The story of Jonah teaches us God’s grace extends to all nations. The gospel must go to all people. How Jonah reacted to God’s calling in his life offers critical insights into how God not only works with the nations but with our lives.
[Darris McNeely] Good evening, everyone. Welcome to our Wednesday evening, Beyond Today Bible studies, here at the Home Office of the United Church of God. Glad to have all of you out here tonight, and also those of you that are watching online live and others who will be watching via tape delay or on the web at their own convenience. So we’re glad to have you with us as we continue the series of Bible studies that we’ve been going through here on the minor prophets. And tonight, we are going to go into the book of Jonah.
So before we do that, I’d like to ask all of you here to just bow your heads, and those of you that are listening online to do so as well. We’ll ask God’s blessing on the Bible study this evening.
Lord God in heaven, Father, we thank You very much for our calling, for Your grace, Your kindness, Your care for our lives, helping us, Father, to understand our purpose and have meaning to our lives in this age and in this period of human experience and when there is such spiritual darkness. Father, by Your complete grace, we have an understanding that opens up light, wisdom, the knowledge from You and Your Son, Jesus Christ, of eternal life. We’re grateful for it.
As we study tonight into the words of one of the minor prophets, the book of Jonah, we ask Your blessing, Your guidance in every way upon what is accomplished, that it would honor and please you, glorify Your name and Your Son. We commit it into Your hands, asking Your blessing, not only tonight but for those who will be viewing this at a later date, that Your word spoken here tonight, taught, would have a positive impact in the lives of all who seek You. We pray and ask all of this and commit it into Your hands in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
All right. Jonah, how many of you’ve seen the VeggieTale about Jonah? Forget it. There’s more to it than that. That was my immediate thought whenever I drew the straw for doing the book of Jonah here tonight, in the series that we’re going through, in the Beyond Today Bible studies. And I’ve given messages on Jonah over the years, but to prepare for a very short intense Bible study, you kind of go into it and pack it at a more intense rate to get the nuggets of understanding and meaning that are there.
And so within the 12 prophets that are called the minor prophets in Scripture, the book of Jonah is unique. It’s a fantastic story. We already know that Jonah gets swallowed by a whale, all right? For those of you that have seen the VeggieTales and/or anything else out there. And there’s a lot of depictions. It’s a fascinating story. And it’s full of miracles, of man being swallowed by a fish. Christ used the three days and nights of Jonah in the belly of the whale to be the sign of the fact that He would be the Messiah. We have a whole city, Nineveh, repenting.
And so it is just a very large story packed into a few chapters, four chapters here, but gives us a lot to think about in regard to God, His grace, which does extend to all nations. That is one of the key lessons here, and that the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God must go to all people.
As we look at how Jonah reacted to God’s calling, not only in his life but then what God did with the city of Nineveh, we get some critical insights into our own work that God is doing with us and through us and in us today, to the nations, and also in our own lives.
So let’s begin. If you will, turn to the book of Jonah in the minor prophets. It comes right after Obadiah and just before Micah. I’m trying to find Jonah. I’ve tried to remember this, the little ditty that I taught my kids when we were raising our sons, about the how to remember the minor prophets. And unfortunately, I couldn’t remember all of it here. But anyway, that’s where it is as we get into it.
Let’s begin reading verse 1 where it says, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.’” Very direct introduction, the call to Jonah, from God, to go to Nineveh and to preach to it a message of repentance because it is a very wicked city.
Now let’s establish a few things here, at this point. Let’s first look at Jonah, and establish who he is and the time setting for his story and of the story that we have here in the book. We already know that he is the son of Amittai. We don’t necessarily know who that is, but we do have one other reference concerning Jonah from 2 Kings 14, beginning in verse 25, where we have a reference to Jonah making a prophecy about Jeroboam II, and a time and a period of revival or restoration within the nation of Israel.
Jonah is from the nation of Israel and his message is set in that particular time. In 2 Kings 14, it says that, speaking of Jeroboam, “He restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher.” And so Jonah had made a prophecy regarding this king Jeroboam, Jeroboam II, which dealt with the expansion of the nation of Israel.
Keep in mind, this is the setting. This is the setting after the division of Israel into the northern nation of Israel, the southern nation of Judah, the 10 tribes that have formed the northern nation of Israel. So that’s the setting. And it’s several years — decades into their history of relative decline, but now under Jeroboam II, there’s going to be an expansion of power and economy and wealth.
We had touched on that when we talk about the book of Amos when Gary Petty covered the message of the book of Hosea, both set in the setting of Jeroboam II, a few years after what we are reading here in Jonah at this time. Jonah actually predates all the other minor prophets, and Amos being likely the first one in that particular setting by a few decades. And so he prophesies of this revival that is going to take place.
