A few years ago, my wife and I had what we considered a rare opportunity to be invited to a home where a Christian leader we greatly respected was going to be, along with his wife. We were so delighted to have a chance to get to know them and to see what they were like. I already had a stereotyped impression of what his wife would be like. I envisioned her as a quiet, passive, very meek person, who idolized her husband and was greatly impressed by his knowledge and stature in the Christian community.
The topic of conversation was not spiritual—we were discussing the Dallas Cowboys—but that did not in any way change my expectations. The husband made a comment about the Cowboys, one I expected the wife to agree with, perhaps with a nod of approval. Instead, she blurted out, “Now just one second, buster.…” I nearly fell off of my chair. My stereotype of the Christian leader’s wife was suddenly shattered.
We all have stereotypes, and many of these should probably be shattered as well. Jonah is a prophet who does not fit into the stereotypical mold of our thinking when it comes to a prophet of God. He is decidedly different from the other prophets which we find in the Scriptures.1 The Book of Jonah is written to shatter the stereotype which we have of prophets, especially the prophet Jonah.
Jonah is unique in several ways. First, Jonah is a prophet more by what he is and does than by what he says. Given the biblical content of Jonah’s words as recorded in Scripture, we would have difficulty making a paragraph out of his prophetic messages. (His protests would add more words, but they are not direct words of prophecy. They are more pathetic than prophetic.) Jonah was a man of very few words, but his works, his deeds, were highly prophetic.
The Book of Hosea portrayed Gomer as a picture of Israel, and Hosea, her husband, as a reflection of God. Joel used the plague of locusts to prophesy of the coming of the armies of Israel’s enemies, who would swarm into the land in judgment. So, too, Jonah was a graphic representation of the nation Israel. Just as Jonah received a clear command from God and disobeyed, so Israel was characterized by her disobedience to the commandments which God had given through Moses.
Prophecy is much more than verbal proclamation; it is often dramatization. The Book of Jonah dramatizes the sad spiritual state of Israel, a condition which was reflected in her disobedience to God’s commands and to her divine calling, a condition which would require divine discipline.
Second, Jonah was the only prophet who is recorded as having run away from God. Jonah is not known for his piety, but for his prodigality. Jonah, in his rebellion and disobedience, in his hardness of heart, was a man who typified the rebellion of the nation Israel. As the Lord said to Moses, centuries earlier, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people” (Exod. 32:9).
Third, Jonah is a prophet who is unique not only by his waywardness, but also because the book never portrays him as having repented and as having been restored to the “joy of his salvation.” We see the failures of many men in the Old Testament, but usually these men come to the point of repentance and restoration. David sinned greatly, but he repented. Abraham, Jacob, and Elijah, all had their times of failure, but they grew to maturity, to faith and obedience. Such is not the case with Jonah. Other than the likely possibility that Jonah was the author of this prophecy, we would have little basis for assuming that Jonah ever repented.
It is at this point that I must inform you that I do not see any repentance in Jonah in this short book. Our predisposition to the “pious bias,” that tendency to assume that Old Testament saints must have been doing the right thing for the right reasons—a great fallacy—is very evident in the Book of Jonah. Most all of the commentaries want to see Jonah repenting somewhere in the book, some as early as chapter 1. Frankly, I do not see any repentance, which I think is one of the significant lessons of the book. Beware of making excuses for Jonah. The book is intended to cause the reader to feel more empathy for the pagan (the sailors in chapter 1, the Ninevites in chapters 3 and 4 than for this prodigal prophet.
I believe that Jonah, at virtually every point in this brief book, typifies Israel’s hardness of heart and unrepentant spirit. The book is not written to leave us with a warm, fuzzy, good feeling, but rather to leave us very discomforted, for just as the Book of Jonah closes with no solution to Jonah’s sin, so the Old Testament closes with no solution for Israel’s sin. Only the coming of Christ gives us the sense of relief, repentance, and restoration which God wants us to experience.
Very little is said of the prophet Jonah outside of the Book of Jonah itself. In 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah is said to have prophesied that the southern kingdom of Israel would expand its borders during the reign of Jeroboam, a wicked king. It does seem safe to conclude that this “Jonah” is the same person as the “Jonah” who is the subject of the Book of Jonah, especially since both are identified as “the son of Amittai”2 (cp. 2 Kings 14:25; Jonah 1:1). The prophecy of Jonah to Jeroboam conveys some important background material to enhance our understanding of this book. We are told,
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and reigned forty-one years. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin. He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, which was very bitter; for there was neither bond nor free, nor was there any helper for Israel. And the LORD did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash (2 Kings 14:23-27, emphasis mine).
Jonah was therefore a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel, whose predecessors were Elijah and Elisha. Hosea and Amos would likely have been Jonah’s contemporaries. Assyria, whose capital city was Nineveh, had already begun to exercise her dominance in the near East, but for a time her control would wane, allowing Israel, under Jeroboam’s leadership, to expand her borders. In the text cited above, it is stated clearly that Israel’s prosperity during this period was solely due to the grace of God and to His compassion on His people, who were greatly afflicted. It was not godliness on the part of the nation, or its leadership, which could be viewed as the basis for God’s blessings. Thus, just as Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh would result in an outpouring of God’s grace, so his ministry in Israel would result in God’s grace - with one exception, that is; Israel did not repent of her evil deeds, and God blessed the nation anyway, while the Ninevites sincerely repented of their sins. In this sense God’s grace was even greater to the Israelites than it was to the Ninevites, for God had promised to forgive those who repent (cf. Jer. 18:7-8).
Israel’s prosperity would not last long. Amos, Jonah’s contemporary, warned of God’s coming day of judgment on Israel. He condemned Israel for her oppression of the poor and her perversion of justice (5:11-13). All the while, the people of Israel continued to practice the ceremonial rituals of worship, but God said,
“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Because of her sin, God promised judgment:
“Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts (Amos 5:27).
While the warning of Amos is general in nature, speaking only of Israel’s future exile, Hosea specifically indicated that Israel’s captor would be Assyria:
They will not return to the land of Egypt; But Assyria—he will be their king, Because they refused to return to Me. And the sword will whirl against their cities, And will demolish their gate bars And consume them because of their counsels (Hosea 11:5-7).
Some scholars find it more difficult to “swallow” the miraculous accounts of this little book than the fish found it to swallow the prophet. I am not going to spend much time or effort to prove the miracles, since these are ultimately a matter of faith. The God who is the Creator of the universe would have no difficulty in accomplishing the miracles described in this book. From our study of this book, it will become evident that the most difficult miracle is that of softening the hardened heart of the prophet. All that is necessary to observe is that our Lord understood the account of the Book of Jonah to be literal (Matt. 12:39-41), and so we need only follow in His steps and do likewise.
The Book of Jonah is divided into four chapters in the English translations. The chapters may be summarized as follows:
Chapter 1 Jonah and the Sailors
Chapter 2 Jonah and his Psalm
Chapter 3 Jonah and the City
Chapter 4 Jonah and the Shade
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” 3 But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
Jonah, the prophet of God, was given a divine commission: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” The command of God is clear. Jonah was to go to Nineveh, which had been founded by Nimrod (Gen. 10:11). Nineveh was called a “great city,” which no doubt refers to its size and its influence. Those of us who live in the city of Dallas, Texas can identify with the meaning of the term “great.” Its sins were “great,” too.3 Jonah was commanded to denounce the sins of this city, for they were so great they were said to have “gone up” before God, and the time for judgment was near.
Instead, Jonah went AWOL, catching a ship heading in the opposite direction:
But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD (vs. 3).
Nineveh was located on the Tigris River, over 500 miles to the northeast of Israel, but Jonah went west. His destination was Tarshish, which seems to have been a city located on the western coast of Spain.4 We are told that Jonah fled “from the presence of the LORD,” an expression twice repeated in verse 3. I do not understand this to mean that Jonah thought he could get away from God, but rather as a technical expression, referring to his attempted “resignation” as a prophet.5 He was turning in his mantle. No more prophetic ministry for him! While the omnipresent God would be in Nineveh, Jonah would not, and so he could hardly carry out his task from this location.
4 And the LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up. 5 Then the sailors became afraid, and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down, and fallen sound asleep. 6 So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.” 7 And each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”
God hurled a storm in Jonah’s path, a storm so great that it terrified veteran sailors (literally “salts”) and was in the process of breaking up the ship. The sailors began casting the cargo overboard, in an effort to save the ship and their own lives. At the same time, each sailor was praying to his gods for deliverance. No doubt these sailors would have worshipped gods which were thought to have influence over the seas on which they traveled.
The “cargo” which would have to be thrown overboard to save the ship was below. While the sailors frantically worked and prayed to save the ship, Jonah was below deck, deep in sleep.6 The pagan ship’s captain was obviously irritated to find Jonah sleeping, while the rest of the crew desperately besought their gods. Jonah was not asked to help cast the cargo overboard, but he was commanded to pray.7 Imagine this. A heathen sea captain, commanding a prophet of the one true God to pray. Notice that we are never told that Jonah did pray, either. No wonder; if you were Jonah and stubbornly refused to repent, what would you have to say to God?
The seamen saw the storm as a religious matter. They first petitioned their gods for deliverance. When this did not happen, they sought to enlist Jonah and his God. Then, when their prayers were not answered, they seemed to conclude that the reason why their prayers were not answered was due to some unidentified sin, which offended one of the gods: “And each man said to his mate, ‘Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.’ So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah” (vs. 7).
The great wonder is that these sailors did not cast Jonah into the sea the moment the lot fell on him. Remember that the ship was in the process of breaking up and the storm was intensifying in force. In spite of the imminent danger, the sailors took time to interrogate Jonah. “Then they said to him, ‘Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” (vs. 8).
I am inclined to view all of the sailors standing about Jonah, each asking one of these questions at the same time. Jonah is swamped with questions. Notice that as the story is narrated in chapter 1, the sailors do most of the talking and Jonah says very little. He gives but a bare minimum response. He is tight-lipped. He is like a child, caught red-handed by his parents, peppered with questions and giving only cryptic responses. There are some who talk incessantly when guilty, but many, like Jonah, say as little as possible, especially if they are intent on persisting in their evil.
With this statement, everything suddenly came into focus for the sailors: Jonah was a Hebrew prophet who had fled from God. It was Jonah who caused the storm. Jonah’s sin had endangered the entire ship’s crew.
