Rush City Baptist Church
Jonah – The Reluctant Prophet
Sunday, April 13, 2008
INTRODUCTION: The book of Jonah has unfortunately become known as the story of Jonah and the whale, with Jonah being the main character. This is misleading for he is not the principal person in the narrative; God is. The Lord had the first word: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me’” (1:1-2). God also had the last say: “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:11). Twice God commanded the prophet to go to Nineveh (1:2; 3:2). And five times in the book God appointed or provided something specific to get the reluctant prophet to do his will. In the first chapter God prepared a great wind (1:4) and a great fish (1:17). And in the last chapter God appointed a shading vine, a starving worm, and a scorching east wind (4:6-8).
“The story is God’s story. It is a story without a hero; Jonah is like the chief figure in some novels, an anti-hero. He is a Hebrew who fears the Lord and can and does confess him as Lord, the omnipotent and omnipresent God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (1:9), and yet he attempts to flee from his presence (1:3). He knows, as he prays from the deep, that deliverance belongs to the Lord (2:9), and he confesses that the Lord is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, a God who repents of evil (4:2). And yet he would rather die than see God’s long suffering and mercy in free and full operation (4:3). He is put to shame by the behavior of the pagans to whom he begrudges God’s mercy. A pagan ship’s captain summons the sleeping prophet to prayer (1:6). Pagan mariners row hard to save his forfeited life (1:13) and with reluctance obey his command to throw him overboard (1:14-15); their conscience is more tender than his. They fear exceedingly and offer sacrifice to the Lord (1:16) who’s word and will Jonah disregards. The men of Nineveh repent in sackcloth and ashes and believe God when his prophet threatens the overthrow of their city (3:5-9) and find in him a merciful God (3:10), while the prophet in a suicidal rage protests against the undeserved compassion of God (4:1-5), the very compassion to which he owes his life.” (Concordia)
We are first introduced to the biblical character Jonah in the historical book of 2 Kings. The historian wrote concerning king Jeroboam, “He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, 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” (14:25). Jonah was a prophet of the Lord from Gath Hepher, a town in the tribe of Zebulun (Joshua 19:10, 13), located in lower Galilee, about three miles NE of Nazareth. Jonah lived when Jeroboam was king of the northern kingdom of Israel, which would make him a contemporary of both Hosea (a northerner who prophesied against the north) and Amos (a southerner who prophesied against the north).
Jonah’s prediction about Israel’s boundaries being extended may indicate that he made that prophecy early in Jeroboam’s reign. Jeroboam was the most powerful king of the northern kingdom. “In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit” (2 Kings 14:23-24). Earlier the Assyrians had established supremacy in the Middle East and secured tribute from Jehu, a predecessor of Jeroboam. However, after defeating the Arameans, the Assyrians suffered temporary decline because of internal dissension. In the temporary vacuum of power in the Middle East Jeroboam was able to expand his nation’s territories to their greatest extent since the time of David and Solomon by occupying land that formerly belonged to Aram.
However, the religious life of Israel was such that God sent both Hosea and Amos to warn the disobedient nation of impending judgment. Because of Israel’s stubbornness, the nation would fall under God’s chosen instrument of wrath, a Gentile nation to the east. This prediction appeared in the prophecy of Hosea, “Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?” (11:5). So Assyria, then in temporary decline, would awaken and destroy the northern kingdom. The prophecies of Amos and Hosea may explain Jonah’s reluctance to preach in Nineveh. He feared he would be used to help the enemy that would later destroy his own nation.
The ancient ruins of Nineveh are located a short distance from the east bank of the Tigris River and opposite the modern city of Mosul, which is about 220 miles NW of Baghdad. Nineveh was a large and imposing fortified city with an outer wall and an inner wall. The outline of the city walls, which are about eight miles in circumference and enclose an area of about 1800 acres, can still be traced. The Assyrian king Sennacherib made Nineveh his capital and turned it into one of the architectural wonders of the world. He pulled down the old palace and built his new one on a platform well above the level of the city. He enlarged and beautified the city with temples, broad streets, and public gardens. Unique in the Near East were the dimensions and design of his aqueduct, which by its system of dams brought fresh water into the city from the mountains to the east. The king also built massive walls and fortifications around the city for protection.
