Chapter 1: Desertion and Pursuit
Everyone knows Christianity is a hard sell in France. Partly that’s because of ideas people have about religion in general—the idea of the existence of God is mostly laughed at in our culture, and believing in a book like the Bible, in which a lot of extraordinary things happen, seems ridiculous. But that’s not the only thing. Part of the problem comes from a deep-seated animosity toward authority. People are suspicious of authority and want to maintain their autonomy at all costs. And this is not just a French thing; it’s a human thing. All of us are wired like this, to the point where even when we are completely, 100% convinced that God does exist and that he has complete authority over our lives, we will very often find it difficult to submit to his authority.
This is the problem that kicks off the story of Jonah, the subject of our new series. Everyone knows at least one image from this story, which is why the background picture above me shows it: the image of a big fish swallowing Jonah. Even amongst Christians, this story is often told as a kind of cute fairy tale, sort of the way many people see Noah’s Ark—in children’s books you’ll see a happy whale floating, with a kind of X-ray view of the inside of the whale’s belly, and inside there’s a little man piously praying, or thanking God for protecting him.
But this is anything but a cute story; this is not a children’s tale. This story speaks of the darkness of the human heart, how even someone who knows the one true God and has devoted his life to serving him can still harden his heart against God’s grace to others. It’s a disturbing story…but as we’ll see, at the same time it’s also a hopeful story, because it shows that contrary to its protagonist, our God is a God of limitless compassion—not only for those who are members of God’s people (at the time, the Israelites), but also for those who have no claim to relationship with God (the pagan sailors and the Ninevites). In other words, this story is about how God has compassion not only on us, but on them as well. So let’s get right into it—before we look at the text itself, let’s set the stage for the book.
Intro) The Book of Jonah
This book is anonymous—meaning that we don’t really know who wrote it. However it is likely that either Jonah himself wrote the book, or that he related his experience to someone else after the fact. So I know what some of you may be thinking: “Wait a minute—you’re saying this isn’t just a fairy tale? That you think the things we read here actually happened?”
That’s exactly what I’m saying, and there are several reasons why. First of all, the book sets itself up that way. In verse 1, the author tells us, Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai… He doesn’t set Jonah up as a fictional character, but as a real person. And this is how other parts of the Bible speak about Jonah too. 2 Kings 14 mentions Jonah as having served under King Jeroboam II in Israel, in the 8th century B.C.: [Jeroboam] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher 2 Kings 14.25). So the author tells us that this story happened to that prophet, the one who served under Jeroboam II—he’s not a fictional character invented to prove a point, but a real person. As Mark D. Futato writes, “The book of Jonah has all the marks of a prophetic narrative, like those about Elijah and Elisha found in 1 Kings, which set out to report actual historical events.”
I’ll admit that that in itself isn’t enough to convince me; the fact that the person of Jonah was really doesn’t necessarily mean the story is. But there’s one thing we can’t get away from: Jesus himself believed the events in this story actually happened—and he is, after all, the omniscient, all-powerful Son of God. He treated this story as historical when he spoke judgment against his fellow Jews who were rejecting him, in Matthew 12.40-41: 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah…
Jesus Christ is saying that Jonah did in fact spend three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish; and that he did preach to the people of Nineveh, and they did repent. In other words, he treats the events in this book as actual, historical events. That doesn’t, however, mean that it is simple history—the goal of the book isn’t just to say, “This is what happened.” The book is very clearly didactic in nature—these particular historical events have been recounted to teach us key lessons. And the goal of these lessons is to get us, the readers, to think about certain things. It calls us to think theologically, first of all, about God’s sovereignty and his compassion; and it calls us to think practically about ourselves, to force us to examine our own hearts, to see whether or not we are moved with compassion (as God was), whether we react to God’s grace with repentance (as the sailors and the Ninevites do), or whether our hearts are hardened and stubborn (as Jonah’s was).
So that’s how we should go into reading this book: taking these events to be real events which actually took place, but which have been recounted to us in order to teach us very important things about God and about ourselves. So keeping that in mind, let’s dive in.
1) Jonah Flees from the Call of God (v. 1-6)
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” As we saw before, Jonah was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam II—prophets were highly esteemed in their area of influence. And here is God, calling this highly influential Israelite to go to the great city of an enemy nation, the city of Nineveh. This idea is terrifying to Jonah—not only would his going to Nineveh be potentially dangerous, but if the people of this enemy country were to repent, how would he be known from then on out? As the traitor prophet! The one who went out to an unclean people and gave them the benefits of knowing the one true God—the God only the Israelites were supposed to know! Nothing about this task was appealing.
So (v. 3), Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. Think about that sentence—what Jonah is trying to do doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Jonah is living in a period of time when God’s people were acutely aware of his presence everywhere, all the time. How could he possibly flee from God’s presence? Sinclair Ferguson writes that Jonah “was not fleeing from [God’s] omnipresence. He was fleeing from his ‘felt presence’ (as our forefathers in the Christian faith used to say)… In his panic he endeavoured to go as far away as he could from that spot on the map where God had written the name ‘Jonah’… Surely there [in Tarshish] he could push to the back of his mind the haunting pressures of that word from God which had spoken with such authority to his conscience: Go to Nineveh!”
