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[a] has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
Who was Jonah? The Bible never calls him a preacher, priest or prophet. He was a believer, certainly, but if he was anything more, the Bible is silent about it. But he was called to be a prophet to Nineveh.
Anyone can be a prophet. A prophet can be someone who speaks to a nation or city, or it can be someone who speaks to a friend, a relative, or a stranger. Anytime we are saying what God wants us to say, then we are being a prophet. If God calls us, we have to speak.
But what if we don’t speak? Suppose that God tells us to speak and we ignore it? What does God do?
Jonah’s story isn’t about a whale. It’s about a man who was called to speak, and tried to ignore it. It’s really about all of us who are called to speak for God and who keeps their mouth shut.
Jonah tried not to speak. Jonah must have struggled with that calling for a long time. The Word of God troubled him at night, and haunted his mind in the daytime. It wouldn’t go away. Finally, Jonah couldn’t stand it anymore so he ran.
Jonah thought that if he left God’s people he wouldn’t have to listen to God anymore. If he ran from Israel, then God would leave him alone. People are doing the same thing every day. We live in a day of great immorality which is the real reason people are leaving the church. They run from the church because they are running from God.
But even if we run, God is with us. We can’t run far enough or fast enough to avoid His calling on our lives.
The Bible does not tell us why Jonah ran, but we know enough to guess at some of it. Why does anyone run rom God? The same reasons Jonah ran are the same as why we run from doing God’s will.
God called Jonah to go to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. In the Seventh Century B.C it was the largest city in the world. It was located in Iraq, across the river from the modern city of Mosul--the last stronghold of ISIS. For Jonah, being called to Nineveh was not much different from you or I being called to Mosul to preach. It seemed like suicide, just as preaching in Mosul would be today.
Jonah ran out of fear. The Ninevites were known for their cruelty. They literally dissected whole countries. They broke up families and tribes and scattered their members throughout their kingdom. Anyone who resisted was murdered. No one was safe if you stood in the way of Nineveh. As far as Jonah was concerned, this was to him a suicide mission. He was afraid to say anything.
Jonah ran out of anger. The Ninevites had already attacked the northern kingdom of Israel. The “ten lost tribes” were destroyed by the Ninevites. These were Jonah’s people. He had every reason to be angry with them. Later in the book it is revealed that his anger was so strong that he actually wanted the whole nation to go to hell. Why should he preach to people he did not want to be saved?
Put yourself in Jonah’s sandals. A foreign country destroys America, and takes away your wife, children, family and friends. Then God calls you to go and minister to those people. Would you do it?
Sometimes God calls us to that very thing. Even so, we find ourselves resisting.
Jonah ran because he was looking for peace. How did Jonah afford a ticket to Tarshish? Most people couldn’t. He must have been at least middle class if he could afford a ticket to a foreign country. Tarshish was a popular and prosperous town—a tourist destination for the Israelites. The Phoenicians were among the richest traders of the ancient world.
Eugene Peterson in his book, Under the Upredictable Vine compared Tarshish to every preacher’s ideal ministry. Preaching in Tarshish would be like being a part-time preacher to millionaires in Hawaii. Preachers get itchy for a new, exciting ministry in places where it is easy.
Laypeople get the same itch. They see big churches where people can sit back and do nothing, but still find all the help they want, where everyone gets along, and where they can be involved just as much as they want to. Some churches are easy. But God doesn’t call us all to easy ministry. We are called to hardship, suffering, sacrifice, and even dangerous places. Don’t think if you are doing God’s will things will go well. Sometimes you do God’s will and you still go through hell! Jesus did God’s will perfectly, and they crucified Him. Paul counts suffering for Christ a privilege. Jonah would have much preferred a cushy life in Tarshish to a short life in Nineveh. But those God trusts the most are called to war. Those who are the most faithful serve in hard places, not the easy ones.
Jonah ran out of insecurity. Maybe we believe in God, but do we believe in ourselves? Who will listen to us? Many of us trust God, but do not believe God can speak through us.
We know ourselves too well. We live in doubt and fear, because we cannot believe that God can use us. We cannot feel God’s love and protection, so we feel insecure in serving Him.
But God loves us and calls us, warts and all. He expects us to fail, He counts on us to fail so we can succeed. What makes Jonah’s story so significant is not that he succeeded at Nineveh, but it was how God overcame his fleshly fear to get him there. No one ever talks about Nineveh but about how he was so disobedient that God had to create a great beast to fetch him!
Jonah ran for at least some of these reasons. But he had a problem. You can’t run from God.
Sometimes God allows us to escape. Other times God does not. God allows us free will, but He loves us too much to let us escape His love. God interferes with our plans when He really shows His mercy. Only then do we know the severe mercy of God.
He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
Jonah could not escape the presence of the Lord. But he made three serious miscalculations.
He underestimated the reach of God. He thought that God only existed inside the “religious” world of Israel. But God is the God of all the earth, not just a part.
He underestimated the power of God. He thought that a ship which depended solely upon the winds and the currents and the waves could go against the will of God, who made the winds and the currents and the waves. We can never build ourselves up enough to resist the power of God who made the heavens and the earth.
He underestimated the witness of God. He thought that the sailors on the ship had nothing to do with God. But most men will call on God when they are faced with a life-and-death situation. Its one thing to live your lives without God, but few will face death without calling to Him. The knowledge of God is even in people who do not think they believe. If he had realized who God was, he might not have run.
Whenever we refuse to speak about God, we assume that people will not listen to Him. But people are hungrier for God than we think. When the Power of God is with us, people listen.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”
13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard[b] to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
17 [c] And the Lord appointed[d] a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
The sailors threw him overboard, and the seas calmed. That should have been the end of the story, but it is just the beginning. Jonah was broken seemingly beyond the chance of repair. God sent a fish to swallow him.
Most of the time, when a shark or a whale swallows you, you’re dead. His killer became his lifeboat. What an act of mercy!
God does many similar acts of severe mercy. We fail at one thing and succeed at something else. We stumble on the wrong path to start on the right one. We get fired from one job, to find another. We lose friends to find new ones. We are abandoned and divorced, but find new love. That mercy feels as hard as the jaws of a shark clamping over us. Yet we survive and find our way forward.
The point of this story is not to argue whether can survive in a whale, but whether God ever gives up on us. Our connection with God is predicated on our obedience. But if we are disobedient, God will pursue us. He really loves us enough to interfere with our running, and to redirect us towards His perfect will.
But why should we challenge Him? Why should we resist? Listen to God and obey him from the first. Maybe we won’t have to be swallowed by Jaws to find our way to Him.