Of all the Old Testament stories in the Bible, the three that seem to be the most well known are: the temptation of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and Jonah and the Whale. Unfortunately, though people know that Jonah was in a big fish (it doesn’t really say whale) for three days, they don’t really know the whole story. To borrow from Paul Harvey, today you will learn “the rest of the story.”
There is no end of discussion about the historical veracity of this book. Many people feel that this story is one of the most preposterous around. They believe the story is pure fable. However there are two things to consider. In 2 Kings 14:25 we read about the prophet Jonah during the time of King Jeroboam II. He was definitely a real person in history. In Matthew 12:39-41 we read these words of Jesus,
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.
Jesus refers to Jonah’s story as a historical event. Since Jesus never sinned, and lying is a sin, I’m inclined to believe this story is factual.
The reason that many think of this story as preposterous is that they begin with a presupposition: the supernatural does not take place. When you begin by saying God does not work in the events of life; when you conclude before you even examine the evidence that these things could not be true, you will indeed have trouble with the book of Jonah.
This reminds us of the illustration that Dr. Norman Geisler often uses.
A man visited a psychiatrist to share a problem which greatly concerned him.
“Doctor, I have a terrible problem.”
“Please tell me about it,” says the doctor.
“Well, I believe that I am dead.”
“Hmmmm, that is a heavy concern. May I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” replied the man.
“Do you believe that dead men bleed?”
“Of course not. That’s preposterous,” said the patient.
The psychiatrist reached over and picked up a long hat pin, took the man’s hand and pricked his finger with it. As the blood began to flow, the man stared at his finger and said, “Well, what do you know! Dead men bleed after all!”
The point is, that if you begin with the presupposition that God does not exist and cannot or does not do the miraculous, all the evidence in the world will not convince you. If you do believe in God and in the miracles (like the resurrection of Jesus) then you will not have much trouble with God providing a fish to swallow Jonah.
The story is not as far-fetched as it seems. Most whales could not have swallowed Jonah because they are either too small or have throats that are too small. There is, however one exception. The sperm whale can measure over 60 feet in length. Their diet consists of giant squid, large sea-bottom and mid-water sharks, skates, and fishes.
In the Daily Mail of December 14, 1928, Mr. G.H. Henn, a resident of Birmingham, England recounted the following story.
My own experience . . .about twenty-five years ago, when the carcass of a whale was displayed for a week on vacant land in Navigation Street, outside New Street station . . . I was one of twelve men, who went into its mouth, passed through it’s throat, and moved about in what was equivalent to a fair-sized room. It’s throat was large enough to serve as a door.[i]
There are other questions, of course. Where would Jonah find air? (Whales need air in their stomach or they couldn’t float). What about the gastric juices? (Gastric juices cannot consume living matter or it would consume the stomach of the whale). How could Jonah stay alive for three days? (The text actually doesn’t say that he stayed alive. He may have died or gone unconscious before being cast onto the shore . . . God has raised people from the dead before!)
Even though this is a fun discussion, it is really a side issue. Let’s get on with the story.
The Prophet Summoned
The story of Jonah begins with a simple command from the Almighty. Jonah is told by God to go and preach against the city of Nineveh. The command is clear and simple. Nineveh was East of Israel. Jonah promptly booked passage on a ship heading West!!!
Jonah refused God’s express command! Why was Jonah resistant? It’s because of the reputation of Nineveh. In chapter four of this book Jonah confesses that he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was afraid that God might extend mercy to these people! Jonah hated the Ninevites. J. Vernon McGee speculated,
We do know that in the days of Jonah the Northern Kingdom of Israel was subject to attack by Assyria. Certain detachments of the army were making forays down into the Northern Kingdom. They would capture an entire town and kill many of the inhabitants. And while I do not know this, I suspect that Jonah was living in his hometown of Gath Hepher in the Northern Kingdom when the Assyrians came. He may have seen his own mother and father slain before his eyes and maybe brothers and sisters taken away captive. Perhaps as a little fellow he witnessed all of that from some shelter where he was hiding.[ii]
Let’s put it like this. Suppose you were a Christian living in America and God told you to head to Iraq to preach the gospel? Or even better, suppose you were a Jewish man during World War II and told to go to Berlin to proclaim the message of God’s grace.
Jonah knew what God wanted him to do, but wanted nothing to do with this assignment. He paid his fare and set sail. Donald Gray Barnhouse used to say,
When you run away from the Lord, you never get to where you are going, and you always pay your own fare. On the other hand, when you go the Lord’s way you always get to where you are going, and he pays the fare.” [iii]
The Prophet Punished
Jonah seemed to think that he could outrun or hide from God. He was wrong. God pursued the prophet in a dramatic manner.