Now, this happens during the time that the big kid on the block, the great power is the Assyrian Empire, off to the north and to the east of the nation of Judah, which you can see by the map here, this huge swath of green, it kind of looks like green slime just kind of moving over the face of the Middle East here, doesn’t it, represents the Assyrian empire around the year 800 and beyond. And eventually, the extent of its power that would take in the area of Babylon down in the far right part of the green, all the way over to Israel in the southwest, and into what is modern day, actually, you’re looking at an empire that covered portions of the modern day nations of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, down into even, very close to Iran, and part of… a bit of the Gulf states, and even further up into Asia Minor there.
Syria was a very interesting power at this particular point in time. They had actually had a period of great ascendancy, but at the time of Jonah, even the Assyrian Empire was under pressure from some other neighboring nations, and they had kind of retracted. And so while Jonah prophesies about Israel expanding its borders a bit to create a larger buffer zone for its own economy and its protection, Assyria is under pressure and is in a relative decline.
Now Assyria will have another time of resurgence as well after this, but that is going to come, and in time, Assyria will be used as God’s instrument of His wrath against the nation of Israel. And near the end of the 8th century period here, about the year 721 to 718, the Assyria nation will overcome the northern nation of Israel and take it captive. This is all according to be the biblical story that we know. But that has not yet happened, and it’s at this time that we have this very interesting prophecy of the time of Jonah.
Let’s take a few minutes, and again, as the opening verses here talk about Nineveh, which is a city, if you’ll see right there, on the map, is to the eastern part of the empire of Assyria, where the star is. Now, this next slide shows an artist’s reconstruction of what the city of Nineveh likely looked like there on the Tigris River. It was a very large city, as we will see as we go through the book of Jonah. And it had the typical religious ziggurats that you see there dominating the skyline, other large governmental buildings. It was one of several major cities within the Assyrian Empire that had multiple capitals, and yet, Nineveh becomes kind of a center for the story here of Jonah.
Assyria was a very interesting power. They were… I like to use the phrase “They were the Oakland Raiders of the ancient world.” They were kind of the bad boys. They were very warlike people. This reconstruction of an interior of one of the large buildings shows depictions of war chariots, archers down in the lower right, chariots above that, dignitaries and governmental business being conducted, and large statues, kind of bold winged statues with the human head. You can see actual artifacts from Nineveh and the Assyrian empire in many museums around the world today, as close as even the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in Chicago. You can see excavated remnants of the Assyrian Period, just like these huge winged bulls right there in that museum. I’ve seen them several times going up there.
But they were a very aggressive, bad empire. Let’s just put it that way. They made war. And it was a tough neighborhood in which they lived. They were not afraid to put depictions upon their walls of them skinning alive their victims. They were very cruel and barbaric in their treatment of those who resisted them and that they would defeat.
I couldn’t find this one picture, but I was listening to a podcast of a historian talking about the Assyrians, and he was describing another relief like this that had a picture of the King of Assyria sitting on his throne and a beautiful woman next to him. And behind the king was a skull of one of his victims, the head cut off. And the obvious indication was that probably the head cutoff was some king that he conquered. He cut his head off, brought his head to his palace, mounted it there in his room. And the woman was probably the wife of his victim. And so he had to, you know, the scene was showing the Assyrian king, in a sense, making the head of the dead king look at him while he consorted with his wife.
You got a lot going on upstairs to set up something like that and to kind of create an ancient picture for posterity on your wall showing that type of thinking and that cruelty and that barbarism. This is the type of people that God is sending Jonah to, all right? That’s what’s important to understand.
Now, I already made this one particular point of the modern nations that the Assyrian Empire, in a sense, represents today. This is a map that shows the current Middle East area. And if you look at the different nations, you see Israel down in the lower left and Lebanon, as I mentioned, Syria, part of Turkey up there and Iraq, all the way down to Baghdad, which is the area of ancient Babylon. This is a very troubled, conflicted area right now. The blue on this map shows the area that is controlled today by ISIS, ISIS, the same region of the Assyrian Empire that we are talking about.
Now, we’ve all been following ISIS for the last two and a half years, and what they have been doing is they established a caliphate and have committed a number of atrocities, which we’ve seen pictures of in that area, of ISIS beheading people, mass shootings and mass killings of their victims, indiscriminate, extreme cruelty. What’s the point? That’s still a bad neighborhood today.