In other words, he was doing what kids do when they're little. Have you ever played hide-and-seek with a toddler? They don’t actually hide; they just cover their eyes and think that because they can’t see you, you can’t see them either. It’s a fun game to play…but we do the exact same thing all the time. Have you ever noticed that when you have sinned or are under temptation to sin, the first thing we stop doing is praying and reading God’s Word? Hiding from God’s felt presence makes it easier from us to pretend that he’s not really there; that his imperatives on us aren’t actually on us.
So Jonah buys a spot on a boat leaving for Tarshish and goes in the opposite direction from where God told him to go. But of course, things don’t go as he had planned. V. 4: 4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
Jonah ran from God, and God wouldn’t have it; though Jonah sought to flee from him, God pursued him. He proves just how silly it is to try to run from him. It’s not just silly, but impossible. As David said in Psalm 139 (a psalm Jonah would have known well), 7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. This psalm meant to bring comfort to the child of God would have taunted Jonah, because he quickly sees that his attempts to run are no more successful than a toddler’s attempts to hide from an adult by covering his own eyes.
2) Jonah Despairs of His Usefulness (v. 7-16)
The mariners on board the ship are pagans; they don’t know the God of Israel, and they are completely unaware of Jonah’s attempt to flee from God. So in order to find out who had caused this storm to come on them, they cast lots to see who is responsible for the story. And as providence would have it, the lots land on Jonah. So they ask Jonah a series of questions about who he is (v. 8): Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And his answer is telling.
V. 9: And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Look closely at this: they ask him, What is your occupation? And he doesn’t give it. He does not call himself “a prophet of the Lord,” even though that is what he is, and even though it is an honorable title in his own land. He simply calls himself a Hebrew, and tells them who his God is. Now we might think he just kept quiet about his occupation because he was ashamed. But there’s more to it than that.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. And again, Jonah’s answer here is telling: 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea…” Verses 9 and 12 complement each other. He hides his occupation, but tells them in v. 10 that he has sinned and is fleeing the presence of God. Why is he ready to admit his sin, but doesn’t want to tell them he’s a prophet?
At least in part, he hides his occupation because has reached the point where he completely despairs of his usefulness. He’s thinking, “God’s done with me.” He can no longer say with any certainty that he is a servant of the Lord, because he hasn’t conducted himself as such. All of his assurance is gone. He looks at what God had called him to do; he looks at his own reaction to God’s call; he looks at the result, this huge storm that has engulfed the ship; and he assumes that his time is up: God can no longer have any possible use for him. He feels it so acutely that he is sure that if he is out of the picture, all the mariners’ problems will disappear.
So he says (v. 12 again), “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.
And what happens next is astonishing; Jonah got on this boat fleeing from the call of God to preach to a pagan nation. And despite his sin, these pagan sailors come to believe that Jonah’s God is the one true God, and they respond to him rightly, with fear and reverence to God that Jonah never exhibited. V. 16: Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
3) God Persists in Accomplishing His Plan (v. 17)
So let’s take a step back and think about this as a whole. God has a completely unexpected plan—remember v. 1: God says to Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” When he tells Jonah to “call out against” the city, what he means is to warn them. They have become so evil that they are headed for doom. So this is an act of mercy on the part of God to these people—were he absolutely bent on destroying them, he would not have sent a warning.
And Jonah, God’s chosen vehicle for this plan, runs away. But God pursues Jonah where he is, sends the storm, and eventually the sailors are forced to throw Jonah overboard to make it stop. Taken at face value, without the benefit of verse 16, we could imagine this as a divine punishment on Jonah. But look at the end result. The end result of this first episode is not simply Jonah’s being thrown overboard, given over to the mercy of the sea, but these mariners coming to faith in the one true God.
So there are two things we need to see here: first, God’s plan, and the means with which he carries it out, are wildly unexpected. God’s desire to warn the Ninevites of the imminent consequences of their sin is something no one could have predicted. It went against everything the Israelites believed about their privileged relationship with the one true God. And when Jonah appears to throw a wrench into God’s plan, God isn’t the least bit perturbed: he goes about his plan in yet another unexpected way—not only will he not allow Jonah to be diverted from his course (as we’ll see in the coming weeks), but he’ll cause these pagan mariners to have a right response to God’s power, a response that is quite different from that of his own prophet. Jonah says that he fears the Lord, but clearly he doesn’t, at least not completely: when God, the all-powerful Lord of the universe who has all authority over all creation, tells him to do something, he runs away from him. They fear the Lord exceedingly—that is, they see God for who he is and give him the honor that he deserves as God. No one could have seen this coming.
