What a fun little book is Jonah! This poor prophet doesn’t come off very well, like so many other characters in the Bible. Which is one of the myriad reasons that lend it credibility, and why I trust that the stories I read in it actually happened. Human nature being what it is, man filled with vanity and pride would never make up stories that make him look so unrelentingly terrible. And it is unrelenting. Jonah is just another in a long line of people in Scripture who act just like humans would act.
The book is only four chapters, but there is a lot packed in that short space. It starts with identifying who the prophet is:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai
To put this into historical context we read about this same Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25:
He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.
This was during the time of Jeroboam II, another of the wicked kings of Israel. The time would be before Israel, the northern kingdom, fell to the Assyrians, so it’s likely in the 700s BC (the northern kingdom’s capital, Samaria, was taken by the Assyrians in 722 BC). This verse says Jonah was a “servant of the Lord,” but in the book that bears his name he doesn’t come off as a very good servant.
In chapter 1 Jonah gets his famous call from the Lord:
2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and the largest city in the world at the time. So what does Jonah, the servant of the Lord, do in response to the Lord’s command? He hightails it in the exact opposite direction! He boards a ship sailing for Tarshish. Neneveh was due east, and Tarshish due west in what is modern day Spain. It says he did this “to flee from the Lord.” Some servant.
Of course the Lord is not so easily “fleed.” He creates such a violent storm on the sea that the sailors fear for their lives. Important for the redemptive-historical context of the story, each one “cried out to his own god.” Idols, which are literally nothing, versus the living creator God? No contest. But Jonah wants nothing to do with all this, so he goes below deck and of all things falls asleep. What kind of person does such a thing? Probably a very depressed person who will do anything but face the music. Like I said, what a servant.
So the sailors cast lots to see who is to blame for this mess, and of course it falls to Jonah. So the sailors ask him all sorts of question, and I love his blase but accurate response to the question, who are you:
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
The idea of God as Creator was foundational to the Hebrew mind, and was drilled into the people from the earliest age. The first words of the Hebrew Bible start with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” And throughout their Scripture we find the constant contrast between this Creator God, Yahweh, and idols which are nothing more than created stuff. They have no power. They are simply pieces of wood or metal, and figments of human imagination.
So the sailors plead with Jonah to find out what must be done to save them. He had already told them he was running away from the Lord, and now this was being done to them. So Jonah says if they toss him into the sea, they will be saved. They don’t want to do it, and try to row back to shore, but to no avail. They pray to Yahweh asking for forgiveness for killing this man, and throw him over. Instantly the sea calms. (Jesus did the same thing, as his disciples asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” This man, Jesus, is Yahweh!) But instead of dying we read of the unique way the Lord decided to save “his servant”:
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Of course skeptics instantly think this is a fairy tale, but why would the writer having shown so much honesty about the rebellion of the Lord’s servant, all of a sudden make up some fantastic scenario about a fish swallowing him? If he’s making something up and wants people to believe it actually happened, the last thing he would make up is a huge fish swallowing the guy. No, he would say something was floating by and Jonah grabbed onto it, something like that.
But it is the Lord who saves, and not we of our own effort. That is the moral of the story. And Jesus said it was also “a sign” of his being in the belly of the earth for three days. He allowed himself to be swallowed up by death in the earth that we, like Jonah, might be saved from our own rebellion. Even if it’s kicking and screaming, the Lord will have his way with us, and thank God the Father for that!