Whatever spirit resides, in a sense, in that geographical region, whether it was in the ancient time of Assyria or this conflict today, still represents a people, a mentality, and an approach to life that you don’t want to deal with. And I lay this out for us to understand that the area that we’re talking about here from the book of Jonah corresponds to the area today that dominates our headlines out of the Middle East, and impacts and actually reaches into Europe and America through Islamic Jihadist terrorism today. But you’re looking at a command by God to a man, Jonah, saying, “Go talk to these people,” all right?
Now, think about that. Because when we come down to it, and you go back to the book of Jonah and you look at what we see it in verse 3 of Jonah, what was Jonah’s reaction? We all know. In Jonah 1:3 Jonah 1:3But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
American King James Version×, it says “Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish.” He didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Would you? Would you want to go and deal with people of that mentality? Would you want to go to that part of the world today and deal with and go to Mosul, which is the area of ancient Nineveh? You hear the name Mosul on the news today about ISIS and that the conflict raging over there, it’s in the news right now. That’s ancient Nineveh. Do you want to go there and talk to them? I’ll let you answer that.
When we come down to ask ourselves, “Why did Jonah go the other direction,” well, it’s not that complicated in one sense, he knew the people that he would have to be dealing with. And so we find here that he went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish. And “he paid the fare,” put it on his credit card as quick as he could, “went down to go into them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Which is rather comical because you really can’t go from the presence of the Lord, no matter where you go.
And so if you look at a map, then you will see that he was trying to get as far away from Nineveh as he could. Tarshish, by many ancient geographers, they put way off to the far western end of the Mediterranean, at the area of Spain or the Straits of Gibraltar there today. And if you look at the line all the way across the Mediterranean to Nineveh, that’s nearly 2700 miles. And so Jonah was going to put a lot of distance between himself and the city of Nineveh.
Now, I’ve mentioned one possibility, and I think is a very real possibility as to why Jonah didn’t take this commission. There is another reason why he fled, the Soncino Commentary , the Jewish commentary on the Old Testament Scriptures, makes a point which has, I think, some validity as well, that can help us to understand that Jonah, very likely, knew and understood that Assyria could and would be God’s hand of… His rod of iron to punish His people, and that He would use them to punish His idolatrous, sinful nation of Israel. And so he didn’t want them to repent.
In fact, if he knew his geopolitical situation, which I’m sure he knew at the time, he knew that Assyria was on the ropes, getting pressure from other nations and that they could be beaten. They could be pushed aside, which would give some breathing room for his own people, Israel, in his own mind, and this big power would be removed from the scene. Why would he want to go there and urge them to repent, hang around, and then still possibly be something that would even be larger and still be used against his own people? Did he also not wonder, in the back of his mind, would his own people even repent?
Jonah, you have to know, knew the depths of the idolatry and the paganism that his own nation was in at that time. Even though they had an economic resurgence, there was a moral, spiritual, cultural rot that was endemic, systemic, and nearly irreparable. And he knew that. And so in his confusion, in his fear, in what is essentially a mixed-up mind, to try to even flee from the presence of God, for a prophet to do that, he takes passage on a ship and takes off. And so that, I think, helps us to appreciate a little bit as to why Jonah did what he did here.
But as we read on in the account, in the next verse, Jonah is on the ship, “But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea so that the ship was about to be broken up.” And so God has His own methods and His ways of working. And as soon as he gets on the ship and out, probably, away from the sight of land where it will even get more tumultuous and scary, the wind starts going up.
“The mariners were afraid;” it says, “and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load.” This was a standard operating procedure in this day. We read about it when Paul is on his journey from Israel to Rome, the end of the book of Acts, they too got into a storm on that ship and they did the same thing. They lightened the load, to try to make the ship more easily handled. And they were scared. They cried out to their own gods.
Verse 5 it says, “Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep.” Maybe stress does that. I know that when I get stressed at times, a good long nap or a good long sleep can help just physically deal with the stress. And maybe this is part of why Jonah could sleep so soundly at this particular time, in the midst of a storm that was throwing the boat around. And it must have been quite storm-tossed, because a ship of that nature in that sea in the ancient world would not have had the ballast to ride out the storms in a more calm way. It was probably being tossed around, and so his sleep is even more interesting too to note.
It says that “The captain then came down to him, and said to him, ‘What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish.’” They’d called on their gods, nothing had happened. They found Jonah asleep, and they said, “You call on your God.” And so here is a command to wake up. And this is one of the lessons that we can already notice out of the book of Jonah, that we’ve got to always be alert. We must be spiritually awake.
