Tales of the Nevi'im - Jonah
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Jonah
Israel experienced a golden age in the time of King David and Solomon. During this period, the Israelites experienced prosperity and gained influence in the world. When Solomon died, however, a civil war erupted between the ten tribes in the north and the two in the south. The kingdom of Israel split. The northern kingdom was named Israel and, in time, had its capital in Samaria. The southern kingdom was named Judah and its capital was in Jerusalem.
From this time on, the two kingdoms experienced difficulties, fighting each other as well as their neighbors. Their faithfulness to God mirrored their ups and downs.
Our story takes place during the reign of a king named Jeroboam II. He ruled the northern kingdom of Israel from 793 BC until 753 BC. During this period of history, the kingdom of Assyria was dominant in the Middle East. The Assyrian people were known for their brutality and their ferocity. They had previously conquered both Israel and Judah and in exchange for tribute the kingdoms were allowed to govern themselves.
During the time of our story, Assyria began to experience internal political and military difficulties. This gave Jeroboam the opportunity to invade Syria, his neighbor to the north, and to expand his territory. This led to a period of prosperity and prestige not seen for nearly 200 years.
Sometime in this period God called the prophet Jonah and gave him a message, but not for Israel. God sent Jonah instead to the hated Assyrians! Everyone thought the Assyrians were finally getting a dose of their own medicine. God’s message to Jonah would have been the last thing he expected. It’s easy to see why he reacted the way he did.
The word of God came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” When Jonah heard these words, he could hardly believe his ears. God wanted him to take a message of repentance to the brutal, hated enemies of Israel? No way, thought Jonah. Instead of departing north for Nineveh, he went to the coast of Israel and boarded a ship going west, “away from the presence of the Lord”. He sailed for Tarshish, a city whose precise location is no longer known, but many scholars think it was as far as 3000 miles away!.
However, Jonah’s plan was destined to fail. During the voyage the Lord hurled a great wind on the sea, a tempest. The ship wasn’t built for such a fierce storm and soon began to break apart. Facing imminent death, the sailors began to pray to their gods and lighten the ship by throwing the cargo overboard. In the process, they saw Jonah asleep in the hold! Awakening him, they frantically urged him to pray to whichever god he served so that perhaps some god might spare them. But the storm persisted. The sailors were desperate. Only one chance remained. Perhaps one of them had offended a god and was the cause of their distress. They cast lots and, you guessed it, the lots fell on Jonah. Turning to him they demanded he tell them what he had done. Jonah confessed that he had been defying his God; he was running away. He told them that if they would throw him overboard the storm would cease and they would be spared. Reluctantly, they did and the storm ceased as abruptly as it had started!
The sailors were safe, but what about Jonah? The Bible says, “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” If ever there was a time to pray, this was it! Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 is a model of contrition and confidence in the justice and mercy of God. After three days, God spoke to the fish and it spat Jonah out onto the land. The text doesn’t mention this, but I think we can safely assume Jonah kissed the ground! Standing up, Jonah heard God speak again. Translated loosely he said, “Are you ready to go to Nineveh and give them my message or would you like to spend more time with the whale?”
Jonah wisely set out for Nineveh and preached to them. He warned them that if they did not turn from their ways, they would be destroyed. I’m sure Jonah had no expectation that they would listen to him. In fact, he likely hoped they wouldn’t. He, and all the Israelites, would like nothing better than to see the evil Assyrians destroyed. But they believed his message! The king of Nineveh himself replaced his royal finery with sackcloth and sat in ashes, indicating humility and repentance before the Lord. His subjects were instructed to do the same and soon the whole city humbled itself before God! Seeing their reaction, God spared them.
Good news, right? Not for Jonah.
In chapter 4 we read, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.” Jonah responded to God with one of the more childish reactions in the Bible, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” So Jonah stomped off to a nearby hill and delivered his ultimatum to God – destroy the Assyrians or just kill me now. He sat down to await the destruction of Nineveh. Jonah could not accept that God might give a chance for mercy to the Assyrians, of all people!
It was a hot day and pretty soon the sun shone fiercely on Jonah. God grew a plant to shade Jonah, “to save him from his discomfort”. But the next day, God caused the plant to wither and Jonah began to faint from the heat. Thinking that Jonah might now be receptive, God delivered his lesson. I imagine it went something like this, “Jonah, you seem more upset about the plant than about these human beings. Are you really so callous that you begrudge a second chance for Nineveh?”
One of the brilliant strokes of the Bible is that the book ends on this note! We don’t know how Jonah reacted. We are left to wonder. More importantly, we are pulled into the scene and left asking ourselves, “How would I answer God’s question?”
Lessons and Themes
There are more lessons in this brief book of the Bible than any human author could fit in! Here are a few for consideration:
Did you notice that everyone and everything in this story is obedient to God, except Jonah? The winds and sea obey him. The great fish obeys him. The plant obeys his decree to grow and fade. Even the Assyrians end up obeying him. Only Jonah, the one we would most expect to be obedient, rebels against God.
Jonah’s story is a reminder to Israel of her purpose to be a light to the world. Through the prophet, God acknowledged that he understood the hatred the Israelites felt toward their oppressors. At the same time, he called them to embody his own radical love and forgiveness.
Jonah is a parallel to Jesus, albeit an imperfect one. Both slept in a boat during a storm – one running from God, the other obeying him. Both spent three days in the jaws of death – one because of his selfishness, the other out of selflessness. Both delivered God’s message of judgment and hope – one reluctantly, the other hopefully. And finally, both saw repentance – one furious, the other rejoicing.
The application is obvious. What about us? Who are we in this story? Will we approach the world like Jonah, or like Jesus?
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
Read chapter 1 of the book of Jonah. Jonah tries to run “away from the presence of the Lord”. Have you ever tried to run away from the presence of the Lord? Do you find it comforting or alarming to realize, like Jonah, that there is nowhere we can go that God cannot find us? Why?
Are you surprised, like most readers, that the Ninevites change course, repenting of their actions? Who are the people in your world that you think, “They will never hear and accept the message of Christ”? Does the story of Jonah give you hope?
None of us like to think we would be as childish as Jonah – to be so angry with God’s mercy. Does God’s question in Jonah 4:4, “Do you do well to be so angry?” convict you? How?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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