Journeying With Jonah
Mr. Mike Hamel of Denver, Colorado, shares with us some practical teaching from the book of Jonah, this study being the first of four short articles on God’s prodigal prophet.
No doubt most Christians are familiar with the story of Jonah, but probably not many know the moral of this little book. The only other mention of Jonah in the Old Testament, outside of the book that bears his name, is found in 2 Kings 14:25. Here we learn that Jonah, whose name means “dove,” was from the small town of Gath-hepher, which was located in the territory of Zebulun just a few miles from Nazareth of Galilee. He ministered during the reign of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam was on the throne from about 782-753 B.C. The exact date of Jonah’s trip to Nineveh, however, it not known.
It is the writer’s conviction that Jonah was the author of the book that bears his name. It is the most biographical of all the minor prophets, the emphasis being on the prophet, not on his message.
There is disagreement as to how this little book should be interpreted. Many think it’s only an allegory, a fictitious story used to teach a moral lesson. They reject the historicity of Jonah primarily because of the miracles recorded in the book. True believers, however, interpret the book historically, that is, as a factual account of real life events. The miraculous in the book is no reason to reject it, else we would have to reject the entire Bible. There are fish in the sea capable of swallowing a man and disgorging him again. The other stumbling block, the repentance of Nineveh, is not beyond the scope of God’s grace. “Secular history records no such repentance,” say the critics; to which we would add the qualifying phrase, “to date.” Almost every week discoveries are made which shatter human theories and vindicate the Bible. An argument from silence is no argument at all, since all that history has to say has not yet been heard.
But the strongest argument for interpreting the book literally and historically is that the Lord Jesus Christ interpreted it that way. Even the casual reader of Luke 11:29-32 can see that Christ referred to Jonah and the Ninevites as actual people; as real as Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. How could the Ninevites stand up at the judgment and condemn the unbelieving Jews of Christ’s day if they were allegorical people, not real people who had repented at the preaching of a real prophet?
As we study this little book we want to take particular note of the spiritual truths behind the story. The sovereignty of God is seen contrasted with the free will of man, while the grace of God is seen contrasted with the selfish, unforgiving spirit of man. We will highlight these themes throughout our study.
God’s Runaway Prophet (Jonah 1)
The first chapter can be summed up in two phrases: “but Jonah” in verse 3, and “but the Lord” in the Authorized Version of verse 4. It’s a chapter of conflict. The contestants are the sovereign will of God and the free will of man.
In verses 1 & 2, the Lord reveals two sovereign choices He had made. First, He chose to warn, and thereby save, Nineveh; and second, He chose Jonah to be His mouthpiece.
At the time Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, a cruel and despotic world power situated north of Israel. The wickedness of this great city had come up before the Lord (v. 2). This type of language is used in Genesis 18, where it recorded that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah came up before the Lord. Thus Nineveh was a city in the same class as Sodom and Gomorrah. But for some unrevealed reason, God, in His mercy and grace, chose to do for Nineveh what He had not done for the cities of the plains — incline the hearts of her inhabitants to repentance.
Jonah also made two choices in this chapter. His first choice was to go to Tarshish, on the other side of the known world, instead of going to Nineveh (v. 3). We will see the reason for his flight when we come to chapter 4. It wasn’t fear; there was a moral issue involved.
Jonah went down to Joppa, paid his fare, went down into the ship and fell asleep. The late Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse notes that “when you run away from the Lord, you never get where you’re going and you always pay your own fare. But when you go the Lord’s way, you always get where you’re going and He pays the fare.” Jonah found this out in verses 4-17.
The second choice Jonah made is found in verse 12. He chose to die rather than to repent. Once his sin had been discovered, Jonah’s direction and desire were antithetical to God’s, so the battle of the wills began!
In verses 4-17, which begins with the words “but the Lord,” God commenced to deal with his disobedient prophet. Jonah had exercised his prerogative as a free creature in saying “no” to God. Now God exercised His prerogative as a sovereign Creator in controlling Jonah’s circumstances. Notice that He never violated Jonah’s will as He set about to bring it into conformity with His own.
The first thing God did was to get the sleeping prophet’s attention by churning up the sea around his bed (vv. 4-6). The path away from the Lord sooner or later leads into stormy weather. It was sooner for Jonah.
Next, the Lord used the lot to tear off Jonah’s facade and to expose his sin to the mariners (vv. 7-11).
Thirdly, God saw to it that Jonah was cast into the sea as he requested, having refused to let the sailors bring the boat to land because His rebel servant had not yet repented (vv. 12-15). He needed a taste of what it was like to be lost, as well as some time alone to reevaluate his decisions. And so the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights (v. 17).
Had Jonah’s stubbornness jeopardized the sovereign purpose of God? Not at all. In fact, God in His transcending sovereignty and wisdom actually used the detour of His prophet’s disobedience to further His own cause — the salvation of Nineveh. For now the prophet himself would be a sign to the wicked city. His experience would add weight to his words. God had not inspired Jonah’s rebellion, but He used it to His own ends because “He has the remarkable ability to write straight with crooked lines.”