10 Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”— for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. 12 And he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” 13 However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. 14 Then they called on the LORD and said, “We earnestly pray, O LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for Thou, O LORD, hast done as Thou hast pleased.” 15 So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.
The response of the sailors is incredible. They could hardly believe the boldness with which Jonah had disobeyed God. Their response, “How could you do this?” is reminiscent of Abimelech’s rebuke of Abraham, when he passed Sarah off as his sister (Gen. 20:9). Here is a prophet who is so willful, even the pagans are shocked (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1). There was more to the story Jonah revealed than what is written,10 but what the sailors knew was enough to petrify them. Remember, the storm is still raging and the ship is threatening to come apart (cf. vs. 4).
The sea continued to become more and more tempestuous. Time was running out. Just as Abimelech required the prayers of Abraham, a somewhat prodigal prophet of God (Gen. 20:7), the sailors could only ask Jonah what to do to appease the wrath of his God. After all, he was a prophet. “So they said to him, ‘What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?’” (Jonah 1:11).
Jonah told the sailors to pick him up and throw him overboard, into the sea, and then the sea would become calm for them (vs. 12). Why did Jonah not just jump into the sea? It seems as though the sailors had to act in obedience to God’s directive through Jonah. Casting him into the sea would surely have meant death to Jonah. Just as the Israelites had to be the instruments of the death of a sinner against God (cf. Lev. 24:10-16), so the sailors had to lay hands on Jonah and cast him overboard. In this way, they were dissociating themselves from his rebellion and sin.
Some of the commentators want to see repentance on Jonah’s part here. Thus we read,
He replies at last to a question put to him by the sailors earlier. Yes, he admits his responsibility for the storm. The piety of the seamen has evidently banished his nonchalant indifference and touched his conscience. By now he has realized how terrible is the sin that has provoked this terrible storm. The only way to appease the tempest of Yahweh’s wrath is to abandon himself to it as just deserts for his sin. His willingness to die is an indication that he realizes his guilt before God.
Jonah shows that his repentance is sincere. No longer shall these men suffer for his disobedience. He offers himself as the victim to be sacrificed in order that they might be saved (vs. 12).
No longer does he flee from the Lord! He commits himself, body and soul, to the will of His Lord. Here he shows heroic faith! He is still God’s confiding child, even though he has sinned grievously.11
I see absolutely no repentance here at all.12 I do not see any repentance in the entire book, and certainly not in chapter 2. Why, then, should we see it here? After all, we know that Jonah wanted to die. If he could not frustrate God’s command by flight, surely he could do so by death. Furthermore, the sailors expressed fear of shedding “innocent blood” (vs. 14). If Jonah had truly confessed his sin and repented, how could they possibly think of him as innocent. Repentance would acknowledge guilt, but the sailors fear killing an innocent man. No, there is no confession here. The “pious bias” is once again raising its head.
One would think that in such a desperate situation, when the storm grew steadily worse and danger to all increased, that the sailors would have quickly responded to Jonah’s instructions. Instead, they made one final effort to save Jonah’s life. They sought to row to shore, where they would let him off (vs. 13). This was a very risky effort, for the rocky shores, with their hidden reefs, would have been the worst place to be in the midst of the storm. The safest place in a storm is away from shore.13
Having made their best efforts to save Jonah, the sailors conclude that his solution is their only alternative. Before casting him into the sea, the sailors pray—again: “We earnestly pray, O LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for Thou, O LORD, hast done as Thou hast pleased” (Jonah 1:14).
How far these pagans have come. They have forsaken their “gods” for the one true God. They pray to Him before taking the final step with Jonah. And they acknowledge His sovereignty over all. Having thus prayed, they picked up the prophet and cast him into the sea.
15 So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
As the sailors watch Jonah sink beneath the waves, they note that the winds cease and the sea calms. They immediately grasp that all they had surmised was true. Jonah’s God was the only true God. He had brought the storm on account of Jonah’s running away. And, just as Jonah had spoken, casting him into the sea did still the storm. Thus, the chapter concludes with a report of the sailors’ worship. “Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (Jonah 1:16). The pagans have become saints, while the prophet is still a prodigal. In trying to avoid preaching to the Ninevites, Jonah has unwillingly preached to the sailors, and thus they have come to faith in his God.
There are many important lessons to be learned from this first chapter of the Book of Jonah. Let me highlight a few of these lessons and suggest their application to our lives.
Our stereotypes of prophets and of pagans do not fit the account of Jonah. One commentator put it this way:
Some stereotyped conventions of the Hebrew religious ideology have been thrown overboard with Jonah. The listeners have been induced to turn completely against an Israelite prophet and to view Gentile dogs with increasing admiration and respect. These attitudes are seeds the narrator has sown to harvest later.15
Let’s face it, don’t you find that our text has reversed the heroes and the villains? Going into the chapter, we would have expected Jonah to be the hero, while the heathen sailors would certainly have been expected to be the villains. This was certainly the perspective of Jonah, and of the Israelites, whom he typified. Yet in our text it is the sailors who pray, while Jonah does not. The sailors sought to deal with sin on the ship, not Jonah. The sailors end up worshipping God, not Jonah. The sailors have compassion on Jonah, while he seems to have little concern for the danger in which he has put them. Clearly this chapter turns our expectations inside-out.
My emotional response to this chapter is somewhat similar to what I experienced in the Book of Genesis, related to Jacob and his brother Esau. Esau may have been a godless man, but I find that I like him more than I do Jacob, who is a swindler and a con artist. If I had to choose a next-door neighbor between Jacob and Esau, I’d take Esau every time. So, too, with the sailors and Jonah. I would much prefer to have these men as my neighbors than to have Jonah living next door. Only in this case, the sailors are believers in God, unlike Esau.
Notice the many points of contrast between Jonah and the sailors in the first chapter of Jonah:
Did not appear to pray
Active to save ship, selves
Deep in sleep
Compassion on Jonah
Indifferent to sailors, their plight
Tried to save Jonah
No great concern to save sailors
Wanted to live
Wanted to die
Wanted to find “sin”
Wanted to persist in sin
Obedient to what they knew
Disobedient though he knew much
Shuddered at Jonah’s sin
Seemingly untouched by his sin
Growing fear of God
No evidence of fear
There seems to be one thing on which Jonah and the sailors agreed, and about which both were wrong. Both seemed to think stereotypically and compartmentally. Both were sectarian in their thinking. The questions which the sailors asked reveal their thought process. Their questions, as reported in verse 8, concerned Jonah’s: (1) occupation (“What is your occupation?”); and (2) racial and ethnic origin (“and where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”).
Is it not true that the Israelites became so proud of their ancestry (“We are the seed of Abraham”) and of their priestly status as a nation that they felt more pious than other peoples? And isn’t it Jonah’s nationality and occupation in which he takes pride?
This chapter informs us that these are not the ultimate issues. There are really two principle issues which are crucial to God. The first issue is “loving God,” the second, “loving man.” Jonah would have shown his love for God by obeying him. Jonah did not obey, and showed himself to lack the love for God which the law required. Secondly, Jonah did not love men, as is reflected by his lack of compassion for the sailors.
In the New Testament, our Lord reiterates these two priorities—loving God and loving men—as the essence of the Old Testament law, and of the New Covenant as well (cf. Matt. 22:34-40). Jesus told His disciples that if they loved Him, they would keep His commands and they would love one another (cf. John 13:34; 14:15; 15:9-13).
It should not come as a surprise to us that in the gospels the religious leaders of Israel, like Jonah the prophet, were the “bad guys” rather than the “good guys.” Jonah prophetically prototypes the wickedness of Israel’s leaders in the days of our Lord. While we would have expected them to welcome Jesus, they rejected Him, and instigated His death. These were those who “devoured widows’ houses,” and were thus the objects of His most severe rebuke (cf. Matt. 23).
Jonah 1 reminds us that God is not concerned about our race, our origins, or our occupation, but with what we are doing with what He has commanded us to do. As the Apostle Paul tells us, God is not as interested in whether or not we possess the law (as the Jews) as He is with whether or not we practice it.
11 For there is no partiality with God. 12 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; 13 for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
17 But if you bear the name “Jew,” and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, 21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? (Rom 2:11-21)
Paul’s point is simply that possessing the Law and preaching it, as the Jews did, is not enough. Men must obey the law. Jonah, like the Israelites of his day, prided himself in the possession of the Law, but did not practice it. Thus, the heathen sailors are the heroes of our story because they practiced all that they knew to be God’s will, while Jonah disobeyed God’s command given to him.
The sailors were saved (both physically and spiritually, I believe) because they obeyed what they knew to be God’s will, and thus the “gospel” for them. They had learned that their “gods” were no-gods, that they could not answer their prayers nor could they control the sea. They knew that sin brought divine judgment. They learned that the God of Israel was the Creator of heaven and earth. And they were told that they would be saved by the “death” of Jonah, a Jew.
The gospel for men and women today is the same, in principle, but more specific. Jesus Christ is truly God, the Creator and Sustainer of all creation (cf. Col. 1:16-17). It is through faith in Christ, in His death, burial, and resurrection, that we are saved. We, like the sailors on board that ship, are in danger of divine judgment. We, like them, are saved by the death of another, a Jew. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God so that we might be saved. Jonah, like Jesus, died and thus others were saved. Unlike Jonah, Jesus was sinless, and He voluntarily gave up His life on the cross of Calvary to save all who would believe in Him.
Let the faith of these sailors serve as a lesson to us that hypocrisy is no excuse for unbelief. Jonah was a hypocrite, and I believe that the sailors learned this. Nevertheless, Jonah’s hypocrisy did not keep these sailors from trusting in God and obeying His word. Jonah’s failure to abide by God’s word did not keep the Gentile sailors from doing so. Do not attempt to excuse your disobedience to God by pointing to the disobedience of one of God’s children. We all are accountable only for obeying what God has commanded us to do.
Sin endangers others and thus must be removed. Jonah was life-threatening to the sailors. His sin prompted the wrath of God and all who were on board that ship with him were in great danger. It was only by casting Jonah overboard that the sailors were saved.