In Ephesians 5:8-21 Ephesians 5:8-21 8 For you were sometimes darkness, but now are you light in the Lord: walk as children of light:
9 (For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;)
10 Proving what is acceptable to the Lord.
11 And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.
12 For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.
13 But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatever does make manifest is light.
14 Why he said, Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.
15 See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,
16 Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
17 Why be you not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.
18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;
19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;
20 Giving thanks always for all things to God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;
21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
American King James Version×, we won’t turn there tonight, but the apostle Paul comes down to this very same type of admonition to us when he says, “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” We sometimes need to read that and understand that we need to be awake and alert spiritually. Jonah was asleep, and his sleep at that time, in the midst of a trial, physical turmoil, is kind of a lesson for us to wake up and to call on God and to be close to God. And Jonah was getting this from a captain, a pagan captain, if you will, that didn’t even know him.
And so the storm continue. They didn’t have any answers. And the account goes on in verse 7, “They said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.” One of the examples from Scripture where we see this casting of lots to determine… to make a decision that was not discernible humanly. It was done even among the people of God. We see that in the book of Acts where they chose the successor to Judas. We see it here among pagans, as they use this to divine… to come to understand the divine will. And it fell on Jonah. It’s obvious that God guided this, that He pointed out His man and the cause of His wrath upon this particular ship at this time.
“They said to him then, ‘Please, tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And what people are you?’ So 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.’” And so he calls attention to the God, who not only made the sea but can control what happens upon the sea. That’s the implication by what Jonah has said.
And so this even made them more afraid. They were exceedingly afraid and they said to him, “Why have you done this?” They probably didn’t know, understand exactly what he had done, but he was guilty. This represents the ancient mind in many ways, that things like this — a storm, a great, threatening, natural catastrophe that was upon them, they immediately began to look to God as its source. And then they began to look at their own actions, or the actions of someone else, for the cause of it. “What have you done,” they said to Jonah, thinking that sin is the cause of certain types of even natural phenomena.
This is an interesting matter for us to notice. It doesn’t matter that we’re talking about a group of gentile sailors, if you will, pagan sailors on the open sea and one servant of God. There is a very important lesson here that is building, that we should know. “They knew that he had fled from the presence of the Lord, because he told them. They said to him then, ‘What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?’ — for the sea was growing more tempestuous. And he said to them, ‘Pick me up, throw me into the sea, and the sea will become calm for you.’” Jonah knew that much. “For I know that this great tempest is because of me.” And it was, and Jonah owned it. And he owned the fact that this hurricane, this typhoon that had come upon them, creating this great storm and endangering their lives, was because of his action.
Again, there is a very strong lesson for us to realize, that we are told in many different ways and situations in Scripture that: sin has consequences. Rebellion against God and His will has consequences. The blessings and cursings of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to God, to Israel, show that. The message of the prophets shows that. Sin has consequences, even down to the course of nations, events within the nations, even as in this case, weather on the open sea. And Jonah owns it and gives account of it.
And so Jonah prayed to the Lord… or so he said, “Pick me up, throw me into the sea, and the sea will be calm for I know that this great tempest is because of me.” Then Jonah prayed to the Lord. Let’s see, let’s go to verse 13. “Nevertheless the men rowed hard to return to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried out to the Lord and they said, ‘We pray, O Lord, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lord, have done it as it pleased You.”
“So they picked up Jonah and they threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.” Instantly, it stopped. “And the men feared of the Lord accordingly and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and they took vows.” And so here is then where we have the great account of Jonah being thrown into the ocean and a fish that has been prepared by God swallows him. Now, this is very, very interesting here from obviously, the phenomenon of the fish. But what is taking place here in the open sea, with all that is going on here at this particular time. If we look at this, the sea ceased its raging. Verse 17 says, “The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.”
Now, what was this fish? Well, the fish, some feel, was a whale, and usually, you see a depiction of this as a whale. And Jonah’s in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. It says it’s a great fish that’s been prepared by the Lord. There’s a Jewish tradition that this fish had been prepared from the actual creation of the world just for this event. I don’t necessarily believe that, but I do believe that it is a great fish prepared by God.
Now, we have a problem here, if we look at this from a very critical point of view. And obviously, a lot of people do, a lot of scholars do. How can a man survive in the belly of a fish? How could a man even get into the belly of the fish? If you look at the commentaries on the subject, Jonah would not likely have been able to get through the actual throat of any whale that we know about. Some of the sources will tell you that there are certain species of shark that the throat is big enough for a man to go through into the belly, into the stomach, if that’s what the fish was.
