A few weeks ago I finished preaching through the book of Jonah at our church. This was a book with which most Christians are familiar. Most likely, we know of this book because of the account of Jonah being swallowed by the big fish. We probably learned this in Sunday school when we were children and have taught this to our own children. It is truly an extraordinary account, as no other endured the discipline of the Lord as Jonah did. But as we worked through this astonishing book, I gained a whole new appreciation for its message.
The main theme of the book is that of mercy. God is showing mercy and compassion to Nineveh, and the Lord teaches Jonah about the extent of His unfathomable mercy. The Lord not only demonstrated mercy to Nineveh, the great enemy of Israel, but also to others, including Jonah himself. Have we truly considered the great mercy of God toward Jonah? The account that was presented to us in this book was greatly encouraging to our hearts as a church.
But I must confess that I had not truly considered the rebellion of Jonah in that first chapter until I recently preached through it. The book begins with the Lord commanding Jonah to go to Nineveh and cry out against it because of their wickedness. This is the capitol of the great empire of Assyria. This is the same empire that will attack the Northern Kingdom of Israel perhaps a generation later and deport them out of the land. It will be this same empire that will try to take the Southern Kingdom of Israel in the years to come. This is Israel’s enemy without question.
We know what Jonah did thereafter. He travels to Joppa (50miles or so), and boards a ship that was going to Tarshish instead. The text tells us that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Now, Jonah is not ignorant of the reality of God’s omniscience or power. Obviously, he cannot flee from the presence of the holy, infinite God. What does this mean then? As some commentators have pointed out, he was abandoning his calling as God’s prophet! He was basically saying, “If Nineveh is where I have to go, then you can take back your calling because I’m not going.” Think of this—he is a true prophet of the Lord. The Lord has truly spoken to this man, and instead of being humbled by this privilege, as we think we ourselves would have been if God spoke to us this way, he rebels against the Lord and refuses to go.
There could be a few reasons Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. Perhaps he didn’t like Gentiles (probably not the reason). Maybe he was afraid to go to the city because they were enemies and he might be killed. He could have refused based on what his own people would have said about him because he preached to their enemies.
The view that I hold is that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he knew that God would be merciful to them. God implies this in chapter four and verse two. Why else would the Lord send him? The Lord commanded Jonah to go to the city and cry out against it because, as the Lord said, “Their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2). Doesn’t the Lord pass over the wicked and leave them to their just punishment? Why then did the Lord send Jonah there if His intention was to judge them anyway? He could have left them to their sins. The Lord sending Jonah to Nineveh was, perhaps, to use Jonah as the instrument of His mercy that they would repent of their wickedness, and Jonah wanted no part of this.
Consider the rebellion and arrogance of Jonah who, again, is a true prophet of the Lord and one of God’s own people. The Lord says, “Go,” and Jonah refuses. Jonah has at least a “educated guess” as to why the Lord is sending him there, and Jonah thinks he knows better than the Lord that this people deserves condemnation. He is a rebellious prophet! He has deserted his calling and blatantly defied the Living God.
But notice, the Lord did not immediately “bring the hammer down” upon Jonah. The Lord did not lash out against the prophet in the moment of his rebellion. He did not outright kill Jonah for his defiance. Why? Because our Lord is slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. At times, we think very little of God’s gracious nature. We view Him as the One who is waiting for us to mess up and sin so He can bring judgment or discipline. What we find with Jonah is something different. We see through this entire book a gracious and merciful God who is longsuffering.
This should be encouraging to us knowing that our Lord, our Holy Father, is not in a state of continuous anger and waiting for an opportunity to discipline us. He is not like some earthly fathers who abuse their children or never show any mercy or pity. Will the Lord discipline His children? Absolutely, but even in His chastening, the end result is that His people bear the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Heb 12:11). We are privileged to see the demonstration of God’s great grace toward one who is in rebellion.
This is comforting because the reality of our condition is presented rightly in the words of the great hymn: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” As we come to realization of our rebellion and repent unto the Lord, we can also feel very sorrowful, believing that we have missed out on being used by the Lord or fulfilling something if only we had done right to begin with. We have all felt this way at some point, and have felt that sorrow. This is another reason the book of Jonah can fill us with peace in our hearts. Our God is greater than our sin and disobedience, and how much more we should praise His Name for that!
Furthermore, notice the Lord does not interfere with Jonah as he travels to Joppa from Gath-hepher, the place of his residence (2 Kings 14:25). Some estimate that this would have a been a fifty mile trip to Joppa. Why didn’t the Lord stop him along the way or discipline him as he began to travel in the opposite direction of where he was commanded? Instead, he was permitted to make the journey and board the ship without any hindrances. Why?
As Jonah is aboard the ship, Scripture states the Lord hurled a great wind against the ship, and so great was the wind that the ship as about to be broken (1:4). The sailors desperately tried to row toward land, but to no avail. The sea was relentless, and they were helpless to do anything. Each man cried out to his god, and when the captain went into the hold of ship to find Jonah, he was asleep! This only adds to the rebellious heart Jonah is demonstrating. He is not sorrowful of his defiance, but rather, he is peacefully asleep.
The men try to figure out on whose account this calamity is occurring, and the lot falls on Jonah. As he begins to tell them of who he is, the God he serves, and his rebellion, they became extremely frightened. Perhaps they knew of Yahweh because of their travels to Israel. Jonah commands the men to throw him into the sea and it would be calm. He explained to them, “For I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you” (1:12). The men pray to Yahweh and say, “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 You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased” (1:14). Did these pagan sailors begin to understand the power of the One True God? It seems to be that they were starting to understand.
Once they threw Jonah into the sea, the sea stopped its raging, just as Jonah had said. On account of this, we read that the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered sacrifices and vows unto the Lord (1:16). In agreement with James Montgomery Boice and others, I believe that this was a genuine conversion on the part of the sailors. They called upon the covenant name of God, made sacrifices, and they performed vows unto the Lord. Though not understanding the sacrifices as God commanded Israel, they still knew of something that needed to be offered for their sin. This is what Jonah said he would do, sacrifice and make vows (2:9). This is also in keeping with the theme of the book of the Lord showing grace and mercy to the gentiles. Though Jonah was in rebellion, God used his rebellion to accomplish what He intended, namely, the salvation of these pagan sailors.
This is why this book is comforting. We see Jonah’s disobedience and the Lord restoring him afterwards. We should be ever grateful that the Lord’s mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:22–23), and as John says, “We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:1). Our God is not only merciful and gracious to us in our times of sin and failure, but He is greater than all our seasons of sin, and he still brings about all that He intended to do in our lives. This is, of course, not a justification to sin. We are still morally responsible to the Lord for our sins. Yet the Lord is sovereign over everything, even our moral failures, He is hindered by nothing and no one, and He will bring about all He intends for our lives.
Be thankful friends, and praise Him for the riches of grace that are in Christ.