What a beautiful illustration of church discipline we have in this story. Just as Jonah’s sin endangered the entire ship, so the sin of a saint endangers and corrupts the entire church. As Paul put it, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). Thus, for the church to fail to deal with the sins of one of its members is to endanger the whole church. Just as Jonah had to be thrown overboard, so the willful, wayward saint must be “put out” (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5, 9-13).
It is not our position nor our profession, but our practice that proves us to be the children of God. Those who held the highest positions were often those who were most disobedient to their calling. To whom much is given, much is required. May we be unlike Jonah, who disobeyed what he knew, and rather be like the sailors, who obeyed all that they knew to be the will of God.
“Having peace” is not always proof of being in the will of God. Jonah rested peacefully in the hold of the ship, but no one was ever more clearly disobedient to the will of God. While it is true that “having peace” may be an evidence of being in the will of God, it is not always so. Jonah’s peace was the result of a hardened heart and a seared conscience. Those in such a spiritual state feel secure in times of greatest danger.
The sins of which we have been speaking have symptoms, which should be noted by all saints. The following are some of the symptoms of Jonah’s sins of which we should take note:
1. Lack of prayer
2. Absence of joy and praise
3. Lack of appreciation for life / death looks good
4. Lack of sensitivity to sin in one’s life
5. Lack of sensitivity to consequences of one’s sin for others
6. Lack of compassion for others
7. Disobedience to the clear commands of God
May these symptoms not be present in our lives, and if they are present, may we deal with them seriously.
1 “Generally the prophetic stories in the OT seek to glorify the man of God in the sense that he is revealed as a noble mediator of God’s own power and glory. But Jonah is no hero: he is deliberately portrayed in a very poor light. The concern of a number of OT prophetic narratives is to trace the process whereby a divine oracle was fulfilled. This book, on the contrary, breaks the pattern surprisingly by showing how and why a divine oracle, concerning the destruction of Nineveh, was not fulfilled.” Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 175.
3 “Nineveh’s wickedness comprised, besides her idolatry, her inordinate pride (cp. Is. 10:5-19; 36:18-20), and her cruel oppression of the conquered nations in deporting the entire populace to distant lands (2 Kings 15:29; 17:6; Is. 36:16, 17), her inhuman warfare.” Theodore Laetsch, The Minor Prophets (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), p. 221.
5 “He fled ‘from the presence of the LORD.’ To stand in the presence of someone is often used in the sense of acting as one’s official minister. (Cp. Gen. 41:46; Deut. 1:38; 10:8; 1 Sam. 16:21f.; 1 Kings 17:1; 18:15; 2 Kings 3:14, etc.) To flee from His presence = to refuse to serve Him in this office.” Ibid., p. 222.
6 “‘Fast asleep,’ used only in Niphal, denotes lying in deep, stupor-like sleep (Jonah 1:5, 6; Ps. 76:7, A.V., 6), ‘dead sleep’ (Judg. 4:21; Dan. 8:18; 10:9); the noun occurs in Gen. 2:21; 15:12; Prov. 19:15, etc.” Ibid., p. 223.
9 “The epithet God of heaven which Jonah appends to the divine name, although an ancient one (Gen. 24:3, 7), sprang into popularity in the Persian period after the exile. It identified Yahweh as the supreme deity, the ultimate source of all power and authority. Jews used it especially in contacts with Gentiles, who it was assumed possessed a knowledge of Yahweh’s universal sovereignty as distinct from the Jews’ insight into the purposes of Yahweh as ‘God of our fathers.’ By this title Yahweh is presented as no mere local deity, but one to whom all peoples may look for help. This universalistic note is reinforced by the claim that Yahweh is maker of land and sea.” Allen, pp. 209-210.
10 Ibid., pp. 210-211. Allen seems to modify this somewhat in his footnote, not making Jonah much of a hero, for he is the villain, but I see Jonah as simply wanting out of his duty by death, as he tried to escape by flight. His suicidal plea later on in chapter 4 adds weight to this possibility.
13 Why didn’t God save Jonah through the efforts of the seamen? Allen (p. 211) rightly, I think, suggests that it is because He wants Jonah to know that He has saved him by a miraculous act of pure grace. Jonah needs a “salvation” that will parallel that which the Ninevites will receive. Jonah will delight in his deliverance, but not in that of the Ninevites.
1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish, 2 and he said, “I called out of my distress to the LORD, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; Thou didst hear my voice. 3 For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Thy breakers and billows passed over me. 4 So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Thy sight. Nevertheless I will look again toward Thy holy temple.’ 5 Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, Weeds were wrapped around my head. 6 I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But Thou hast brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. 7 While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer came to Thee, Into Thy holy temple. 8 Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, 9 But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD.”
10 Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.
Years ago, a friend of mine gave this very apt description of a particular situation: “Bob, I look at this like I do a three-quarters-inch snowfall on a garbage dump. It looks beautiful until you begin to stir around a little.”
This is precisely the way I feel about Jonah’s “psalm,” recorded for us in Jonah 2. At first glance, it has all the appearances of piety, but after a little probing and reflection, it proves to be more of a religious sham than anything else. Not all Bible students agree with me here. In fact, I’m not sure I know of one who has taken the position I hold. For example, Theodore Laetsch titles this chapter “The Lord Delivers His Repentant Prophet.”16 I do not think that there is any evidence to support the conclusion that Jonah has repented in any way, shape, or fashion.
The context of the book gives us no evidence pointing in this direction. We saw from Jonah 1 that this prodigal prophet willfully sought to disobey the command of God to cry against the great city of Nineveh. Instead of traveling something over 500 miles to the Northeast to arrive at Nineveh, Jonah set out by ship from Joppa, heading Northwest, toward Tarshish. Jonah’s disobedience brought about a storm, which threatened the ship and the sailors. Only through their persistent questioning did they learn the reason for the storm, and only after great efforts to save Jonah did they cast him overboard. The sailors, unlike Jonah, responded obediently to the revelation they received, and they were left topside, praising God. Chapter 2 picks up the story from the undersea perspective, describing the prayer and the plight of Jonah as poetically depicted. In chapter 3, Jonah will be commanded for the second time to cry against the Ninevites, which he finally does, leading to the repentance of the entire city, and the “changing of God’s mind.” Chapter 4 shows us that Jonah’s attitude has not changed. There, he explains his disobedience in very unflattering terms, explaining why he did not want to preach to the Assyrians.
In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary from the overall context of Jonah, some want to find at least a measure of repentance in chapter 2. It is not to be found. We may be deceived by the terminology employed by Jonah, much of which is borrowed from the Book of Psalms. But when we compare the theology of Jonah’s “psalm” with that of the psalms, the shallowness and inferiority of Jonah’s praise is quickly evident.
Having preached the Book of Jonah over ten years ago, I find that my approach and emphasis have changed considerably. Previously, I spent considerable time attempting to document accounts of fish swallowing men who lived to tell about it. A look at the text quickly informs us that there is little emphasis on the great fish here, largely, I think, because the fish was obedient to his commission, while Jonah was not. Since the thrust of the book is to focus on the disobedience of Jonah and of the nation Israel, the fish is given few “column inches” of press. We may tend to dwell on the fish to help prove that this miracle could have taken place. We defeat our purpose in so doing, however. If there are documented instances of men being swallowed by fish, only to be recovered and to live, then what is described here is hardly a miracle at all. It is just one of those strange events which occur from time to time, but which should not be placed in the realm of the supernatural.
Neither is the issue of whether Jonah died the focus of the psalm. It is true that Jonah’s plight prototypes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but whether or not he died is not the primary issue. Personally, I do not think he died. I believe he was “as good as dead” until “saved” by the fish. In essence, Jonah is saying, “I was a goner, but God heard my prayer.”
My approach in this lesson is to show that Jonah’s psalm falls far short of the psalms of the Old Testament, and also to suggest some of the reasons we are tempted to see Jonah’s “psalm” as more spiritual than we should. To do this, we will focus our attention on the Old Testament psalms to show how they differ from the psalm of Jonah. Then we will seek to apply the lessons we learn from Jonah’s psalm to the prodigal prophet, to Israel, and finally to us.
The structure of our text is as follows:
Introduction: Jonah’s Salvation and the Setting of His Psalm
Conclusion: Jonah’s Exodus
17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish,
Jonah’s “psalm” is a poetic description of his deliverance from drowning. A great fish is not only the divinely appointed means of deliverance (1:17), but also the place from which the psalm was composed (2:1). One can only imagine the thoughts which must have passed through Jonah’s mind as he came to grasp what had happened to him. As he sank below the surface of the water, Jonah knew that he was certain to drown (2:2-7). In his last conscious moments, he cried to the Lord for deliverance. Suddenly, everything went black. Perhaps the dark form of the approaching fish was noticed by the prophet. Then, there was a sense of motion, of being carried along. There may also have been the near birth-like experience of passing from the fish’s mouth into its stomach, probably through a very small opening. This could have served to extract any water from his lungs, something akin to artificial respiration.
As Jonah regained consciousness, imagine the horror of his first sensations: the feel of the stomach lining of the fish pressing about him; irritation of the acidic stomach juices of the fish beginning to bleach his skin; the foul smell of the place; the passing-through of the normal diet of the fish; the darkness of this place. In time, Jonah must have realized that this fish was not the means of his destruction, but the means of his deliverance. His prayer for deliverance had been heard by God. He was to live. His psalm, recorded in verses 2-9, was composed in the stomach of the fish and later recorded for our edification. Let us now move on to the content of this “psalm of the prodigal prophet” to see what it teaches us about Jonah, about Israel, and about ourselves.
The best way to understand Jonah’s “psalm” is to identify some of its unique characteristics, and then to compare these with the characteristics of the psalms in the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. By means of this comparison, the inferiority of Jonah’s “psalm” becomes evident. Consider the following characteristics of Jonah’s “psalm”:
(1) Jonah’s “psalm” employs the poetic form of the biblical psalms, as well as the terminology of many of these psalms.
In Jonah 2:9 we read, “Salvation is from the LORD.”
Likewise, in Psalm 3:8 we read, “Salvation belongs to the LORD.”
Notice also the similarity of terminology between Psalm 18 and Jonah 2:
The cords of death encompassed me, And the torrents of ungodliness terrified me. The cords of Sheol surrounded me; The snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the LORD, And cried to my God for help; He heard my voice out of His temple, And my cry for help before Him came into His ears (Psalm 18:4-6).