So I think it’s best for us to look at this for what it is. And I think this is good advice for any of the miracles of the Bible, that we look at what it says and we take it for what God says, and take it at God’s word, and not try to figure out, from a human perspective how this could happen. There are, and there have been, from years past, accounts of sailors falling into the ocean, being swallowed by certain sharks, and within a day or so, that shark being caught, the belly cut open and the man is still alive. There are actual recorded, verified accounts of those, from several years back. So theoretically, it’s possible to survive a period of time. Three days, that gets quite long.
But again, if it’s a special fish prepared by God, and this is God working in a very special way at this moment, not only with Jonah but as we know, to set up something that Jesus Christ himself is even going to use as the very sign of his Messiahship. That he would be in the grave, three days and three nights, just as Jonah was. We go to Matthew 12, we see that, where Christ used that story to basically be the one proof that He was going to be the Messiah.
Now, if Jesus believed Jonah was a man, living when he did and that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights, that’s good enough for me. Because if that is not true, then we’ve got a big, big problem with the historicity and the truth of the Scriptures, the gospel Scriptures of Jesus Christ and His ability to tell the truth and even know the story and be telling us the truth. Because if it’s false, then God is false. And that being the sign of His Messiahship, we’ve got something there to hang our hats on. It’s true, and we accept it as true. As a miracle, no less a miracle than Christ even himself being resurrected after three days and three nights on the grave.
If that is the sign of our Messiah, and we take it as such, that He was resurrected, then Jonah being in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights is not any further of a matter for us to have to try to stretch to believe as a part of this story that we are talking about here. And so it is very strong.
Before we move into chapter 2 of Jonah, I want to make a point about this whole scene of the sailors understanding the storm on the sea, that it is an act of God, even bringing them to a repentance, as the Scripture shows in Jonah 1:16 Jonah 1:16Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the LORD, and made vows.
American King James Version×. It says, “The men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows.” Now, they offered a sacrifice. They in a sense, they fear God.
These sailors came to repentance, before we ever get to the story of Nineveh, because of what took place, their encounter with Jonah, throwing him overboard, maybe even seeing this fish come up take him, and then calm. And these Gentile pagan sailors could see something of the hand of God, as they understood God at that particular moment, and they got religion. Let’s just call it that, all right?
Now you know, in our modern world today, we have a lot of storms. We have hurricanes that often hit the land of the United States. And when that happens, there’s a great deal of loss. And they create some very interesting situations as to how people react. The last big hurricane that we probably remember was the Hurricane Katrina, back in 2005, that hit New Orleans. It came in off the Gulf. You remember Katrina, many of us it? It was one of the worst hurricanes to hit the United States. It came about in September of that year, and it caught the state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans unprepared. New Orleans itself being a problem of a city in terms of its geographic location at the mouth of the Mississippi. Mississippi, and a city that, in many parts of it, as you know, is under water. And they’ve kept the water back by building levees and reconfiguring things.
Hurricane Katrina created a great deal of havoc and human misery. There’s a classic iconic scene from that period, of President George W. Bush flying over New Orleans and looking at the devastation out of the window of Air Force One. Anybody remember this particular picture that made the headlines at that time? He’d been at his home in Texas, and a hurricane hit, and he was going back to Washington and Air Force One did a low fly over. They caught the picture of him looking out at the misery of people in New Orleans, and it made people mad. Here was the president kind of aloft in his luxurious jet, while down below, people were suffering and flooding, and loss of life and loss of property. And it caused him a lot of mud on his face at the time. He had to correct himself and take action very quick. It’s not that he didn’t have compassion. But what could he do at that time? You know, he was blamed for the whole hurricane, if you remember how the politics went on that.
But there’s a lesson here. It’s a lesson for all of us. Something like a hurricane, when it comes, even you and I, if we’re not in places like Mobile or New Orleans or on a coast, the Gulf Coast or the Atlantic coast, we watch it from the comfort, not of Air Force One, but we watch it from the comfort of our homes, as we tune into Fox News. And we see people crawling up out of the water, you know, going on their boats and trying to recover their belongings. And it’s hot and they’re hungry and they’re thirsty and they’ve lost everything and they’re suffering. And we have compassion, but we’re on our couch in our air-conditioned home. “Pass the Doritos, please.” “Let’s go get a cold beer.”
And even ourselves, we don’t get… we don’t learn the lesson from a lot of these things. The spiritual lessons that can teach us that when the storms of life come, we have to be prepared. And though a storm might not always hit us and a tornado or hurricane put us in a very difficult situation, the bigger spiritual lesson from this is that we need to learn that God is in control and use the soft times, the good times, the comfortable times of our life, to prepare ourselves for the storms of life that are going to hit us. That’s really the lesson we should learn. And to know that God is in control of events and that just as is here on the open sea, these individuals recognize that God controls events, and that repentance shouldn’t be too far from any of us. And a lesson learned should be right there for us to realize and for us to learn.
