This series of articles on the book of Jonah will look at the record as follows:
Chapter 1 – The Fleeing Prophet (running away from God)
Chapter 2 – The Frightened Prophet (running back to God)
Chapter 3 – The Faithful Prophet (running with God)
Chapter 4 – The Fretful Prophet (running behind God)
The story of Jonah is one that has captured the imagination of many down through the past centuries and indeed still does. One of the first of the Minor Prophets to be written the book has been subject to attack by sceptics on the basis that it is not possible for a whale to swallow a man whole and then to regurgitate him, unless of course it were a miracle, which possibility they also reject. The prophet, however, and his experiences both in the ‘whale’ and in Nineveh, are authenticated by none less than the Lord Himself in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Some would have this book as ‘the Achilles heel’ of the Bible but it is nothing of the sort.
Chapter 1 – The Fleeing Prophet (running away from God)
As his name so he was
Jonah’s name means ‘dove’. We have no idea why his mother gave him such a name but perhaps she felt that her baby had ‘doves’ eyes’. In any case the name came to be quite appropriate for the prophet. The psalmist records in Psalm 55 verse 6, ‘O that I had the wings of a dove, then would I fly away and be at rest’. It seems that these sentiments became Jonah’s precise plan of action. We are told by Hosea that doves are ‘silly,’ Hos. 7. 11, and, again, he records that they are ‘mournful’, 11. 11. These ideas were characteristic of Jonah too. How strange to think that he could escape ‘from the presence of the Lord’; and we also see in his book that he often wishes to die rather than to live! He was probably a successful and beloved prophet among his own people telling them of days of expansion of the kingdom and the destruction of their enemies. In this story, however, it appears to Jonah that these same enemies may be about to form a relationship with Israel’s God and that Nineveh should be so blessed as to become an unacceptable risk to the security and integrity of the nation he, Jonah, loved. Jonah was set against such a plan and had no wish to be involved in it in any way. To Jonah it was not enough to succeed; it would seem that others must fail! The dove becomes a hawk!
His origins and calling
Jonah hailed from the small town of Gath-hepher, allegedly a hotbed of Jewish zealotry, near to Nazareth, and it was here the word of the Lord came to him regarding a preaching mission to the great city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria. This was a novel idea as no other Jewish prophet in history had been sent to a Gentile nation. It was unacceptable to Jonah, however, as he, together with his zealot friends in Gath-hepher, disliked, even loathed, the Assyrians and saw them as a distinct threat to the security of the Lord’s people. So, when the instruction came, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry against it’, Jonah decided otherwise. He felt that the farther away he was from such an enterprise the better, and if it were urgent the Lord would be forced to raise up someone else to do this ‘dirty work’.
His escape route from service
Thus, he decided to flee to Tarshish, in completely the opposite direction to Nineveh, and embark on a journey which would take many months. This was startling disobedience to the call of God but Jonah was not to be dissuaded. So, ‘to Joppa he went down and there a ship for Tarshish found’! Not that it was the first ship he happened on for the meaning of the word is that he ‘found by searching’, so it took some effort. This trip to Joppa was the first of seven downward steps. He ‘went down’ to Joppa; into the ship; into the sides of the ship; in the estimation of the crew and captain; into the sea; into the fish; and finally into the depths of the sea. It is quite extraordinary to note that many years later another potential, yet reluctant preacher to Gentiles, also went down to Joppa, but lodging in the house of one, Simon the tanner, was instructed more clearly in the purposes of God regarding Gentiles and the gospel, and he, Peter, obeyed where Jonah disobeyed.
In order to escape the obligation laid on him Jonah moved fast, forgetting that God could move faster, and on locating the ship he immediately ‘paid the fare’ and hastily went on board. He had indeed paid the price of a ticket but, because of his disobedience, the cost was to be much higher for him and for many other innocent people too. The cost of disobedience to the Lord is incalculable and may affect us, our family, the assembly and others with whom we are in contact. It is a good practice that before I decide to follow any particular course I take time to sit down and calculate the possible total cost of disobedience. Most who have disobeyed would say that they never thought the repercussions would have been so great and had they known in advance they would not have proceeded down that path. If you are on a path of disobedience do stop now, do a few calculations, even on the back of the proverbial envelope, and decide in the cold light of day whether the risks are worth the potential cost. It never pays to disobey!