“I called out of my distress to the LORD, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; Thou didst hear my voice . . . While I was fainting away, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer came to Thee, Into Thy holy temple” (Jonah 2:2, 7).
In Psalm 42, the psalmist also employs “water” imagery, which has a familiar sound when we read Jonah’s “psalm:”
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him For the help of His presence. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; Therefore I remember Thee from the land of the Jordan, And the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the sound of Thy waterfalls; All Thy breakers and Thy waves have rolled over me. The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; And His song will be with me in the night, A prayer to the God of my life (Psalm 42:5-8, emphasis mine).17
(2) Jonah’s “psalm” focuses on his physical deliverance from death by drowning. All of the poetic description found in Jonah’s psalm pertains to his near-death experience in the sea. He was engulfed by the breakers (vv. 3, 5), and seaweed was wrapped around him (vs. 5). Jonah was near to fainting away when he cried out to God for his salvation (vv. 2, 4, 7). This plea was probably similar to that of Peter, who having walked upon the water towards our Lord, suddenly began to sink (cf. Matt. 14:22-33). There was little time for anything but a hurried cry for help. The “great fish” was appointed by God to swallow Jonah, and while Jonah does not mention the fish, we know that it provided him with an underwater haven for three days and nights (1:17). It was from within the belly of this fish that this psalm was composed by the prophet (2:1). Just as Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul, had three days of blindness in which to contemplate the gospel (Acts 9:9), Jonah had three days in which to contemplate his divine deliverance. It was not over, of course, because there was still the small problem of his release from his underwater incarceration.
(3) Jonah’s psalm is self-centered. Jonah described his dilemma, his danger, his deliverance, and his delight. In The Book of Psalms the psalmists also described their deliverance, although the particulars were often left out, or only briefly mentioned, often in the introduction to the psalm (cf. Psalms 3, 18). Very quickly, the Old Testament psalmists turned from the details of their personal experience to the character of God, which was demonstrated in their deliverance. In short, the psalms are God-centered, while Jonah’s psalm is self-centered.
Note how cryptic is this psalmist’s description of his dilemma, and how quickly he changes his focus to the character of His God:
The cords of death encompassed me, And the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I beseech Thee, save my life!” Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate (Psalm 116:3-5, emphasis mine).
Such is not the case with Jonah. Chapter 2 dwells on the details of Jonah’s dilemma, while God’s character is scarcely mentioned. Not until chapter 4 does Jonah get around to addressing the character of God, in particular His grace, compassion, longsuffering, and lovingkindness:
And he prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life” (Jonah 4:2-3, emphasis mine).
While the biblical psalmists found the character of God to be the basis for their praise, adoration, and obedience, Jonah found the character of God to be the pretext for his disobedience and for his protest.
There is but one dominant reference in Jonah’s “psalm” to God’s attributes. He does allude to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. This attribute is distorted and abused, however. Rather than attributing his danger to his own rebellion, Jonah depicts God as the cause of his danger:
“For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Thy breakers and billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3).
This sounds similar to Adam’s explanation for his disobedience:
“The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12).
(4) Jonah’s psalm reveals his disdain for Gentiles and a smug self-righteousness as an Israelite. We have already been informed of the faith of the Gentile sailors in chapter 1, and of their obedience to all that they knew they were to do. In Jonah’s “psalm of praise,” we find no mention of these sailors, of their physical deliverance from death, or of their newly-found faith in the God of Israel. We can safely assume that Jonah did not find any of this to be a source of joy or the cause for praise to God. We can press this point further and conclude that Jonah really despised Gentiles and would have preferred their death and damnation to their deliverance and salvation.
This may be merely conjecture, to be demonstrated in chapter 4, except for the tone of Jonah’s words in verses 8 and 9: “Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving” (Jonah 2:8-9a). Jonah has great disdain for the Gentiles, who practice idolatry. At the same time, he regards himself as one of the elite, who worships the true God by means of the sacrifices which God has appointed. Jonah, as an Israelite, is superior to the idolatrous Gentile heathen.
Jonah’s words do not square with what we have seen in chapter 1, however. The heathen prayed; Jonah did not. The heathen were eager to uncover sin; Jonah was not. The heathen wanted to practice their religion; Jonah did not. The heathen had compassion on Jonah, yet Jonah showed none toward them. By virtually any standard, the Gentile sailors proved to be superior to Jonah from all that we have read in the first chapter, and yet Jonah can unabashedly tell God that he is somehow superior to the heathen.
The psalmists of the Old Testament knew better. In their psalms, they spoke of the conversion and worship of the Gentiles:
I will tell of Thy name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise Thee. You who fear the LORD, praise Him; All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel. For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Neither has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.
From Thee comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; Those who seek Him will praise the LORD. Let your heart live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, All the families of the nations will worship before Thee. For the kingdom is the LORD’s, And He rules over the nations (Ps. 22:22-28, emphasis mine).
In Psalm 67, the psalmist goes even further, basing his words on the promise God gave Abraham, which informed him that the blessing of his descendants was to result in blessing for the whole world:
God be gracious to us and bless us, And cause His face to shine upon us— Selah. That Thy way may be known on the earth, Thy salvation among all nations. Let the peoples praise Thee, O God; Let all the peoples praise Thee. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; For Thou wilt judge the peoples with uprightness, And guide the nations on the earth. Selah. Let the peoples praise Thee, O God; Let all the peoples praise Thee. The earth has yielded its produce; God, our God, blesses us. God blesses us, That all the ends of the earth may fear Him (Psalm 67).
Jonah does not wish God to bless the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Jonah does not wish God to bless the Gentiles through the Jews. Thus, when God commanded Jonah, a Jew, to preach to Nineveh, a Gentile city, Jonah fled. No wonder we find no praise for the conversion of Gentiles, but rather a statement to God about the superiority of the Jews to the Gentiles.
(5) The only promise which Jonah makes is the promise to offer a sacrifice to God at the temple. In the past, I have read more than I should have into the words of Jonah as recorded in verse 9: “But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the LORD.” I felt that his words in this verse implied that God was sovereign, and thus He was free to save whomever He chose, and that Jonah was promising to obey God’s command and go to Nineveh.
I now understand these words differently. If Jonah had vowed to go to Nineveh, why is it necessary for God to repeat the command to do so in the first verses of chapter 3? When Jonah said, “Salvation is from the LORD,” I believe he was merely giving God the credit for his physical deliverance. He was saying, in effect, “The salvation which I have been describing in my psalm is of God.” The substance of the vow which Jonah refers to is spelled out in the first part of verse 9. Jonah intends to go to Jerusalem, where he will offer a sacrifice of praise to God. Making a sacrifice was normally promised in a vow (cf. Ps. 66:13-15), and I believe that it is what Jonah meant here, as stated in the first part of verse 9 in his psalm. How gladly Jonah would have said farewell to his domicile, the belly of the fish, gone to dry land, and then hastily returned to the land of promise, where he would have offered a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God.
(6) Jonah’s psalm contains no repentance and no confession of sin, even though chapter 1 makes it clear that such was needed. Jonah had much to confess, but he has confessed nothing in his psalm. Even when depicting the cause of his danger in verse 3, he does not attribute his being an outcast in the sea to his own sin, but to the sovereignty of God! In contrast to Jonah’s psalm, note the confessions of sin in the Book of Psalms:
I acknowledged my sin to Thee, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” And Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin (Psalm 32:5).
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, And done what is evil in Thy sight, So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak, And blameless when Thou dost judge (Psalm 51:1-4).
Save me, O God, For the waters have come up to my soul. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me. … O God, it is Thou who dost know my folly, And my wrongs are not hidden from Thee. May those who wait for Thee not be ashamed through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; May those who seek Thee not be dishonored through me, O God of Israel, … But as for me, my prayer is to Thee, O LORD, at an acceptable time; O God, in the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, Deliver me from the mire, and do not let me sink; May I be delivered from my foes, and from the deep waters. May the flood of water not overflow me, And may the deep not swallow me up, And may the pit not shut its mouth on me (Psalm 69:1-2, 5-6, 13-15).
While Jonah was quick to condemn the idolatry of the Gentiles (Jonah 2:8), Jonah failed to recognize that his disobedience was as offensive to God as the idolatry of the heathen. Jonah would have done well to take heed to the warning of this psalm:
“Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High; And call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” But to the wicked God says, “What right have you to tell of My statutes, And to take My covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, And you cast My words behind you” (Psalm 50:13-17).
Here, God has indicated that religious forms and rituals (such as Jonah’s psalm) were only of value to the one who obeyed His commandments. In the words of this psalm, Jonah had “cast God’s words behind him.” Jonah had deliberately disobeyed God’s command to go to Nineveh. Why, then, would his psalm or his promised sacrifice be precious to God?
Jonah should have remembered the words of Samuel to King Saul, who disobeyed the command of the Lord:
“Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23, emphasis mine).
We have come to the bottom line. Jonah’s “psalm” offers us absolutely no evidence of a change of heart, or of the prophet’s repentance. It is rather a revelation of his own sin and self-righteousness. It is, at best, an expression of gratitude for his physical deliverance from death.
WHY, THEN, DOES GOD DELIVER JONAH FROM DEATH BY THE “GREAT FISH” IF JONAH’S ATTITUDE TOWARD GOD HAS NOT CHANGED? I believe that there are several reasons:
(1) God is showing grace to Jonah, just as He has shown grace to the sailors, and as He will show grace to the Ninevites.
(2) God is attempting to instruct Jonah, and to change his belligerent attitude by showing grace to him. A personal experience of God’s grace might have inclined Jonah to rejoice in the grace which God wanted to bestow on others, including the Assyrians.
(3) God is keeping Jonah alive so that he could, and would, go to Nineveh and preach against the sin of that city. God is guaranteeing that Jonah would ultimately obey his command.
WHY ARE WE SO QUICK TO ASSUME THAT JONAH HAS REPENTED, RESULTING IN THIS PSALM?
(1) I believe we are too quick to arrive at conclusions based solely on external appearances. Jonah was an Israelite, a prophet, no less. Surely a prophet would be spiritual. These words are similar to the Old Testament psalms, so they must be deeply spiritual. We should know better than to judge by external appearances.
