The Book of Jonah is one of the most incredible books in the Bible. It is filled with mystery and intrigue. And yet it is a book that has taken a great deal of abuse. Perhaps no other book in the Bible has suffered at the hands of critics like Jonah has. Why has this happened? Simply because the events recorded in it are unfamiliar to us—there have been no recent news reports of a man being swallowed by a whale and living to tell about it.
But how about those who lived closer to Jonah’s day? Did they believe that Jonah was an actual historical figure and that his story as portrayed in the Old Testament was accurate? And would we not grant more credibility to them than to modern skeptics? The answer is yes on both counts.
In 2 Kings 14:25 we read about “… Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher.” We will see in Jonah 1:1, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai.” Sounds like our Jonah was the same one known in the days of Jeroboam. And as credit-worthy as that reference might be, far more reputable support is found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
In Luke 11:29–32, Jesus Christ Himself validates the life and ministry of “Jonah the prophet” in the context of Jonah’s ministry to the Ninevites. A pretty good reference, though still only to Jonah as an historical figure. What about the really hard-to-fathom part about the great fish that swallows Jonah?
In Matthew 12:39–40, Jesus’ words include a reference to Jonah being in the belly of the great fish. In fact, Jesus bases His own teaching about His coming three-day burial on Jonah’s “burial” in the depths of the sea in the belly of the fish. It seems that if Jesus Christ relied on the historical accuracy and integrity of the scriptural account of Jonah, we can be confident in doing the same.
Why is it important that the story of Jonah is historically accurate in all its details? What difference does it make to you that Jesus Christ believed the story of Jonah?
What bearing does 2 Timothy 3:16–17 have on this question?
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV
If the inerrancy of Scripture means anything, it means that what is written is true. We will approach the story of Jonah from that perspective. It is a true story with a myriad of lessons about God’s interaction with man: His guidance, His patience, His second chances, His love for sinners, His correction of believers. And Jonah—perhaps like us—needed to learn all those lessons!
Jonah was a ‘Minor Prophet’
The minor prophets are known as Amos, Habakkuk, Haggai, Hosea, Joel, Malachi, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, Zechariah, Zephaniah, and Jonah.
What is a “minor prophet”?
The term is not used in the bible but is our designation for the authors of the last 12 books of the Old Testament whose names the books bore. Perhaps the most well-known minor prophet would be Jonah. Each of the minor prophets had a message of warning for their time, many of them with end-time application. The messages were not minor in any sense of the word except for length, when compared to other prophetic books. So “minor” indicates only brevity, not substance or importance.A
Let’s open with the first couple lines of Jonah:
Jonah Flees the Presence of the Lord
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. – Jonah 1:1-3 ESV
Jonah Disobeys God’s Directions
God spoke clear directions to Jonah: Go and preach against Nineveh (Jonah 1:1). God called him to go as a missionary to an Assyrian city of 600,000 people, which in that day was a huge metropolitan area. It was wicked. It was heavily fortified. It was powerful. And it was to be the object of the preaching of one Jewish prophet: Jonah! No wonder Jonah was not excited about the prospect of his new ministry. This could have been as overwhelming as asking us to go to the middle east, such as Iran, Iraq or Turkey. To go by ourself and confront ISIS or the Taliban.
God wanted him to go and tell them that if they didn’t repent in forty days, he was going to judge them. That was the message God gave him. Jonah was aghast. “God, you want me to go to Nineveh and tell them they’ve got forty days to get their act together, or you are going to destroy them? God, I won’t last five minutes! I won’t get through the gate!”
Has God ever asked you to do something which you found fearful? What was it?
How did He communicate His direction to you?
What Jonah didn’t understand is that whenever God calls us or commands us to do something, he enables us to do it.
Jonah heard clearly what God said, but he did as a lot of believers have done, and continue to do today—he failed to believe. Paul reminds us in Romans 14:23: “whatever is not from faith is sin”. It is important for us to learn from Jonah’s life that disobeying God is sin and only leads to trouble. While we will discover that Jonah ultimately obeyed God, we should learn that it is wisest to obey Him immediately, not later.
God said to Jonah, “I want you to go east to Nineveh.” What did Jonah do? He went in exactly the opposite direction.
Describe your fears or apprehensions when you contemplated obeying Him. Or did you?
How much consideration did you give to not obeying Him?
What reasons did you entertain for why it might be acceptable to disobey?
