A Look at Jonah: A Difficult Calling
Christians often talk about God’s calling for their lives. We like to think that we’ve got it all figured out—that we know God’s purpose for us. However, I think we need to prayerfully discern whether or not that “calling” is actually just our own desire. It’s easy to have a dream and assume that it is what God wants for us. I am not dismissing the possibility that God’s will can in fact match our desires. In fact, this is quite common. However, we need to understand that God often calls us to do things that we aren’t comfortable with. Such is the case with His own prophet, Jonah.
Before we dive into the account of Jonah, let’s set up some important context.
First, we need to understand who Jonah was. Jonah was a prophet from the land of Israel. We hear the title “prophet” tossed around a lot, but what does it actually mean to be a prophet?
The English word prophet comes from the Greek compound word, “prophets,” which means “one who speaks forth” or “advocate.”
In Hebrew, “spokesperson,” translates as “prophet” in English.
Prophets are also known in Scripture as “seers” because of their spiritual insight or ability to “see” into the future. Of course it is God Himself who allows these select few to “see” in a super-natural sense.
Prophets were called by God to boldly proclaim His truth and will to others. This means that a prophet never contradicts God’s revealed Word. If someone claims to hear from God and contradicts what the Bible says, this person is a liar and a false prophet.
Jonah was a true prophet because he was called by God to faithfully proclaim God’s divine message to others.
Let’s take a look at another key component in this account—the Ninevites.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire–who were Israel’s oppressors at the time (Genesis 10:11-12, 2 Kings 19:35-37, Isaiah 10:5-19). They were known for their merciless brutality against their enemies. Many Israelites were savagely murdered during their reign. I think it is safe to assume that the Ninevites probably took the lives of people Jonah knew personally.
Now that we have some brief context, let us explore the first chapter of Jonah.
God appears to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness (1:1-2). Immediately, we see that God has already planned a means of salvation for the wicked people of Nineveh. If it were not so, He would not have commanded His prophet to preach against them. He could have smited them down without warning or relent. Instead He sends Jonah, the prophet whom He set apart, to warn the great city of the impending doom so that they might receive salvation.
As we stated earlier, a prophet’s divine calling was to relay God’s message to the people with boldness. However, Jonah fled from his assignment.
The Scriptures tell us that he boarded a ship that was headed for Tarshish so that he might flee from the LORD. An interesting note here is that Tarshish was in the complete opposite direction of Nineveh. In fact, Tarshish and Nineveh were thousands of miles apart. Jonah not only ran from the calling God placed on his life, but from God’s presence as well (1:3).To go a step farther, he also tried to get as far away as he possibly could from God and the task He assigned him.
As Jonah will soon find out, it is futile to run from the LORD. God sent a mighty storm that threatened to break up the ship (1:4). The mariners onboard were afraid and each cried out to their own gods, desperate for the storm to cease. It’s interesting that the sailors’ first response to trouble was to call out to their gods. That shows me the faith that these men had in their deities. After they prayed, they threw some of the cargo overboard to lighten the load. Everyone on the ship is in mass panic and is working to make things right. Then the Scripture says this in verse 5: “But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep.”
What does that say about Jonah?
Perhaps his heart was so hardened that he was oblivious to the storm. It could be that he passed out from exhaustion because of the mental anguish and guilt he experienced when running from God. Maybe, he just didn’t care.
Whatever his motives were (or weren’t), we can be sure that when we depart from God’s presence, there is a sense of callousness .
The captain wakes Jonah and tells him to cry out to his God in hopes that He might calm the raging seas (1:6).
The men cast lots to see who was at fault for this great storm. The lots rightly fell on Jonah. They interrogate him to find out why this is happening. Jonah says, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
Jonah claims to fear God; however, his actions say otherwise. If Jonah knew that God was lord of the sea, why did Jonah think he could out-sail Him?
Don’t we do the same thing though? Just like how Adam and Eve tried to hide from God’s presence, so we too try to hide and flee from His will for our lives.
King and songwriter David had this to say about fleeing from God.
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:7-10)
God is always with us, ready to lead us through whatever we may go through. Jonah knew these words yet still tried to flee from the mighty hand of God.
(1:10) “The men were seized by a great fear…” The mariners realized that the cause of this storm was because Jonah is fleeing from God. It’s worth noting that it’s when Jonah admits his actions that the men became seized with fear. Obviously, they were already afraid. However, it is when they realized that this isn’t a storm but the wrath of God that they are facing.
So they asked Jonah what they ought to do and he replied by telling them to throw him overboard. He is the cause of the storm and he is the one that ought to pay.
