It is difficult to date the writing of the book, as there is no internal evidence as to whom or when the book was written. We do not know if it was Jonah who wrote the book or somebody later on but we can see from the account that there is no gloss or spin found in the account. Jonah does not come out of the story very well. He is in fact a very successful preacher with a bad attitude. There are many lessons that we learn from this small but very interesting book.
Jonah is one of the books of the bible that skeptics most like to pick on. Their reason being that it is ludicrous to think that a fish large enough to swallow a man is possible and that also for a man to survive in the stomach juices of a fish for 3 days is even more unthinkable and certainly unbelievable. I suppose Christians have tried to explain it away by suggesting that the fish were a whale and so size makes the story possible. We will not enter into foolish arguments, I certainly believe that with God all things are possible and we shall see from the text that the fish was specially provided just for Jonah on this one occasion. Our God who at a word created this whole universe is quite capable of preparing a fish large enough to swallow Jonah and then to sustain him whilst entombed inside the fish for 3 days. What we do know is that the lessons that Jonah was being taught were important to him and are also of importance to us. So let us get ready to learn lessons from Jonah!
Chapter 1: On the run.
Verses 1-3: God’s calling:
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach against it. We get some idea of God’s purpose from His description of Nineveh as “that great city.” His reason for sending Jonah is that He had seen their wickedness. It is God who is calling; it is He who instigates the evangelism to Nineveh. Jonah is the servant He is to use. There is only one other reference to Jonah found in the Old Testament; 2 Kings14: 25 tells of Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher who prophesied that Jeroboam II would restore the boundaries of Israel. For this he would have been a popular prophet especially as his prophecy came true in the day of Jeroboam. As a prophet I am sure that he did many things that are unaccounted for in scripture but it is this account that is recorded for posterity and from this account God’s people have been helped over the years.
We can learn from the first verse that it is God that does the calling and that it is not necessarily in the direction that we might imagine or desire!
We learn from verse 2 that the place of God’s calling was Nineveh and that the people there are wicked. Chapter 3:3 tells us that Nineveh was large and very important; (it took 3 days for a visit.) Nineveh was about 100 miles from the north east border of Israel in the land of Assyria (in modern day Iran.) Assyria was Israel’s enemy who had conquered and ruled over them from time to time. Nineveh the capital city was known for it’s cruelty; they tortured people by skinning them alive and thought nothing of either burying them alive or impaling them on a sharp pole and leaving them to die in the heat of the day. God told Jonah that this kind of wickedness had come to His attention and that He wanted the people of Nineveh to hear of His anger and judgement on them. In Jonah’s understanding this meant that forgiveness and salvation was on offer to his people’s mortal enemy.
God had called Jonah to preach against a desperately evil people. A good prophet should at this point be pleased that God had called him especially to take a message of hope to a needy people, but we can see from the rest of the chapter that Jonah was not at all pleased. Jonah decided to go on the run. He became a backslidden prophet. The marks of the backslider can then readily be recognised. When a Godly person removes their focus from God then their focus becomes earthbound, they are contrary rather than obedient. So when God said go east to Nineveh, Jonah headed off west toward Spain.
It is often thought that when we are out of God’s will then everything becomes difficult and that He puts obstacles in our way. This was not true for Jonah and neither is it true for us. Jonah headed for Joppa where it just so happened that there was a ship ready and waiting to go to Tarshish, Jonah is heading for a “well deserved holiday” in Spain. He also had enough money to pay the fare and so he sailed away on the run from the Lord. The amazing thing is that the Lord had let him go!
The one message that we can safely say that the book of Jonah shouts out to us is that God is Sovereign. He is sovereign not only in the life of Jonah but also over all of the circumstances brought about by his rebellion and also over those who are innocently affected by his ways. We see God’s sovereignty over nature and His provision for the future of the sailors and also the people of Nineveh.
The first provision is for Jonah. God provides a massive storm, big enough for the sailors to be afraid. It is God’s voice being spoken through the storm to Jonah. The sailors heard the warning, they knew that God was angry but Jonah was fast asleep. He was the rebel comfortable in his sin and complacent as to the consequences whilst innocent people were scared for their lives.
The second provision of God was for the sailors who knew that God was angry with somebody but they did not know who and so they trusted God by the casting of lots to reveal the culprit. God graciously provided them with the answer. The sailors on finding the reason from Jonah displayed human kindness to him and tried every way that they could to save his life. No wonder that God dealt with them so kindly.
The third provision was again for Jonah but also for the sailors. The Sea was made rougher; the sailors had no choice but to sacrifice the life of a rebellious prophet in an attempt to save the life of the crew and to save the ship. The rough sea was for Jonah to be thrown down into and for him to have to rely on God’s mercy for his future.
The fourth provision was again for the sailors, a calm came upon the sea, and the sailors were saved, not only physically but also spiritually. They had seen clearly from the ferocity of the storm how angry God is with the sin of Jonah. They had seen God’s almighty power and had been the beneficiaries of His saving mercy, this caused them to greatly fear Him, to make a sacrifice to Him and to make vows. They made a sacrifice in order that sin might be atoned for, that sacrifice has been perfectly made by Jesus. Other than this the way of salvation is exactly the same today.
The fifth provision is the one that causes contention with the skeptics but it was a great fish that provided for Jonah. It was to be his home for 3 days and his vehicle of restoration, as we shall see next time.
The lesson that we learn is that there is nowhere that we as the people of God can go to hide from Him, and that He has a purpose for all of us. The gospel is of paramount importance to God; He will have His name proclaimed. The prophet was commissioned to speak God’s words wherever God sent him and so are we. God has sent you and me to be where we are and to a desperately needy people. It is our responsibility to let them know of His love for them and His free offer of saving grace.