June 17, 2010 David Balzer

Jonah 1: The One That Didn’t Get Away

jonah2Jonah and the big fish. It has to be one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. Up there with Adam and Eve, Moses and the Red Sea, and Daniel and the lions. It’s a kids picture Bible favourite.

That bit about the big fish swallowing Jonah, then vomiting him up on the beach. It’s fantastic! Makes for great illustrations!

But the story of Jonah and the big fish isn’t really about Jonah. And it’s not really about the fish either. It’s a story about GOD.

A story about God’s justice and mercy. About God’s heart for the lost, and his willingness to forgive.

Jonah is there BY WAY OF COMPARISON to God. He’s the JUDGMENTAL one called to deliver God’s message of MERCY. The UNFORGIVING one called to deliver God’s message of FORGIVENESS. He’s the RACIST called to deliver God’s message of LOVE.

Jonah might have his name in the TITLE. But he’s hardly the STAR of the SHOW. It’s a story that MAKES FUN of Jonah. We’re MEANT to look at Jonah, and LAUGH. To recognize how RIDICULOUS it is for Jonah to run away from God. How HYPOCRITICAL it is for him to plead for our OWN life, but not be willing to plead for the lives of the LOST. And how BLIND and OUT OF STEP with God he is when he’s ANGRY that God shows MERCY.

He’s a prophet alright, but he’s not a very good one. And just about everyone else in the story comes off smelling sweeter than Jonah!

You see, Jonah’s NOT the book you study for tips on how to do effective evangelism. Or ministry in urban areas. Or cross-cultural mission. It’s really the opposite. How NOT to do these things.

Let’s study Jonah – by all means. But let’s learn from him what NOT to do! Because it’s really about a GOOD MISSIONARY GOD, rather than a good MISSIONARY.

We don’t know a lot about Jonah. In fact, there’s only one other reference in the Old Testament to him. And it’s in 2 Ki 14:25. And all it tells us is that Jonah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel, during the time of King Jeroboam the second.

We also learn he came from a little town in the north west of Israel, up near the Sea of Galilee, called Gath Hepher. In fact, it’s only 5 km from the town of Nazareth, where ANOTHER prophet would grow up about 800 years later.

And that’s where Jonah was doing his prophesying. In a tiny country town, a long way from the city. Telling God’s word to the people of Israel.

And it was a time when people NEEDED some encouragement. Around 800 to 750 BC. Because things weren’t going too well for the nation. The king was evil. There was a bitter civil war with Judah, and Israel seemed to be on the losing end.


And to make matters worse, a dark, ugly, shadow was looming on the northern border. The nation of Assyria was threatening.

Assyria were vicious, and greedy. And they’d severely punish any surrounding nations who wouldn’t pay their tribute money. Nations like Israel.

Assyria had the reputation for being ruthless in battle. Historians tell us that when they took over a town in battle, they would take any survivors and impale them on stakes in front of the town. Or cut off their heads and wear them around their necks.

And the CENTRE of the whole show was Assyria’s capital. Can you guess what its name was? Nineveh!

Listen to what the prophet Nahum has to say about Nineveh.

(Nahum 3:1-4 NIV) Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! {2} The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! {3} Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses– {4} all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.

Just the sort of city you’d like to visit for a spot of sight-seeing. A cross between Baghdad, Bangkok, and Kings Cross. Except 100 times worse.

And so it’s perhaps not surprising what we read in the first couple of verses of Jonah.

(Jonah 1: 1-2 NIV) The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: {2} “Go to the great city of NINEVEH and preach against it, because its WICKEDNESS has come up before me.

God SEES the great wickedness of Nineveh, just like he sees EVERYTHING. And he’s had enough. And he decides to do something about it. His patience has run out. They need to know what God thinks about their sin. So he’s going to send them a message.

What was God thinking?

Which is where Jonah comes in. Jonah THE ISRAELITE. From the nation next in line to be conquered by Assyria. The nation who HATES them.

And he chooses Jonah the COUNTRY-BOY. Sent to the big smoke. A city of 120,000 people Chapter 4 tells us. Probably more people than Jonah’s ever seen IN HIS LIFE.

Most country people HATE the city. And Jonah was probably no different. Sent to a PEOPLE he can’t stand. In a PLACE he can’t stand.

“What was God THINKING?”

(pause) Do you ever wonder whether God’s made a mistake? You look at who you are. And you look at the job he’s offering you, and you just shake your head!

I can’t POSSIBLY… teach that Scripture class. Or lead that Bible study group. Or Youth Group. Or witness to that person at work or school. Or go to Bible College and train for full-time service. Or go door-knocking. Or stand up for Jesus in front of my friends.

