Jonah and the Whale—Jonah 1:1-4:11
The ancient Assyrians had been the enemies of the Israelites for as long as anyone could remember. All his life Jonah had heard horror stories of how his fellow countrymen were being captured by the dreaded Assyrians during their many brutal raids. Husbands, wives and little children were being carried away by the Assyrians to become their slaves, never to be seen again by their grieving loved ones. Raping and pillaging as they attacked, the powerful Assyrians left fear and destruction wherever they went. Jonah as a committed patriot and a devout Jew, had learned to hate these pagan Assyrians with all of his heart. The year was around 760 B.C. and religious Jews everywhere were praying that God would destroy their enemy, the Assyrians. And Jonah was praying for Assyria’s destruction too.
It was into this mix that God came to Jonah and instructed him to go to the Assyrians with a message, - a special message from God. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, a city in Assyria, and tell the people of Nineveh that God wanted them to repent of their violent ways and turn from their sins. Jonah was to warn the Ninevites that God would destroy their city in forty days because of their wickedness.
Jonah didn’t want to obey God or do what God had asked him to do. He didn’t want to be Gods’ prophet and missionary to the heathen Assyrians. He wanted God to destroy the people of Nineveh. Jonah decided to run away from the presence of God. He got on a ship headed for Tarshish – the opposite direction from Nineveh! Surely God’s presence couldn’t follow him all the way to Tarshish. Jonah paid his fare and climbed down into the lowest part of the boat out of sight. Now God couldn’t find him, he reasoned, and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
The sailors shoved off from shore and the ship sailed out into the Mediterranean Sea.
The ship cruised along in the night for several hours over the moonlit waters. But it wasn’t long before problems began to occur. A gale force wind came up and soon the sailors were struggling to keep the little ship from going under. Jonah kept sleeping as the winds grew worse and the boat swayed dangerously from side to side. The frantic sailors started throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load. But still that wasn’t enough as the storm raged on. The desperate captain and sailors prayed to their gods and cast lots to see what was causing all the trouble. And when the lot fell on Jonah they climbed down into the lowest deck and woke him up.
“Throw me into the sea and the storm will be calmed” Jonah insisted. “I was running away from God,” he told them. “I know that this great storm is because of me,” Jonah 1:12. The men rowed harder through the storm to get back to the shore but to no avail. And finally when it became certain that the ship would sink and they would all die, they reluctantly had to throw Jonah into the stormy waters.
Jonah was sure he would die right then and there, but God wasn’t through with him yet. Scripture says that God prepared a great fish whose purpose it was to swallow up Jonah And for three days and nights Jonah lived in the belly of the fish. Not a pretty place to be. Jonah describes it like this: “The waters surrounded me, even to my soul: The deep closed around me: Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains: The earth with its bars closed behind me forever: Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.” Jonah 2:5-6.
Jonah prayed to God from the belly of the big fish. You and I would have prayed too if we were to find ourselves stuck inside a fish! There are no atheists in fox holes. I think Jonah was finally learning that he couldn’t run away from God! Jonah promises God that he will obey. Then God speaks to the fish and Jonah is vomited out onto dry land.
This time Jonah obeys God and goes to Nineveh. He still doesn’t want to go, but God has gotten his attention with the fish incident. Jonah knows that God is merciful and kind. What if the people of Nineveh are sorry for their sins? Then it would be just like God to forgive them and let them live. That’s why Jonah doesn’t want to warn the people of Nineveh. He wants them all to die. Jonah sulks around the city calling out Gods’ message: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:4b. He hopes the people don’t hear him. When he has finished warning Nineveh, Jonah goes to a spot east of the city. He decides to campout there for the forty days so he can watch the destruction of Nineveh. God causes a vine to sprout up near Jonah and give him shade from the sun. Jonah loved this vine. Now he will be able to watch from his comfortable seat as all the people of Nineveh are being killed. He can’t wait!
An amazing miracle takes place in Nineveh after Jonah gives them God’s warning. The Bible tells us that every single person in the city believes Gods’ message. As the depressed Jonah shuffles through the streets calling out, every man, woman and child listens and is personally convicted of their sin. Each one pours ashes on themselves and begs God for forgiveness! From the poorest peasant woman to the richest lord, every last person in Nineveh stops eating and drinking and calls out to God. They all put on sackcloth and ashes to show how sorry they are for their violent ways. When the king hears Jonahs’ warning he proclaims a fast throughout all of Nineveh. The king orders his people: “Let neither man nor beast, herd or flock,taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Jonah 3:7b-8.
And what do you think God did then? Of course our loving God forgave Nineveh. God changed His mind and didn’t destroy the city as He had said He would, since all the people of Nineveh had turned from their evil ways. The book of Jonah teaches us that God has mercy and compassion for all people and always forgives when people confess their sins...
And how did Jonah feel about all of this? Well, sadly Jonah was furious. He did not share Gods’ love for the heathen. Instead of Jonah being glad that God had been able to use him to help save Nineveh from destruction, he was outraged. He wanted Nineveh to get what was coming to them! The Lord wanted to share His compassion for the lost with Jonah. He urged Jonah to look beyond his anger and be concerned about human suffering. God asked Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah 4;4
.God tries again to get His point across with more object lessons and reasonings. He prepares a worm which ate the vine that had shaded Jonah from the hot sun, - the vine that Jonah loved so much. The vine dries up and dies. Jonah is so outraged and upset over the loss of his little vine that he wants to die and lashes out again at God. “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” Jonah 4:9b.
The book of Jonah ends with God trying once more to reason with Jonah. God observes that Jonah cares deeply about losing the vine that grew up overnight and gave him shade. But Jonah doesn’t care at all about the thousands in Nineveh who have just been saved from death.. God points out to Jonah that twenty thousand persons living in Nineveh don’t even know their left hand from their right (babies and little children?) And God continues by mentioning that many animals in Nineveh have been saved from death also. Doesn’t Jonah care that innocent children and animals have been saved from a painful death? Why does he care more for his vine (his comfort) than for suffering humanity? Aren’t his priorities mixed up?
Jonah is still angry when the story ends. There is no record that he ever changed. We have no hint that Jonah ever even tried to see things Gods’ way or listened when God pleaded with him to have compassion. He seemed to stubbornly cling to his old hatreds. He even asked God to let him die in his bitterness. God spoke directly to Jonah and performed amazing interventions right before his eyes and still Jonah refused to give up his prejudices.
If there is one lesson we can learn from Jonah, that lesson might be to not let anger take over our lives. Jonah let his anger keep him from all that God had for him. Let’s not make that same mistake. Jonah had the privilege of being one of Gods’ chosen prophets, and yet he hardened his heart. And even God couldn’t persuade him to soften that heart.
Each of us, though we belong to the Lord, like Jonah, have our own prejudices and hatreds. God is asking us, like He asked Jonah, to put away our anger and change. God longs to share His heart with us and His vision. He desires to love others through us. He is gracious and He wants us to be gracious too. God wants us to have concern for the thousands who don’t even know their right hand from their left, and for the animals too. God isn’t satisfied with just blind obedience. He wants our hearts and our souls. Let’s not hold back on God like Jonah did. Let’s give Him everything we’ve got.