Jonah 3

In the first chapter of this book we saw Jonah running FROM the Lord in rebellion. In chapter two we saw Jonah running TO the Lord in prayer. Here in chapter three we see Jonah running FOR the Lord in obedience. I love the way the chapter begins: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time” (v.1). To me, that is a surprising twist in the story. Jonah had blown it. He had rebelled against God and caused all kinds of trouble, showing that he was not a faithful prophet. We would expect God to say, “Jonah, I’m finished with you — you are disobedient and I can’t trust you. You are a sorry excuse for a prophet. I’ll never be able to use you again.” But instead, the Lord spoke to Jonah “the second time”, re-commissioning him and repeating his orders: “Go to Nineveh and call out against it the message that I tell you” (v.2). I’m glad God gives second chances (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.!). As many times as I’ve blown it, He has never given up on me.

When the great fish “vomited Jonah out onto dry land” (see 2:10), he hit the beach running. He arrived in Nineveh and got straight to work, preaching as he walked the streets. By ancient standards Nineveh was a mega-city, “three days journey in breadth” (v.3) — and it was as evil as it was big. The Ninevites were ruthless, wicked people. In the ancient world, few cultures matched the cruelty of the Assyrians of Nineveh. They were known for their violence; they showed no mercy to their enemies. (Note: What could one preacher accomplish among thousands of wicked pagans? From the human perspective the odds were ridiculous. But Jonah stepped out on God’s Word, and he did it. He must have realized that God plus one makes a majority!)

Jonah’s sermon was very brief and very blunt. The entire sermon is only eight words in English, and only five words in Jonah’s language. Some have speculated that after three days inside a fish, Jonah had a bizarre appearance: the fish’s gastric acid would have dissolved all his hair and bleached his skin white. What a sight! And this man began to preach, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (v.4). It was a short sermon, but it had two points: the mercy of God and the judgment of God. They had forty days to get right with God — that was mercy (God could have given them forty seconds, or four seconds). If they didn’t get right they would be annihilated — that was judgment. It was a message of opportunity: the people had forty days to repent. God gave a warning and then He gave a deadline.

As Jonah made his way through the city preaching his one-sentence sermon, the hum of activity began to cease. A holy hush fell over Nineveh. Before long, weeping could be heard in every corner of every house. People began to fall on their knees, praying and crying and turning to the Lord. They “believed God”, meaning that each of them placed their faith in God to save them. From the greatest to the least, every citizen put on sackcloth and repented of their sins, praying to the one true God. Waves of revival began sweeping over that city and reached the royal residence. The king did an amazing thing: he rose from his throne, laid aside his royal robe, and covered himself with the signs of mourning and contrition (v.6). Having turned to the Lord himself, the king took over for Jonah and began to preach to the nation, calling on them to repent and believe!

When God saw the Ninevites’ repentance, He “relented” (v.10). Instead of destroying them, He forgave them. What a gracious God! Faith and desperation always get His attention. If you turn to Him, He will shower you with His mercy. If you have drifted away from the Lord and wandered out of His will, there are only two options for you: continue to run from Him and end up facing His judgment, or turn around and run to Him and He will forgive you and use you a second time.

Jonah 2

God called Jonah to go preach in Nineveh, but Jonah refused. He hated the Ninevites. He wanted God to judge and destroy those vicious, wicked people. Jonah knew that when God sends a message of judgment, He also provides a way to escape the judgment. Jonah knew that if he went to preach to the people of Nineveh, they might repent, and if the people repented, God would forgive and relent from punishing them — so Jonah ran. But God sent a storm to shake him up; He sent a sailor to wake him up; and He sent a fish to take him up. The Bible says God had prepared a fish to swallow Jonah — a fish with a special porpoise! With the prophet inside, the fish started swimming for Israel to return him so that he could get on with his mission.

From the belly of the fish, Jonah began to pray. In verse 1 of this chapter Jonah is inside the fish; in verse 10 he gets out. In between we find Jonah at his lowest point. By sharing his prayer, he shares what happens when we disobey God and run from His will. This is an interesting prayer: there is no petition in it, no request — only Jonah’s statements about how it felt to run from God, and how he repented.

Jonah said, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress” (v.2). Sometimes the Lord uses distress to get our attention and bring us to our knees. Did you catch Jonah’s vivid description of his near-drowning experience? He talked about sinking down to Sheol (the abode of the dead, v.2); he sank “into the deep” where he was surrounded by “floods” and covered by waves (v.3); he says that the seaweed wrapped around his head (v.5); as he sank down to the base of the mountains, it looked like the “bars” (maybe sand bars) would be his grave (v.6). It sounds like Jonah thought he was dying.

According to verse 7, it was then that Jonah began to pray. He had a very unusual prayer room, the dark, smelly belly of a fish. Listen to how Chuck Swindoll describes Jonah’s experience:

Pitch black. Sloshing gastric juices wash over you, burning skin, eyes, throat, nostrils. Oxygen is scarce and each frantic gulp of air is saturated with salt water. The rancid smell of digested food. Everything you touch has the slimy feel of the mucous membrane that lines the stomach. You feel claustrophobic. With every turn and dive of the great fish, you slip and slide in the cesspool of digestive fluid. There are no footholds. No blankets to keep you warm from the cold, clammy depths of the sea. For three days and three nights he endured this harsh womb of grace.