(2) We desperately want Jonah to repent. We cannot stand to think of a prophet as a stubborn, rebellious sinner, who is self-centered and unrepentant. We cannot stand to think of one in the position of a prophet being so sinful. We want the story to come out with a happy ending, and to give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. This book was not written to comfort, but to condemn. It was not recorded and preserved to make us feel good, but to leave us very unsettled and uncomfortable. This book was written to teach us some very unpleasant truths about the nation Israel, and about ourselves, as we shall see.
Despite the discomforting reality of Jonah’s continued rebellion in this chapter—indeed, because of
it there are several important lessons to be learned from this chapter. As we close, let me draw your attention to the lessons for Israel, and for the church.
As we have already shown, Jonah was not only a prophet by virtue of his declarations, but also by his deeds, specifically his disobedience. Jonah typified the stubborn rebellion of God’s people, Israel. Just as Jonah disobeyed God’s order, Israel disobeyed God’s law. Just as Jonah refused to carry out his task of preaching to the Gentiles, so did the nation Israel. Just as Jonah called on God for deliverance, yet without genuine repentance, so did Israel. Just as Jonah had the outward trappings of righteousness, the right forms and the right terms, but lacked genuine righteousness, so did Israel.
The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day typify this same willfulness and rebellion. When He came, our Lord, as it were, swept away the three-fourth inch covering of snow from the accumulated garbage of Judaism. Jesus uncovered and condemned the smug self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Israelite leaders, just as the Book of Jonah has done with the prodigal prophet.
The scribes and Pharisees were meticulous about the details of their religious forms and ceremonies (the gnats which they strained), but they overlooked the essence of true godliness—obedience (the “camels” they swallowed). Just as Jonah chaffed at the thought of the repentance and forgiveness of the Assyrians, so the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees bristled at the repentance of the “prodigal son,” as reflected by the older brother (Luke 15:11-32). They protested against the fact that Jesus spent his time with “sinners” and not with them (cf. Mark 2:16). And just as Jonah smugly saw himself as righteous, while the pagan was a sinner (Jonah 2:8-9), so the scribes and Pharisees looked down their spiritual noses at others:
“The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:11-14).
The rejection of Christ and of the gospel by the Jews proved to be the occasion for the salvation of the Gentiles, just as Jonah’s disobedience was the means of God bringing the sailors and the Assyrians to salvation:
I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! (Rom. 11:11-12).
If not by their obedience, God fulfilled His promise to Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations through Israel.
Before showing the similarities of Jonah’s sins to those of saints in our own day, let me point out one significant difference between Jonah’s thinking and ours today. Jonah, thinking with the mindset of the Old Testament Jew, rested and relied on his election as an Israelite, failing to see his relationship to God in terms of grace, but in terms of some kind of intrinsic worth, based upon his race and perhaps even on his calling as a prophet. Today we tend to presume upon God’s grace. We use the grace of God as an excuse for our disobedience. Jonah tended not to see himself as sinful, as much so, or more than, the heathen; we, on the other hand, see ourselves as depraved, and admit this as part of our human condition, but we view God as somehow committed and thus obligated to forgive. The common element, then and now, is viewing God as obliged to bless “His people,” regardless of their rebellion, and to view “heathen” sins as more reprehensible to God than “sacred sins,” like disobedience.
Jonah’s “psalm” warns us of the very real danger of superficial spirituality. The fact that Jonah’s “psalm” has been taken so seriously by scholars and laymen alike warns us that we are not sensitive to superficiality in spiritual things. The church at Sardis, addressed by God in the third chapter of Revelation, was superficially spiritual: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, and you are dead” (Rev. 3:1b).
Superficial spirituality is very skilled in following the approved religious forms and in the use of pious platitudes. Because of this, it initially looks holy and good. But a little probing reveals its true character. I might say also that a little persecution or suffering also quickly exposes the spiritual reality.
I greatly fear that superficial spirituality is the norm in America, rather than the exception. I fear that there is much of this in my life and in our church. May God give us the grace to see it for what it is and to deal accordingly with it.
Superficial spirituality has several tell-tale symptoms. For one, it relies on the wrong things. It relies on one’s background, one’s ancestry, one’s denominational heritage, one’s position (an elder in the church, etc.), or one’s knowledge. None of these constitute spirituality. Many of them are used to counterfeit it.
Superficial spirituality relies heavily on forms. It borrows much from others; it mimics piety rather than manifests it. Superficial spirituality prays only in dire circumstances; it is motivated by crises, and is manifested by foxhole prayers. It is selfward in orientation, rather than Godward or manward. It seems insensitive or oblivious to personal sin, yet it recognizes sin in others. It lacks a depth of intimacy with God and has little evangelistic fervor. It has a very narrow band of concern, and is usually very introverted in focus (e.g., “Lord, bless our missionaries.”). It tends to distort doctrines and to accommodate or excuse one’s sins (such as Jonah’s use of God’s sovereignty, veiling his own sin).
The salvation of Jonah reminds us that God’s means of saving us are not those we would have chosen. God does not save us according to our preferences, but according to His provision. The great fish would not have been Jonah’s choice of accommodations, but as unpleasant as the belly of the fish was, it did the job. Jonah would have much preferred a dramatic search effort, employing a Coast Guard cutter, helicopters, and skin divers. He would rather have been hoisted aboard a ship and given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by a beautiful female sailor. God did not flatter Jonah in the means by which He saved him because pride was one of this prophet’s principle problems.
So too, God’s means of saving men has never been flattering either. Spending 400 years as slaves in Egypt was not flattering to the Israelites, nor entering into the Red Sea or the river Jordan, nor slaughtering an innocent animal and pouring out its lifeblood on God’s altar, but these were the means which God provided. Looking up to a brazen serpent was not a flattering way to be healed from the bite of a serpent, but it was God’s way. Trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of a rejected king, the Lord Jesus Christ, is not man’s preferred means of finding the forgiveness of sins and of entering into eternal life, either. Nevertheless, this is the means which God has provided for man’s eternal salvation. This is the only means. If you have not experienced His salvation, you may have to be brought very low, as low as Jonah, so that any means of salvation is gladly received.
May God keep us from the superficial and synthetic spirituality of Jonah’s “psalm”, and bring us to the vibrant and genuine spirituality of the Book of Psalms.
No More “Mr. Nice Guy”
We once had a Siamese cat that didn’t have the sense to back away from danger. Our landlord kept a burro named HeHaw in a pasture next to our house. HeHaw was pregnant, which made her even more cantankerous than ever. One day when we went over to the fence to check on HeHaw, our cat followed. Worse yet, the cat began to stalk the burro. The burro looked threateningly at the cat, but neither Jeannette nor I had any intention of getting around the backside of that burrow to retrieve our cat, so we kept hoping that it would have enough sense to know better than to antagonize that beast. The inevitable happened, the cat transgressed the boundary established by the burro. With one swift kick, the cat was launched into an orbit that sent it flying, landing a fair distance away. He got up shaking his head, having learned that burros are not impressed with cats, no matter how determined and fearless they might be.
When I read the third and fourth chapters of the book of Jonah, I get that same feeling that I had when I observed our cat stalking HeHaw. Jonah, like our cat, was stubbornly attacking God in chapter 4. He will seriously overstep his boundaries. As we read the chapter we just know that Jonah is going to get a proverbial “kick in the head” from God. And we will not be able to work up much sympathy for him if and when this happens.
Strangely enough, Jonah is not kicked in the head, even though he deserves it. The book ends with a rebuke which lingers in mid-air, leaving the reader with a most uneasy feeling. The book does not leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling, like we might wish it did. The book did not begin with a “Once upon a time …” Neither does it end with a “happily ever after.”
Our uneasiness at the end of the book is by design. God does not want us to be comfortable, for repentance and change seldom result from our comfort. The question is, “What is it that we are to feel uncomfortable about?” The third and fourth chapters expose a very serious sin in Jonah, which is just as common today. Let us listen very carefully to Jonah’s protests and God’s probing as we conclude our study of the book of Jonah.
The structure of our text can be summarized as follows:
Jonah’s Preaching and Nineveh’s Repentance
God’s “Relenting” and Jonah’s Wrath
Jonah’s Prayer of Protest and God’s Response
From Ecstasy to Agony: The Plant, the Worm, and the Prophet
God’s Final Word
The stage for the events of these last two chapters of Jonah has already been set in the first two chapters of the book. In chapter 1 Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh, where he was to cry against this great city for its sins. Instead of traveling to the northeast, Jonah went down to the seaport of Joppa, where he boarded a ship headed to Tarshish, apparently on the coast of Spain. Jonah was headed in the opposite direction!
Jonah’s disobedience resulted in God bringing about an intense storm, which was breaking up the ship, and which had frightened the sailors to the point that they were fervently calling on their gods to save them. At the same time, they were casting all the cargo overboard. Finding Jonah sleeping soundly below deck, the captain of the ship commanded him to pray (which he apparently never did). At the seamen’s initiative, lots were cast to determine on whose account the ship was about to sink. After persistent and thorough interrogation, Jonah told them he was at fault and what they must do to save themselves and their ship—cast him overboard. Only after God thwarted their diligent efforts to get Jonah to shore did the sailors consent to do as Jonah had instructed them. They preceded this act with a prayer which expressed their concern for putting an innocent man to death. When Jonah was cast over the side, the sea calmed and the seamen worshipped the God of Israel with sacrifices and vows. If this first chapter revealed anything, it dramatically contrasted Jonah with the heathen sailors. He was disobedient to the command of God; they obeyed what God told them to do through Jonah. They prayed frequently and fervently; Jonah did not. They had great compassion on Jonah; he seemingly had none on them.
Chapter 2 records the “psalm” of Jonah. The poetic form and terminology of Jonah’s “psalm” is very similar to that of the psalms of the Old Testament. In theology and emphasis, however, Jonah’s psalm falls far short of the biblical pattern and ideal. Jonah’s “psalm” was self-centered, focusing more on the prophet’s dilemma, danger, and deliverance, than on the God who spared his life. Most distressingly, there was no repentance on Jonah’s part. In this “psalm” there is an evident disdain for the Gentiles and the telltale signs of self-righteousness in the “praise” of Jonah. Nevertheless, when Jonah gave the glory to God for his physical deliverance, God commanded the great fish to spit Jonah up on the beach.
