The Book of Jonah recounts for us an important event in the life of Jonah and the city of Nineveh. Jonah was an Old Testament Prophet of the Lord. He is first mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, “[Jeroboam] restored Israel’s border from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, had spoken through His servant, the prophet Jonah son of Amittai from Gath-hepher.” In this verse, the Lord gave Jonah a task and there is no mention or indication that Jonah was reluctant in carrying it out. He had the honor of prophesying that Israel would expand their borders to regain what had previously been held during the reign of David and later Solomon.
Sometime later, this same Prophet, Jonah son of Amittai, was given another task by the Lord. This time, however, Jonah was not called to prophesy to Israel but to Nineveh. Nineveh, at this time, was a very large city that took three days to walk through and had a population of approximately 120,000 people. Jonah was to “go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their evil has come up before me.” Nineveh was an enemy of Israel and during Jonah’s time it had fallen on hard times. During the years of 783-745BC, its rulers were ineffectual, there was a horrific plague, internal rebellions, famine, and even a solar eclipse.
It was a difficult time for Nineveh but during this time God told Jonah to go to them and preach. One would think that Jonah would relish visiting Nineveh during their despair to preach that judgment was coming, but he didn’t. In fact, Jonah did not go to Nineveh but “went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.” Tarshish, while obviously not Nineveh, was the opposite direction from Nineveh. Why would Jonah do that? Jonah went to Tarshish because he wanted to go “from the Lord’s presence.” Later in Chapter 4, Jonah reveals what was behind his flight to Tarshish. He told the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster.” The Lord called Nineveh to repent, but Jonah didn’t want them to repent, he wanted them destroyed; so, he deserted his mission and fled.
Jonah thought he could escape God’s presence by going to a distant land. Jonah first went to Joppa to find a ship going to Tarshish. It is interesting to note that the Bible speaks of Jonah going down to Joppa, down into the ship, and then further down to the lowest part of the vessel as he fled from the Lord. The Lord, however, was not going to let Jonah go down in rebellion and flee from his responsibility. The Lord sent a powerful storm to get Jonah’s attention and keep him from fleeing.
The sailors on the ship were terrified when the storm hit. They cast lots and discovered that the storm was Jonah’s fault (see Proverbs 16:33). Jonah admitted, “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah admitted that he was fleeing from the Lord and told them the way to save themselves was to cast him overboard. They “picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.” Also, “the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” This was a storm directed by God, but it was not a storm of wrath or judgment. The Lord could have easily drowned Jonah and the pagan sailors in the storm but that was not His goal. His goal was to guide Jonah back to the mission. The storm was God’s divine discipline to bring Jonah to repentance and obedience and to magnify Himself before the pagan sailors.
When Jonah was cast into the sea, “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three day and three nights.” While there have been scholars who reject the historicity of Jonah, claiming it is a work of fiction, there is no reason to do so. The Lord, the God of heavens, who made the sea and the dry land can create a great fish and appoint this fish to swallow Jonah and the Lord can preserve Jonah alive in this fish for any length of time (He is God). Chapter 1 ends with Jonah in a dilemma, he is in a very large fish. Why is Jonah here? Because Jonah is in rebellion against God and does not want to go to Nineveh to preach to them. Jonah tried to flee but God made even the sea rebel against him. I can only imagine what went through Jonah’s mind when the captain woke him from his sleep saying, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your God. Maybe this God will consider us, and we won’t perish.” Jonah cannot run from the Lord and now finds himself in a great fish’s belly.
What would you do if you found yourself alive in a great fish? I recommend you do what Jonah did: pray. Jonah’s prayer is remarkable because he acknowledges his distress and cried out for help (2), recognizes it is the Lord’s discipline (3), hopes in once again seeing the Holy Temple (4), trusts that he will be delivered (6), and commits to fulfill his vow to the Lord (9). Herman Melville commented on this prayer in his classic book Moby Dick:
For as sinful as Jonah is, he does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look toward His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.https://americanliterature.com/author/herman-melville/book/moby-dick-or-the-whale/chapter-9-the-sermon
Let us learn from Jonah and let us obey the Lord fully and wholeheartedly. Let us be like Jesus, who committed Himself to the Father’s mission and did not waver at any time.