What did you end up doing?
What were your feelings after making your decision?
Let’s see why going in the opposite direction from what God commands is a sure road to heartache.
Jonah Was Deliberate in His Disobedience
To begin with, we can say at least one good thing about Jonah: he was deliberate. He was not lukewarm. When God said, “Go east,” Jonah didn’t just partially disobey. He went due west—as opposite to God’s direction as he could get! He went down to Joppa on a westerly course, and he took a ship going west rather than east. Not only was he going west, but he was going to the extremity of the known west in those days. Tarshish was a smelting city of the Phoenicians. Some believe it was in Spain, while others say Tarshish was on the western coast of Africa. Regardless of where it was, it was in Jonah’s estimation as far as he could go from the place God told him to go.
So Jonah didn’t just stay where he was and not go to Nineveh, nor did he just stay in Joppa. He did the exact opposite of what God told him to do. He started from where he was and ran away from God. In fact, notice the end of the verse says “he went from the presence of the LORD.” He got as far away from God as he could.
How do you run away from God? The psalmist says,
“If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there” – Psalm 139:8
You can’t ever run from God—He’s everywhere. But in his own localized view of the world, Jonah thought, “If God wants me in Nineveh, the best place for me is in Tarshish. I’m out of here.” And so he went. It was a very deliberate act.
Sometimes we disobey out of ignorance. We don’t set out to sin deliberately, but thee are three ways we fail to obey God.
Ignorance is still sin, it’s in a different category from deliberate and willful disobedience. Jonah was a prophet of God who knew better than to disobey God’s clear direction. If he had just fled to Joppa out of fear or weakness, he might have had time to reconsider, and turned back. But Jonah was going to Joppa—he was going to Tarshish. He deliberately chose to disobey God from the start. Unfortunately, his deliberate disobedience was about to pay terrible dividends.
Jonah Was Deceived in His Disobedience
Notice how clear and careful God’s directions are to Jonah:
Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish” – Jonah 1:2–3a
Perhaps Jonah was tempted to rationalize like many of us do: Because there was a ship at Joppa bound for Tarshish, it must be the will of God for him to go there. But here’s the problem with his thinking: Jonah had had a word from God: “Arise and go to Nineveh.” That’s pretty clear. It’s impossible to say that Jonah was confused about God’s will for his life, and yet he disobeyed. And there is the warning for us.
It doesn’t make any difference what the circumstances may say. If we have a clear word from God about a subject, that’s it. It’s settled.
Many believers in churches today are playing the game of circumstantially trying to determine what is right for them. “Well, Pastor, marrying this girl must be the will of God—otherwise I wouldn’t have met her.” No, the will of God is perfectly clear:
“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” – 2 Corinthians 6:14
Or how about this: “Pastor, it must have been God’s will for her to have ministered to me in my loneliness and discouragement, otherwise I wouldn’t have met her.” Again, the word of God is perfectly clear:
“You shall not commit adultery” – Exodus 20:14
If we use any circumstance to try to change the clear application of the Word of God, it is deception. Such guidance is not coming from God, but from the enemy of our soul —from Satan—who has the ability to appear as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).
Let’s pray that we won’t get caught up in the subtle deception of determining God’s will solely by circumstances. It is too easy to interpret circumstances to fit our own desires. We can see, Jonah already had his mind made up to go to Tarshish. He had taken a 75-mile trip with the idea of going there. So when he got to Joppa, he used the circumstances to support what he had already decided to do. Unfortunately, God’s people tend to think this way because we have become so weak in our own hearts with regard to the revealed will of God. But if God says it, that settles it. Had Jonah not been deceived in his disobedience, he would never have boarded that ship.
Jonah Was Doomed in His Disobedience
In verse 3 we find that the ship was going to Tarshish and that Jonah paid the fare. But the coins he handed over were actually the cheapest part of the fare. Unknowingly, Jonah was about to pay a huge price for his disobedience! In fact, the whole book is about how much it cost Jonah to disobey God.
When we walk away from the revealed will of God, there’s always a price to pay,
“for the wages of sin is death …” – Romans 6:23
Wages aren’t paid in one lump sum; they are paid in little increments throughout our lives and then we get the final payment at death. Sin pays, all right, and its wages are not what the sinner would want.
Describe a time in your life when circumstances seemed contrary to the clear will of God.To what degree were you tempted to follow the circumstantial evidence?In hindsight, describe the degree of deceptiveness of circumstances. What role did your feelings play?
