Jonah: Running from God

Posted on June 30, 2018

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By David Ettinger

Note: This series was published in the magazine Zion’s Fire a few years back. I offer it here for anyone interested. I plan to run one article a day for 13 days. Being magazine articles, obviously each post will be longer than my usual blog length. 

Name of Book: Jonah 

Author: Unknown, but likely based on Jonah’s own account. 

Meaning of Author’s Name (If Jonah): “Dove” 

When Written: The reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C., possibly around 760). 

Themes

  • God’s compassion for all people
  • Obeying God
  • God’s willingness to cancel punishment in the face of true repentance
  • God’s people must carry the message of salvation to unbelievers

Political Background
JonahPrior to the reign of Jeroboam II, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been brutalized by the Assyrians. However, under the rule of King Adad-nirari III (811-783 B.C.), the Assyrians launched a series of devastating campaigns against Syria and ravaged it. With Syria out of the picture, northern Israel began to rebuild. A few decades later, when Jeroboam II became king, the prophet Jonah from Gath Hepher in Galilee came on the scene and made quite a splash. We read in 2 Kings 14:25, “[Jeroboam II] restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai” (italic added). This led to a time of unprecedented prosperity not seen in Israel since the days of Solomon. As the one who prophesied such good tidings, Jonah would likely have been the recipient of honor, respect, and gratitude. 

Key Verses

  • Jonah 1:3: “But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”
  • Jonah 4:2: “… for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.”
  • Jonah 4:11: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?”

References in the New Testament

  • Matthew 12:39-31; 16:4
  • Luke 11:29-32

Synopsis
We are quickly ushered into the story as the Lord commands Jonah to, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2). In one of the most startling responses by a prophet in all of Scripture, we read that Jonah “arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (v. 3). The two stunning elements of this verse are Jonah’s overt disobedience, and thinking he could actually run from God.

He boards a ship for Tarshish (Spain), 2,500 miles away. After the ship sets out, the Lord unleashes a tempest upon the sea that terrifies the heathen crew. They frantically hurl cargo overboard in a desperate attempt to lighten the load. In his apathy – or perhaps because of sheer misery – Jonah goes below deck and falls asleep.

wave-tossed seaFinding him snoozing, the incredulous ship captain asks the runaway Jewish prophet, “What do you mean, sleeper?” or in modern terms, “How can you sleep at a time like this?” (v. 6). Meanwhile, each crew member calls upon his heathen deity to save him. When this fails, the crew casts lots to determine who is at fault. Jonah is revealed as the culprit. The crew asks Jonah what they can do to calm the sea. The renegade Israelite bluntly replies: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me” (v. 12). Talk about a death wish! Instead of prayer and repentance, Jonah opts for death. The crew reluctantly obliges Jonah, and the Mediterranean immediately calms.

As chapter 2 begins, the scene shifts to the belly of a large fish, which has swallowed Jonah alive (v. 1). In verse 2, the prophet says, “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and He answered me.” What is this “affliction” the prophet speaks of? Verse 3 is instructive: “For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; all Your billows and Your waves passed over me.” It is the Lord who is controlling these fascinating events. Verse 5 ramps up the terror as Jonah tells us, “The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me; weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever” (vv. 5-6). In other words, Jonah was drowning.

When the situation was most dire, Jonah prayed to the Lord in one last attempt to live. By way of reply, the Lord sent a “fish” – the text says nothing about a whale (though it could have been) – to swallow Jonah alive and keep him that way. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus tells us that Jonah remained three days and nights in the fish’s belly. This is likely a 36-hour period, meaning one full day (the second) and parts of days 1 and 3.

As chapter 3 begins, Jonah has a change of heart – at least at the outset – as the Lord again commissions his prophet to head up to Nineveh and preach. This time we read of Jonah’s obedience: “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord” (v. 3).

Well done, Jonah! You were given a directive and obeyed. Sort of.

When Jonah arrives, his message (probably in Aramaic) is one of doom: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (v. 4). In other words, the Ninevites have forty days to repent of their sins. If they do, God will spare them; if not, destruction is inevitable. Wonder of wonders, the Ninevites heed Jonah’s warning and repent!

But why? Why do such vile, violent people respond so readily to Jonah’s preaching? We can’t be certain, but here are three theories.

Fmishqi gate ninevehirst, a few years earlier, Nineveh was hit by two plagues (765 and 759 B.C.) which ravaged the citizenry. In the midst of this, a total eclipse of the sun had occurred in 763 B.C. The plagues and eclipse would have been viewed as acts of divine punishment. Second, the story of Jonah’s adventures on the ship may have begun circulating and reached Nineveh. When the Ninevites saw this Hebrew prophet enter their environs – something that had never happened in Nineveh up to that time – they were seized with fear of Israel’s God. Third, Nineveh was petrified of its ruthless northern foes, the kingdom of Urartu, which was heading south. Had the fierce Urartu forces attacked, Nineveh would have been sacked. They could well have believed that destruction was near and were welcoming of whatever help they could get – even if this meant humbling themselves to appease the God of the Hebrews.