The ways of God go beyond Jonah’s and ours
No sooner had the ship left port, probably manned by a complement of over 200 experienced mariners, than it ran into a violent storm. God had ‘thrown out’, with the precision of a javelin thrower, for such is the meaning of the word ‘sent’, a storm of frightening proportions. The sailors had never before encountered such a violent storm and concluded that by its nature it was from the gods who must be taking vengeance on some wrongdoer on board. Jonah, however, had no such concerns. He was fast asleep in a cabin below deck, unaware of the suffering he had caused to others. Often people for whose cause storms are sent are the last to be aware of them. Clearly, God was not going to let this ship get very far, never mind to Tarshish, while this prophet was on board. When God’s blood-bought people disobey Him, or backslide from Him, He is not prepared to let them go without a fight and will sometimes use violent means to bring them back.
Discovered asleep by the incredulous master of the ship, Jonah is eventually brought up on deck having been aroused and implored by the master that if he had a god would he please call on him to save the ship and crew, as everybody else was busily doing. Questioned by the sailors, Jonah admits his real reason for being on the ship and explains that he is a Hebrew, a worshipper of the God of heaven, who also, incidentally, had made the sea and the dry land! Furthermore, he explained, he was trying to run away from Him. This admission caused panic and he is bombarded with questions the seventh and last of which is, ‘What shall we do unto thee?’ that is, to appease the God of sea and dry land. Jonah explains that the only solution available to them is to get him off the ship and the only way to do so is to throw him overboard. They are reluctant to do so and try to row back to the harbour but find the storm increasing in ferocity. As a last resort they eventually throw Jonah overboard into the raging sea. Immediately there is a calm and on seeing it the sailors pray, offer sacrifices and make vows to the real God. So, the ship is saved. So, too, are the mariners who have had a personal experience of God and they believe in Him and trust Him. The sincerity of such belief is that they committed themselves to Him after the storm rather than in it. So many do the latter and then forget Him in the ensuing calm.
God’s purposes always contain God’s provisions
But, what of Jonah? Once in the water he sinks like a stone and describes for us in chapter 2 the seven steps down that he experienced. Near the seabed lurks a monster fish. It had been ‘prepared’ by God, appointed by Him to be at this precise location, in the nearly 1 million square miles of the Mediterranean Sea, at the exact moment Jonah is thrown overboard. Obeying its precise instructions from heaven, quite unlike Jonah, it swallows the prophet whole, and he went down, as we say, ‘without touching the sides’! This fish is the first of a number of ‘prepared’ things in the book as the city and storm are of a number of ‘great’ things.
We must be careful not to seek to rationalize the miraculous in trying to explain the story. While Jonah moved fast in organizing his trip God moved faster and with much greater resources than available to His disobedient servant. There are also the miracles of the calm, the fish being at the right place at the right time, of swallowing Jonah and of his survival in the fish’s belly. As many as there are miracles in this record so also are there lessons for us to learn. We need to be aware of the extent of God’s love and that His message of salvation is for all men. Not limited in scope, it is our specific instruction to take it into the entire world. Whenever God makes clear to us His mind or purpose for our lives it is best to obey. He appreciates obedience, even in our weakness, but seldom tolerates outright disobedience in His people. If we do choose to go our own way there is a price to be paid, sometimes huge, in terms of guilt, fear and inconvenience, affecting us and those whom we love, family and friends alike. We may have to endure the shame of being corrected by the ungodly and suffer the feeling of abandonment by God and men. Is it worth disobeying? Is it wise to run away? Is it right to try to second guess God and His motives? We need to remember the words of the hymn:
‘Trust and obey,
For there is no other way,
When you are following Jesus,
But to trust and obey’.
To be continued