For the next four weeks, we’ll be working our way through the spectacular book of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the general narrative, but it’s easy to assume we know the whole story because we heard it in Sunday school as young children. Truth be told, this is no little kid’s fable. Jonah teaches us about defying God, resenting His calling, hating His people, and yet still receiving His mercy. Jonah is a man of extremes. His radical emotions and knee-jerk responses startle me awake to realize the absurd extremity in myself: my own running from God, my own resistance to His will for my life, and how much greater God’s love for me is than my own shortcomings.
These posts are based off of Bible study lessons. They’re meant to be worked through with a Bible, a notebook, and a few friends. You’re more than welcome to read through these on your own, but I encourage you to invite a friend to work through each post with you. Ask each other the questions I pose, share your thoughts and feelings and questions with one another. These posts are long, so don’t feel pressured to work through a whole part in one sitting. And of course, I’d love for you to leave your own thoughts, insights, and questions in the comments below!
Today we’re setting the scene, covering the immediate history leading up to Jonah and introducing the characters. Context is critical in understanding the full drama of this book. At the same time, we’ll work our way through the first chapter of the book. Before we begin, though, let me ask you two question. What are you procrastinating on right now? Why aren’t you doing those things?
Personally, I can think of four things I keep putting off right now. I ought to be writing my newsletter for my donors; it’s been too long since I was last in contact with them, and it’s gotten to the point that I’m ashamed for delaying for so long. On a similar note, I keep avoiding fundraising. Even though I’ve had a full year’s experience under my belt and I have far less to raise this year than I did last summer, asking for money is still hard and awkward. There’s a few things my counselor told me to do weeks ago that I still haven’t made time for. The things he wants me to work through feel too intense. I’m too scared and ashamed to admit everything I ought to; it’s overwhelming. The last thing I’m procrastinating on is finally doing laundry. It’s been more than two weeks and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Other things are more fun and require less effort.
Procrastination is typically indicative of dread; it points to some possible future we’re terrified (to some degree) of facing. It could be discomfort, or responsibility, or change. Whatever it is, procrastinators find it more desirable to avoid the thing they dread than to face it head on, even if their avoidance is difficult and unpleasant in and of itself. The lengths one goes to procrastinate on a task is directly proportional to how much they dread the thing they must face.
As we come to this short book, we’ll soon see that Jonah is chock full of dread. Not only that, but the story falls in a context of dread. As we move forward, let’s keep three questions on our minds. We’ll regularly revisit these questions over the next few weeks.
- What is the source of dread? Where does it come from? What causes it?
- What is the response to dread? What does the dread-er do?
- What actually comes about? Is the dread realized?
Jonah, son of Amittai
The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” (Jonah 1:1-2, NASB)
The book of Jonah begins like most books of minor prophets. We’re introduced to Jonah, a prophet of the Lord. Jonah is mentioned only once in the Old Testament outside of his book, in 2 Kings 14:25. While that one verse doesn’t give us a ton of information, it tells us enough to know that Jonah was an already established prophet in Israel before the events of this book and that he comes in the years directly following Elijah and Elisha. By established prophet, I mean that Jonah’s prophecies have been proven to be true and reliable. That, of course, it the mark of a true prophet of the Lord: when they receive God’s word and calling, they testify it to the audience God chooses, and those things spoken actually come to pass.
Receiving and speaking a word from the Lord is not new to Jonah, so when we come to Jonah 1:1-2, what do we expect Jonah’s response to be? To get up and go to Nineveh—no delay, no hesitation, no preparation, not a single step in any direction other than toward Nineveh. That, at least, would have been the expectation this book’s original Jewish audience would have had for him. He should follow the example of every other prophet in the Old Testament and immediately obey (well, almost every other prophet, but we’ll come back to that).
But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:3)
That…is very much the opposite of going to Nineveh. Without thinking or reading ahead, let’s try to answer these dread questions as best as we can.