In chapters 3 and 4, all appearances of piety vanish in the account of the prodigal prophet. This is the reason for my subtitle for this message: “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” In chapters 1 & 2, Jonah’s sin is apparent, but it is still somewhat subtle and passive. All of this changes in chapters 3 and 4, for Jonah’s preaching and the repentance of Nineveh causes Jonah to “blow his stack” and now his sinfulness is seen in its ugliest dimensions. In chapter 1, Jonah simply sought to withdraw from God’s service, but in chapter 4, Jonah attacks God, persisting that it is his right to be angry with Him. In chapter 2, Jonah prayed that God would save his life, but in chapter 4, Jonah prayed that God would take his life. Things go downhill very quickly in our passage.
It is at this critical point that our story begins. God’s first words to Jonah were virtually a repetition of the command given to him before the storm and his incarceration in the fish. We have an account of the preaching of Jonah in Nineveh, and the dramatic repentance of the entire city, along with God’s relenting of the evil He had foretold through the prodigal prophet.
In chapter 4 Jonah blurts out his reasons for rebelling against the command of the Lord to preach against the city of Nineveh. The events which take place in this chapter were intended to reveal the sin of Jonah. While the sins of the prodigal prophet become very apparent to the reader, they apparently do not have much of an impact on Jonah, and so the story ends in a kind of stalemate, with God’s final words of admonition suspended in mid air, and Jonah still angry with his God.
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. 4 Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8 But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9 Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?”
For the second time, the “word of the Lord” came to Jonah: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you” (vs. 2). It is not a new command that Jonah is given, but almost a repetition of the command given to him in chapter 1. This time Jonah obeyed, not joyfully or with a proper attitude, as we shall soon see, but at least Jonah went to Nineveh.
The population of the city of Nineveh, perhaps including its “suburbs,” was exceedingly large (cf. 1:2; 3:2; 4:11). We also know that the city was great in size. The city was described as being a “three days’ walk” (3:3). Secular history has a great deal more background information concerning this city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.
Jonah’s message was simple, to the point, and frightening: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4).18
Just like the seamen of chapter 1, the people of Nineveh took these words of imminent divine judgment seriously. We are told, “They believed in God” (3:5), which focuses on the faith of these Gentiles in the God of Israel, and not just their fear of judgment. It suggests to me that there was a real revival resulting from Jonah’s proclamation. This revival seems to have begun from “the bottom up,” rather than being imposed from “the top down.” The people, we are told, believed in God. They called a fast and put on sackcloth (3:5). The response was unanimous, from the lower to the upper classes.
By the time word reached the king, the city’s repentance was already well under way, but because the king also believed Jonah’s warning, he made every effort to assure total compliance to the city-wide repentance. He began by personally repenting (3:6). The king then made a proclamation which required all of Nineveh to fast, and to abstain from drinking water (3:7). Both men and animals were to be covered with sackcloth, and all the people were to call upon God and to abstain from their wicked ways and their violence (3:8).
It is particularly interesting to note that there was apparently no need for the people to be told what their wicked ways were. Of course, Jonah could have filled in the details for the people, but it seems as though no one needed any such clarification. The issue, then, was not one of having inadequate knowledge of what God considered sin, but lacking the desire to abstain from it. The issue was not that of information, but that of motivation. I have the distinct impression that if our nation received word of God’s impending judgment, we would have little difficulty determining what it is we are doing which is offensive to God, which is, in short, sin.
If the Ninevites had but 40 days left, why would they cease sinning? One would think that they might be inclined to act in accordance with the expression, “Eat, drink, and make merry, for tomorrow (or 40 days) we may die.” Nineveh’s motivation for putting off the wickedness of the city is described in verse 9: “Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?” (3:9).
Some people find it very troubling that God would “relent,” that is, change His mind, regarding the destruction of Nineveh. Let me simply point out that Jonah expected God to do so (4:2), and the Ninevites at least hoped He would do so (3:9). If God intended to destroy Nineveh, why would He announce to them that He was going to do so? The proclamation against Nineveh which God instructed Jonah to deliver was not simply a promise of things to come, but a warning. The Ninevites were absolutely correct in understanding Jonah’s words as they did, as the occasion for repentance. This is entirely in keeping with what God has said in the book of Jeremiah:
Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it, if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it, if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds”’” (Jeremiah 18:5-11, emphasis mine).
God’s promises of blessing are contingent upon man’s obedience, and God’s judgment may be averted by repentance. The Ninevites hoped for and Jonah expected God’s “relenting,” based on the principle expressed above.
10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” 4 And the LORD said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
5 Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. 6 So the LORD God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. 7 But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day, and it attacked the plant and it withered. 8 And it came about when the sun came up that God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.”
9 Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” 10 Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11 And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
God took note of Nineveh’s repentance, something which involved more than mere words or token gestures. Verse 10 does not tell us that God heeded the words of the Ninevites, or even that He regarded their sackcloth and ashes, but that He took note that their deeds had changed, that they had “turned from their wicked way.” Here is genuine repentance. No mere words of regret, no trite, “I’m sorry,” but a change of conduct signaling a genuine change of heart. Nineveh had truly repented of her evil ways, and God therefore relented of the calamity which He had threatened.
It is noteworthy that we are given no explanations for the quick, sincere, and virtually universal repentance of the Ninevites. It may have been that the sailors preceded Jonah, and gave a report of the miracle which had taken place. Jonah’s appearance, in and of itself, may have proven to be an awesome sign to the Ninevites. There may also have been other incidents which served to prepare the Ninevites for their repentance,19 but they are not so much as mentioned. Indeed, the absence of such reports serves to dramatize the conversion of this Assyrian capital city.
Our Lord’s reference to the repentance of the Ninevites is particularly informative, and confirms our observations:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation in the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:38-41).
The request of the scribes and Pharisees for yet another sign from our Lord, prompted Him to turn to the book of Jonah, where two lessons could be learned. In His first use of Jonah, Jesus promised one final sign that was similar to that of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, Jesus would be in the belly of the earth for the same period of time. Jesus’ resurrection would be a “sign” to Israel, just as Jonah’s “coming forth from the fish” was a sign (perhaps to Israel). This one final sign, the “sign of the prophet Jonah,” Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, would be irrefutable proof that He was Israel’s Messiah.
There was yet another lesson which the book of Jonah had for the Israelites of Jesus’ day. The Ninevites immediately repented at the preaching of Jonah, even though there was far less evidence than that which the Israelites of Jesus’ day had witnessed. And, compared with Jesus, Jonah was not nearly as important, or, I think, as persuasive or powerful in his preaching. If the Ninevites could repent with so little evidence, then surely the problem with the Jewish leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, was not a lack of evidence. The problem was not one of evidence at all, a problem which would be solved by some compelling sign. The problem of the scribes and Pharisees was the same as Jonah’s, and thus no evidence could change their willful rejection.
I am inclined, on the basis of the teaching of Jonah and that of our Lord, to see the “sign of the prophet Jonah” as two-fold. It is the “sign” of Jonah’s three day entombment in the great fish, from which he is released, alive. It is also the “sign” of Jonah, whose hardness of heart kept him from grasping what God was trying to teach him, regardless of how clear and forceful that message was, while at the same time this message is perceived and acted upon by the less well-informed Gentiles.
Jesus’ use of the account of the repentance of the Ninevites in Matthew chapter 12 accepts and affirms the impression which we gain from taking the narrative at face value. He confirms the fact that the Ninevites believed in God in spite of little evidence. Hearts that were open to the word and the will of God were quick to recognize it and respond to it. Hearts that were not so inclined—as was the case with Jonah’s heart—would not get the message, regardless of how clear it was.
Had Jonah been any other prophet in the history of Israel, he would have been overjoyed with the results of his ministry, the repentance of the great city of Nineveh. Throughout Israel’s history, her prophets had failed to turn the nation to God, and were rejected and even killed by the people. As Stephen put the matter, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:52a).
In spite of joy at the repentance and salvation of so many, something for which his colleagues would have been overjoyed, Jonah was angry with God: “But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1). Why would Jonah have been so angry with God? Jonah is not hesitant to explain, and so he prays this prayer of protest:
“Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life” (Jon. 4:2-3).
Jonah’s anger is incredible. Let us take note of what his anger was all about.
(1) Jonah was angry with God. In the final analysis Jonah was not angry with himself, or with men, but with the holy, righteous, perfect God. Jonah’s anger was so intense that he would rather die than live. Having prayed in chapter two that he might live, Jonah prays now that he might die (4:3).
(2) Jonah was angry with God because He acted consistently with His character, and for doing exactly what Jonah expected Him to do.
(3) Jonah was angry with God, protesting those very attributes of God for which the psalmists praised Him. The psalmists of the book of Psalms praise Him for His lovingkindness, His grace, and His mercy (cf. Ps. 86:5, 15), but for Jonah this is grounds for protest rather than praise.
(4) Jonah was angry with God because He showed grace toward the Ninevites. God’s question to Jonah should have served to instruct this prodigal prophet. It should have called Jonah’s attention to the utter sinfulness of being angry with God in the first place. Who can sustain a holy anger against a holy and perfect God? Furthermore, the gentleness of God’s rebuke should have reminded Jonah that He was not only gracious to the Ninevites, but also to Jonah. Indeed, more so, for while the Ninevites had repented, Jonah had not. Jonah persisted in his rebellion.
Because of Jonah’s persistence in maintaining his anger toward God, God presses on with yet another experience for Jonah which will serve to expose the root problem of the prodigal prophet. This is accomplished by means of the giving and the taking away of a plant, which gave Jonah pleasure.
It would seem that the forty days have passed, yet the judgment of God does not fall upon the city of Nineveh. This is no surprise to the reader, but it was a great disappointment to Jonah. Jonah went outside the city, where he made himself a mini-grandstand, a shady booth from which he could enjoy the spectacle of the destruction of Nineveh, perhaps in a hail of fire and brimstone like that which overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. Here was Jonah, a spectator waiting for disaster to strike, so that he could watch, like the Romans who later would gather at the coliseum to watch the Christians eaten by the lions.
God caused a plant to grow, the shade of which gave Jonah great comfort (4:6). For the first time, Jonah is described as being happy, extremely happy in fact, over the presence of this plant. His happiness was short-lived, however, for on the following day a divinely appointed worm came to do its work, which resulted in the destruction of the plant. When you stop to think about it, Jonah should have found it easier to identify with the worm than with the plant. He, like the worm, seemed to find greater fulfillment in the destruction of God’s creations than in bringing pleasure, as the plant brought shade and enjoyment to Jonah.
