Jonah has been called the wayward prophet. I would like to suggest that he is a prophet with an attitude! God gave him a clear command to do something and he did the exact opposite. Yet after chastening him, God, in grace and mercy, gave him a second chance. With that second chance, He did what the Lord commanded, but did it with an attitude. When God demonstrated His unfathomable mercy toward the people of Nineveh, Jonah got very angry with God and wanted to die.
The city of Gath Hepher in Lower Galilee was home for Jonah when he prophesied during the reign of King Jeroboam II (2 Ki. 14:25 – ca. 760 BC). The Lord told him to go in a northeast direction to the Assyrian city of Nineveh and cry against the inhabitants of that city because of their wickedness (Jon. 1:2). Instead, Jonah went in the opposite direction—southwest to the seaport of Joppa on the Mediterranean Sea. His intent was to flee from the presence of the Lord by going to Tarshish at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea.
While Jonah knew the Word of God he conveniently forgot, or ignored the words of a Davidic psalm: “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 Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea [like Tarshish], even there Your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Ps. 139:7-10; NKJV; brackets added by author).
God had to get the attention of His wayward, fleeing servant so He caused a great windstorm to almost sink the ship Jonah was aboard. When the captain and the crew discovered Jonah was running from his God, they inquired from Jonah what should be done to calm the sea. He matter-of-factly said that they should throw him overboard. Jonah acknowledged that the storm was used by the Lord as a tool to chasten him and to bring him back to the Lord (Prov. 3:11-12; cf. Heb. 12:3-13). Jonah, however, had been fast asleep in the bottom of the boat and did not want to be exercised by the chastening of the Lord (Jon. 1:5; cf. Heb. 12:11).
In the Belly of the Great Fish
God prepared a unique sea creature, simply called in the Hebrew text, a great fish (dag gadol). The Lord Jesus called it a “ketos” (Greek – Matt. 12:40). It was not a whale, but a special creature created by God that swallowed Jonah for His purposes.
After three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah finally came to his senses and prayed in faith to the Lord. His prayer was a psalm of thanksgiving that he composed with lines from a number of Davidic psalms (Jon. 2:2-9)1.
This suggests that Jonah knew the Davidic psalms, and perhaps even had them memorized, so that in times of trouble he could turn to them for comfort and encouragement. He also understood the principle that Solomon stated in his dedicatory prayer for the temple. In times of trouble, pray to the Lord in the temple in Jerusalem (Jon. 2:4, 7; cf. 2 Chron. 6:20-21).
The God of the Second Chance
After the great fish vomited up Jonah on dry ground, God appeared to Jonah a second time (3:1). He gave this wayward prophet a second chance to fulfill his commission. Jonah obeyed this time, but he still had an attitude. He proclaimed the message that God gave him, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (3:4). God was merciful to the inhabitants of Nineveh and He withheld His judgment from them because they believed God (put their trust in Him) and turned from their wicked ways (3:5-10; cf. Matt. 12:41; Luke 11:32).
Jonah was extremely upset with God because he had prophesized that God was going to overthrow the city and he relished the thought of God nuking Nineveh. When he complained to the Lord in prayer he said: “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was in my country? Therefore, I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jon. 4:2; NKJV).
Jonah understood these truths because the Lord had proclaimed them in Exodus 34:6-7. The first four attributes of the Lord—mercy, grace, longsuffering and goodness—were used by Jonah in his prayer. This suggests that Jonah knew the Torah as well. Yet he still had an attitude. He was angry because he did not want God to be God and show unmerited love and mercy to the Gentile world.
A Greater Than Jonah
The Lord Jesus, when confronted by religious leaders, was asked for a sign. He responded with the sign of Jonah being in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights (Matt. 12:38-41; Luke 11:29-32). The sign of Jonah was a prophetic picture of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. For the Ninevites, their faith in God led to their salvation. Jesus, referring to Himself, said that a greater than Jonah was here because believers in the Lord Jesus, like the inhabitants of Nineveh, should have been judged by God for their sins and wickedness, but God demonstrated His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). The Lord Jesus, unlike Jonah, had a different attitude toward the world around Him. He saw His mission as seeking and saving that which was lost (Luke 19:10) and giving His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Life Lessons to be Learned from the Life of Jonah
There are at least four lessons we can learn from the life of Jonah. First, knowing the Word of God and its doctrines, even memorizing the Scriptures, does not make one spiritual, or Spirit-filled. Jonah knew the Davidic psalms and also the Torah. He also knew the doctrine of God’s chastening of His wayward children. Yet he still had an attitude. The believer in the Lord Jesus needs to humbly submit to the Spirit of God and let Him use the Word of God to work in them (Heb. 4:12, 13; Ps. 119:11).
Second, when we sin and God disciplines us, we need to be exercised by that discipline. God chastens us to bring us back to His Word and Himself. Let us learn these lessons quickly so God does not have to severely scourge us, in His love (Heb. 12:3-13).
Third, Jonah had an exclusive view of missions. He thought God only loved the children of Israel and was reluctant to go to the Gentiles. This is in marked contrast to the Lord Jesus who said to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16; NKJV). Christians should see the world the same way the Lord does; people heading to a Christ-less eternity that we should seek to win to the Savior.
Finally, when we gather to worship the Lord Jesus at His Table, we do not come to remember our sins, nor our blessings, nor do we remember Jonah; but rather, we gather to remember a “greater than Jonah”—the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the One who, unlike Jonah, was obedient to the will of His Father. He was the One who died for our sins and was in the heart of the earth for three days and nights but rose triumphantly again from the dead. We should contemplate, like Jonah did, the Lord’s mercy, grace, longsuffering, and goodness because a greater than Jonah is in our midst (cf. Matt. 18:20).
1. The lines of this psalm are taken from Davidic psalms (D); psalms of the Sons of Korah (K); psalms of Asaph (A); and unattributed psalms (U). Jonah 2:2a, cf. Psalm 3:4 (D); 120:1 (A); Jonah 2:2b, cf. Psalm 18:4, 5 (D); 30:3 (D); Jonah 2:3a, cf. Psalm 88:6, 7 (K); Jonah 2:3b, cf. Psalm 42:7 (K); Jonah 2:4a, cf. Psalm 31:22 (D); Jonah 2:4b, cf. Psalm 5:7 (D); Jonah 2:5a, cf. Psalm 69:1, 2 (D); Jonah 2:6b, cf. Psalm 49:15 (K); 56:13 (D);103:4 (D); Jonah 2:7a, cf. Psalm 107:5 (U); 142:3 (D); Jonah 2:7b, cf. Psalm 18:6 (D); Jonah 2:8a, cf. Psalm 31:6 (D); Jonah 2:9a, cf. Psalm 50:14, 23 (A); 69:30 (D); 107:22 (?); Jonah 2:9c, cf. Psalm 3:8 (D); 37:39 (D).
by Gordon Franz