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Part One: A Whale of a Tale of Fleeing From God—Jonah 1

The book of Jonah, more than any other in Scripture, has been laughed at and called ridiculous; no book has been so battered by a sea of criticism and speculation. Some have called this book the Achilles heel of the Bible. Many claim it is unreasonable, and set forth wild theories, such as:

 

  • Jonah had a dream while sleeping on the ship during a storm. The book of Jonah is the account of the dream.
  • The book is related to the Phoenician myth of Hercules and the sea monster.
  • After the storm and a shipwreck, Jonah was picked up by a boat displaying the figurehead of a fish, which gave support for the record in the book.
  • During the storm, Jonah took refuge in a dead fish which was floating around.
Other views of this book are less hostile, but also attack its historical authenticity. "Some people believe the book is a parable—an earthly story with a heavenly meaning—similar to the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Some see the book as an allegory, like John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where the story's true meaning can only be found by translating its characters and events into truths they symbolize"—Charles Swindoll, Old Testament Characters, Insight for Living, 1986, p. 63.

So there are many questions about Jonah. Is it a history, an allegory, a parable, or fiction? Was Jonah a real person? Did he really spend three days in a whale's stomach? Did he preach in Nineveh, and was God's judgment really averted?

Well, shipmates, we hope to answer these questions and more in our study of this fascinating book. I believe a lot is at stake, because the answers to these questions are much more important than many people realize. If the book is a narrative of actual fact, it brings to us one of the most striking revelations of God and priceless messages of His comfort ever given. However, if it's just fictional, it's no more important to us than an antique Superman comic book. What's more, the question of its historicity involves the integrity of Scripture as a whole, as well as the Word of the Lord Jesus Himself.

We won't spend a great deal of time on whether the book of Jonah is a historical narrative, except to list four important evidences:

 

  • First, there is nothing in the book of Jonah to suggest it is anything other than a historical account. The whale is the least of our worries, as we shall see in part 2. Besides, this is a story about a man and God, not a whale.
  • Second, church tradition strongly attests to the historicity of the book.
  • Third, evidence from the Old Testament makes it clear Jonah existed. One author summarized: "The historical record of the kings of Israel and Judah is accepted as reliable. No one denies that David, Josiah, and Hezekiah were real kings, and it is among the records of these kings that we find the mention of Jonah.
Speaking of Jeroboam, II Kings 14:25 states: "He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher."
So if Jeroboam was a real person, Israel was a real nation, and Hamath was a real place, it is unlikely that Jonah, the son of Amittai, was a figment of the imagination.
  • Most importantly, Jesus implied the book of Jonah contains actual events, by the way he referred to them in Matt. 12:39-41—"He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40] For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41] The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.’"
If Jesus said Jonah was a real person, and that Jonah was three days in the belly of a huge fish, and if He said the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, then that's all the proof I need. Think of it. The resurrected Jesus and Jonah are linked together by Jesus.
Our Approach to the Book of Jonah

We're going to go verse by verse through the book, commenting as we go, in an attempt to make the study very practical. We're providing the "study and grow" sheets for each chapter as well.

 

Outline of The Book

I. Jonah and the Storm: "Fleeing from God"—1:1-16.

II. Jonah and the Fish: "Praying to God"—1:17; 2.

III. Jonah and the City: "Speaking for God"—3.

IV. Jonah and the Lord: "Learning About God"—4.

In these four chapters we have Jonah's 1) disobedience, 2) preservation, 3) proclamation, and 4) correction.

 

Jonah and the Storm

 

"A Whale of a Tale of Fleeing from God"--1:1-16.

1] "The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2] ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ 3] But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port."

Jonah was the son of Amittai, and a "prophet" from Gath-hepher. He prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam, who was King of Israel from approximately 793 to 753 BC (II Kings 14:23-27). This was the century during which Assyria took Israel into captivity. Jonah might have been one of the leaders among the "schools of the prophets" when Elisha was nearing the end of his ministry.

During this time, Nineveh's sin had become unbearable to the Lord. In fact, He said to Jonah, "...its wickedness has come up before me" (v. 2b). The Living Bible says, "for your wickedness smells to the highest heaven"—v. 2b.

This could be troubling to any of us who understand the depth of our own sin. We might extrapolate that God's disapproval and anger will be directed toward us in the same way. However, Praise God that He can separate the sin from the sinner. The aroma of our sin is constantly before Him, but He can see beyond our faults, to our need for cleansing as well as our potential. While He sees us as we really are, He simultaneously sees what we will become as we are forgiven and cleansed!

What was it about Nineveh that so angered and disgusted God? Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians, Israels' archenemy. They were a brutal people with a horrible mania for a brand of brutality which made the surrounding people shudder with the horror of falling prey to them. We might say the Assyrians were the Nazis of those days.

Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse said, "...calling Jonah to go to the Ninevites was like asking a Jew in 1942 to go from New York to Hitler, and tell him that God loved him, and that everything he did would be forgiven if he would but repent. So the Jew got on a train, all right, and went to San Francisco; then got on a ship to Japan! He wanted nothing to do with it." Ron R. Ritchie, Discovery Papers, Jan. 29, 1978.

The inscription of the Assyrian monuments, interpreted for us by archeologists, reveal how hideous and cruel they were. The late John Urquhart lists some of their activities. I'm not trying to be sensational by listing these things, but understanding what kind of a city this was is crucial to understanding Jonah's reaction, as well as the grace and love of God exhibited in this book.

Assyrians offered absolutely no pity to their captives. Their policy was never to keep their captives alive; they seemed to gloat, to enjoy doing every atrocity possible. Victims were held down, and the torturer would gloatingly and fiendishly reach into the victim's mouth and pull the tongue out by the roots. Victims were flayed or skinned alive, and their skins stretched out on the walls. In every city they conquered, they built a pyramid of human skulls. It's hard to imagine why they would be so cruel.

Nahum expresses a woe to Nineveh in Nahum 3:1-4,19—"Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! 2] The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! 3] Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses 4] all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.

19] Nothing can heal your wound; your injury is fatal. Everyone who hears the news about you claps his hands at our fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?"

 

But realize this: God spared this city after the people repented.
If God will do that, how ridiculous is the notion that our sin is too great for God to forgive!

Back to Jonah's story. When called to go to Nineveh, Jonah chose to run the other way. People run today for the same basic reasons as Jonah. Simply put, when we don't want to face something or someone, we take off.

 


 

Optional Discussion:

1. Question: What are some common escapes today? List them and comment.

2. Small group exercise: If each one of you had $1,000, where and how would you run, and why?

3. Feedback: Obviously you need more than $1,000 to stay away permanently, but this exercise reveals the escape fantasies we might have. What did you learn?

 


Where did Jonah run to? 3] "But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD." Tarshish is a city in Spain, in the opposite direction from Nineveh.

Why did Jonah run? I believe his reasons are often misunderstood. There are generally four responses offered by scholars:

 

  • Fear
  • Prejudice
  • Pride
  • He knew God too well.
It was prophesied that the Assyrians (i.e., Nineveh) would destroy Israel at a future date. Given this prophecy and Assyria's brutality, you would think Jonah would be happy to hear that within 40 days after he preached, the capital city would be destroyed. He was a real patriot who loved his land, and now had a great chance to proclaim the destruction of its enemy.

"You are going to get what you deserve. You've had it. God's going to get you."

But that wasn't Jonah's attitude. He was not happy to preach about their doom; on the contrary, he chose to run. I believe the most likely reason is that he knew God too well—Jonah 4:2. He knew Jehovah was a merciful God, and reasoned that if Nineveh cried to God and repented, then Assyria might be spared. He may not have wanted Nineveh spared because of its wickedness, or its continual threat to Israel, but more than that, He didn't want to go to Nineveh because he knew God was merciful—4:2.

Here's the Scripture: 4:2] "He prayed to the LORD, ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.’"

Here's a Paraphrase: "I know you too well, O God. If anyone by repenting gives you half a chance to be merciful, you'll change your mind and won't carry out your sentence upon them."

So he fled to Tarshish.

 


Question: Have you ever been in this frame of mind? Can you think of someone who has really hurt you, who if they came to know the Lord and were forgiven of their sins, you would be really annoyed? Maybe you've practically prayed, "Lord, I don't want them to get off that easy. I want them to pay for their sin."

Well, they are not getting off that easy. Remember, their sin cost the Lord His life. Also, if you want people to pay for their sins, be consistent. You'll have to be willing to pay for your sin!

Notice when Jonah ran, who paid the ticket. 3b] "And paid a fare. . ." Running from God will always cost us something, and usually the price isn't something we get back. Any form of disobedience, regardless of our motives, must bow to the unchangeable laws of God—"What you sow you shall reap." We all pay if we run. We could avoid so much hassle if we'd just go God's way in the first place, and submit to His plan.

A perfect example is the prodigal son. He lost all his inheritance and his relationships. When you are trying to run away from God, you will be amazed how often you find a ship/a way ready to help you escape… to take your money…to take your ministry…to take your family…to take your relationships… to take all you have…even your life!