With the above considerations, it is not too difficult to believe that the monstrously wicked Ninevites would heed Jonah’s words and repent. In so doing, God spares them.

Again, well done, Jonah! Right? Wrong!

Chapter 4 begins with these unfortunate words: “But it [God’s sparing of Nineveh] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry” (v. 1). In fact, the Israelite is so irate that he says to the Lord, “please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” (v. 4). There is that death wish again! But why is Jonah so upset? He preached and the people responded. How many prophets of Israel can claim as much? So, what happened to Jonah’s gratefulness and renewed obedience resulting from his miraculous rescue?

Here are three possibilities.

First, the distance between Nineveh and Gath Hepher is about 550 miles. Traveling 15 miles a day (a normal distance for a well-conditioned man at this time), the journey would have taken about 36 days. Once crossing the border of Israel, Jonah’s path would have led him through cities, towns, and hamlets possessing temples and marketplaces. Most temples of the time were marked by idolatry and cult prostitution. Some included child sacrifice. Marketplaces, too, featured the residue of paganism, evidenced by the sale of “unclean” food and small household idols and amulets. Jonah’s soul would have chafed at such defilement. Being assaulted by all this “heathenness” would have caused the prophet spiritual fits. By the time he reached Nineveh, he was at his wits’ end.

Second, though Nineveh was in a downturn, Jonah feared it would eventually rise and pose a major threat to Israel’s security. Jonah may have perceived that Nineveh was a rising power that threatened to destroy his people. This being the case, Jonah wanted no part in Nineveh’s salvation.

Third, if what a prophet preached did not come to pass, he would be judged a false prophet and suffer shame. Jonah preached destruction. If the Ninevites repented, they would not be destroyed. Hence, Jonah’s prophecy would not come to pass and he would lose face.

Regardless of the reason for Jonah’s consternation, the prophet should have gone home. However, not willing to accept God’s mercy on Nineveh, Jonah sets up a shelter east of the city and sits around waiting for God to zap the heathens out of existence.

jonah plant wormIn the meantime, God has “prepared a plant” (v. 5) to provide Jonah with shady comfort. Soon after, however, the Lord makes life unbearable for Jonah as He “prepared a worm” (v. 7) to destroy Jonah’s shelter (possibly a castor oil plant), leaving the prophet to endure the heat of the blazing sun and asking God again to terminate his life.

As the book closes, the Lord lovingly and patiently communicates to Jonah the lesson He would have him learn: “… should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?”

The prophet’s reply – if he even gave one – is not recorded. Nor do we know if he ever “got” what the Lord was trying to teach him. However, since he either wrote the story or recounted it to a chronicler, we can surmise that Jonah did come to understand God’s mercy and grace for all people, not just the Israelites. 

Aftermath

  • Nineveh would become the “rod of [God’s] anger” (Isaiah 10:5) and send northern Israel into Assyrian exile in 722 B.C.
  • Nineveh’s repentance would not last as it would be destroyed in 612 B.C. by a coalition of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians.

Significance for God’s People Today

  • Jonah didn’t want the despised heathens to come to a saving knowledge of the God of Israel. As Christians, we cannot allow personal animosity keep us from sharing the Gospel. We are called to preach Christ in love – even to the most unlovable of people.
  • We can’t run from God. He has called us to do His bidding, and He will not let us go until He has accomplished in us what He has determined.
  • We can never fight God’s will. When it comes to God’s will versus the will of men and women, God is undefeated. It is unlikely you will be the first to conquer Him.

Implications for the World Today

  • repentMany western nations were founded on Judeo-Christian ethics. Where once these countries had the potential to experience the blessings of God, they have sadly turned into wicked Nineveh, deserving only of judgment.
  • Only repentance could have saved Nineveh. Only repentance can save America, Europe, and indeed all nations. The question is, will the nations of the world ever repent?

Of Note

  • Jonah prophesied in the same era as Amos and Hosea.
  • Of the “Minor Prophets,” Jonah is the only one called to leave the borders of Israel and preach to the heathens on their turf.
  • Nineveh was located on the east bank of the Tigris River.
  • The only “Minor Prophet” whose book is a narrative (tells a story) rather than a series of oracles.
  • Jonah is the only prophet from Galilee, where Jesus was from. Gath Hepher was only a few miles northeast of Nazareth. Therefore, the Pharisees were wrong when they told Jesus, “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (John 7:42).
  • Jonah 1:6 is the only Old Testament reference to a ship captain.
  • The use of living and inanimate objects: a storm, a scorching wind, a sea creature, a plant, and a worm.