Let’s go on into Jonah 2. And let’s pick this up then as Jonah is now in the belly of the fish, he prays to the Lord. Chapter 2 is a prayer, “I cried to the Lord because of my affliction,” it says, “and He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice.” Interesting. Jonah looks at being in the belly of the fish as a deliverance. He said, “God, You heard me,” as the gastric juices are swimming around me, as it stinks. “God, you’ve heard me.”
You know, sometimes, we need to realize that even in the midst of a trial, God hears us. And God may have already delivered us, we just don’t know exactly how He’s going to bring it about. This is what Jonah is saying. “You heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; all Your billows and Your waves passed over me.” He knew he was alive. He was breathing. He may have been a living dog, but he was a living dog. He was still breathing. “Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’”
How would Jonah know the direction of God’s temple? I would think Jonah’s affection was toward the temple in Jerusalem at that time, not a temple in Samaria, Dan, or Bethel, in the nation of Israel. But he did pray to God. And really, the temple of God is where God dwells among men. Stephen would say later that “God doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands.” The point is this, we look to God to carry us through any trial, to deliver us according to His will. And from our heart, the direction of our focus is always toward God in heaven, no matter what the circumstance. Jonah was in the belly of a fish and he looked to God in heaven and he knew that he was praying to God. This is what really is the lesson for us.
“The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me; weeds were wrapped around my head. And I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; yet You have brought up my life from the pit… When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer went up to You, into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols,” he says, “forsake their own Mercy.” Idolatry has no place in the true worship of God. “But I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.”
Jonah’s prayer had its effect. He had learned his lesson. After three days and nights in the whale, it spits him out. “The Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” God can speak through any instrument that he wants, whether it’s Balaam’s donkey, a whale, another pagan king like Cyrus, to give an order to send the Jews back to Jerusalem. God can speak through whomever He wants in any way that He chooses.
So now he’s back on, and he’s on dry land. And we can assume that he’s right back where he began, in Joppah. In verse 1 of chapter 2, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” It would have been about a month’s walk from Nineveh, at the location that he likely came up. And Jonah gets a second chance. It says, “He spoke to him a second time.” We don’t always get second chances in our life, but Jonah did. Anytime we get a second chance to do something right, to make amends, always be sure that you take it. And so in this case, “Jonah arose and he went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.”
“Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey, in extent.” Nineveh has been excavated, and we can look at the size of the city from the computer-generated graphics that help us to understand the size of the city, with a river running through it. And you can imagine where the palaces that we had seen earlier were there. And it has been excavated and it’s well-known how big it was. What it says here in the Scripture that it was a great city, and that it was. Several hundred thousand people lived there, and the three-day journey in extent.
What we are actually probably seeing here is that as Jonah got to the city, he would have been able to walk around it in less than three days. The three days likely refers to going within the city, and in a sense, going through all the streets and the neighborhoods of the city, is the, I think, the best way to understand what this three days is. Some say that there were several cities of the region of Nineveh that would represent three days around all of those. But we’re talking about the city of Nineveh, which is one city, and I think it’s more likely that it’s talking about the public places within the city where he could have made his proclamation and his itinerary, as it shows us here, as he began to go into the city, to the various gates. And there were in multiple gates around the city of Nineveh and places where people would be gathered, public places, religious places, markets, where Jonah and his message could have been given and he would have been heard.
And so it says, in verse 4, that “He began to enter the city on the first day’s walk and he cried out and he said, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” All right? He must have been quite a sight. This one voice, in this great city.
Now the history tells us that Nineveh and other cities in Assyria, the empire itself, was getting pressure from other nations around it. And so the political situation of Nineveh, at this point, could likely have been rather precarious, which made Jonah’s message more readily accessible or available for them to hear and to listen to. They would have been more receptive to it. That’s a very strong possibility there, in terms of the actual situation of the city.
But his message is heard, and he says, “Nineveh, in forty days, will be overthrown!” And the people knew that that was a possibility because they had reports and they knew that there were armies that were near and approaching. And so the message resonates with the people at this particular time, and there is an instant response because it says that “The people of Nineveh believed God and they proclaimed a fast, they put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.”
This is a fast turnaround, a fast repentance compared with what the apostle Paul had when he was in the city of Athens, in Acts 17. Very few people listened to him. Even though he encountered a lot of people, only a handful of people probably repented in Athens at the time of Paul. Jonah gets the entire city to respond. They put on a fast. They put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them, throughout all strata of society.