It must be a mistake. God must have chosen the wrong person.

And yet that’s the way God so often works. Uses the people we’d least expect. To do the sort of work we’d least expect. To achieve his wonderful, UNEXPECTED ends.

Are YOU missing out on being part of God’s purposes because you think you’re not up to it? What might God want YOU to do? To step out in faith and TRUST him for?

What was JONAH thinking?

(pause) So that’s God’s command. “Go to Nineveh, and preach against it”. He literally tells Jonah to ARISE and go to Nineveh.

That’s what some other versions say. Perhaps he’s sitting down on the job. Sitting on his porch, just checking out the sunset.

And God tells him to ARISE. Well, what does Jonah do? He arises alright! Look at v3. He gets UP/ to go DOWN. I’m going to read from the New American Standard Version.

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.


God says get UP and go to Nineveh. But Jonah goes DOWN instead.

Have a look at the map (show o/h). God says “Go to Nineveh. And Jonah heads for Tarshish. God says go EAST. Jonah goes WEST. Completely in the other direction. You can hardly find two places further apart. A complete rejection of God’s plans. Absolute disobedience.

Now, we don’t know WHY Jonah disobeys. At this stage, we can only guess. You have to wait to Chapter 4 to find out. But it’s fair to say he doesn’t like Assyrians. Perhaps he’s not keen on big cities. Perhaps he’s just lazy, and likes sitting on his front verandah. But for whatever reason, he heads in the other direction.

And WHY? V3 To FLEE from the Lord. To go somewhere God ISN’T.(pause) What was Jonah THINKING?

Because there’s NOWHERE that God isn’t. Nowhere his eye doesn’t SEE, his ear doesn’t HEAR, or his hand can’t REACH. Playing hide-and-seek with God is a game you’re NEVER going to win!

Which is something Jonah discovers pretty quickly. Look at v4.

(Jonah 1:4-5 NIV) Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. {5} All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.


God sends the wind, and blows up a great storm. Just as easily as you or I might make some waves in the bath to upset our rubber ducky .

And the sailors dial the wrong number. They pray to their gods. Each to his own idol. There they all are. Lined up on the deck. One idol after another. But none of them are able to do anything.

And then, in the end, along with the rest of the luggage, they get thrown overboard. Because they’re useless.

The storm rages on.

Eventually the sailors find Jonah, asleep below deck. He’s gone DOWN again. And once again, the call comes, “ARISE!” First from God, then from the sailors. Jonah seems to spend most of his time lounging around. Getting told to get up! A bit like some teenagers!

And the captain says, “Call on YOUR God. We’ve tried all OUR gods. Maybe YOURS will take notice, and we’ll be rescued.”

He asks him to CALL OUT to his God. Same thing God asks him to do back up in v2. To CALL OUT against Nineveh.

But Jonah’s not interested in calling out to ANYONE.

And so they cast lots to see who’s responsible. And since God’s in control of everything, he makes the lot fall on Jonah. It’s all HIS fault.

And then comes twenty questions. V8. Who are you? What do you do? Where are you from? What is your country? And what nationality?

Words and actions

And then Jonah answers. God’s commanded him to PROCLAIM. But these are his first words. They’ve been a long time coming, and they’re hardly worth the wait! V9

(Jonah 1:9 N1V) He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.

You could have fooled me!

His WORDS say he worships the LORD, but his ACTIONS say something different. He’s “worshipping”, if by “worshipping” you mean he’s running away from God in the opposite direction. Ignoring him, and doing anything BUT obeying him.

And that’s, sometimes, what WE do, isn’t it? Our WORDS say we’re Christians, but our ACTIONS say SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

That’s what it was like with ME when I was at High School until I was about fifteen. Trying to be ONE thing on a Sunday, (Mr Super-Christian) but being something different for the rest of the week – trying to fit in with my mates. Swearing, telling dirty jokes. No different from them at all.

Saying ONE thing. But LIVING another. I was talking the talk, But not walking the walk.

Maybe it’s time for YOU to get serious about your ACTIONS measuring up to your WORDS.

Has a non-Christian friend ever said something like, “What are you doing that for? I thought Christians are supposed to be DIFFERENT?” Family are often good at that! And it’s TRUE – we ARE supposed to be different.

And sometimes they’re RIGHT! What message are YOUR actions speaking?

(pause) But back to Jonah. Look at what Jonah CALLS God. Even in his disobedience. He gets God right. “The God of HEAVEN, who made the SEA and the land”.

He’s no tribal god. Some local, mini-god. Minister in charge of crops, or rains, or wine, or fertility. This is the ONE god. The Supreme God. The CREATOR God.