A Supernatural Storm
In verse 4 of chapter one we are told that the Lord sent a violent storm to assault the ship. Remember, these were experienced men on this ship. They had seen storms before. They did what they normally did in a storm and tried lightening the ship. But this was no ordinary storm. These experienced seamen were crying out to their gods. They knew that this was no ordinary storm.
Notice what happened when Jonah resisted the Lord. First, his disobedience put others in peril. These men on the boat were suffering as a result of the disobedience of one man. How many homes and businesses suffer because of the sin of one man? When we rebel against the Lord He will pursue us. He will break our will one way or another. It may hurt and others might be put at risk in the process.
It is interesting that Jonah slept while the rest of the men on the ship prayed. Is this because Jonah had so hardened his heart that he was becoming dead on the inside? I wonder. When we run from the Lord; when we ignore His commands; the pagans often show more spiritual sense than we do. Once we begin to rebel our hearts quickly become calloused.
Dropped in the Sea
The captain found Jonah sleeping and rebukes him. Jonah joined the rest of the crew on deck and they “cast lots” to determine who was the cause of this violent storm. (You have to admire the ability of these men to discern that the storm was sent with a “message”). Casting lots was the equivalent of our drawing straws. The people of that day often used bones to somehow discern God’s will. The book of Proverbs tells us that “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” (Pr. 16:33)
I would caution against concluding that we should use such methods to discern His will. But that’s what was done at times in those days. Today we have the clear instruction of God’s Word as our chief guide. Do note that God can use many different devices to reveal His will to those who truly desire to know His ways.
The lot fell to Jonah. The men asked him, “What did you do?” He told his story and then the men asked, “What do we need to do to appease your God?”
Jonah responded somewhat matter of fact, “The only way to appease Him is to throw me into the sea.” It is unlikely that this was the only option. I think Jonah could have said, “We need to turn around because I’m supposed to be going to Nineveh”. I suspect God would not only have calmed the storm, He would have given the boat a tailwind like they had never seen before! So, why did Jonah say what he did? He was in essence saying, “I’d rather die that go to Nineveh!”
Have you ever dug in your heels in this way? It is the act of a fool. God will not be thwarted by our rebellion.
Notice that the men on the boat did not want to do what Jonah suggested. They had a greater moral sense than Jonah. They understood that throwing a man into the sea to drown was wrong. They tried everything to try to save Jonah (who was the cause of all their trouble). But finally, with a prayer for God’s forgiveness, they dropped him into the water. The water grew calm and the seaman worshiped.
Swallowed by a fish
We are told the “Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.” This fish being next to the boat was no accident. The fish was on a mission of it’s own: get Jonah and bring him to shore!
While in the fish Jonah prayed. I bet he did. He was expecting to die and now found himself alive in the belly of a fish. It is impossible to grasp how intense this prayer must have been. In his prayer Jonah admitted that God was in charge and seemed stunned that God hadn’t simply given up on him. Jonah agreed to go to Nineveh if God would spare his life. The fish belched, and Jonah was on the shore.
The Prophet Used
Jonah is true to his word. He headed to Nineveh with a simple message, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” This was God’s message to the people and Jonah delivered it. I wonder about the tone of his message. We know from chapter four that Jonah did not have his heart in his preaching. I wonder if he proclaimed this message in a monotone voice. I wonder if he spoke quietly. I wonder if he spoke with anger.
I remember having to go door to door and sell stuff. At times I would ring the doorbell and hope no one was home. In truth, I’ve even made some pastoral visits like that! I wanted to be able to say “I tried” without feeling guilty.
Once when I tried street witnessing in Chicago I found myself handing people a gospel tract while continuing to walk in the opposite direction! I wanted to fulfill the great commission but I hoped and prayed that no one asked me any questions! I’m betting Jonah was half-hearted in his preaching.
But look at what happened! The people responded. From this simple message came one of the greatest revivals of history. The people of Ninevah believed the message; demonstrated repentance, and mourned over their sin. Even the king declared a national fast and a time of prayer asking for God’s forgiveness and mercy. As a result of the genuine repentance of the people, God relents from the promised judgment. God is more eager to save than condemn.
The Prophet Pouting
But the story is not over. In chapter four we find Jonah sitting outside the city pouting. He was livid that God had shown mercy to these people. This same prophet who had just days earlier been shown God’s mercy when he had tried to run away, was now angry that the Lord extended that same mercy to others.
We are told that Jonah found a place outside the city and pitched a tent. He could have stayed in any home in Nineveh but he refused. But he still wanted nothing to do with these folks. He was pouting. He must have reasoned that a tantrum might change God’s mind. How foolish. How like us.
