish prophet ministering in and around Samaria, the capital of Northern Israel.
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, who had swept in earlier and conquered Samaria, razing the city and deporting 27,000 Israelites to other areas, and repopulating the area with Gentile foreigners.
Assyria was the ISIS of its day – without exaggeration.
So rather than have anything to do with the barbarians that decimated his city and ruined his nation – he runs.
Jonah 1:3 “But Jonah rose 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, away from the presence of the LORD.
And here is our first lesson in Jonah:
Lesson 1. (1-2) – Revelation and Responsibility: We are all responsible for the Word of God revealed to us.
Once we have heard and known God’s will expressed in His Word, we are now responsible for it in our lives.
We cannot remain indifferent to God’s Word. We cannot pick and choose what we want to believe and what we want to receive.
When God speaks, we are responsible for hearing.
And the question is how DO we respond to what we KNOW God has said?
In Jonah’s case, he responded by trying to ignore it. By running the other way. By refusing to pay any attention to it.
And we might ask ourselves today, how are we responding to the Word of God in our lives – and the demands knowing His will in His Word brings?
NOTE – we are not responsible for what God hasn’t revealed – but we are for what He HAS.
And this is why the Word of God is so important to the Believer.
It is not a document full of nice suggestions sage advice – it is God speaking to us as His people, and thus it demands a response from us – in everything it addresses.
Just as the distasteful nature of what God said to Jonah in this text – we might find something equally distasteful to our personal wants, preferences or desires. And we are faced with how we will respond.
Distastefulness not being an excuse for refusing.
Lesson 2. (1:3) – The Costliness of disobedience.
The Hebrew indicates that Jonah may have paid such a fare that no other passengers were needed and so they could go quickly. The JPS commentary notes this voyage would probably take a year – making the passage cost very high.
Sin is ALWAYS more costly than obedience – tho we seldom see that clearly because sin lies to us and tells us the cost of obedience is so much higher.
Disobedience always consists of a downward spiral.
We seldom get to the bottom all at once.
1:3 – Down to Joppa;
1:3 – Down into the ship;
1:5 – Down into the interior of the ship;
1:5 – Down into sleep;
1:15 – Down into the sea;
1:17 – Down into the belly of the fish;
2:6 – Down to the bottoms of the mountains.
Any movement away from God and His purposes is down. There are no lateral moves away from God.
Lesson 3. (1:3) – The Inescapability of God’s Presence.
God’s presence is neither situational nor geographical. He cannot be fled from.
Jonah knew enough that he could not actually run from God’s presence which is everywhere, but the expression is meant to describe running from “the face of God” – in other words – more simply, Jonah ran in his effort to refuse to submit to what he knew was God’s will. To flee from serving Him.
Jonah’s mistake was in thinking that he in fact had the option to refuse God’s Lordship, and that God would then just leave him alone.
It is not so. No one who is Christ’s can refuse to serve Him and just be left alone. They will be hunted and pursued until they are restored.
Lesson 4. (1:6) – The negative effect of disobedience on prayer:
Disobedience chills our interest in praying, and impedes God’s willingness to respond.
As God complained to Israel in Micah 3:4 “Then they will cry to the LORD, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.”
Jonah cannot pray to God with any hope of being heard while he is in active rebellion against Him. And neither can we.
It is a mark of a peculiarly hard heart when we DO think to pray and be heard, even when we are living in such rebellion.
Even Jonah knew better.
Note that from the beginning, Jonah refuses to pray about his issues. He does not want to go to Nineveh, but he does not take his conflict to God.
Instead, he internalizes it and runs.
On the ship, when the wind is about to take them, he refuses still to pray.
Only after being in the fish for 3 days does he at last break down and speak to God.
God is turning up the pressure at each step, and Jonah is refusing at each step.
NOTE: When the child of God is disobedient to God, it always affects more than him or herself. And it often has deleterious effects on those lost whom we encounter in our rebellion. God save us from impacting others with our sin, who seem to us to be outside the circle of our interaction with God.
Lesson 5. 1:12 – How disobedience distorts reality: Jonah would rather die, than repent and fulfill his mission.
And we might well ask ourselves; what sin am I so tied to, that I would rather die, than let it go and grow further in the image of Christ?
In the belly of the fish, Jonah repented of his sinful ACTION, but not yet of his sinful heart and motivations.
Sin can never be dealt with merely on the basis of modified behavior.
Jonah has not been thoroughly dealt with until at the end of the book, he finally hears God’s heart, and not just His command.
It is the woeful reality that many serve God in action – while their hearts remain untouched and inwardly as contrary to God as ever.
They profess Christ.
They play the role of the Christian, but they inwardly bristle at God in His providences and in His dealings with others and themselves.
With others, they want justice carried out, and with themselves, they want their comforts attended to.
All the while they have never stopped to hear God’s heart.
All of this is a distorted way of looking at ourselves and God’s ways.
Jonah finally shifts, at the end. But oh what difficulty he endures until then.