“The word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and he sat in ashes.” This is probably the leading governor. Nineveh didn’t actually have a king in the city at this particular time, but it’s likely was a ruling governor that is being referenced to at this particular point, and he leads this repentance. “He caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king of his nobles, saying, ‘Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way.” That’s repentance. That’s a phrase that just means repent. “Turn… from the violence that is in his hands.” And it was a violent people.
“Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” This is the proclamation. This is the response, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
The King James Version says that “God repented.” The New Revised Standard Version says that “God changed His mind.” Now, sometimes people have a problem with this because, you know, God says, “I change not.” A way to understand this is that when it comes to God’s covenant promises, He does not change. Whatever that covenant is when He says it and He binds it, He will do it. This is not a covenant promise that is upon the people of Nineveh in their relationship with God. It’s their response to a prophetic utterance.
And throughout Scripture, when there is a prophetic utterance made by one of God’s prophets, there is always a part of that God says, “I will hear.” And He will even hear for a great Gentile city like Nineveh, which He did. He changed His mind and He relented for a period of time. And He heard their cry and He relented and they were not going to disappear within 40 days.
A remarkable story. An overnight seeming change of a city that didn’t know God, didn’t know the Sabbath, didn’t know the Holy Days, knew nothing about really the God of Abraham, had multiple pagan gods and a violent, hostile people. This is Nineveh. This is the Assyrian people. Read ISIS, if you want to.
What’s Jonah’s response? I’ll tell you, folks, what my response would be. I’d be jumping for joy. Any minister would. Any evangelist would, who would preach a message of repentance. What does Jonah do? You know what he does. Chapter 4:1, “It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.” Wow, angry. He didn’t like what happened. The very thing that he encouraged them to do, they did, and he gets mad. Jonah is kind of a complicated guy and it’s a complicated time.
There’s anger and envy both at work here, with Jonah. He’s envious of Nineveh’s repentance. His own nation, Israel, will not repent of their sins. He knows that. They’ve already had prophets come to them. They have not repented. They’ll have more. They will not repent. And yet a large, evil Gentile nation repents after only a few days of preaching and go through the ceremony that they do. Israel would not repent after three years of drought during the time of Elijah. Nineveh repents virtually overnight. The sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, were very deep within Israel. The rot was even worse in Nineveh, yet they turned around. Jonah sees this, he can’t handle it. And so the envy deepens into anger, an irrational anger.
Why get angry with God? Why get angry with Nineveh? It’s all futile. Why get angry even at your own success? But he does. The literal Hebrew of this phrase, “It displeased Jonah exceedingly and he became angry.” The literal Hebrew says, “It was evil to Jonah with great evil.” It was evil to Jonah with great evil, which means that the evil that had been applied to Nineveh was now upon Jonah in his reaction.
“He prayed to the Lord, and he said, ‘Ah Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my own country?’” Had he said that? Well, not necessarily that we have in the record, but he must have felt that maybe he knew that they would repent. And again, it would kind of upstage his own people and create a even further problem for his own people, who he knew was headed for a judgment day.
He said, “Therefore I previously fled to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” He knew the nature of God. He knew the character of God, the compassion of God. “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it’s better for me to die than to live.” Complete irrational thinking.
“The Lord said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’” A rhetorical question. He knew it wasn’t. What did Jonah do? He kind of walks out, turns his back on God, walks out of the city, and sits down on the east side of the city. Just kind of sits down like a spoiled child, not knowing what to do. And he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah that it would be a shade for his head to deliver him from his misery.
This is where the story kind of just gets almost irrational and out of control here. He builds a shelter. God prepares a plant, another miracle that takes place in the book, comes up over Jonah, shades him. It’s hot. And you know how you feel when you get hot and sweaty, probably thirsty and hungry? You get even more irritable. And he was already angry, you can imagine his state of mind at this at this time.
So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. And the plant grows up and it’s there but, God, you know, is kind of working with Jonah. “And as the morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm.” God prepared the plant, He can prepare a worm. “And it damaged the plant so that it withered. And when it happened, as the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind;” a Sirocco wind, very hot, very dry, very strong. “The sun beat on Jonah’s head that he grew faint.” And by the minute, he’s just growing more irritable. He’s near the point of collapsed, that “he wished death for himself.”
And he said, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” He had come to that point. “And so God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’ And Jonah said, ‘Yeah, it is. It’s right for me to be angry even to death!’” The dialogue going on here is interesting. Jonah is still a servant of God, he’s a prophet. We don’t have any record of God kind of rejecting Jonah. Jonah has done his job, God’s worked with him. God knows the type of man that He’s working with. And Jonah is carrying on a dialogue with God that few people probably would dare do.
