The Message of Jonah – Part 1

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

“The Tortoise and the Hare” is one of Aesop’s Fables. The story concerns a Hare who mocks a slow-moving Tortoise. Exasperated by the Hare’s arrogance, the Tortoise challenges the animal to a race. On the racing day, the Hare instantly raced ahead of the Tortoise, prior to the turtle barely crossing the start line.

Confident of victory, the Hare stopped midway through the race for a nap. The Hare woke to realize that the Tortoise was slowly and steadily continuing the race and was nearing the finish line. Though he raced as fast as he could, the Hare was unable to beat the slow and steady Tortoise across the finish line.

Aesop’s fable is so well known that it can be difficult for one’s mind not to wander when hearing it repeated. Some biblical narratives can have the same response. Certain biblical accounts, like Aesop’s fable, have been heard so frequently that people automatically presuppose there is not any need to give them careful attention. Would you be able to answer why the Bible should include a narrative concerning a man being swallowed by a great fish? Some accounts in the Old Testament have become so familiar they have almost lost their meaning.

The account of Jonah and the great fish was included in the Bible to seize the reader’s attention. Unfortunately, it is easy to remember the story of Jonah and forget the message. Truly, the emphasis of Jonah is the application of the grace of God. The book of Jonah reveals God as the champion of the story, not the prophet, which is evident in that the Lord is mentioned 38 times (in comparison to the fish being mentioned 4 times, the city of Nineveh 9 times, and Jonah 18 times).

Prior to considering the book of Jonah, some historical background is necessary. Jonah was a prophet of God in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II (793-53 BC; 2 Kgs 14:23-25); therefore, his message is dated 780 BC. Second Kings 14:25 refers to how God “restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher.” Jonah prophesied that Israel would expand her boundaries. When it occurred, there was great excitement that God would make her the most prominent nation in the known world, and she would receive her promised inheritance. Israel was also benefiting from economic prosperity unknown since the time of King Solomon. Jonah was a national hero, and 

God was using him to give Israel everything she desired.

The only problem was another nation across the desert—Assyria. Once a major world power under Tiglath-pileser III (Pul: 745-27 BC), Assyria during that time would have been as stalwart and wealthy as Israel had become. Though the nation was in decline, Assyria could be regarded as Israel’s rivalry. If the nation regained its former sovereignty, the likely outcome would be war (which eventually did occur under Shalmaneser III: 860-25 BC). During the time of Jonah, Nineveh (where God sent the prophet) was a very significant city of the resurging Assyrian Empire.

(Jon 1:1-3) The book of Jonah begins with the commission of God’s prophet and him rebelling against the Lord’s will (vv. 1-3). The expression, “The word of the LORD came to...” occurs more than 100 times in the Old Testament. The means by which Jonah received the Lord’s message is not given, yet it is evident that God’s actions are the most important aspect.

God was not impressed by the military prowess or the cultural achievements of Nineveh. Jonah was commissioned to “cry against” Nineveh, which meant to inform its inhabitants that God was aware of “their wickedness” (v. 2). Perhaps the prophet initially recalled God’s response to great sin in the past (cf. Gen 6:5-7; 18:20-21; 19:24-25; Exod 23:23-24; 1 Sam 15:18). Jonah may have believed the capital city of the Assyrian Empire—whose national history was a grisly record of death and torture—would finally receive God’s judgment. Cities have always been concentrations of sin. Not because urbanization is necessarily evil; rather, they tend to have a greater density of population, which allows for many sinful opportunities. As evident in His mercy toward Nineveh, the Lord is still actively concerned for the cities of the present time.

God is holy, which means He must respond to wickedness. Thinking of the city’s misfortune may explain why Jonah fled “from the presence of the LORD.” He likely did not think Nineveh deserved to be warned of imminent judgment, and that God should proceed to destroy the Ninevites. Whatever he was thinking, God’s prophet heard the word of the Lord plainly and fled (Jon 1:3). Fleeing from God was Jonah’s means of proving that he did not want to obey.

