Of all the prophets, Jonah is the best known since he has been the source of many Sunday School lessons. We know very little about the individual lives of most of the “minor” prophets. Jonah is the exception to this rule. In this short book, we learn a great deal about him as a person, including his history, occupation, inner thoughts, and even the state of his spiritual relationship with God.
For us, the four chapters of Jonah contain rich lessons about the motives and manner of our service for God.
In II Kings 14, we learn that Jonah was a prophet from Israel living during the reign of King Jeroboam II around 760 B.C. He had accurately predicted a golden period of economic and political strength in Israel. Naturally, this was a popular message and Jonah no doubt enjoyed the patriotic acclaim of his people. On the other hand, Israel’s longstanding enemy, Assyria, was not faring as well. The Assyrians had terrorized Israel for centuries and there was self-satisfied gloating in Israel as Assyria suffered from a great plague and diminished influence. Nahum tells us that Assyria was a cruel and ruthless nation with no God-consciousness. It was to Assyria’s eventual capital, Nineveh, that God instructed Jonah to preach a message of “repent or perish.” Jonah was horrified when God instructed him to visit that heathen city which had rejected God so clearly and tormented Israel for so long. Jonah preferred that they all perish!
Jonah Resigns (chapter 1):
Rather than preach to hated Nineveh, Jonah resigns God’s commission and takes flight as far away from God as possible. He pays a fare to take him to Tarshish in Spain, the other end of the known earth. Like so many of us since, Jonah pretends that God cannot see him and runs away. While running from God, we are looking down, not up. So, we see that Jonah goes down: down to the port town Joppa, down into the ship, down into the sea, down into the fish’s stomach, and down into the depths of depression and despair.
Jonah Repents (chapter 2):
What Jonah now understands is that he cannot run from God. He finally realizes that his opinions are irrelevant and his choices of action are completely limited. God put him in a situation where it was obvious that God was in control; the result of Jonah’s impetuous action was extreme discomfort in the fish’s belly. Jonah feels his life ebbing away (ch. 2:7) but finally remembers God and begins to pray. In his prayer, he owns his helplessness and his errors and ends with a resounding statement of God’s preeminence – “Salvation is of the Lord.” Our ever-gracious, ever-forgiving God hears him and the fish delivers him to the safety of land again.
Nineveh’s Revival (chapter 3)
Jonah is given a second chance to preach God’s message and this time he obeys. He travels to Assyria and enters Nineveh. On day one, Jonah begins preaching about God’s impending judgment. I am sure that Jonah preached with trepidation – he must have feared for his own personal safety. But, to his amazement, the city listened carefully to the message and responded with contrition. From the king on the throne to the common citizen on the street, the message was embraced with true repentance.
The citizens of Nineveh acknowledged that their fate was subject only to God that they themselves were incapable of turning aside the judgment, and that they were wholly dependent upon Him. This acknowledgment by Nineveh echoes exactly the acknowledgment that Jonah had made earlier when he was in the fish’s stomach – God is in control and He brings judgment and grants mercy.
Jonah’s Rebellion (chapter 4)
Jonah could have been understandably delighted by his preaching success. Instead, Jonah was furious! How could God care about such a vile race of people? How could God embarrass him, Jonah, by accepting Nineveh’s repentance and canceling the impending doom that Jonah had preached? It seemed impossible to Jonah that God would care about such a people.
In chapter 4, Jonah’s rebellion spills out in bitter words of recrimination. He is angry at Nineveh and with God. He sits outside the city waiting petulantly for its destruction. When that judgment does not fall, Jonah childishly asks for death at God’s hand rather than suffering what he considered to be the indignity and shame of God’s merciful change of heart. Jonah contrasts starkly with Christ in this instance – Jesus wept as He gazed on the multitudes in rebellious Jerusalem.
Jonah had preached a triumphantly successful message to a people that he did not love but who had not harmed him personally. On the other hand, God, who had a right to be judgmental, chose to love and forgive Nineveh that had previously ignored Him in sin and ignorance.
Through a real-life object lesson – a flourishing, then wilting, shady plant – God tries again to demonstrate to Jonah that He decides what lives and dies, not Jonah. The book ends with God proclaiming His sovereignty. He will decide the fate of persons and nations, irrespective of man’s wishes. We are not told whether Jonah grasped this final lesson.
Implications for Christians Today:
The lessons from the book of Jonah are more numerous than the book’s size might suggest:
1. God is infinitely merciful even today, just as he was with Nineveh, even though Assyria was not his chosen people. Nineveh is located in what is modern day Iraq, which in itself makes this message all the more poignant. God loves lost souls of every nation and wants them to repent. As preachers, we should tell God’s message without allowing our own personal prejudices to interfere.
2. God is patient with us when we err. God watched Jonah attempt foolish things, including running away from Him, complaining to Him, and being angry with Him. Yet God always responded to Jonah individually and patiently. God cared and responded to Jonah in the best way to bring Jonah back to Him. We can rest assured that God cares and responds to us individually in the same way.
3. God proved that He could control the elements: He controlled the wind and the waves in chapter 1; He controlled the fish in chapter 2; and He controlled the plant, the worm, and the wind in chapter 4. Yet he asks for the service of mankind. We who have the greatest reason to obey – the love of God to us – often choose to follow our own path. He has given us the will to choose our way and so we should choose to follow and serve Him to the best of our ability.
4. As Christians, we can respond to God’s directions in many ways. We can respond negatively as Jonah did, by running away (chapter 1) or bitterly complaining (chapter 4). Or, we can respond positively as Jonah did, by repenting (chapter 2) and obeying His commands (chapter 3).
In Jonah’s book, we see God interacting with an individual (Jonah), a heathen nation (Assyria/Nineveh) and a chosen nation (Israel). In all His actions, He was merciful and loving. Thank God, He is the same today and He loves and treats us identically. In return, let us love and obey Him.