Given the unpredictability of shipping in Jonah’s day, it’s possible that if God hadn’t intervened he might never have gotten back. When we get involved in walking away from God, we can’t just get back on another ship that takes us directly back home and have everything the way it was. Things change in the meantime and all kinds of problems occur. Yes, God forgives, and he restores. But there is always scar tissue left from sin that often complicates our lives from that point on. The journey away from God is a one-way trip until God, in His grace, intervenes as He did in the life of Jonah.
Twice in this text we read that Jonah went away from the presence of God. More than a few writers have noted that Jonah’s journey away from God was a “downward journey”. Through the whole book he went down to Joppa, then he went down into the ship. Then he went down into the sea. Then he went down into the belly of the great fish. Then the great fish went down to the very depths of the ocean.
Describe a time when circumstances seemed helpful in determining God’s will in an area of your personal life.Describe a time when circumstances seemed positive, but turned out not to be so.
Would you agree today that when you or I journey away from the presence of God, it is a downward trip? And every step takes us to another level until we come back to the place of fellowship with the Lord. Jonah was doomed for his disobedience—but thankfully the story doesn’t end there.
Jonah Was Disciplined for His Disobedience
In verse 4 we read,
But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up. – Jonah 1:4 NKJV
“But the LORD.… ” or “But God”, these are the words of saving grace not only in Jonah’s life, but in ours as well. The old preacher who said that the Lord saved him by “butting” into his life of sin was right! Jonah was headed down, down, down, but the Lord was following him every step of the way. And he used a storm to begin His rescue of the disobedient prophet.
It wasn’t just bad luck on Jonah’s part that his ship ran into a storm at sea. From God’s perspective in heaven, it was an orchestrated series of events. God wanted Jonah to do something for Him. Jonah disobeyed. And so God set in motion a plan to get him back on track.
We can’t run from God. Those of us who are sailing today on comfortable and pleasant seas will someday realize that we are headed into a great storm. The living God in heaven won’t forever tolerate deliberate rebellion, and He will do whatever He needs to bring us back to obedience. Perhaps we have gone deliberately from the presence of the Lord, starting with small things. We skip church. We stop reading the Word of God. We quit praying. We distance ourselves from the accountability of Christian friends. And then the larger steps of sin become easier.
We do everything to get away from the presence of the Lord, but the problem is, we truly are believers and the Holy Spirit is in our hearts. He is going to keep after us and make us miserable and send storms into our lives that will disrupt everything until we finally come to our senses. I hope it doesn’t take as much for us as it took for Jonah. In fact, the quicker we realize we are on a detour and get back on track with God, the less powerful will be the storms we face.
Though Jonah’s story took place more than 2,000 years ago, I have seen God deal with believers in exactly the same way. He loves us so much that he will not allow us to walk down a road toward destruction. God loved Jonah so much that He incorporated the wind and the sea and prepared a great fish to bring him back to compliance with the will of God.
I ask you today, “Are you running from God?” “Not me,” you say, “I’m in church every week!”
That doesn’t make any difference. You can run from God inside church as fast as you can on the outside, because running from God is a matter of the heart. Perhaps you know God has called you to certain things. And you’ve got all the reasons in the world why you think you don’t need to obey Him. Don’t run from him. Whatever you think is going to be better in your Tarshish, you’re wrong! There is nothing better than being in the center of God’s will. Jonah would have been ten times safer and better in the city of Nineveh, surrounded by six hundred thousand angry Ninevites but in the will of God, than he was in that boat running away from God.
The same is true for you. If God has called you, you should arise and go. If you’re running, stop running. If you are going to run any way, run back to his arms. Today, at this moment, He stands with arms open wide to receive you.
DID YOU KNOW?
While Jonah was totally out of God’s will in seeking to reach Tarshish, apparently another of His servants was not. If Tarshish was what we know as modern-day Spain, as many scholars believe, then that was the destination of the Apostle Paul (Romans 15:24, 28). And while we aren’t sure if he ever made it, there is no indication from Scripture that he was out of God’s will in trying. In matters not clearly spoken on in Scripture, what is God’s will for one person may not be His will for another. The challenge is to hear His voice—and obey!
A Puen, R. (2010). Is that in the Bible?. Xulon Press.
Jeremiah, D. (1998). The runaway prophet: Jonah. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.