The first thing to be said about the Old Testament book of Jonah is that it’s not a fish story. Only three of its 42 verses deal with the great fish we immediately think of when we think of Jonah. The fish is only one of His creatures that God sends to rescue Jonah throughout the four short chapters of this book.
It should be said though, that we may be tempted to wonder why God even bothers with rescuing Jonah. He’s rebellious, selfish, even hateful.
But then, when others observe us, people who are, by baptism and belief in Jesus, simultaneously saints and sinners, the same question may arise: Why is it that God bothers with people who can, at times, be so fervent in confessing their faith and also be so rebellious, selfish, and hateful?
As we began this series two Wednesdays ago, we said that the Old Testament books of Ruth and Jonah compel us to ask some big questions. And we’ve begun to answer them.
In Ruth, we saw that God’s care for His own people–represented by Naomi, Elimelech, and their two sons–didn’t stop at the border between Israel and Moab, where they went as hungry refugees; God, Yahweh, was still their God and with them outside the promised land.
We've learned that God was equally concerned about people outside His Old Testament covenant. Through His Word, shared by Naomi and her family, Ruth, a Moabite foreigner, came to believe in God, even becoming the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s second king and the ancestor of the family into which Jesus, the Savior of the world was to be born.
In turning tonight to Jonah, we see our questions more fully answered by God’s Word. The God we know in Jesus isn’t confined to particular places. He’s got the whole world, actually the whole universe, in His hands.
Jonah lived more than two hundred years after the time of Ruth. By his time, Israel had torn into two: a kingdom to the south, often called Judah, with worship centered in Jerusalem, and a kingdom to the north, called Israel, whose worship life would eventually settle in Samaria.
Both kingdoms rebelled against God. But Israel, the northern kingdom, was the most notorious in its idolatries and mixing of other religions with the worship of Yahweh. Nonetheless, the north produced great people of God, including the prophet, Elijah. The ancient rabbis believed that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath who God raised from the dead through Elijah. That may or may not be true, but we do know that Jonah was one of the prophets at the king’s court in 2 Kings.
Jonah is the fifth of the twelve minor prophets whose books are bundled together in the Old Testament. Unlike the books of the other prophets, which are mainly composed of the oracles God gave them to speak, the book of Jonah is a historic narrative that tells us about what happened when God commissioned Jonah to speak God’s Word to the Ninevites, when Jonah refused to do so, when God again called Jonah to go to Nineveh, and when Jonah finally delivered God’s Word to the Ninevites.
But what is a prophet? Above all, God called prophets to deliver God’s call to people to turn to God in repentance and faith. That's important to keep it in mind.
Now, to our text for tonight, Jonah 1:1-17. It begins, as we see in other prophets’ stories, with the Word of God coming to Jonah. He’s to go to Nineveh to preach against the Ninevites and their wickedness which, God says, “has come up before Me.” (Jonah 1:2)
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, a nation that had treated God’s people harshly. The archeological remains of Nineveh exist today not far from the Iraqi city of Mosul, about 250 miles from Baghdad.
There would have been great dangers for Jonah in going into enemy territory. But that, as we’ll see, isn’t why Jonah didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites. He was concerned that the Ninevites might repent, trust in God, and be welcomed into relationship with God. But Jonah hated the Ninevites and didn’t want them to walk with God.
So, instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah books passage on a ship in the Mediterranean to someplace called Tarshish. Jonah thinks that he can “flee from the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3) In his anger with God, Jonah seems to have momentarily forgotten that the presence of the Creator of the universe can’t confined to his homeland. King David, who lived several centuries earlier knew better than that. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me…” David writes in Psalm 139:8-10. God is with us even when we don’t want Him to be!
As you know, a huge storm erupts. Each of the sailors and passengers prays to their own gods and toss cargo overboard to lighten the weight of the ship. But nothing stops the storm or settles the ship. The other passengers cast lots to determine who’s at fault for this life-threatening storm. The lot falls to Jonah. Although running from God, Jonah, a saint by God’s grace and a sinner by birth, confesses his faith to Gentiles. Now, this is ironic. In confessing his faith in God to Gentiles on that ship, Jonah is doing the very thing God wanted to send him to Nineveh to do. (Another case of, “Either God gets His way or God gets His way.) Jonah tells his shipmates: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9) He explains that he has displeased God by running from the mission God has given to him and that to save themselves, the passengers and crew must throw him into the sea.
Thoughts like these may have been going through Jonah’s mind as he floundered in the sea. But, God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)