Along with the worm, which brought the demise of the plant, God sent a scorching wind, which caused Jonah great discomfort. While Jonah wanted the Ninevites to be “torched,” he himself was “scorched” by the heat of the wind (4:8). Jonah did not need to be here, and thus did not need to suffer, but he was determined to stay put. He once again begged God to die.
Jonah is angry with God again, now in regard to the plant and the worm. For the second time, God challenged Jonah to consider his anger: “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” (4:9). In no uncertain terms, Jonah reiterated his right to be angry with his God: “I have good reason to be angry, even to death” (4:9).
God has the final word in the book of Jonah. His last words press to the heart of the matter:
“You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (4:10-11).
By means of the provision of the plant there is at last some common ground between Jonah and God. Jonah had compassion on the plant; God had compassion on the people. Jonah’s “compassion,” like his “psalm,” are inferior. God now presses His point, to show the self-centered nature of Jonah’s “compassion,” especially when contrasted with His compassion of the people of Nineveh. Consider the following points of contrast between the “compassion” of Jonah for the plant and the compassion of God for people.
(1) Jonah had compassion on a plant; God had compassion on people. Jonah was willing for the entire city to perish in great pain, even though there would be many innocent victims, including 120,000 people and many cattle. Cattle and people suffer pain. There is no evidence that plants do. Jonah had compassion on the plant, but not on people or their cattle.
(2) Jonah had compassion on a plant, in which he had no investment; God had compassion in people, whom He had created, and for whom He had prepared and promised blessing. Jonah had no real relationship with the plant. He had not made it, nor had he contributed to its growth. God created man, and He is the Creator of every creature. God cared for that which He had made, so much so that He purposed to bless men through the offspring of Abraham, so much so that He would send His Son to die for men. Jonah cared for something that cost him nothing.
(3) Jonah had compassion with respect to the demise of a plant; God had compassion with respect to the eternal damnation of people. Jonah had compassion for a plant which existed for a day. Granted, the plant might have lived for a year, perhaps longer. But the judgment of men is for eternity. The “passing” of a plant has no real significance; the death of the people of Nineveh was the outpouring of divine wrath. The eternal judgment and damnation of people is vastly more important than the withering of a plant.
(4) God had compassion on the innocent; Jonah did not. He would have enjoyed watching the destruction of the innocent, along with the guilty. (Remember, it would be the descendants of this generation of Ninevites which would take Israel captive.) It was one thing to want the wicked to suffer for their sins, but totally another to want the innocent to suffer along with the wicked.
(5) Jonah had compassion on himself; God had compassion for others. Jonah’s “compassion” is not really centered on the plant, but rather on what that plant did for him . The plant made him very happy. Had the plant not pleased Jonah, he would have had no compassion toward it at all. Jonah’s compassion was really self-centered. He cared for himself, but not for others. On the other hand, God cared for people, people who had greatly sinned and who had offended Him.
For a long time, I thought that Jonah’s root problem was selfishness, that he wanted God’s grace for himself and for his people Israel, but not for anyone else, especially the Ninevites. It is my strong conviction now, however, that Jonah’s selfishness was only symptomatic. Jonah’s major grievance with God was His grace. The very nature of grace made it repulsive to Jonah. Let us pause to consider the characteristics of the grace of God which made it offensive to the prodigal prophet.
(1) The Nature and the Origin of Grace. The nature or the essence of grace is unmerited favor—a blessing which is not deserved. The origin or source of the grace Jonah disdained is God. Jonah did not like grace because it was not something which one could earn. One could never feel any sense of accomplishment or ownership, because it is given without cause. To put the matter in plain words, Jonah did not like grace because it was charity.
(2) The Recipients of Grace. The recipients of grace, those to whom grace is bestowed, are those who are undeserving and unworthy. Jonah did not wish to view himself as unworthy. Essentially, Jonah suffered from a large dose of racial pride. He felt that as an Israelite, God was somehow obliged to bless him and his people. The Ninevites, Jonah would gladly concede, were unworthy, which is exactly why Jonah protested against God’s grace shown to them.
(3) The Distribution of Grace. Grace, because it is unmerited, and is bestowed upon those who are unworthy, has no one who can claim it. That is, no one can legitimately feel that he or she has a claim on God’s grace, that there is something they have done or can do which obligates Him to respond with some gift of grace. Since grace is not given out on the basis of merit, it is sovereignly distributed, “just as He wills.” As God put it, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exod. 33:19).
(4) The Goal of Grace. The goal of grace, the purpose for which it is given, is holiness, not happiness. The plant which God gave to Jonah made him “extremely happy,” we are told (4:6), but it did nothing to make him holy. Thus, God took the plant away. Grace is not given to make us happy, to make us feel good, to give us pleasure, but to bring us into fellowship with Himself.
(5) The Means of Grace. If the goal of grace is to make us holy, then the means of grace include not only those things which are pleasant and comfortable, but also those painful experiences which cause us to turn from our sin and to trust in Him. If we are honest with ourselves and with God, and if we read our Bibles carefully, we must acknowledge that most of us grow spiritually more in painful experiences than in pleasurable ones.
Think about Jonah, for example. God did answer Jonah’s prayer that He would save him from drowning, but not with the most plush and pleasurable means possible. God saved Jonah by means of a great fish, and Jonah got to soak for three days in the stomach juices of that creature. Being vomited onto dry land was not exactly flattering to Jonah’s ego, either, but it was what was best for him. So, too, the shade of the plant was not furthering Jonah’s walk with God, and thus the destruction of the plant and the sweltering sun was given to him instead. God is not committed to our pleasure, but to our piety. Thus, He often uses painful means to bring us to holiness. These painful experiences, just as much as the pleasurable ones, are a gift of God’s grace. Grace is often experienced in the midst of the most unpleasant of experiences.
This explains all that God has done, as well as why Jonah disliked it. God could bestow the grace of salvation on the unworthy Ninevites because grace cannot be merited. Likewise, because grace is sovereignly bestowed, God can provide a plant for Jonah, and then take it away.
Because of these two characteristics of grace, Jonah wanted no part of it, and no part of life. GRACE, TO JONAH, WAS OFFENSIVE AND UNWANTED. It is easy to see why Jonah would resent the fact that God would be gracious to the Ninevites, but how can it be said that Jonah disdained grace, even when shown to him? BECAUSE GRACE IS REQUIRED ONLY BY THE UNDERSERVING, AND JONAH WAS UNWILLING TO ADMIT THAT HE WAS UNDESERVING OF GOD’S BLESSINGS.
How can a prophet protest the gift of forgiveness to the Ninevites? Only by believing that God’s blessing must be merited. How can the prophet protest when God takes away the gracious provision of the plant? Only by supposing that he deserved the plant, by thinking that God owed him the comfort of the plant.
Here, then, is the key to the entire book of Jonah, and to the sin of the nation Israel, which caused God’s people to assume that God owed them blessing and their enemies judgment. Jonah had rejected the principle of grace, exchanging it for a doctrine of works. THE ROOT PROBLEM OF THE PRODIGAL PROPHET WAS SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS. The only person who despises grace is the one who thinks that he is righteous. To the self-righteous, grace is charity, which is demeaning to the recipient.
What Jonah had forgotten was that God’s choice of Israel and His blessing of Israel was due solely to His grace, and not to Israel’s righteousness.
6 “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; 10 but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face” (Deut 7:6-10, emphasis mine).
Take careful note of the term “lovingkindness” which is found in verse 9 above, for this is the basis for God’s kindness to Israel, just as it was the basis for God’s kindness to the Ninevites (Jon. 4:2).
God warned the Israelites that when they entered the land of Canaan and began to experience His material blessings, the blessings of His grace, that they would be tempted to take credit for their prosperity:
11 “Beware lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; 12 lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, 13 and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, 14 then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … 17 Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ 18 But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, 17-18, emphasis mine).
If this were not ample enough warning, God further warns Israel about taking any credit for their success or for their blessings, which He has given as a gift of His grace:
“Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people” (Deut. 9:4-6, emphasis mine).
Jonah, and his people, the Israelites, had forgotten that God’s blessings were the product of God’s grace, not the result of Israel’s righteousness or superiority over the Gentiles. They had also forgotten that God had promised to bless all nations through Israel: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b).
Jonah’s prophecy to the nation Israel, as recorded in 2 Kings, was the promise of prosperity, in spite of the nation’s sins. God promised to prosper Israel, not because of its piety, but in spite of its sin. Look with me once again at this prophecy.
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and reigned forty-one years. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin. He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, which was very bitter; for there was neither bond nor free, nor was there any helper for Israel. And the LORD did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash (2 Kings 14:23-27, emphasis mine).
Israel’s king was evil, as were the people. The prosperity which Jonah promised was not due to Israel’s spirituality, but in spite of her sin. The blessings he promised were thus the blessings of divine grace.
Jonah was also the recipient of the grace of God, and yet it is for being gracious that Jonah protests against Him, even to the point of preferring death to life. Jonah’s deliverance by means of the great fish, and his exodus from the fish were all provisions of divine grace. So, too, was the gift of the plant, which afforded him shade and comfort. Perhaps the greatest evidence of the grace of God to Jonah, however, is the way in which God responds to his rebellion and his protests. How easy it would be for us to have read that God burned Jonah to a crisp with a sudden blast of lightening!
Jonah typified Israel in that he no longer viewed God’s blessings as a manifestation of God’s grace to an undeserving people, but rather as the blessings which He was obligated to give a righteous people. No wonder Jonah despised the grace of God. He knew that only the undeserving received grace, and he and his people were not in need of divine handouts. The pride and the self-righteousness of Jonah and of his people are now glaringly apparent. The reason for the sacking of Israel by the Assyrians is now obvious.
The book of Jonah does not end nicely and neatly, with a “happily ever after” feeling. Far from it. We are left somewhat suspended by the final words of God to Jonah, words of rebuke. We are never told that Jonah repented. The reason is simple, I believe. It is because there was no final solution to the sin of self-righteousness and to the waywardness of the nation Israel apart from the new covenant and the coming of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. The conclusion of the book of Jonah is fitting, for it portrays the stalemate between Israel and her God which persisted till the time of Christ and indeed to the present moment. The last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, is a record of Israel’s belligerent argumentation with God, who is accusing the nation of sin:
The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have You loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob” (Mal. 1:1-2, emphasis mine).