He’s having a blunt, hard, honest talk with God in a circumstance that he does not understand. And he’s talking to God… probably, I imagine Jonah is talking to God with a raised voice, with irritation in his tone and he’s not very respectful. He’s challenging God. He’s asking God, “What are you doing? Why has this happened?” And God just compounds it with the gourd and the worm.
“But God said, ‘You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in the night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than 120,000 persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left — and much more…’” and it ends, “much livestock?” That’s where it ends. It’s over, the story. No sunset. Nobody riding off with a pretty girl on the back of a horse. No neat and tidy conclusion.
You know, Hollywood, most of the really good Hollywood movies, they always have a nice, tidy conclusion. And if it doesn’t put the conclusion they think they should have, it doesn’t play well with the test audience, they’ll go and re-film the conclusion to make it good and it soars at the box office. This has happened many, many times with many movies. Sleepless in Seattle has a good conclusion. The kid gets the, you know, his dad and his wife together. Movie after movies like that. This one doesn’t. It ends. And so often, life does happen like this. There’s not a nice, tidy conclusion to it.
Now, Nineveh would fall. We’ll talk about that next time that I have a Bible study. I drew the Bible study for Nahum, which talks about the destruction of Nineveh. Israel also fell. In fact, Israel fell quicker than Nineveh did. Judgment came ultimately to both cities, both nations, Assyria and to Israel.
Look at Jonah here. His theological worldview is turned upside down with what has happened. Here is a major Gentile repentance. His own nation has not repented. In this repentance, think about this, ladies and gentleman, there is no mention of a covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, like Israel had and abandoned. There’s no mention of the law of God, the commandments of God, as part of that covenant relationship like God had with Israel.
There is no mention of a Sabbath, no mention of Holy Days, no mention of any other points of the law of God. In the repentance that Nineveh had in response to the message from Jonah, basically, “Repent or in forty days you’re toast,” there is no mention of that. Can I tell you something else? There’s no mention of 20 fundamentals of belief. There’s no mention of 20 fundamentals of belief. We have 20 fundamentals of belief in the United Church of God. There’s no mention of doctrine here.
Now, doctrine is important. The teaching of Christ in the Church is very important, as it’s based on the word of God. But this repentance, we’re not told that it involves that and I don’t think that it did. Now, it didn’t last, but it was significant and God did change His mind for a time. And the story is there for us to learn a lesson.
Repentance on this scale, that we see with the story of Nineveh, and in this manner, should make us think about our mission in the Church of God today to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God, to all nations, to care for those disciples that are called and the mission that we have to preach the message of God, the truth of God, the teaching of God. To teach people the commandments of God, all things that we have been taught.
But let’s be honest in our world today. In our world today, repentance, in the traditional, biblical sense that God teaches and that we have had in our time in the Church, is not something that is that easy and even easy to understand. Frankly, folks, the world today does not even understand the word repentance. There is such a spiritual, moral, and cultural rot in our world today, and in America, that they do not even understand the word repentance. We use it. We write about it. But they don’t understand it. Witness all this going on. Witness the choices that we had in the election this year, bad and worse. And all that yet might be unearthed, and all that is there, and the condition of our nation today and in our world, that doesn’t diminish God’s law, God’s teaching, true doctrine.
But I wonder sometimes, and perhaps this is a bit of a speculation to think about as we look at the story of Jonah and its application for us today, as we understand that God’s grace does extend to all nations and all peoples and we cannot run from our responsibility. We do it, but we’ve got to also accept what God does, and what He may not do at any given time, according to our timetable. That God’s grace extends to all nations and all in peoples. Nineveh, I don’t think, got the full gospel. They didn’t get the full message of God, but they came to a repentance. Could we accept a turn, a repentance, even if it were shallow of anyone or any grouping today as we do our job? Not that that would represent the full godly repentance to salvation, but let’s be honest about the times in which we live and the receptivity of the message that we have in a world today that is post-Christian, increasingly so, post-biblical, biblically-illiterate and has a hard time understanding the concepts that we do quite well.
We should understand that. We should do our job. But we should also let God do His job and then be able to accept it and work with it as we go forward. I think the message of Jonah has something to help us understand the world in which we live today and how God can and is working. God’s grace extends to all nations. Let’s accept that. Let’s appreciate it. Let’s do the job that we have been given. Let’s not be like Jonah. Let’s not go sit out on the side of a hill. God might not even give us a gourd.
That’s the Bible study tonight. Be safe going home. The next Bible study will be two weeks from tonight, on January 25th. And we will see you at that time and so take care.