Growing up in a non-Calvinist church, I was often reminded of the many role models in the Bible, and I was well-trained at digging out every possible moral application in the life of a given Bible hero.
Twice a week, we voiced our personal “testimony” to our local house-church, wherein we promised to try harder in the coming days to follow the example of Abraham, to be more like Jesus, or to be more like Peter.
In our teen years, my brother detected the folly in this approach, and he used the story of Jonah as a counterexample. “Jonah was a servant of the LORD,” he would say, “So, in the coming days, I’d just like to try harder to be more like Jonah—when I hear the word of God, I shall disobey with all my heart, so that I, too, may go to heaven.”
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Overview and Context
At first glance, the Book of Jonah is a short story about a disobedient prophet. Upon further inspection, the prudent Christian discovers that this narrative is more about God’s sovereignty over creation and humanity, and more about His profound mercy shown to the wicked Assyrians living in the powerful city of Nineveh, than it is about Jonah himself.
Indeed, the Book of Jonah is about Jonah, about Nineveh, and about God’s mercy on Nineveh. However, we do well to remember that this book is scripture – Hebrew scripture, not Assyrian “scripture.” Jonah is a prophet in Israel. As careful students of the Bible, then, we do well to remember Israel as we study this book. We may indeed conclude that this unique portion of our Bible is most significantly about Israel—those covenant people for whom the sovereign Lord will rearrange the entire universe if He so decides to move them, to provoke them, to discipline them, or to teach them.
The prophet Jonah lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, during the rule of Jeroboam the Second, as we learn in 2 Kings 14. This Jeroboam “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD”1—Amos and Hosea prophesied against him, and against Israel at the time. Nevertheless, this was a time of success for the nation, as even Jonah had prophesied. Jeroboam was a strong military leader, and Israel’s borders were expanded.
Consider Israel as you read through Jonah, but also consider our Lord and Savior, as He mentioned Jonah in the New Testament, and as some parts of Jonah’s experience foreshadow Christ’s preaching, and Christ’s saving death and resurrection.2
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Jonah Chapter One
In the first chapter, however, we shall not speak of Jonah foreshadowing Christ. We may grant him the title “antitype of Christ” here, but nothing greater. He’s more a picture of rebellious Israel in this chapter, than he is a picture of Christ.
God commands Jonah to go to the “great city” of Nineveh and “call out against it.” Jonah responds by attempting to flee the presence of the LORD, though he almost certainly realizes that it is impossible to escape God’s presence.
His reason for disobedience is not revealed until chapter 4, but we know this much already: Jonah is not a fan of Nineveh. The Assyrian empire is a continual threat to Israel, and the residents of Nineveh are guilty of much evil, particularly physical violence and social injustice.3 Reverend P. Lok, of the Netherlands, says, “Nineveh is on par (in Scripture) with Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and Sidon.”4
God is conscious of the sins of Nineveh, and judgment is at hand.
Could Jonah simply announce judgment to Nineveh, and were God only a God of justice, then Jonah would have no quarrels with this mission.
But Jonah is not here displeased with the justice of God; it’s the mercy of God that bothers him. Whether Tarshish is in Spain or in Northern Africa, it’s pretty much in the opposite direction of Nineveh. Jonah is trying to get far away from Nineveh precisely because he knows something about God—an announcement of judgment might serve as a warning that leads to repentance, and God is… merciful. Jonah seems to have Psalm 145:8 memorized, where we read: “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
When Jonah boards the ship to Tarshish, God, who is Lord over all creation, hurls “a great wind upon the sea,” so that there is a mighty tempest, and the ship threatens to break up. As Jonah sleeps in the inner part of the ship, the polytheistic sailors demonstrate that they are aware of a connection between sin and punishment. They suppose that some “god” is angry with one of them. They cannot save themselves. Throwing the cargo overboard does not help. Praying to various gods does not help.
When the captain wakes Jonah, the lot is cast. Such was a common form of divination in the ancient world—“a device used to discover the will of the gods.”5 The Lord God of Israel is, of course, sovereign over lots, and he accommodates the sailors by causing the lot to fall on Jonah.
Now Jonah says, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
Jonah has been pigheaded up to this point. He had a nap when he ought to have been trembling with a sore conscience. He remained silent while the pagan sailors drew lots. He stood by while the unbelievers, in fear of the LORD, sought to spare his life. He did not admit his guilt while the non-covenant sailors prayed that God would not hold them guilty of blood.
“Pick me up and hurl me into the sea,” says Jonah now, “then the sea will quiet down for you…”
Should we praise Jonah for cooperating by revealing the solution to the storm now that he is completely cornered? Let’s only do that if we would also praise a criminal for holding out his hands to the cuffs after he is captured. Jonah hasn’t even admitted his guilt! Notice also that he would apparently rather die in the sea than obey God and go to Nineveh. (Presumably the storm would have subsided if Jonah had simply cooperated with God.)
What relief, what salvation, to have the prophet of God judged and tossed out of the ship! The heathen sailors now resemble students of the Third Part of the Catechism – watch them pray, offer a sacrifice, and make vows while the man of God sinks into the seaweed.
Though the prophet of God is judged, chapter 1 does not end without introducing his own salvation from the present distress, and so we may leave this chapter with some comfort, so far as we have identified with Jonah. Relief comes in the form of a great fish appointed by the LORD.
Whether this great fish is a whale or a large shark, here we see that God speaks, and the natural world obeys. The tomb of death cannot hold the Son of Man; nor can the depths of the sea hold Jonah. According to the will of the Lord, a fish shall be God’s instrument of rescue.
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For three days and three nights in the belly of a fish, may the prophet Jonah meditate on the sovereignty of God; may his heart turn in repentance; and may this entire experience help him understand the grand scope of the grace of his God. Lest we scold only Jonah, let us also pray that the entire nation of Israel will learn that they do not “have a monopoly on the redemptive love of God.”6
In chapter 1, we see that God is merciful to Gentile sailors, and is prepared to be merciful to an evil Gentile city. Though this chafes Israel’s prophet, we can see that this act constitutes indirect mercy toward Israel, intended to provoke them (and their prophet) to jealousy and repentance. This reminds us of the preaching of apostle Paul in Romans 11.
There, Paul argues that “through [the trespass of Israel,] salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.”
Though we now view the Hebrew scripture in hindsight, and with clarity from the gospel of Jesus Christ, let us not be wise in our own sight, but instead let us worship and honor the God “who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”7
Lok, Rev. P. (1989). The Minor Prophets. London, ON: Inter-League Publication Board.
Sproul, R.C., & Mathison, Keith (Eds.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible. Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries.