JONAH FLEES FROM THE LORD
Unfortunately, studies on Jonah have been overwhelmed by the one issue about whether Jonah is a literal, historical account or a parable. There is a problem with both sides of this issue. Those who claim that it is historical or literal seem to imply that if it is not literal or historical then it has absolutely no value. That is simply not true. If Jonah has no value because it is a parable, then the parables of Jesus have no value. (Surely no one would claim that to be true.)
On the other hand, those who claim Jonah is a parable seem to insist this for rather questionable reasons. First, they seem to imply that those who claim it is historical are inferior intellectually to those who claim it is a parable. This issue has nothing to do with intellect but everything to do with bias. Second, those who insist it to be a parable feel that God would not send a "whale" to swallow up Jonah for 3 days. I think we should say what God will and will not do on the basis of what He has done. Third, those who claim this to be a parable say that such fish in the story of Jonah simply do not exist. They say that a man could not possibly live inside the belly of a "whale" (Jonah does not specify what kind of fish swallowed him up). It is true. This does not happen everyday. That is why it is called "a miracle." The miracle is the kind of event which does not happen everyday, otherwise, it would not be a miracle.
The problem with this second group is that they don't believe miracles occur. C. S. Lewis stated that since God created the world, it is only logical that He would visit that world. If God does visit that world, then you would expect for miracles to occur. What kind of God would He be if nothing spectacular happened around Him?
Having said this, I feel though that Jonah is a literal, historical account because of all the specific and historical elements in the story. When you read the parables of Jesus, you see that Jesus is speaking in general terms--sower, seed, four types of soil. These elements could be found in any agricultural society of Jesus' day. The story of Jonah though mentions a literal historical person, Jonah son of Amittai (found in 2 Kings 14:25) and literal historical cities, such as, Joppa, Tarshish, Nineveh. If the author of Jonah had wanted us to think in terms of a symbolical parable, I don't think he would have written in literal, historical terms. (Again, this is the impression I get from the story. You may favor a parabolic approach. Either though is still conservative.)
Having stated this, we need to look at the primary theme of the Book of Jonah. Jonah, typical of most Jews, misunderstood what it meant to be the chosen people of God. The Jews believed that their being chosen was all about them. They, not the Gentiles, were chosen to be beloved of God. They, not the Gentiles, were going to enjoy the blessings of God's promises to Abraham. Gentiles, on the other hand, were created to fuel the fires of hell (although it was not the only attitude Jews expressed, it definitely was one attitude as seen in the story of Jonah). Oh, a Gentile could be saved but only after he had first become a Jew. It really was all about the Jews. (Notice that in Jonah the people of Nineveh did not have to become Jews first before God saved them!)
This attitude of Jonah and many Jews reminds me of my little nephew who recently did a little jig saying, "Go me! Go me! Go me! Go me!" That is hysterical when performed by a 2-year old. It is quite sad of a young person or an adult. Although we may not perform that jig, our attitude though refined may still be the same. How much are we going to lavish on ourselves this Christmas and totally refuse to give anything to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering which helps missionaries spread the gospel throughout the world? How many of us want the worship service to be the kind we like and not necessarily the kind that can reach the most number of people in Corsicana? How many of us are attached to a certain room in the church and refuse to move elsewhere if it means that another group might need it to grow? (At one church I was serving a little lady told me that her husband would roll over in his grave if I ever made her move out of her SS class room.) We claim that we care about the lost; however, our actions say that we don't care enough. The Book of Jonah states that it is not all about you. It is about God reaching out to others through us who have experienced God's salvation.
GOD'S COMMISSION AND JONAH'S RESPONSE (Jonah 1:1-3)
The word of the Lord comes to Jonah instructing him to "arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me." First, Nineveh is described as the great city. At its peak Nineveh had approximately 120,000 inhabitants, a large city for the ancient world. At the time of Jonah (~780 BC) Nineveh had not become the capital of Assyria; it only rose to this position approximately 100 years later. Yet by ancient standards it was still significant (note that it took Jonah three days to preach his way through the city). Second, Jonah is to cry against the city, warning her that if she did not repent, she would suffer wrath from the Lord. Third, Nineveh is described as "wicked." The specific wickedness of Nineveh was linked to her penchant for cruelty, first towards her own people and then towards those she conquered. Iraq today has the same general territorial boundaries as ancient Assyria. Nineveh is located just outside modern Mosul, located in the north of modern Iraq. Even today we see Iraqis cutting off people's tongues and scourging people. We read in ancient literature about Assyrian kings hacking off the limbs of their subjects. It was at the very least a barbarous society.