We seem to feel that when we don’t like the way things are going we can “punish God”. We can stop attending worship. We can withhold our finances. We can refuse to read the Bible or pray. Somehow we seem to feel that we are bringing pressure upon the Almighty. In reality we are only digging ourselves into a deeper hole.
If I had been God . . . I would have snuffed Jonah out right there. “Enough! You want to die? Fine”. But that is not what God does. He sets out to change the heart of the prophet. He does it through an object lesson.
The first thing God did was to make a vine grow next to Jonah. This provided the prophet some shade and refreshment. Jonah thought, “this is more like it.” For the first time in the book we are told that Jonah was glad.
But then God caused a worm to eat through the vine so that it withered. He turned up the heat and made sure Jonah was miserable. Jonah was angry once again and God confronted him. He said, “Do you have any right to be angry about the vine?” Jonah said, “Yes, I do.”
Then God drove home his point,
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But 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?” (4:10-11)
The message hits hard. “Jonah, does it seem odd to you that you are more concerned about a plant than you are the people and animals of this city?”
It’s interesting that this is where the book ends. I have many questions. Did Jonah get the point? Did he finally really repent? Did he go back into the city? Did he finally thank God for his incredible mercy? We don’t know. It is almost as if the Lord leaves the story hang so that we can ask these same questions in our own hearts.
There are many applications that can be drawn from this great story. First, We Learn a Lesson about Obedience. The saying, “You can run, but you can’t hide” is certainly true. If you are a child of God, we are called to obedience. We are not given the right to debate the will of God. We are to trust God’s character and grace. The price of disobedience is costly. It may cost the people around us and it will certainly cost us personally.
Are you going through a difficult trial right now? If so, look hard to see if God may be trying to get you to do what you know you are supposed to be doing. I’m not saying that every trial is a disciplinary action. I’m not even sure most trials are for disciplinary purposes. But some are for that reason. Make sure God is not trying to get your attention.
Second, we learn a lesson about God’s Sovereignty. It is easy for us to forget that God holds the power of all creation in His hands. God can use any circumstance or situation for His purposes. God used the sea, a fish, a plant, and a worm . . .all to reach his messenger. God is actively involved in pursuing our growth as His children. He will use the circumstances of life to guide us, train us, and use us. When the circumstances of life assault us we should be like the sailors and look for the message of God.
Third, we learn a lesson about God’s Love. Think about how great God’s love comes through in this passage,
- God loved Nineveh enough to send Jonah to them
- He loved Jonah enough to pursue him on the sea
- He loved Jonah enough to give him another chance after His rebellion
- He loved Nineveh enough to relent from judgment
- He loved Jonah enough to patiently instruct him rather than punish him.
We should be inspired by this story. Many of us have run from God. Many of us have turned from His ways. God is more committed to us than we are to Him. He has promised that He will see us through to the end . . . He will finish what He starts in us. Even though we turn the wrong way, God will not give up on us. Even though we make a mess of circumstances, God will not give up on us. He continues to love us and give us opportunities to know Him and serve Him. The book of Jonah should lead us to songs of praise and thanksgiving.
Finally, we are led to examine our own heart for the lost. I don’t know about you, but during this last year I have prayed for God to foil and frustrate the plans of terrorists and those who wish to harm America. I don’t think I have prayed for the salvation of these people at all. I have prayed for God to expose the error of Mormon teaching, and prayed for people to see the deception of their message, but I have spent little time (if any) praying for the salvation of these Mormon young people who are serving as missionaries. I pray for God to smite the wicked, but I seldom pray that He would save the wicked. Why? I’m afraid that it may be because like Jonah, I don’t want God to save them . . . .I want Him to punish them!
Are there family members, neighbors, co-workers, countries, or people who hold certain political, moral or religious viewpoints that we have “written off”? Have we been so blinded by hate that we have lost sight of God’s love for those who are lost? Are we more concerned with the comforts of life than we are the souls of men? Are we short-sighted like Jonah? Have the pains and offenses of the past blinded us to the needs of those around us? If so, it is time to repent and ask God to purify our hearts before Him.
I hope you have come to see this morning that the story of Jonah is really about much more than a man who was inside of fish for 3 days. It is a story about the ways of God. It is a story that speaks to us about our prejudice and our hate. And now you know, the rest of the story.
[i] Information taken from the probe.org website. See http://www.probe.org/docs/jonah.html
[ii]McGee, J. V. (2001, c1997). More real characters (electronc ed.) (Page 112). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[iii] James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker) quoting Barnhouse p. 268.