The prophetic book of Jonah is vastly different than the rest of the Minor Prophets. While the books we have covered so far give the briefest amount of historical information, choosing to focus on the prophecies of God, the book of Jonah is almost entirely historical narrative, with the briefest prophecy limited to eight words, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (3:4). The adventures of Jonah are similar in nature to the dramatic narratives of the non-writing prophets like Elijah and Elisha, instead of Jonah’s contemporaries Amos and Hosea, whose books are primarily prophetic prose.
God Commissions a Reluctant Prophet (1:1-17). Without any previous background information, the narrative abruptly begins with God’s commission for Jonah to travel to Nineveh to deliver a message of condemnation against them. Nineveh was located 550 NE of Samaria. The reason God sent Jonah was because the wickedness of the city was known to him. The prophet Nahum detailed Nineveh’s sins, “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses—all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft” (4:1-4).
Instead of traveling NE, Jonah boarded a ship at Joppa sailing in the opposite direction. The ship was bound for Tarshish, probably in southern Spain, about 2500 miles west of Joppa. Although Jonah knew he could not flee from God’s presence, he felt that he could make himself unavailable. As the storm at sea is narrated, there is an interesting contrast between the reluctant prophet and the pagan sailors. Jonah was not doing his job, while the sailors went beyond the call of duty. Jonah was unconcerned and fell asleep during the storm, while the sailors were concerned and engaged in prayer. Jonah wanted to hide the truth while the sailors wanted to find out the truth. Jonah said that he feared God but he still disobeyed, while the sailors greatly feared God and were quick to obey. Jonah did not grasp the seriousness of the situation while the sailors immediately grasped the seriousness. And Jonah still did not value human life, while the sailors did.
God is Praised by a Repentant Prophet (2:1-10). This prayer by Jonah was not a plea for deliverance for there were no petitions in it. The prayer was a psalm of thanksgiving to God for using the fish to save him from drowning. The prayer consists for the most part of reminiscences of passages in the Psalms, which were so exactly suited to Jonah’s circumstances, that he could not have expressed his thoughts and feelings any better in words of his own. Notice the five elements of this thanksgiving psalm. The Proclamation. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (2:2). The Distress. “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever” (2:3-6a). The Deliverance. “But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple” (2:6b-7). The Instruction. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (2:8). The Praise. “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord” (2:9).
God Recommissions a Regurgitated Prophet (3:1-10). Upon making his prophet willing to go, God once again commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh. God is clearly the God of the second chance. Jonah was told to preach only what God commanded him to say. Entering the city on the first day, Jonah began to preach a message of complete destruction, without any hint of being spared. He traveled for three days throughout the city of Nineveh and its suburbs before exiting to the east. Upon hearing Jonah’s distressing message, the people of Nineveh, from every social level, responded with repentance, demonstrating by fasting and wearing sackcloth. Even the king was humbled and proclaimed a decree throughout the city that everyone should turn to God.
God Rebukes a Petulant Prophet (4:1-11). When Jonah finished his preaching throughout the environs of this enemy city and the pagans responded to his words of condemnation, Jonah’s greatest fears came true. Instead of wiping out these godless pagans, which was Jonah’s desire, God spared them in an act of divine mercy. In Jonah’s anger he revealed the sinful condition of his own heart. Listen to the indictment that Jonah brings on himself. “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2).
CONCLUSION: The book focuses in two ways on God’s compassion for those outside of Israel. The book contrasts the spiritually sensitive “pagans” with the spiritual insensitivity of the prophet. In chapter 1 the pagan sailors fear God’s wrath experienced in the storm while Jonah sleeps and then asks to be killed. In chapter 3 Nineveh experiences a city-wide repentance. The book concludes with a rhetorical question to focuses on God’s feelings for Nineveh: “Should I not be more concerned about that great city?” The book delivers a stern rebuke to Israel. Jonah represents Israel in the book. As a prophet Jonah should have been God’s servant fulfilling God’s command. However, Jonah did everything he could to avoid fulfilling the divine command. When Jonah finally did give in and go to Nineveh he sank into a deep depression and grew angry toward God because of the compassion he had on the Ninevites. Just as Jonah had no compassion for Nineveh the nation had an ongoing history of not taking seriously their obligation to be light for the Gentiles. Chapter 4 highlights the contrast of Jonah’s misplaced priorities. The book stresses the sovereignty of God. One of the key words repeated in the book in “provided” or “appointed.”
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