Verses 3c and 10 clearly delineate who Jonah was running from:

 

  • "But Jonah ran away from the Lord. . . "—v. 3a.
  • ". . . to flee from the Lord"—v. 3b.
  • ". . .he was running away from the Lord. . . "—v. 10b.
  • But can we hide or run from God?

    hiding The answer is obvious, and is found in Psalm 139. Here we see the attributes of God: His omnipresence—vv. 1-6; His omnipotence—vv. 7-12; and His omniscience—vv. 13-18. This psalm reminds us that we can try to get away to the highest or the lowest place, to the uttermost parts of the earth, or to the darkest corner, but no distance, nor height, nor depth, nor darkness can hide us from God's presence.God is as close as we are to ourselves.

    Oddly enough, Jonah apparently thought he could sail out of God's reach. By saying, "I quit; I won't prophesy anymore," he seems to have thought God would just let him sail off into the sunset. Some of you believe that too, but you obviously don't know God. His God would not let Jonah go.

    4] Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.

    Besides the fact God had a job for Jonah to do, and he was the man for the job, God loved Jonah. Likewise, God doesn't let us go that easily. He gently chides, even pursues us while we are in our sins. For Jonah, the storm, the sailors, the ship, the captain, the sun, the plant, and the worm are really God's provisions.

     

    Even when Jonah was out of God's will, God pursued him!

    You might decide to chuck everything, but God will deal with you in a loving, but persistent way. "...he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus"—Phil. 1:6. Psalm 139:13-17 also makes it clear God has invested in us from the beginning. We're valuable to Him; we're His children and He'll pursue us, but it won't be without pain. God will go after us like our parents went after us when we needed it. Hebrews 12:11 teaches us, "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."

    Sometimes only after the pain of discipline is a "harvest"/solution possible.


    Back to our story. The storm was raging, and the sailors began to cast the cargo and pray. "All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship." People get serious in a crisis; the pain gets their attention. They either:

     

    • get religious
    • make changes
    • pray to God and make promises
    • curse God; or
    • take things into their own hands.

    jonah thrown overboard Why did the sailors throw cargo overboard? They didn't have much faith in their own prayers, so they began to take things into their own hands. (A simple observation here into human nature: when life gets down to a very serious point, it is amazing the number of things we can do without!)

    Jonah was not learning his lesson, being disciplined by the storm; in fact, he was sleeping. v. 5b—"But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep." This is not unusual for those running from God. Sleep is just another expression of their escape.

    The captain went to him and said, "How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish"—5b.

    Even when we are running from God we can sleep, but only temporarily. He'll wake us up somehow—v. 6.

     


     

    Optional Study

    Here's a warning: Study sleep in the Scripture and you will find that many negative things happen when we sleep in our disobedience.

     

    • Jesus said, while a man slept the enemy sowed weeds—Matt. 13:25.
    • While the virgins slept, the bridegroom came—Matt. 25.
    • In the Old Testament, while King Saul slept, David cut off part of his robe—I Sam. 24:4.
    • Proverbs tells us: "Do not love sleep or you will grow poor..."—Prov. 20:13a.
    • Prov. 6:10-11 also reminds us—"A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—11] and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man."
    • In Matt. 26:40-41, "Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. . . "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation."
    More important than the sleep, however, was the reason for the storm.

     

    Special Application:How can we tell the purpose of a storm—e.g., the deep trial and trouble in our lives?

    The answer will influence your response to your storm.

    If it's a storm from your disobedience, prayer and repentance are needed, e.g., Jonah. Some of you need to understand that the hassles you are going through are simply because of your disobedience. As soon as you confess sin and turn from it, the storm will stop. It will be that quick.

    If it's a storm from someone else's disobedience, then ask for wisdom and insight as to how you might protect yourself and others caught in the same storm, e.g., Paul in a storm in Acts 27, and the sailors on Jonah's ship. It may take some loss and stretching moments to get through a storm caused by someone else's disobedience, but be confident God will speak to you in that storm and even use you to minister to those causing it. The Lord will eventually have a solution and deliverance in mind when the time is right.

    Example: In Acts 28, Paul found himself on a ship taking him to Rome. He instructed the captain not to proceed at that time; however, that captain continued to sail ahead. Soon they entered a huge storm. But Paul gave instructions as to what they were to do and they were all saved, though it cost everyone a great deal, especially Paul himself, e.g, discomfort, a swim in stormy water, a snake bite, etc. Because Paul trusted in the sovereignty of God to work in that storm, he went through it and was saved.

    If it's a storm because of your obedience, then hold on and ride out the storm in faith, without fear, because it's a test intended to make you grow and mature, e.g., the disciples in the boat with Jesus in Matt. 9:23-27. When this happens, we might be tempted to say, "Hey, this isn't fair, I'm obeying God." But we must understand that following the Lord in obedience does not mean calm water and no problems. We will have many tests of our faith; we will all go through storms.