And while Jonah mightn’t realise the significance of what he’s saying, the SAILORS certainly do. Look at v10.

(Jonah 1:10 NIV) This TERRIFIED them and they asked, “What have you DONE?” (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.)

“You’re trying to run away from the God who MADE EVERYTHING. Where did you think you could GO?

And you’re running away on the OCEAN/ from the God who MADE the ocean! You idiot!”

Meanwhile the storm’s getting wilder. Jonah tells them the only way to stop the storm is to throw him overboard. I think he’s expecting to DIE.

He’d rather DIE than deliver God’s message to Nineveh. Apparently Jonah’s like 23% of people in a new survey who’s greatest fear is public speaking. They fear it more than dying! They’d rather DIE than speak in public! Perhaps that’s you! Seems like that was the case with Jonah, who’s given up.

But these are noble men. THEY’RE not giving up. They don’t want to see anyone perish. Morally, they put Jonah to shame. So they bend their backs even harder, and try to row out of trouble. But it doesn’t make any difference.

Finally, at their wit’s end, they pray. And this time, they dial the RIGHT number. They pray to the TRUE God. And that’s more than JONAH’S done. The word for “CRIED to the Lord” is “PROCLAIM”. CALLED OUT. Same as the captain wanted Jonah to do back in v6. But Jonah who SAYS he worships God hasn’t prayed to him ONCE, while the Gentile sinners DO. Look at v14.

(Jonah 1:14-15 NIV) Then they cried to THE LORD, O LORD (that’s Yahweh), please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased. ” {15} Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.


The God who’s MADE the sea/ finally gets his message through. And he gets Jonah.

And the very bad prophet Jonah/ has his first converts. Without a prayer being offered – at least not from Jonah.

Jonah – Disobedient, without compassion, prayerless. But he’s the means God uses for these Gentile sailors to come to fear God. Look at v16

(Jonah 1: 16 NIV) At this the men GREATLY FEARED the LORD, and they OFFERED A SACRIFICE to the LORD and MADE VOWS to him.


God even uses sinful Jonah to achieve his purposes. He’s such a skilful craftsman he can use even the dullest, bluntest, most bent tools to fashion something wonderful. In fact, he GLORIES in using such poor instruments. Because that way, he’s the one who gets all the acclaim.

(pause) But God’s not finished with Jonah yet. This was only the trial run. The destination is Nineveh. And he’s a long way from Nineveh. Bobbing up and down in the ocean.

But once again, it’s God who’s in control. Look at v17.

(Jonah 1:17 NIV) But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.


And Jonah’s on his way again. But that’s another story. And you’ll have to wait until next week.

If God can use JONAH…

(pause) So what’s the point of Ch 1? It’s this… If God can use JONAH, then God can use YOU!

Jonah’s meant to be an ENCOURAGEMENT to us. Not because he’s such a great example to follow. But because he’s the OPPOSITE. We’re meant to look at Jonah. And laugh.

He’s not interested in anyone but himself. He’s quite happy operating in his own, comfortable, controlled patch. He doesn’t particularly want to be stretched, or pushed, or challenged.

He’s not interested in obeying God, or being part of his plans. He thinks he can run away from God, and do his own thing.

And aren’t all of those things/ things that WE do sometimes?

How ENCOURAGING that God still used Jonah. Despite all his failings. God pursues him relentlessly, refusing to give in. Working storms, and dice, and giant fish so that Jonah can’t get away.

And that’s the wonderful God we serve. A God who’s interested in the fate of ALL human beings. And who works his plans so that PEOPLE EVERYWHERE might come to recognise his majesty, and might, and power and holiness.

And, just like the sailors on the boat, come to FEAR him, offer their lives to him, and vow to SERVE him.

(If you’re not a Christian, perhaps God is working circumstances in YOUR life so that YOU might learn to fear him. Working jobs and storms and difficulties and happy coincidences and meeting new people and losing things and finding things. He can use ALL sorts of things to drive you to himself.

God loves you SO MUCH, he’d do ANYTHING. In fact, he DID. Not sending Jonah from Galilee. But sending Jesus, his ONLY Son, to earth to die a criminal’s death. To win you back. That’s how much you mean to him. Despite your failings. Despite your running away from him and doing your own thing.

Will you accept his gift of forgiveness?

But if you ARE a Christian, just like Jonah, you have A PART in those plans. Introducing people to the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.

Jesus commands US to go and make disciples of ALL nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything he has commanded us. To get up. And to go OUT.

To move beyond our comfort zones, and outside of our areas of expertise. Even right here in Ashfield. In our streets. With our friends and neighbours.

Will we obey him, or will we run away?

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