1. What is the source of dread? Where does it come from? What causes it?
God, the One who Jonah knows and trusts and speaks on behalf of, is the source of Jonah’s dread. Specifically, God’s command to go to Nineveh and cry against them (we’ll talk more about this in a minute).
2. What is the response to dread? What does the dread-er do?
Not procrastination, but rather direct, immediate, and intentional flight. Jonah isn’t saying, “yeah yeah, Ill get around to it.” This is a full fledged “Absolutely NOT” as he runs the opposite direction. How radical Jonah’s defiance is! Look at the imagery used here: God says “Rise up and go to Nineveh” and Jonah “[goes] down to Joppa, down onto the ship, down to Tarshish.” Even the language shows us that Jonah is booking it in the opposite direction of the Lord’s calling.
3. What actually comes about? Is the dread realized?
This one we don’t get to see yet; we’ll answer this in a few weeks. Keep this question in the back of your mind, take note of what you expect to happen and pay attention to how your expectations change as we work through the book. In the meantime, let’s come back to Jonah 1:3. Why in the world would Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, respond in such a drastic manor? What in the world is going on here? Two factors play into Jonah’s response: Israel and Assyria.
Like I mentioned before, almost every prophet’s response to God’s command is to immediately obey. There is an exception, and who it is is both surprising and telling. Come with me to 1 Kings 19. I encourage you to read verses 9-14 for a fuller context of what we’ll focus on, but it will be sufficient to start in verses 15-18.
The Lord said to [Elijah], “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, and when you have arrived, you shall anoint Hazael king over Aram; 16 and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. 17 It shall come about, the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall put to death. 18 Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)
What are the three things God commands Elijah to do? First, anoint Hazael king of Aram. Second, anoint Jehu as king of Israel. Third, anoint Elisha as his successor and the new prophet of Israel. 1 Kings 19:19-21 tell us what happens next. He appoints Elisha as his successor, but never anoints the future kings, leaving that to Elisha. What? Why would Elijah, the man who defied Ahaz and Jezebel, the one who ordered the prophets of Baal to be slaughtered, the guy through whom God resurrected a dead child, put off two of these commands? 2 Kings 8 gives us insight.
Then Elisha came to Damascus. Now Ben-hadad king of Aram was sick, and it was told him, saying, “The man of God has come here.” The king said to Hazael, “Take a gift in your hand and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the Lord by him, saying, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’” So Hazael went to meet him and took a gift in his hand, even every kind of good thing of Damascus, forty camels’ loads; and he came and stood before him and said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Aram has sent me to you, saying, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’” Then Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You will surely recover,’ but the Lord has shown me that he will certainly die.” He fixed his gaze steadily on him until he was ashamed, and the man of God wept. Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” Then he answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the sons of Israel: their strongholds you will set on fire, and their young men you will kill with the sword, and their little ones you will dash in pieces, and their women with child you will rip up.” Then Hazael said, “But what is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” And Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you will be king over Aram.” (2 Kings 8:7-13)
You might be confused as to why an Israelite prophet is anointing a foreign king over a rival nation, but lets remember that the God of Israel is the God of heaven and earth. Our Lord is sovereign over all peoples and nations. This is not what startled Elijah and what makes Elisha weep. The prophets foresaw the tremendous suffering Hazael will bring to Israel. Elijah was so overwhelmed by the prophesy, by the judgement God would bring on Israel through Hazael, that he procrastinated on giving the message. This is the context Jonah finds himself in. Prophesying to Israel’s enemies hasn’t ended well for Israel in recent history; God uses them to judge Israel for breaking the covenant.
