Jonah 1

  • 22 June 2022
  • Andrew Keene

Jonah. SHAP 2022.

Introduction and Chapter 1

Do not let the title of the book of Jonah fool you!

The story certainly recounts the saga a prophet who lived, I believe, in the eighth century BC (as he is also referenced in II Kings 14…placing him in that era), but the main emphases are on the character of God: God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s constancy, God’s patience and long-suffering, and God’s power – in contrast to Jonah’s calloused heart and Jonah’s seared conscience.

And on that note of God’s power, I should add that we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the reference at the end of the chapter to a large sea creature that swallows and then expels Jonah.

The gospel reading set down for today (the raising of Jairus’ daughter) gives us a context or a theological handle for that remarkable incident.

It is this: If God – in the person of his Christ, can raise a little girl from the dead (Luke 8), then he can certainly appoint a large sea going mammal (or whatever it may have been) to bring Jonah from death to life, as it were.

So, let’s return to theme of God’s character:

God loves his world – even when it comprises people who shake their fist at him.

The Ninevites were no exception.

‘Wicked’ is how they are described (in verse 2).

But we also learn in Jonah 1:1-2 that God is deeply concerned about their choices and their lifestyle.

There is that wonderful truth – concerning his character and his desires, that God reveals through his servant Ezekiel (33:11), ‘As surely as I live declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they should turn from their ways and live!”

Yes, rather than destroying the Ninevites, there and then, for their idolatry and sin, God lovingly reaches out to them with an urgent warning.

And the prophet Jonah is his envoy.

As you know, Jonah is instructed to go to Nineveh in Assyria – around 1,000 kilometres in a north-easterly direction.

Now then, unlike our compassionate and gracious God, Jonah is filled (we’ll discover later in chapter 4:2) with contempt and loathing (and possible fear) towards the enemies of his people, these Ninevites.

So instead of heading northeast to Nineveh (in modern day Iraq), – Jonahwilfully disobeys God, and he books a sea passage for Tarshish – 3,500 kilometres southwest, in the direction of Spain.

Jonah gets as far away from Nineveh as possible.

Such tragic irony. Such hypocrisy.

Jonah is filled with rancour and disdain for people who flout the rule of God, yet there he is, flagrantly turning his back on God, and deserting his post; he cannot and will not face the Ninevites; he refuses to align his priorities with those of his Heavenly Father.

I should point out that as the people of God, Israel’s vocation/ their call (Isaiah 49:6) had always been to be a ‘light for the Gentiles, that God’s salvation may reach the ends of the earth’ – through them.

They were to be conduits, vessels, instruments, signposts, mouthpieces, exemplars of God’s grace and love…not simply to ‘insiders’ – but to the surrounding nations and people groups unfamiliar with the power, promises, and purposes of God.

A programme, that Jonah, it turns out, refused to embrace…

And so, he fled.

I’m always challenged and heartened by Proverbs 21:30, ‘there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan, that can succeed against the Lord”.

So, just as God in his sovereign love appointed Jonah to the Ninevites, he also appointed, or sent a great wind and a violent storm and swell, to not only interrupt Jonah’s rebellious posturing, but also to further reveal his grace and mercy.

It’s a cracking yarn: here’s how it plays out.

Even though Jonah refused to preach God’s word to an unsaved and unforgiven people, God, in his sovereign grace, so purposes events that that is exactly what Jonah ends up doing on the boat bound for Tarshish, Spain.

Did you notice that?

Jonah preaches God’s word to an unsaved an unforgiven people.

The text says the terrified sailors called out to their gods, all to no avail (verse 5).

Nonplussed that Jonah had fallen asleep, they call him to account – having discerned through lots that he is somehow the reason for the foment and distress (verses 6-7).

And Jonah then speaks to these desperate men about the God from whom he is fleeing – the one on whom they plead with him to call (1:6):

As a Hebrew, he worships ‘the Lord’ (1:9), he confesses.

This Lord about whom Jonah speaks is the ‘God of heaven’ (v. 9)

Further, this Lord, this God of heaven, is in fact the great Creator God (verse 9).

He is the one who made both the sea and the dry land!

The implication being that their perilous situation is entirely in the hands, and under the authority, of this mighty God, whom Jonah serves.

And ironically, unlike Jonah who seems unfazed and unmoved by his own revelation that the Lord powerfully directs the courses and events of his creation, the sailors are horrified by Jonah’s actions, and awestruck by God’s majesty and authority (verse 10).

Now Jonah is a complex character.

As the elements become increasingly violent, Jonah confesses that he is to blame and by throwing him overboard, all will be set to rights (11-12).

This could be an act of selflessness, or altruism (heroism, even) on Jonah’s part, or it may be an attempt at the ultimate act of selfishness.

That is, if Jonah drowns, he’ll once and for all be released from that odious task of engaging with the pagan Ninevites.

So, as Jonah seemingly ‘falls on his sword’, the sailors fall to prayer.

Having been apprised of the person and work of the God of Heaven – by Jonah, and when all else has failed, the sailors now seek the Lord in a desperate prayer.

Yes, the pagan sailors cry out to God in prayer (v. 14)!

Did you notice that they now recognise that they are accountable to God for how they live – especially regarding Jonah’s fate (vv 14)?

And did you also notice that they have grasped how God’s sovereign purposes cannot, and will not, be thwarted?

It is they who are now declaring the wonder and majesty of God’s sovereign rule, ‘you Lord God, have done as you have pleased’ (v. 14).

Indeed, he has.

As evidenced by verse 15: ‘The men threw Jonah overboard, and the raging sea grew calm’.

Unlike Jonah, the sailors immediately repented to God.

They turned their lives over to him and worshipped the Lord (as per the reference to offerings and sacrifices in verse 16) – and they verbally, publicly, gave him their allegiance (in that they made vows to him verse 16).

The Lord had indeed done that which pleased him; via the reluctant and deeply flawed ministry and witness of his prophet Jonah, God brought great honour to his name through the conversion, and redemption of a band of precious, Gentile sailors.

Yes, the Lord rescued the sailors – from the storm and for himself.

And the Lord also rescued Jonah.

Just like his nemeses, the Ninevites, Jonah had comprehensively shaken his fist at God.

As with the Ninevites, there is, for Jonah, mercy and grace.

Jonah is not lost at sea.

His is not a watery grave (even if he sought one).

For God in his love, and mercy, and sovereign power – appoints or provides a sea going creature, a big one, to swallow, and save Jonah (verse 17).

The Lord, it seems, is not done with Jonah.

Like the Ninevites, and the sailors, Jonah matters to God.

Though he is frail and deeply flawed, God has set Jonah apart as an instrument of grace and mercy.

For through him, through Jonah, the hearts of a great many women and men, girls, and boys, will be renewed and restored.

With risk of sounding trite, the book of Jonah is both a signpost, and a mirror.

As we’ve noted, the book points us to the mercy, and the love, and the goodness, and the compassion, and the power of God.

And we’re reminded once again that God’s heart beats fast for ‘lost’ people, right?

Jesus put is so succinctly, didn’t he?

‘For God so loved the world the gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life’. John 3:16.

Such is the love of our sovereign God that he comes to us fully and finally, not through the ministry of a flawed prophet, but in the person of his perfect Son.

He comes to us who shake our fists at his mercy and grace, and in return offers us wholeness and restoration.

Such compassion.

The book of Jonah is a signpost, and it is a mirror.

How so?

With Jonah, we too may question God’s sovereign power and purposes in age of injustice, inequality, and disharmony.

And what is more, like Jonah, we may rail against the notion of sharing our lives and our faith with, or praying for the perpetrators of injustice, inequality, and disharmony – especially if they are members of our family, or our neighbours, or our work colleagues…or the leaders of rogue states.

Isn’t that true?

Jonah’s struggle is one with which we can relate isn’t it?

Perhaps, then, the book of Jonah is even better understood as a spotlight – that brings into clear relief our complacency, or our hardness of heart, or our indifference towards people we don’t understand, or with whom we would never engage (for whatever reason).

We do well to recall God’s great kindness to us who – when were at enmity with God, Jesus reached out to us, and gave his all for us. (Romans 5:6)

Let me close, then, with an ancient prayer attributed to Richard of Bishop Chichester circa1245.

Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend, and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.

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