Many have thought that the story of Jonah is probably the most well-known narrative in the Bible. As appealing and entertaining as it is, it also resonates with how many of us relate to God. We run from Him as far as we can, we praise Him when He delivers us, we obey Him for awhile, then we fall back into our old habits of stubbornness, prejudice, and depression. Yes, I see Jonah as a typical example of many Christians throughout history. But just what is to be learned from this “fish story”? (By the way, if you have any thoughts of not believing the story of Jonah, you will also have trouble believing Jesus. Jesus referred to Jonah in Matt. 12:39-41.)
Memory Text: “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.” Jonah 2:9 NIV
I find it significant that the words “thanksgiving” and “sacrifice” are used in such close proximity here. I think they are actually inseparable, because without a thankful heart, no sacrifice is acceptable to God. And likewise, being thankful doesn’t mean a thing, if it doesn’t result in sacrifice of some kind. This was surely one of the lessons God was trying to get across to Jonah.
Sunday: The Disobedient Prophet (Jonah 1)
Jonah was a well-liked prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, probably in the eighth century B.C. Israel prospered under Jeroboam, and became a power in the Middle East, with the help of the patriotic prophet Jonah, son of Amittai.
However, Jonah was asked by the Lord to preach in the land of their enemy, the Assyrians. Ninevah, on the Tigris River, was one of three great cities in Assyria, a notoriously cruel kingdom. We can see many reasons why Jonah was hesitant to obey God and go to Ninevah. It was a dangerous, distasteful assignment, not unlike those of other minor prophets we’ve studied so far.
How would we feel if one of our church’s leading, popular evangelists felt he was being sent to preach in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and to Muslims, no less? I dare say, those close to him would encourage him heavily to reconsider such a foolhardy missionary project, and he might be more than happy to listen to their advice and go somewhere else.
Personal Thought Question: Does God really require all that much from me, His professed servant? What am I willing to do to further His kingdom? Am I sacrificing at all for the spread of the gospel? When I’m called upon to give till it hurts, am I happy to do so? Do I run away from God when the going gets tough, or am I willing to follow Him no matter what or where?
Monday: Reluctant Witness
The story of Jonah continues in chapter one with a ship setting off to sea in the opposite direction from Ninevah, and Jonah is asleep in the hold. Perhaps it is a sleep of escape–trying to escape his guilt for not obeying God. In any event, a storm comes up and the captain of the ship goes down to awaken Jonah and tell him to start praying for their safety.
These pagan seaman seem to have their heart in the right place though. Dealing with the tragedy in the only way they know how, they draw lots and discover that it must be Jonah’s disobedient behavior that has gotten them in such a fix. Even then, they are reluctant to throw him overboard, as Jonah himself has suggested, and they row with all their might for shore to stall carrying it out.
Jonah may not be in idolatrous Ninevah yet, but God places him in the position of witnessing to these pagan sailors, and he does so quite effectively. In Jonah’s introduction he says, “I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah 1:9 KJV
Not only does he tell who he is, but he describes his God as the Creator, mentioning the sea first, as a recognition of those he is witnessing to. This is a good tip for us, when we witness to others. Meet them where they are.
When the storm immediately ceases to rage after throwing Jonah overboard, it is no wonder the sailors are in awe of this Creator God. He not only made the seas, but He is able to control them.
Speaking of controlling the powers of nature, this episode so far must be reminiscent of another story of a storm being calmed by Jesus in the New Testament. It’s in Mark 4:37-41:
[“And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”]
Tuesday: Jonah’s Psalm (Jonah 2)
We all know the next event in Jonah’s journey back to God. A great fish is sent to swallow him up and spit him back up on land three days later. This is what Jesus referred to in Matthew 12:40, mentioned earlier. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus was referring, of course, to His death, burial, and resurrection on the third day. But there are other times when God has allowed a dark period, before He works things out for His people. He “allowed” the flood in Noah’s day, Joseph’s sale into slavery, the many generations God’s people spent in Egyptian and Babylonian captivity, David spending years running away from Saul. These are just a few deliverance stories that come to mind, indicating that God never leaves us during trials, but is always pleading with us to not leave Him.
Most of our perplexities and hardships in life may never be explained to us fully this side of heaven. But they don’t have to keep us from trusting God, who will ultimately work it all out for good, in the end.
Jonah 2 is well worth reading, especially if you are going through some trial in your life. When you think of Jonah in the belly of this great fish as he’s praying this, it will certainly bring your life into perspective and help you see that God is still in control. Verse 7 says, “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.”
And then the Lord spoke to the fish, and he spit Jonah out on dry land. Now, that had to be a miracle!
Wednesday: A Successful Mission
What a fantastic sermon Jonah must have been inspired to preach in Ninevah, after his harrowing experience at sea. And the people there were so repentant that the Lord decided not to have them overthrown after the forty days allotted to them.
The reason for the sackcloth and ashes, a custom for those times, was for the purpose of humility. That and the fasting, especially as exemplified by the king, the leader of the people, undoubtedly led to heartfelt repentance, and a change in their evil ways throughout the city.
God used Jonah, a flawed messenger, to witness a greatly successful mission. Can He not use each of us in some way to achieve His purposes for the universe?
Thursday: Forgiven, Yet Unforgiving (Jonah 4)
Jonah’s unexpected turnabout of actions and emotions after the Lord saved Ninevah can only be described as hardness of heart. Perhaps he was thinking of the reaction of his fellow Israelites back home. How would they respond when they learned that Jonah had been instrumental in saving their longtime, hated enemy? Perhaps Jonah was also unhappy that he was unable to accomplish the same result of saving souls, whole cities, in his home country.
Whatever his motive for such anger and depression after Ninevah was saved, one hopes that he was finally able to see that the grace and forgiveness of God is much greater than ours. And that we must continually be striving to extend the same forgiveness to everyone, no matter how difficult it may seem.
Conclusion: We can draw many lessons from Jonah’s story of forgiveness. God not only forgave a foreign pagan city, but He was willing to work repeatedly with Jonah himself, despite his unchristian and unholy ways. It’s no wonder that Jewish people even today read the book of Jonah during their Day of Atonement celebration. It encompasses forgiveness on many levels.
Next week: Read Micah…”He hath shown thee, O man, what is good…” Find out what is good by reading Micah for next week’s lesson!