Jonah hasn’t been called to go to Aram, though. He was told to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. We need to consider the difference between Aram and Assyria to fully understand Jonah’s mission. Aram was a small kingdom directly north of Israel—something akin to a local rival power, roughly equal in strength to Israel. Assyria, on the other hand, was a massive empire. Many historians refer to it as “the first true empire,” and in Jonah’s day (roughly 750BC) it was the largest empire by land conquered the ancient near eastern world had ever seen, covering western Turkey, Syria, Iraq, eastern Iran, and Lebanon. At its zenith Assyria would also control Israel, Egypt, Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It would stretch from the eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, stopping just short of the coast of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.1
As impressive as its size was, what truly makes the Neo-Assyrian Empire famous was its horrible, infamous cruelty. Assyria defined the term “militaristic.” It had a standing professional Iron-age army, described by historians as the most effective military ever up to that point. Vlad the Impaler looks tame compared to Assyrian cruelty; pillaged lands would have their fields burned and salted and their whole populations enslaved. Hundreds of enemies’ heads were hung on spikes outside the king’s palace. Captives would regularly be gored on 10-foot-tall wooden stakes and left to die slow, torturous deaths.
Here’s a quote from Sennacherib (ca 700BC), one of Assyria’s most infamous kings: “I cut their throats like lambs. I cut off their precious lives [as one cuts] a string. Like the many waters of a storm, I made [the contents of] their gullets and entrails run down upon the wide earth. My prancing steeds harnessed for my riding, plunged into the streams of their blood as [into] a river. The wheels of my war chariot, which brings low the wicked and the evil, were bespattered with blood and filth. With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain, like grass. [Their] testicles I cut off, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers.”2
Their art and steles depicted these events in gruesome detail as public monuments. The destruction that Hazael and the Aramites would bring is a light affliction compared to what Assyria will eventually do to Israel—read 2 Kings 18-19 for a full description. Jonah is commanded to go to the capital of the most cruel, powerful, massive empire in world history, and tell them to repent of their wickedness.
Fleeing to Spain
When God comes to Jonah, who up until this point had been prophesying about the success and conquests of Israel, and gives him this new prophesy to one of Israel’s enemies (remember how that played out with Hazael), is it all that surprising that Jonah replies with a resounding “Hell no”? Well, in some ways we might be able to empathize with Jonah. But again, he is a prophet of the Lord. When God says “go” there should be nothing short of total obedience. We should be shocked at Jonah’s defiance, especially because of how adamantly he runs from the Lord. Tarshish is on the coast of Spain, nearly 2,200 miles in the opposite direction of Nineveh. That’s pretty radically defiant. Let’s see how that plays out for him.
The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up. Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep. So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”
Each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”
Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. (Jonah 1:4-10)
Take a few minutes to process all of this. What stands out? Jot down a few things, or share them with your friends.
Here’s what stood out to me. Jonah is sleeping, that’s how comfortable he is. There’s a deep rest and comfort in his heart. Jonah’s got a clean conscience. Obviously, the peace in his heart contrasts boldly with the storm above deck. Don’t appeal to your feelings as if they’re objectively true. On a related note, Jonah is in the boat. This isn’t some small sailboat, this is a large merchant shipping vessel with cargo. The ship was built to weather fierce storms on open water and the people manning the ship are described as “mariners,” professional seamen. God hurls a storm at them—a huge squall so strong that the professional mariners are convinced they are about to die. The mariners are tossing their possessions overboard. Their merchandise, their livelihood, is worthless to them in this moment. Throwing their cargo away serves both to lighten the ship’s load and to offer sacrifices to the gods they must have angered. The mariners have a fickle view of God and participate in pagan religion: to them, mercy is a longshot. They have no legitimate expectation that their gods will spare them, but they can do nothing other than beg.
My final observation is the horror of the mariners at Jonah’s disobedience and its ramifications. They are “extremely frightened” when Jonah declares that the God he’s defied—and the God he’s angered—is the God of both the sea and the land. There’s no escaping this God. Contrast that with Jonah’s comfort; Jonah has peace. Friends, do not confuse an inner peace with obedience to the will of God. Consider the “success” Jonah’s had in his running. He managed to make it all the way to Joppa; he managed to find a ship headed to Tarshish; he managed to convince the crew to let him join; the ship managed to set sail with fair weather.
