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The story of the whale/fish is the detail from this prophetic book most memorable to people. Yet, in the words of my former colleague Dr. Jerry Windsor, “Jonah is neither a tale of a whale nor a whale of a tale.” The text of Jonah only mentions the large fish once (1:17). In my opinion, the most memorable detail of Jonah is the miracle of an entire city repenting before God (3:5). Jesus regarded both miracles as historical fact (Lk. 11:30-32).
Jonah was an eight-century prophet. He grew up about three miles from Nazareth. The prophet prophesied the restoration of the boundaries of Israel during the reign of idolatrous king
Jeroboam II. He ministered during the same time as Hosea and Amos. The book of Jonah intertwines three themes. First, God is sovereign. He appointed a violent wind (1:4), a huge fish (1:17), a plant (4:6), a worm (4:7), and a hot east wind (4:8). Second, God is compassionate and merciful (4:2). Third, God invited Jonah to unite his heart to God’s compassionate concern for the nations (4:11).
The early chapters describe the rebellion of the reluctant prophet.
First, Jonah refused God’s call to missions (1:1-3). God instructed Jonah to get up immediately and preach against the city of Nineveh. Jonah got up but ran in the opposite direction. Nineveh was approximately 550 miles from Jonah on the Tigris River. Jonah fled to Tarshish, most likely a port in southern Spain located almost 2,000 miles away.
Why did Jonah flee? History provides an answer. Nineveh was part of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were famed for their excessive cruelty. Some scholars nickname the Assyrians “the Nazis of the ancient world.” Other prophets preached against foreign nations; Jonah was the only prophet God commissioned to relocate to the mission field amongst a people famed for evil cruelty.
Second, Jonah had a theological issue with God’s plan. Jonah wanted God to judge the Ninevehites rather than be merciful (4:1-2).
Second, Jonah’s refusal to heed God’s call to missions resulted in personal costs. Jonah’s rebellion costs the prophet in three ways. First, his rebellion costs his economically. Jonah purchased a ticket to Tarshish. The distance meant Jonah shelled out some shekels! Second, the prophet’s rebellion cost him the rebuke of unbelievers. During the storm the unbelieving sailors prayed. The captain commanded Jonah to pray (1:6). What a rebuke! The words of the captain almost mirror God’s commission. God commissioned Jonah to get up and cry out against the evils of Nineveh. The captain commissioned Jonah to get up and literally cry out to his God. Jonah disobeyed both commissions. He refused to go to Nineveh and he refused to pray. The sailors ask Jonah for advice as to how to handle him (1:11). The proper response for Jonah was repentance; Jonah requested death. Third, Jonah’s rebellion costs him the experience of God’s judgment in the belly of a huge fish. Obedience is costly, but disobedience is costlier.
Third, an undeserving Jonah received compassion and mercy. Although the prophet’s experience inside the huge fish is unimaginable, God mercifully saved the undeserving prophet. Jonah refused to call out against Nineveh. He refused to call out in prayer on the ship. In the belly of the fish he called out to God with thanksgiving for the fish saving his life.
In chapter one, the prophet desired to flee from the Lord’s presence (1:3). In chapter two, Jonah realized the fulfillment of his desire—“I have been banished from your sight” (2:4). The lone expression of Jonah’s faith occurs in verse four. Jonah knows he will again pray in the temple.
Jonah learned a lesson: “Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9). Was he now willing to share that message?
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