Nothing can please him.
Nothing can make him happy.
Nothing can keep him from investing too much happiness in temporary comforts, or too much sorrow in their loss.
For his mind is on earthly things.
Mercy and grace do not fill his soul.
Lesson 6. (2:1-2) – Never underestimate God’s willingness to restore the disobedient.
Ch. 2 is remarkable as a prayer of thanksgiving.
How does a prayer of thanksgiving fit at this point?
He’s alive, but where? – in the belly of this fish.
So why thanksgiving? Because, he IS alive, when in fact he was deserving of, and, preserved form the Hell from which there is no return.
This is reason to be thankful.
Yes it is hot. Yes it is smelly. Yes it is dark and uncomfortable and the future is uncertain – but it is not eternal separation from God and under His undiluted wrath.
ANYTHING is better than that.
When one has been so close to utter destruction, being saved by only and inch, is cause for celebration.
Maybe this is you today. You are smarting, reeling from the aftereffects of sinful choices on your part.
If you are truly Christ’s – no matter hire dire it looks, your God is a loving and forgiving God and you have reason to turn to Him in thanksgiving even now for the fact you have been abandoned to Hell – and therefore there is great hope for the days ahead.
Days of usefulness in His kingdom, even though you’ve fallen very greatly.
2:9 “Salvation belongs to the Lord”.
At this point, Jonah is yielding to God’s will in confronting the Ninevites.
Jonah’s reticence to go to them in the first place is due to the fact that He does not want God to be merciful to them and save them (4:2).
And if he DOES go, there will be personal consequences.
Remember the portion we read in Deut. At the beginning, about a prophet is only to be listened to if his word comes to pass?
If Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, that God is going to destroy them in 40 days, but then God has mercy upon them – his word won’t come to pass and he is no longer a prophet with honor.
His entire life and self-image and purpose are gone.
He’ll lose all credibility.
Add to this that they are Israel’s enemy. They are pagan persecutors. And He REALLY does not want God to be good to them.
But the end of his prayer shows that he relents from trying to stop the Lord’s arm, and confesses that salvation is not Jonah’s either to bestow or to prevent, but rather that salvation belongs to the Lord to give as He sees fit.
Our desires for or against notwithstanding.
Salvation is God’s to bestow upon whom He pleases – period.
It belongs to Him alone and He is free to give it or withhold it according to His own wishes.
God is free to extend mercy to any and all as He sees fit. It is His divine prerogative. Yet how we rebel when He extends His mercy to those we have come to hate and/or fear.
Note the anti-typology with Jesus.
Jonah wants no part of rescuing his enemies, while Jesus willingly comes.
Jonah flees from what is uncomfortable and distasteful, while Jesus willingly drinks the Father’s cup.
Jonah has no compassion on 100,000 lost men, Jesus has compassion on unnumbered multitudes more.
Jonah faces rejection, but Jesus faces actual death.
Nineveh was hundreds of miles from the shore of the Mediterranean.
No one there would have witnessed this spectacle.
His preaching alone would have to suffice.
Lesson 7. (3:6-10) True repentance is more than saying I’m sorry.
Jonah 3:6–10 “The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 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.
As is noted by others, God did not relent because of their fasting and basement alone – but because of “what they did” which included (v8) turning away from their wicked ways and violence. “Brethren, it is not written of the men of Nineveh that ‘God saw their sackcloth and fasting,’ but that ‘God saw what they did, how they had turned back from their evil ways’ ” (M. Taʿanit 2, 1)
Lesson 8. (4:9-11) – Never underestimate God’s willingness to forgive.
Jonah 4:9–11 “But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 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. 11 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?”
We are far greater sinners than we are willing to believe, and God is a much more merciful God than we are willing to believe.
As I mentioned earlier, this entire book must be autobiographical, since so much is related which only Jonah, alone experienced.
From that frame, note how Jonah gives God the last word.
And how the book ends with God’s statement of the principle of His mercy and how it is only right that it extends to the fallen sons of Adam wherever they may be found.
Jonah wants us to learn what he learned.
Yes, the Assyrians were barbarians in every sense of the word.
Yes, they had committed unspeakable atrocities.
Yes, they had even ravaged Jonah’s own people.
But they were human beings – souls created in the image of God.
And they were not to be thrown away like last week’s newspaper.
And yes, Jonah was God’s man, but in a very rebellious state.
He had legitimate concerns, but was responding sinfully to the danger and detriment of others around him.
He showed almost nothing of God’s goodness.
And he needed the same grace and mercy he wanted to deny the Assyrians – in order to serve his God.
Oh, that we might begin where he ended – his sin exposed, but in the light of the blinding glory of God’s mercy and grace upon sinners – both those yet to hear the Gospel, and those who know it but yet allow sin to reign in them to a terrifying extent.
Restoration for fallen saints, and salvation for lost sinners.
This is the person and work of our God in Christ Jesus.
And it is astounding!