The men tried rowing back to shore but it was of no use. They called out to God and begged Him not to harm them for taking Jonah’s life. After their prayers, they “picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.” Immediately, God calmed the sea and provided rest and salvation for the sailors. They were again seized by a great fear for they saw the awesome power of God and made sacrifices and vows in service to Him. Through Jonah’s disobedience, the men on the boat came to know the one true God (1:11-16).
And God provided a great fish to swallow up Jonah and Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights (1:17).
Jonah thought that he would die by the ocean and perhaps by this fish… and he was ok with that. He would rather have died than face the task God gave him.
So I ask, does it seem like God’s calling matched Jonah’s desires?
Jonah prayed to the LORD his God (2:1).
Jonah claims that God is his God and LORD; yet he still ran from Him.
Did Jonah’s disobedience disqualify him from being used by God? Absolutely not. It says in verse 2 that the LORD answered Jonah when he cried out to Him. It’s clear to me that God wasn’t holding a grudge against Jonah, nor was He giving him the silent treatment.
Jesus said that he would leave the 99 to rescue the 1 that had gone astray. The father ran to and welcomed the prodigal son back home. God loves us and wants us to love Him. He wants a relationship with us.
Notice how it’s when Jonah gets caught that he cries out to God. He was content in the storm and he came to peace with drowning. However, it is when he is in distress that he calls out to God. He didn’t cry to God because the shame of his sin was too much to bear. He didn’t cry out to God because he rebelled against His Majesty. He didn’t cry out to God because he was desperate for God’s love. He cried out to God because of his affliction. There isn’t anything wrong with bringing our troubles to God. However, our prayer life should not be solely focused on what God can deliver us out of.
What brings you to prayer?
Do you find that a majority of your prayers are nothing but self-seeking?
But here’s the hope. God answers Jonah.
The LORD did not turn His back from Jonah even though Jonah turned his back from God. Though Jonah ran from God, God stepped up to help Jonah. Jonah was not left for abandon.
Jonah was convinced that the whale was his tomb.
He recognized that God was the one cast him into the sea; the one who caused the sea to stir. God allowed Jonah to be shaken up so that He could bring Jonah to himself. I can’t recall where I heard this, but it’s truth speaks volumes.
“God loves you so much and desires to hear from you so greatly, that He sometimes allows hardship just so He can hear from you.”
Sometimes our hardships are consequences of our own sin (like Jonah). Other times, it’s the result of living in a fallen world. In either case, God is still with us in the midst of these things. He isn’t pushing our nose into our own mess, but is drawing us to himself.
When Jonah’s life was ending, he remembered the LORD. I’m thankful that God doesn’t ever forget us (2:7).
You see, Jonah had to die to himself to find life in the LORD. For a time, troubles shut out hope; but faith revived when Jonah “remembered the LORD.” God restores our souls.
Psalm 23 is a great reminder of the restoration He provides.
So God commanded the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land. God had provided for Jonah many times within these first two chapters of the book. When God has a plan, He sees it through till the end. God chooses us, fallible humans, to accomplish those plans. He knows our limits and capabilities. God wants us to rely on Him when we reach those limits.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The LORD appeared to Jonah a second time (3:1). After rattling Jonah and setting him back on course, God commands the same task of him again (3:2). Jonah never forgot why he was running away from God. He knew what God asked of him. God repeats the command because now Jonah is ready to obey. This time he listens. He still had a choice. Jonah could still have chosen to flee from God; however, he recognizes that God is ultimately in control and surrenders to His will.
So Jonah goes to Nineveh (3:3).
Nineveh was a big city. It took three days to get from one end of the city to the next. During the first day’s walk, Jonah proclaimed God’s message to the people of Nineveh (4:4).
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” This was the only thing Jonah had to say. He fled from God because of eight words.
The people of Nineveh accepted God’s message. They believed in God, fasted, and put on sackcloth (3:5).
What is sackcloth?
Sackcloth was a coarse material usually made with goat’s hair, making it quite uncomfortable to wear. The act of putting on sackcloth was a symbolic way of showing one’s repentance and humility before God, as well as a way to show mourning.
It says not just the least of the people, but all of them, “from the greatest, to the least.”
The change of the people was so great that word was brought to the king of Nineveh himself. The Bible doesn’t mention that Jonah even had to share this warning to the king; the people of Nineveh did. The Ninevites carried out God’s message more obediently, faithfully, and more fearfully than God’s own prophet. The king of Nineveh was humbled, laying aside his elaborate robes for pathetic sackcloth.
Is there a time you’ve been humbled in a radical way?
The king used his position and authority to decree a capital-city-wide repentance (3:7-9). The whole city, including the animals, were commanded to fast from both food and drink, cover themselves with sackcloth, cry out to the Almighty God, and turn from their wicked ways.
“Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may perish?” This humble thought came from the king of one of the most brutal and wicked cities of all of history.
He did not know if God was going to spare them or rightfully smite them.
God saw their works, their repentance, and relents from the disaster He intended to bring upon them (3:10). God saw their works and relented. They had a complete change, not just with words but through their works.
James 2:14-26 sheds more light on this truth.
We serve a merciful God. Through their repentance and prayer, God showed them mercy. We see throughout Scripture brave, God-fearing men who step in between God and those He intends to punish. Abraham did this with Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses did this many times with the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness. God often listens to those who approach Him in boldness and faithfulness.
The greatest example of this is the Son of God and Man. Jesus stepped in between God and man, willingly taking our punishment upon himself. He is the perfect Prophet. He never ran from His mission, even though it meant a brutal death.
With that being said Jesus did not want to endure all of that pain from the execution or face the complete wrath of God.
However, He responded in submission to the Father’s will.
“Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Luke 22:42
The same wrath that threatened the Ninevites and wiped out Sodom and Gammorah was unleashed on Jesus Christ. This is how serious our sin is and how great His love is.
We see one of the biggest and fastest revivals of all time. An entire city has come to repentance; from the high king, to the lowly servants. Surely Jonah would be ecstatic that God used him in this way, right? Chapter 4 starts off very differently than that.
Verse 1 says that Jonah was greatly displeased with God’s choice and became angry. This seems a bit inappropriate considering that God has spared Jonah himself many times already in the course of this book. How often are we displeased with God’s choices? Sometimes we pray for one thing and end up getting another. Is this because God doesn’t care what we want? No, of course not. God is sovereign and ultimately knows what is best for us and what will best accomplish His perfect will for both our lives and for the whole world.
Jonah adds fuel to the fire by admitting that he fled to Tarshish, not because of fear, but because of hatred (4:2). He didn’t want the Ninevites to experience God’s grace and mercy. The Ninevites deserved God’s wrath and were worthy of total annihilation. Jonah knew that God’s mercy was greater than the Ninevites’ wickedness.
I challenge you to not cast a stone at Jonah quite yet. How often do you show prejudice to a person or a group of people? Do you, in the quiet of your heart, doubt that anyone could be kept from the love of God? Know that any lost soul can find life and that any Christian can act just like Jonah.
Jonah, in verse 3, says that “it is better for me to die than to live!.” Jonah is so bitter that he would rather die than accept that God can extend grace to His enemies.
God asks Jonah if it’s right for him to be angry (4:4). Jonah does not answer.
When life isn’t going our way, when we don’t get what we want, do we have the right to be angry about it? Do we have the right to be angry when something good happens to someone we hate? Do we rejoice when something bad happens to them?
Jonah would not accept the outcome of events, so he sets up camp outside of the city to see if God would change His mind (4:5). Not only did Jonah hate the Ninevites, he wanted a front-row seat to their destruction. God provides a plant to shade Jonah and deliver him from his misery (4:6). Could Jonah not see that God’s mercy isn’t just for him? God then sends a worm to eat the plant which shaded Jonah. The sun and harsh wind caused Jonah to grow faint. He again wishes death on himself. (4:7-8)
God again asks Jonah if he is right to be angry (4:9). This time, Jonah says that it is right for him to be angry, even to the point of death. God points out that Jonah has more compassion for a plant (that Jonah didn’t even work for) than for an entire city of people (4:10-11).
Then the story just ends. We are not told what happened to Jonah after that. However, we do know that God’s purpose was ultimately carried out through Jonah; even if the prophet wasn’t the most willing person.
Some scholars believe that God moved on from Jonah after this. However, this is not explicitly shown anywhere in Scripture, so take that with a grain of salt. God sometimes has to move on from those whose hearts are hardened and are not willing to be used by Him. That does not mean that God is not present or that He does not care.
“He has saved us and called us to a holy life–not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace.” (2 Timothy 1:9)
God has called each of us to a life of purpose found in Him. He wants to use us. He also intends to use us. That is how He most often carries out His divine purpose here on Earth. We can either be willing like the people of Nineveh, or we can fight it like Jonah.
Much like Jonah, God has called us to preach to others.
“And Jesus came and spoke [to the disciples], saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.” (Matthew 28: 18-20)
Are you going to rise up to the calling and willingly be used by God? Or are you going to run away from this Great Commission and allow hatred to drive you? Humble yourself just as the Ninevites did. Realize that the same grace that you have been given is also available to all who came to know Jesus as LORD.
Do not neglect this calling given directly by Jesus. Do not let fear settle in; for Christ Himself said that He is with us. If Jesus is on this mission with us, then who or what can stand in the way?
I leave you with this:
“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2: 3-4)