Why did God let him get this far? If God was going to make him go to Nineveh after all, why did God let Jonah “succeed” in his fleeing from God for so long? We’ll answer this in Jonah 2. For now, hear this: Be careful with using “success” as a gauge of faithfulness, because you might be succeeding at disobeying God. Circumstances are a terrible gauge of your standing with God. God can and will still use “successful fleeing,” but it probably won’t be pleasant; take it from a guy who’s learned that first hand. Let’s see how pleasant it is for Jonah.
So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. Then they called on the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased.”
So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. (Jonah 1:11-16)
Again, what stands out? Take note and share with one another before you read my thoughts.
Jonah doesn’t say, “Turn around,” he says “Throw me in.” Jonah has decided that he’d rather die than go to Nineveh; if he can’t make it to Tarshish, he’ll go to Sheol. He likely thinks this is his final judgement; just like the pagans, this is punishment for disobedience. Mind you, Jonah is probably not betting on getting swallowed by a fish. This is it for him. Isn’t is amazing that the mariners seem to be more moral than Jonah? They refuse to throw Jonah overboard because they’re worried it might be murder. How incredible it is that they are more concerned with following the will and law of God than His own prophet! They value Jonah so much that they try to row back to shore, but it’s no use. God provided the solution, but it was so unbearable they refuse to obey. As they throw him in, they beg for mercy for the possibility of killing an innocent man.
The thing that grabbed my attention the most is that Jonah had to be thrown in. He couldn’t even bring himself to jump in of his own volition. Jonah is still being resistant! He’d rather have someone else force him to obey God than follow Him on his own. And the moment Jonah sinks beneath the waves, the storm instantly ends. This story is so reminiscent of Mark 4:35-41 when Jesus calms the storm. The immediacy of the storm’s dissipation has the same effect on the disciples as it had on the mariners in Jonah 1. Terror, wonder, and faith. The mariners now believe in the God of Jonah. Even in Jonah’s disobedience and rebellion and running, the Lord uses him to save others. God can use broken, defiant people to grow His kingdom. Don’t make Jonah a role model, but don’t assume that you’re too broken, evil, stubborn or awkward to be of use to the Lord.
So that’s the end of the story. Jonah drowns for His defiance. God always gets His man. The Assyrians in Nineveh never hear from the prophet and the world goes on. Right? Is that what we would expect? That’s certainly what Jonah deserves. Yet, God is not done with Jonah.
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)
Jonah has undoubtedly FUBARed the situation. He’s practically spat in the face of God—Jonah didn’t just say “No,” he literally fled to the other side of the world. He hates the Assyrians so much that he refuses to even tell them of God’s looming judgement. He’s caused so much suffering and pain to others—don’t forget that these mariners have lost everything. When they come to port, they have no cargo left to sell. This likely marks the end of all their careers, escaping with nothing except their lives. Finally, Jonah’s been thrown into the sea as a sacrifice, as good as dead to the world, fully expecting God to drown him and send him to hell.
God saves him. Hallelujah, God saves him! It’s not pretty, it’s not pleasant, it might even feel worse than death. Sanctification doesn’t always look clean. It doesn’t always look like growth or progress; sometimes is looks more like getting swallowed by a fish. Sometimes, that’s how God chooses to redeem and restore His people.
In Jonah 2, we get to hear from Jonah looking back on this whole mess. His prayer is powerful, humble, and God-centered. A radical change occurs in Jonah’s heart, but not until he’s gone through extreme rebellion and an extreme storm. Until then, here’s a few questions for you to process on your own and with a friend.
- How have you run from God? Are you still running?
- Have you ever confused “success” with God’s blessing? Have you ever experienced pleasant circumstances in the midst of your rebellion?
- What is God calling you to do? (Spoiler alert: it’s probably not something as specific as “Go to Nineveh” or “choose that major” or “date that person.” Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, emphasis v18)
- What is Jonah afraid of? What is the source of his dread? Keep answering this as we move forward.
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