Jonah is my favourite prophet. He is a reluctant, disobedient, self-righteous and self-pitying servant of God. Just like me.
His name means ‘dove’,and 2 Kings 14:25 tells us that he came from a town in Galilee. One greater than Jonah, also from Galilee, would reference him more than once. God sent Jonah to Nineveh, a major city of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians, a cruel and violent people, were Israel’s enemies.
God gives Jonah instructions to go east, but the prophet decides to head west. Twice in verse 3 it says that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord—you’d think a prophet would know better. God didn’t stop him from getting to Joppa, finding a ship, paying the fare, getting on board (1:3). Open doors aren’t necessarily gifts from above.
But God doesn’t let him get away, and He hurls a great wind upon the sea. The pagan sailors do all they can to save their lives, and the captain urges a sleeping Jonah to get up and pray, probably the last thing he wanted to do. They cast lots and find out that Jonah is the cause of their misfortune. When asked who he is and what he does, Jonah replies, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” One of the sailors should have then said, “You say this God made the sea. The same sea you are using to run away from Him?”
Jonah asks them to throw him overboard, but they hesitate: they show greater compassion for him than he would later show the Ninevites. Before they comply with his request, they ask Yahweh for forgiveness, and when the sea calms, they offer sacrifices and make vows to God. Between Jonah and the pagans, who truly feared/worshipped God? Like Jonah, our beliefs aren’t always backed up by our actions.
God could have let Jonah drown, or be eaten by some sea creature. Instead He sends a great fish to swallow the errant man of God. From inside the fish Jonah prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God. However, there are notes of self-righteousness in 2:8-9:
“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”
Ironically, while the pagan sailors offered thanks and made vows, Jonah was sinking to the bottom of the sea. And while he ends his prayer saying, “Salvation comes from the LORD,” we’ll later see how he put limits on God’s salvation.
3:1-3 mirrors 1:1-3. God could have found someone else to send. He could have rebuked and chastened Jonah. Instead He forgives and reinstates him. This time, Jonah obeys.
The sermon he preached had exceedingly spectacular results! The entire city, from the least to the greatest, animals included, repents. And God relents. Amazingly, these non-Jews who had so little revelation of God were receptive to His word. No wonder the One greater than Jonah said the Ninevites would condemn His generation. May we learn to use God’s revelation wisely.
Jonah is furious that God would show mercy to the unwashed pagans. He’s okay with being the recipient of God’s mercy probably because he felt entitled to it. However, if mercy could be earned, then it isn’t mercy.
God doesn’t strike him down for his rotten attitude, but instead asks a question. In reply Jonah goes off to sulk, still hoping to see some destruction. God then appoints a plant, a worm, and a harsh wind. The first greatly pleases Jonah; the other two, not so much. Jonah was very unhappy about God’s relenting (4:1), and very happy about the plant (4:6). Yahweh points this out to him: if Jonah is justified in his concerns over a plant, how much more should God be concerned over an entire city?
Jonah’s answer isn’t recorded. We are to answer the question for ourselves, and to ask God to give us hearts like His that delight in showing mercy to all who repent, without discrimination. We may need to repent of sin like the Ninevites, or to repent of self-righteousness and hypocrisy like Jonah.
I firmly believe that eventually Jonah genuinely repented. Otherwise we wouldn’t be reading about him, and more importantly, Jesus wouldn’t have brought him up as He did. And because Christ, like Jonah, was in the heart of the earth three days and three nights, we too can be forgiven!
Sources: ESVSB sample, Melvin Tinker, notes from a Bible study I led.