Summary: Jonah’s real life story is on him as a Runaway from Duty, his Repentantance of Sin, his Restoration to Fellowship and Recommissioning for Service
My first encounter with Jonah was when I was in my teens. Perhaps the preacher was parading his modern scholarship or talking “tongue in cheek”, but he certainly startled his congregation by saying that he wasn’t concerned “if Jonah was swallowed by a whale or if Jonah swallowed the whale!” He may well have regretted saying that because it led to a number of people leaving his church for a more Bible believing ministry. But does it matter how we view the story of Jonah, one of the Minor Prophets? I think it does as its part of Scripture and reads as a real event.
Jesus retold the amazing account of Jonah as something which actually happened (Matt 12:38:41; Luke 11:29-41), so there’s no reason to say it’s only a fable. Jonah was one of God’s chosen men, commissioned with a message. He lived in the eighth century BC as a contemporary of his fellow prophets Elisha, Hosea and Amos. So what is Jonah’s message, both for the people of his time and us in the 21st century? It’s all to do with repentance and the solemnity of God’s judgement.
The story of Jonah is all about God’s goodness to people who don’t deserve it – to the Assyrians, to Jonah himself, and to you and me. Jonah was a messenger and herald of Jehovah but his story isn’t concerning his own people, but with the fate of Nineveh. At this time, Nineveh, was the capital city of the cruel nation of Assyria to the east. Jonah was commissioned by Jehovah, “Arise, go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it; because its wickedness is come up before me.” He could hardly believe his ears! But the call was clear, “Go … preach.” “Go and convert the people of Nineveh!”
God’s telling Jonah to be a missionary. That’s what we’re told to do too, not necessarily in a foreign country, but to live out our faith wherever God places us and to be His witnesses in an unbelieving world. The Jews have a high regard for the book of Jonah as it’s read in their synagogues on the Day of Atonement.
Their liturgy says, “We are Jonah.” It’s a sobering thought that “so are we” whenever we fail to take an opportunity to represent our Lord by word or deed. Orthodox belief is important, but without compassion it can easily degenerate into something cold and hard. Jonah thought he knew better than God. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
God had made it abundantly clear what He required of Jonah. But Jonah wasn’t having it: he wanted Nineveh to be blasted, rather than blessed, by Jehovah, paid back for their evil deeds and wicked ways. He was putting his own happiness, and the good of his own people, above God’s call to care for a lost world. Jonah point-blank refused to follow instructions. Instead of setting out to travel eastwards, he did the opposite and took a ship with the westward destination of Tarshish in Spain, in those days the end of the known world! Why? It will become clear as we see Jonah in terms of the prophet who was a:
RUNAWAY FROM DUTY
The narrative tells us, “But Jonah ran away from the Lord” - perhaps not literally, but certainly deliberately. He had clearly thought out a plan, taking money to pay his fare, choosing a ship going as far as possible from Nineveh. Jonah’s reaction wasn’t so much due to cowardice or timidity as his conduct on the ship proved. No, it was because he thought he had a theological problem.
How could God have anything to do with the nasty people of Nineveh, the “evil empire” of his day? Jonah regarded Jehovah as the exclusive God of Israel, to be jealously kept for their blessing only. In his opinion, God shouldn’t be concerned for the lives and spiritual well-being of those outside Jewry; they had no share in the divine revelation. How wrong he was! God loves His creation, and as the New Testament tells us, He is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
If Jonah could have been sure that God was going to judge Nineveh and wipe it out, he would have been quite happy. But he suspected that if he obeyed God’s call to go and preach repentance to the people, they would turn back from their wicked ways so that He could show them His mercy. Jonah wanted nothing to do with that! He wasn’t going to be a traitor to his own nation! But it’s not our job to make judgements as to whom should God show mercy.
The story of Jonah’s wrong thinking is surely a reminder that Christians, God’s people, can get it wrong sometimes. Yes, we’ve been saved by God’s grace, born again, but it’s all too apparent that we’re far from infallible. In fact, although forgiven, we’re still sinful people, prone to wrong motives, failure to follow God’s commands and to meet the standards set out in the Scriptures.