(Jon 1:4-9) Jonah was called by God to go east, so he decided to venture west, to some remote destination in the opposite direction of Nineveh. The prophet of God was blatantly defying God. Amazingly, in the process, others discovered they too could benefit from God’s grace (vv. 5-9). Jonah defiantly repudiated the Lord’s calling, which resulted in God hurling “a great wind on the sea” (v. 4). History reveals that many servants of the Lord have imagined they could shun the Lord and escape the consequences of their actions by a change of location. Scripture refutes that possibility (cf. Ps 139:7-10).

Jonah’s attitude toward his circumstances was incorrect; he thought they were in his favor, when they were actually opposed to him. He fled to Joppa and “found a ship.” He even had enough money to pay the fare, and was able to go “below into the hold of the ship,” lie down and fall asleep (Jon 1:3, 5). Perhaps he concluded his circumstances were an indication of God’s blessing. One cannot simply regard good experiences as God’s will, and the converse as contrary to the Lord’s desires. Circumstances may appear to be in a person’s favor, and he or she can have a false sense of security in their rebellion against God. Yet be advised that the Lord is not mocked, and a great plummet in fortunes will most certainly arise (cf. Gal 6:7).

What is worse is Jonah’s attitude toward people who did not know God as Lord and Savior. Instead of wanting to help them know the true and living God, Jonah was content to abandon them to darkness and spiritual death. Not only did Jonah hate the sins of the Assyrians, but also he loathed the sinners who committed their sins. He thought it better for Nineveh to be destroyed, than imagine their survival and the possibility they could eventually attack Israel. How often do we manifest hatred toward sinners (especially in the political realm), who desperately need God’s message of grace, life, and truth?

(Jon 1:10-17) Subsequent to Jonah’s confession that he was trying to evade “the LORD God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9), the sailors wanted to know how to calm the sea (v. 10). Jonah should have been God’s means of salvation, rather than bringing destruction as a result of his disobedience to the Lord. One of the problems with rebellion is that innocent people are affected.

The sailors entrusted themselves to the sovereignty of God, by heeding Jonah’s advice for calming the sea (vv. 11-15). They offered sacrifices, revealing their wonder at what God did, and “made vows,” perhaps as an indication of genuine faith in the Lord (v. 16). Divine intervention was Jonah’s only hope, and God demonstrated His sovereignty by appointing “a great fish to swallow Jonah” (v. 17).

God made it possible for Jonah to live “three days and three nights” inside a fish. He did not die in the belly of the fish! Liberal theologians have denied that Jonah could survive “in the stomach of the fish,” and therefore regard the book’s historical constitution as an elaborate allegory. The name Jonah (meaning “dove”) and the story of the gourd (4:6) are thought to exemplify the symbolism. Jonah’s sojourn in the fish is regarded as symbolic of his “three days’ walk” in Nineveh (cf. 3:3). God’s command that the fish vomit Jonah “onto the dry land,” symbolizes leaving the repentant city because he did not belong there.

The problem with such thinking is that whenever an allegory or parable appears in the Bible, it is either said to be symbolic or else made evident as such by the context. Yet the book of Jonah is written as a historical book. Jonah is mentioned as a historical character in 2 Kings 14:25. None of the ancient Jews or early Christians doubted the historical accuracy of the book of Jonah. More importantly, the Lord Jesus Himself confirmed the historicity of the book. He said that the people of Nineveh repented of their sins “at the preaching of Jonah” (Matt 12:41). Moreover, Jesus said that His death and resurrection would be similar to Jonah’s deliverance (v. 40).

Jonah “was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights,” by either natural or miraculous means. There are many types of fish that can swallow a human being (e.g. the sperm whale and the whale shark), and there is always some air in the stomach of a large fish like the one that swallowed Jonah. Nevertheless, it is more likely that the event was a miracle, as the biblical account certainly implies (cf. Jon 1:17; 2:10).

The Bible reveals God’s power to work as He desires. Scripture invites believers to have faith in the Lord’s sovereignty to accomplish His purposes. How should you trust the sovereign God to use the unexpected to achieve His desire in your life?

Midnight Call - 12/2020

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