Jonah's response. He did exactly as the Lord commanded. He "rose and went" except in a far different direction from the one the Lord had outlined for him. Instead of going NE about 500 miles to Nineveh, he heads SW to the port of Joppa, hops on a Phoenician ship, and heads for Tarshish, a port in Spain, thought to be the westernmost part of the universe. He got as far away from Nineveh as possible. In doing so he thought that he was getting away from the Lord.
Why did Jonah respond this way? Later, he will tell the Lord that he was afraid Nineveh would actually repent when it learned God was going to destroy her if she did not change. He wasn't afraid for his life. Nineveh at this point had not done anything against Israel. Apparently in Jonah's eyes, Nineveh was good for nothing better than fuel for the flames of hell, and he did not want to do anything which might prevent that from happening. (Sounds bizarre right? But how many of us when we've been wronged by somebody reach out to that person so that they can escape punishment?)
GOD PURSUES JONAH (Jonah 1:4-9)
At first, everything goes smoothly. He makes it to Joppa with no difficulty, he finds a ship headed in his direction, finds room on the ship, and discovers that the ship launches off without any difficulty. Jonah is going to be successful in evading God's will. That's the same mistake each of us makes whenever we refuse to do what God would have us to do. The house WE wanted to buy becomes available to us. The job WE had to have comes our way. The way WE wanted to use our money seems fine. Our kids are turning out exactly the way WE wanted them to turn out. We feel like we have gotten away with our ruse. Yet, just as in the case of Jonah, God is going to use all our plans against us in order to get our attention and bring us back to Him.
While Jonah is on his ship sailing merrily to the furthest ends of the earth, God sends a violent storm upon the vessel. When we read this story, we come away with the impression that the storm is so violent that it begins to wreck the ship. That's not the impression the Hebrew text gives. The Hebrew states that the ship itself decided to get in on the act and determined to come apart at the seams. The storm AND the ship get in on the act of disciplining Jonah.
Now Jonah had posed himself to be one of God's people, even God's prophet, while pagans were good for nothing better than God's wrath. Yet see how the author contrasts "righteous" Jonah with the pagan sailors. When the storm breaks forth upon the ship, Jonah is asleep while they are awake. While Jonah sleeps, the sailors correctly surmise that this storm is an act of God. While Jonah sleeps, the sailors pray that their gods deliver them from the storm. The pagans come off looking better than Jonah does in this story.
The same holds true today. Nobody is more superficial than a Christian who has been touched by the Spirit of God and yet has given himself over to crass materialism, or the Christian who has met Christ and yet gets his value from a college football team or another person. No one is meaner than the Christian who has encountered the Spirit of God and yet has decided to become the self-appointed judge over everybody else. These Christians act in ways which would never cross the mind of many non-Christians. Sometimes pagans come off looking better than these Christians.
Too often Christians are asleep just like Jonah was in this story. Because of Jesus' actions in the Garden of Gethsemane, staying awake and alert are a major motif in the New Testament. What does it mean to be awake spiritually, and how does one stay awake? First, a person is awake who knows and understands (1) that God is doing something in his life and (2) what God is actually is doing in his life. Second, the way a person stays awake spiritually is by being sensitive to his relationship with Jesus Christ. I make myself available to hear what He is saying to me by spending time in my Bible (through Quiet Times, through listening to sermons and Christian teachers, and through Bible study) and in prayer. After Christ has spoken to me, I then respond immediately and positively. Negotiation is not a part of the process.
(Notice 2 other things. First, simply because Jonah was getting a good night's rest did not mean that he was OK in his relationship with the Lord. People who sleep soundly may have simply seared their consciences. Second, the sailors not only prayed, they tried to do something about the situation by throwing the cargo overboard. All human effort was failing them in this incident.)
At this point the captain of the ship discovers that Jonah is sound asleep beneath deck. He wakes Jonah and reproaches him for sleeping while everybody else is trying to rescue themselves. Whereas we don't pick this up in the English translations, the original Hebrew tells us that the captain uses the exact same words to move Jonah that God used earlier: "Arise, go and pray to your God!" If the author of Jonah picked up the exact semblance of these words, then you know that Jonah himself did. In the captain's words, he heard the words of God. Despite all his efforts, Jonah had not escaped God.
When Jonah goes up on board, the sailors correctly surmise that somebody on the ship has done something to wrong their God. (Once more note that the pagans come across more spiritually astute than God's man. If anybody deserved salvation, they did, not Jonah.) They cast lots to determine who that person is. Casting lots involved throwing 2 stones, black on one side and white on the other. If both stones came up with the black sides showing, it meant that the person was guilty. If both stones came up white, then the person was innocent. If one came up black and the other white, then you had to throw the stones again. Apparently both sides came up black when they were rolled on Jonah's behalf.
The sailors knowing that Jonah is guilty pepper him with questions: "Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?" (These last 2 questions were to help the sailors discover which God was involved in this storm.) Jonah's response (his very first words in the book) condemned himself. He did not simply say, "Yahweh." He said, "The Lord of heaven who made the sea and the dry land," the Creator of the entire universe including the people of Nineveh.
The fact that Jesus is the creator of the universe, the creator of all mankind means that He is for all people. If God had made only the Israelites, then He would have been the exclusive property of the Jews. Yet Christ has created all mankind and therefore is not the exclusive property of any one group or people. The way that Christ saves us demonstrates that He is for all people. If people were saved by keeping the OT Law, then He would be the exclusive property of only a select few because only this select few had access to the OT Law. The fact though that faith is what brings us into a saving relationship with Christ proves that Christ is for all people because ALL PEOPLE CAN EXERCISE FAITH! Jonah's fleeing from Nineveh was not based upon bad theology. It was based purely upon rebellion.
GOD DISCIPLINES JONAH (1:10-17)
The pagan sailors simply can't believe that God's man would outright refuse to obey his God: "How could you do this?" Pagans would never think about disobeying their gods while God's people sometimes don't think twice about it. Since the storm is really between Jonah and his God, the sailors ask Jonah what needs to be done in order to assuage his God's wrath and calm the sea. Jonah instructs them to throw himself overboard.
This places the sailors in a quandary. Apparently Jonah's God is nobody to be trifled with--the violent storm being proof of that. Since Jonah is God's man, then his God might really be angry with them if they cast him overboard. They come up with a different solution--they will row him back to shore so that he can do what God had originally ordered him to do. This fails. The sea actually becomes stormier. There is only one solution to this situation--Jonah's death. They pray to Jonah's God asking first that He not punish them for Jonah's rebellion and second that if Jonah just happens to be innocent He not hold Jonah's death against them.
(Why didn't Jonah just simply jump into the sea by himself and leave the sailors out of this? Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he believed that this would have been suicide, a sin Jews believed God would not forgive. Maybe he wanted the pagans involved so that God would destroy them.)
The sailors follow Jonah's instructions and cast him into the sea. Immediately the storm breaks and the ship with its crew is saved. The pagan sailors respond by offering sacrifice and making vows to offer sacrifice later to Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Lord of all mankind. God has actually used Jonah's rebellion to do the exact opposite of what Jonah wanted--the salvation of non-Jews. Once more the pagans come off looking better than God's people.
One other issue needs to be addressed. Why didn't God respond positively to the sailors' attempts to row the ship back to shore and set Jonah back off on his journey as God had originally planned? Wasn't Jonah going to be able to do what God had wanted him to do? It's not that simple. Sometimes we go too far in our rebellion against God. We cross a line in which simple repentance does not work. We make of ourselves something which calls for drastic measures--that part of us needs to die. Our response is that we try to spray cologne on this rebellious person to make him more presentable. We dress him up in the finest apparel and put him in positions of leadership. This is not God's way. Jonah had to change and change radically. The only way for him to change was to die. Only after he had died could he rise to a new life. It is by no means an accident that Jesus used the story of Jonah being thrown overboard and swallowed by the fish to represent his death, burial, and resurrection (Matt. 12:40).