In the final analysis, this hardness of heart will persist until the Great Tribulation and the return of Messiah breaks the stubborn pride and will of His chosen people, who will be finally saved, not because of their righteousness, but by His grace.
Not only did Jonah typify the spiritual state of Israel in his own day, he also prototyped the self-righteousness of many Israelites, especially the religious leaders, at the time of the first coming of Christ. When our Lord was born, it was not to the religious elite that His birth was made known, but to the humble and the meek (cf. Luke 2). This was indicated in the magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). The coming of the Christ was for the Gentiles (Luke 2:31-32), as well as for the Jews, and so the magi were informed of His birth and came to worship Him (Matt. 2:1ff.). Our Lord’s introduction of His ministry in Luke chapter 4 (esp. vv. 16-21) indicated this same emphasis on Christ’s coming to the poor and the oppressed. The Sermon on the Mount gives similar testimony to the recipients of God’s grace.
When Jesus commenced His ministry, much of His time and energy was devoted to “sinners,” which brought an immediate reaction from the religious elite of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees:
And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Mark 2:16).
Why would the scribes and Pharisees be offended by the fact that Jesus spent more time with “sinners” than with them? For the same reason that Jonah was angry with God. The religious leaders felt that they were worthy of Jesus’ time and presence, and that the “sinners” deserved nothing but the wrath of God (cp. John 8:2-11). They despised the Gentiles and even the masses of Israelites (cf. John 7:49).
Why did the scribes and Pharisees react so vehemently to the teaching of Jesus? Because He exposed them as sinners, and they were not willing to admit this. They were self-righteous. Thus, they rejected God’s Messiah and instigated His death on that Roman cross.
Even the disciples of our Lord seemed, like Jonah, to be eager to have the “heathen” perish at the hand of God:
52 … And they went, and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make arrangements for Him. 53 And they did not receive Him, because He was journeying with His face toward Jerusalem. 54 And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:52b-54).
Later, after our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, it was the Jews who opposed the proclamation of the gospel (cf. Acts 22:19-23). Even Christian Jews drug their feet in the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 10-11, esp. 11:19). Because some Jewish Christians felt superior to Gentile believers, they either segregated themselves or they sought to force the Gentiles to conform to their Jewish practices (e.g. Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:11ff.). Truly Jonah’s self-righteousness typified a tendency among Israelites which has continued on throughout the centuries.
The book of Jonah has much to say to 20th century Christians, as well as to Israelites of all ages. Let me conclude by pointing out a number of points of application to our lives today.
(1) God’s dealings with men have always been on the basis of His grace, and not on the basis of man’s works. Dispensationalists (among whom I would include myself) must be very careful to avoid giving the impression that God deals with men today by means of grace, and dealt with people in the Old Testament by some other means. The distinction of this “age” as “the age of grace” tends to imply that God dealt with men according to some other principle in the Old Testament. Jonah was wrong because he forgot or had forsaken the principle of grace. God has always dealt with men according to the principle of grace. The New Testament and the new covenant simply enable God to bestow His grace more freely and fully. Let us never view God’s past dealings with men as anything less than gracious.
(2) Resisting and rejecting the grace of God are just as great and just as common a sin today as they were in Jonah’s time. Christians become angry with God today, and for the same wrong reasons as Jonah. We are just not as open and honest as Jonah to admit it. When do Christians get angry with God?
I believe that self-righteousness had deeply penetrated the Christian community in America. Americans are very inclined to take credit for our prosperity. We believe that we have been “blessed” due to our intelligence, our ingenuity, our hard work, and our devotion to God. Conversely, we excuse ourselves from sharing our wealth and prosperity with others by convincing ourselves that other nations suffer poverty because they lack the righteousness which we have. Thus, while the nation India lavishes in poverty and starvation, we assure ourselves that their poverty is the result of their worship of cows. Simple, isn’t it? But in the final analysis, it is self-righteous.
Some Christians today view divine healing as a result of one’s righteousness than as a gift of God’s grace. I do not wish to argue whether there is a gift of healing today; I am willing to grant that God does heal. What I wish to vehemently reject is the contention that God must heal, if we but have the faith to claim it. Is divine healing a gift of God’s grace? If it is, then it is undeserved, not earned, even by “having faith.” Is healing a gift of grace? Then God is free to give it to whomever He chooses, to a believer or an unbeliever, and He is also free to withhold it from one who asks for it, or claims it in faith. We don’t demand grace, nor do we dare to protest when we don’t receive what makes us happy (remember Jonah’s plant).
Let us remember, too, that God’s grace does not always come in the form which we might choose or prefer. God was gracious to Jonah, saving him by means of the great fish. Had Jonah been able to choose which form the grace of God would have taken, it wouldn’t have been in the form of a fish’s stomach. God is gracious to His children by chastising them, by bringing pain and adversity into their lives, just as He was going to do in the history of Israel. Adversity is just as much a gift of grace as is affluence. Remember the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount!
Job understood that God was both good and gracious, whether He gave prosperity or took it away, whether He gave pleasure or pain. Thus, when he received word of the loss of his family he responded, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
Failure, suffering, and adversity are often the result of God’s grace, for when these things come into the life of the Christian they are for the purpose of displaying the grace of God, to us, to others, and even to the heavenly host.
The principle of grace, by which we are saved, is the governing principle of God’s dealing in all of our lives, whether He shows Himself to be gracious in bestowing wealth or health, or whether He shows Himself to be gracious in our hour of trial, by sustaining us and drawing us to a deeper trust and intimacy with Him.
The principle of grace is also to govern our relationship with others. Just as God is gracious to us, so we must be gracious to others, especially to the undeserving: the cruel and those who are our enemies, who would persecute and despitefully use us. Only by showing grace to others do we reflect God’s grace to us.
(3) The book of Jonah has much to teach us about evangelism and revival, which we desperately need in America. I believe that the book of Jonah informs that the following elements are required for revival. These are not the only elements necessary for revival, but they are essential:
Revival requires those who will go and who will warn the lost of the impending wrath of God on sinners. A deep conviction of sin and the motivation to be saved is rooted in the proclamation of the fact that men are sinners, destined to face the wrath of God.
Revival requires genuine repentance. There was revival in the city of Nineveh because men turned from their wicked ways. They not only confessed their sin, they turned from it. Revival requires repentance, and repentance requires change.
Furthermore, the book of Jonah confronts us with what is perhaps the foremost enemy of evangelism and revival—a smug self-righteousness which detests the grace of God, and which expects and demands God’s blessings for us, but not for others. It was Israel’s self-righteousness, pride, and selfishness which kept God’s people from sharing the blessings of God with the Gentiles. Likewise, I believe that it is our self-righteousness, pride, and selfishness which hinders us from telling the lost of the salvation which God offers all who repent and who believe on His Son for salvation.
Imagine, for example, that God called you to devote your life to finding a cure for AIDS, or to give your life in ministry to the victims of AIDS. “But they deserve to die,” you protest. The fact is that many suffer from AIDS apart from any willful act of sin on their part—an immoral spouse, a contaminated blood transfusion, an infant whose parent was infected.
Many of us are just like Jonah. We are eager to condemn those suffering from AIDS as a whole, even though there are many innocent victims among them. Jonah was willing, indeed eager, to see the entire city of Nineveh perish, even though there were 120,000 innocent children among them, and animals as well. Jonah was not just seeking divine judgment for guilty sinners; he was condemning the innocent along with the wicked. (To Jonah, their ‘real sin’ was that of being Gentiles. And by this standard, all Ninevites should perish, according to the prodigal prophet.) The fact is that the wicked repented of their sin when the prophet proclaimed God’s Word to that city. God was not only eager to save the innocent, but to save the guilty as well. Not so with Jonah.
All sinners deserve to die (the wages of sin is death), which includes every one of us. Isn’t it amazing that the sin of sexual immorality is (or at least was) readily condemned by Christians, but pride and self-righteousness are often tolerated, and sometimes even praised (a ‘good self-image’). We must remember that our Lord came to seek and to save the lost—those whom the self-righteous religious leaders disdained and avoided. Apart from his saving grace, we are all sinners, who deserve God’s wrath and should be cast out of the presence of a holy and righteous God. Surely those who have become the recipients of God’s grace should be the first to seek to show and to share that grace to others.
(4) God’s grace has come to men in Jesus Christ. The grace of God has been revealed to men in the person of Jesus Christ, who promises all who will believe the gracious gift of eternal life. All you need to do is to acknowledge that you need it, that you are a sinner who can never merit God’s blessings, and to receive God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ. It is by faith in Jesus Christ that our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous in God’s sight. It is by faith in Christ that we receive the gracious gift of eternal life.
There is no word that better sums up the goodness of God to men than the word “grace.” Jesus Christ is God’s grace personified, sent to men (cf. John 1:14, 17; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2:1; Titus 2:11). Salvation is God’s grace to sinful men, the forgiveness of sins and the provision of eternal life (cf. Acts 14:13; 20:24, 32; Romans 1:5; 3:24; Ephesians 2:8; Colossians 1:6; Titus 3:7; 1 Peter 5:12). We grow in and by means of God’s grace (2 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 13:9). We are eternally secure in the grace of God (Romans 5:12). When we pray we approach the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). When we serve, we serve by grace (Eph. 4:7ff.; 1 Peter 4:10), and we live by the standards of grace (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:6).
May the grace of God be precious to you, the basis for your praise of God, not your protest, as it was with Jonah.
18 The word “overthrown” had strong connotations for Jonah. This term was used in connection with the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:21, 25, 29). It was also used in the poetic description of the overthrow of the Egyptians at the exodus (Ex. 15:7). It was also used in Deuteronomy 29:23 in connection with God’s warning of judgment on His people Israel, if they disregard His law. Cf. also 2 Sam. 10:3; 1 Chron. 19:3.
19 “Before Jonah arrived at this seemingly inpregnable fortress-city, two plagues had erupted there (in 765 and 759 B.C.) and a total eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763. These were considered signs of divine anger and may help explain why the Ninevites responded so readily to Jonah’s message, around 759.” John Hannah, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), Vol. 1, Old Testament, p. 1462.