    In Matt. 9:23-27, the disciples were following the Lord. These men were fishermen, and could see the sky. They had been on this sea many times and probably knew they were in for trouble, but they followed Jesus onto the boat. When the storm came, the disciples woke Jesus and said, "Lord save us, we are going to drown." A parallel passage says, "Lord, don't you care that we drown?" Such a stupid question! After all, who was in the boat? Jesus Himself was there, as were the disciples, to whom He would turn over the work of the Kingdom of God.

     

    Encouragement

    When you have been following the Lord and are in a storm, faith—not fear—is needed.

    Remember He is in you! He's invested His life in you, He's gifted you, He's called you. He cares! Don't let it be said of you: "You of little faith, why are you so afraid"? Have faith. It may take a while, but the raging waves and the storm can be calmed, if we will just trust God.

    He knows how to speak, "…peace be still…"

    Let's move back to this passage, and the storm of Jonah's disobedience. 6] "The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’ 7] Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity. They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah."

     

    Praying—Even When We Think We Don't Deserve To

    Have you ever been caught in a place you shouldn't be? Where someone says or implies, "Hey, I thought you were a Christian!" or, "Hey, what are you doing here?" (God sometimes uses unbelievers to catch us.)

    What should we do when we are caught fleeing? Why not pray? If you're in trouble, pray (James 5:13). Even non-Christian people affected by your crisis will pray—Jonah 1:5-6.

    Why not pray about:

     

    • Loss of job due to inappropriate behavior
    • Marital problems because of selfishness
    • Low school grades because of laziness
    • Financial crisis of your own making
    • Relationship problems because of your sin

    Apparently Jonah didn't pray, but if he had, he might have stopped the storm.

     

    Notice what happened. As soon as the lots were cast, he confessed. 8] So they asked him, "Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?" 9] He answered, "I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land." 10] This terrified them and they asked, "What have you done?" (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.)

    Why do you think Jonah confessed so quickly? If you try running from God, it will be on your mind all the time, and you'll probably tell those around you, especially if the pressure and the circumstances are difficult. For instance, when I was growing up I had a friend who preached every time he got drunk; in fact, his friends weren't too excited about drinking with him! My friend was running from God. Philosopher Young once said: "A foe of God was never a true friend to man."

    Verses 11-15 give us the response of the men, and their remarkable conversion.

    11] The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, "What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?" 12] "Pick me up and throw me into the sea," he replied, "and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you." 13] Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14] Then they cried to the LORD, "O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased." 15] Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16] At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.

    Did Jonah have to be thrown into the water to get the storm to stop? No, he would not have had to go under if he had reported to God in time. Here, however, is the sad state of a person running from God. He believes he has gone too far, and that the storm is his judgment, with no mercy available. Satan also wants him to believe there's no hope, but that's a lie. The storm, however, is God shouting at us to repent and come on home.

    When the sailors realized who Jonah was and heard his solution to the storm, they tried to help, because if Jehovah was responsible for the storm, they didn't want to make Him any angrier.These men suffered for Jonah's sin.

     

    Remember, if you're disobedient or running from God, you'll always hurt someone else.

    Jonah's disobedience in this case, however, was transformed into something beautiful. Verses 9-15 report the sailors' reaction to this event, including fear, work, prayer, awe, and determination (vows).

    This illustrates the principle that just one Christian can start a negative or positive chain reaction in a whole church, or in a series of relationships. It's interesting, and not a little ironic, that in the midst of Jonah's disobedience, the ship's crew came to know the Lord. They did three things.

     

    • prayed that the Lord would forgive them for this innocent blood
    • feared the Lord greatly, i.e., they accepted him, and
    • offered a sacrifice (worship), and made vows (they were willing to serve).
    God, in charge of the storm, used it to speak to those who realized its purpose.

    Is it possible that our failures might bring others to God? Maybe, but more often than not, we become stumbling blocks rather than stepping stones.

     

    Conclusion

    Before we finish this study, I want each of us to take an honest look at our itinerary—the direction of our lives. Are we sailing on the wrong boat?

    Are we headed in the wrong direction?

    Are we following Jonah's lead?

    If we're not completely rebelling, is there an area in which we are very reluctant to follow the Lord (e.g., running from a command of Scripture; one we find difficult to obey)?

    Is there someone who might not hear the message of salvation or God's love because of our disobedience (e.g., we refuse, or are reluctant, to simply speak to them about the Lord and their eventual judgment)?

    Think for a moment who might be negatively affected by your disobedience (e.g., the men on the ship).

    If any of this is true, it's time to shake yourself, wake up, and get your rebellion and/or reluctance out in the open. You need to confess it to God and repent before your ship/ life heads into what will certainly be very stormy weather, or worse.