Secondly, when God decides to do something, he will do it. While everything that happens here seems to be designed to throw a wrench into God’s unexpected plan, God persists in accomplishing his plan. Imagine reading this story for the first time: how shocking would it be to hear what comes next? The storm comes, the mariners find out what had happened, and Jonah, now basically thinking that his ministry and life are over, says, “Throw me over the side, and the storm will stop.” So they finally do, and what happens? The storm stops, the men are convinced that Jonah’s God is truly God, and then, v. 17: 17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. WHAT?!
God will not be deterred. He has a plan, and he will accomplish his plan. He will exercise his total sovereignty over creation—over the winds and the sea; over the animals he created; over the hearts and minds of the people he created—to accomplish that plan, no matter how unexpected or incomprehensible we may find that plan to be.
As I said in the beginning, the book of Jonah is a beautiful example of didactic storytelling. We, the readers, are meant to read this story and identify with its characters, and ask ourselves questions about our own lives based on what happens to them. So what questions is God calling us to ask ourselves through this text, this morning?
Well firstly, here’s what we shouldn’t be asking ourselves. At the beginning of this book we see God calling Jonah to go somewhere specific and do something specific, so we naturally want to ask the question, What is he calling ME to do? Where is he calling Me to go? We are tempted to jump immediately to thinking about God’s plan for our own lives: “Do I take this job? or Does he want me to go do this work? or “Does he want me to marry this person?” But these are not the right questions. They are important questions, but we can’t start there; that’s putting the cart way before the horse. This text doesn’t give us answers to these big life-decision questions. The goal of this text is not to get us to think about God’s call, but rather about our response to that call.
The situation is very simple: God gives Jonah a clear command, and Jonah disobeys. We may not know what career he’s calling us to take, but there are a lot of commands God has given that we are fully aware of, and which are very clear. So the first question this text is calling us to ask ourselves is this: Am I obedient to what I KNOW he is calling me to do? Am I faithful in loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength? Am I obedient to his commands to flee sin and pursue righteousness? Do I respond in obedience when he calls me to love my neighbor as myself? Do I faithfully honor him in the use of my time, my resources, my gifts? When I hear him call me, along with all my brothers and sisters, to be an ambassador for Christ in this world, to let God make his appeal through me, do I take that call seriously?
Or rather, do I react like Jonah? Do I see my desire for comfort as more important that God’s desire to be glorified? Do I shirk at the thought of being put in uncomfortable circumstances? Do I refuse to obey certain commands because I don’t understand why he’s commanded them? Do I run from God’s presence when I’m tempted? Do I lay aside the reading of the Word, and prayer, and fellowship with other believers, because they all remind me too much of the responsibility on me to do things I don’t want to do? Am I obedient to those things I KNOW God is calling me to do? If we are, we’ll find that those bigger questions about where to go and whom to marry and what to do with our lives and careers will become clearer and clearer: when we walk in obedience to the clear commandments of God, we find that he is faithful to get us where he wants us to go.
Secondly: Do I trust in God to accomplish his plan? Jonah despaired of his usefulness for God, as we so often do. We look back at our lives and we see how we’ve screwed up and we say, “OK, I had my shot, but I blew it—no way he could (or would) use me now.” We despair of the possibility of being useful for God in the future because we see how useless we’ve been in the past. This kind of thinking is natural, but it betrays a fatal misunderstanding of how God works: God’s plan does not in the least depend on us! Jonah did nothing on the ship except cause a storm to come on them! He didn’t even show as much concern for human life as the pagan mariners did! And yet, God accomplished his plan: he manifested his power; he convicted the hearts of the mariners; he caused them to exceedingly fear him.
If you think that you aren’t useful for God, I’ve got good news for you: you’re right. In ourselves, we are all useless in regards to God’s plan; he doesn’t need us at all. And yet in his grace, he still chooses to use broken, sinful people, day after day. Your sin doesn’t mean you are out of the game; it just means that you need the same Savior as everyone else. God doesn’t need us; we need him. And because he loves us, he comes to us in our need, and he gives us this great news: what we could not do on our own, he has done for us, in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was the only truly useful human being who ever lived; he accomplished God’s plan in order to bring us into it and allow us to benefit from it and to participate in it. He was perfect so that we wouldn’t have to be, and he was punished so that we wouldn’t have to be. Don’t despair—God will accomplish his plan; we can trust him to do it.
Lastly: Will We Repent? Faced with the reality of our sin, and the reality of God’s holiness and power, what will our reaction be? Will we repent, and recognize God for who he is, like the mariners who feared the Lord exceedingly, and…offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows? Or rather will we persist in our despair, like Jonah? This whole story is all about God’s completely unexpected grace toward completely undeserving people. Will we see God for who he is? God is a righteous God who deserves our obedience and did not get it; and yet he is a merciful God who holds out grace to those who will have it. Will we accept the grace he offers us? Will we believe that God has given his Son to die even for people as undeserving as we? I pray that every one of us will.