From that dark place, when Jonah had hit rock bottom, the Lord heard his voice and answered him (v.2). Isn’t that reassuring? You may be at the lowest point of your life, but you can call out to God with a heart of humility and repentance, and He will hear and answer.

In verse 3 Jonah admitted that it wasn’t the sailors who had thrown him into the sea, it was God: “For You cast me into the deep”. When Jonah said those words, I believe he was acknowledging that God was disciplining him. Jonah accepted God’s discipline. Remember this: if you are bound to sin, you are bound to suffer. God disciplines His children when they sin (see Hebrews 12:5-6). How we respond to God’s discipline determines how much benefit we receive from it. We can despise it, resent it, and resist it — or we can respond like Jonah, who owned up to his sin and accepted God’s discipline.

Jonah made the best decision of his life in the worst place. He decided to “look again to the Lord’s holy temple” (v.4, 7). I think this was Jonah’s way of turning from his sin and turning back to the Lord. (Note: by referencing the temple twice in his prayer, Jonah may have been claiming the promise found in 1 Kings 8:38-39.) If you have fallen into sin, you don’t have to turn to a temple, but you do have to turn to God. Jonah trusted God’s grace…will you?

At the end of his prayer, Jonah said, “What I have vowed, I will pay” (v.9). I can only speculate as to what vows Jonah had made, but I think I know one. At some point in Jonah’s past, God had called him as a prophet. Surely Jonah had vowed to the Lord, “I will go where you tell me to go, and say what you tell me to say.” And now Jonah was in a whale of a mess because he had broken that vow. He said, “I will pay that vow. I will do it. You told me to go to Nineveh, and I will go.” Remember, when we disobey the Lord, we step out of His will. And the only way to get back is to return to where we said no and say yes.

Jonah 1

The most important thing you can do as a Christian is to find and follow the will of God. It is one thing to not know the will of God and miss it. It is another thing altogether to know the will of God and refuse it, rebel against it, and run from it. The classic example in Scripture of a believer who knows the will of God, and yet doesn’t want to do it, is Jonah. The book of Jonah is unique among the Old Testament books of prophecy because it centers on the story of the prophet himself and not the prophecies he delivered.

God gave Jonah a simple command (v.2): “Arise, go to Nineveh, and preach to them.” Nineveh was about 500 miles northeast of Israel, but Jonah headed in the opposite direction, southwest to Joppa (called Jaffa in present-day Israel). He intended to run away to Tarshish, 2,000 miles westward (v.3). In defiance and disobedience to God’s command, Jonah resigned as a prophet and went the opposite direction. Why would a God-called prophet do that? Two reasons are strongly implied.

First, Jonah knew the character of the Ninevites (people of Nineveh). Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria in the ancient world. It was a large, powerful, famous city. It was “great” in many ways, but God said that it was greatly wicked (v.2): “Their wickedness has come up before Me” (I like the way that is rendered in The Living Bible, “It smells to high heaven”). Nineveh was famous for its brutality in warfare. The Ninevites were notoriously cruel and vicious. They were the Nazis of the ancient world — and they were the enemy of Israel, Jonah’s people. No wonder he didn’t want to go there; he knew their character, he knew their record, and he hated them for it.

But a second reason he ran from his calling is that he also knew God’s character. Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh because he knew that their rebellion might turn to repentance; he knew that if they repented God would forgive them; and he knew that if God forgave them they would escape punishment. And Jonah did not want to be involved in the Ninevites receiving God’s grace — so he ran. (Note: did you catch the symbolism of Jonah’s downward spiral once he ran from God’s will? He went down to Joppa (v.3), he went down into the ship, he went down into the lowest part of the ship (v.5), he lay down on his bed, and he sunk down into the sea (v.15). When we rebel against something God calls us to do, we go down, down, down, down. And the only way back up is surrender and obedience.)

Jonah thought he could escape the presence of the Lord, but he couldn’t. God found Jonah and He loved him enough to send him a disciplinary storm. The Lord “hurled a great wind” at the ship and the Mediterranean Sea became so rough that the ship was about to capsize. The sailors threw out their cargo, prayed to their pagan gods, and hung on for dear life. Jonah was asleep below deck, and the captain woke him up (v.6). Jonah sized up the situation and finally repented, owning up to his sin (v.10). He told the ship’s crew that if they wanted to survive, they had to throw him overboard. By telling the men to throw him overboard, Jonah was repenting of his sin and throwing himself on the mercy of God.

If you are out of God’s will, you got there the same way Jonah got there: by sin (rebellion, ignoring God, disobedience). The best thing you can do is repent and throw yourself on the mercy of God without delay. This book is a testimony of the fact that He is the God of the second chance! If you have run from God, made mistakes, or hurt other people, turn back to God in confession and repentance. (Note: Jonah told some other people what he had done. Maybe you should find a Christian friend in whom you can confide and let them pray with you, share the Scripture with you, and encourage you.)

“God appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (v.17), and it started swimming for Israel to return Jonah to the place of his disobedience. If you are out of God’s will, you need to go back to where you said no and say yes. That fish returned Jonah so that he could obey the Lord.

Jonah survived inside the fish for three days. It must have been an awful, slimy, stinky, nightmarish 72 hours. I believe it literally, actually happened. I also believe that if you are out of God’s will, you may not get swallowed by a whale, but you will find yourself in circumstances just as unpleasant and just as uncomfortable as Jonah did. Don’t waste that time. The belly of a fish was not a good place to live, but it was a good place to learn.

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving!