Most of us know the story of Jonah. We may not realize that when it began, Jonah had a cushy job that made him famous and popular. God’s call at the beginning of the story was to a new job, a hard one that was sure to make him lose his popularity, and maybe endanger the country he loved. Jonah bolted.
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JONAH #1. Jonah 1:1-3; 2 Kings 14:23-27; Amos 7:1-9.
There are people who call themselves Christians who claim that the book of Jonah is a myth, an allegory made up by the people of Israel. The main reason they seem to want to claim this is because they don’t like the miraculous incident where Jonah was swallowed by a fish, but remained alive. However, the book of Jonah does not read like an allegory. Myths and allegories read like: “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a prophet.”
But Jonah is given a name, and his father is also named, as is his hometown. Jonah also appears in the book of 2 Kings:
23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 25 He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. 26 For the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. 27 But the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash. (2 Kings 14:23-27, ESV)
That places these events at a real time in history, which is to say, during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel, which was from 793-753 B.C.. Jonah’s hometown, Gath-Hepher, is only about two miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up (about 750 years after Jonah died). Today, it is uninhabited, but there are ruins there, dated to the time in question, so we know it was a real place.
Also, Nineveh, the city where Jonah ultimately went, was a real city, one of the greatest of the ancient world, off and on, for a thousand years or more. It is close to the modern day city of Mosul in Iraq, and is the site of many archaeological digs.
There is no way to know for sure, but I think it is likely that the events in the book of Jonah came after Jonah’s prophecy about the Israeli king, Jeroboam II (from 2 King 14, above). I think this because the verse above explain Jonah’s identity, including his hometown, while the first verse of the book of Jonah, simply identify him as Jonah the prophet, son of Amittai. In other words he was the Jonah, the famous prophet, who needs no further introduction.
So, I suspect that when the Lord told him to go to Nineveh, Jonah was something of a celebrity in Israel. These had been hard times. Again, at the verses above, especially 2 Kings 14:26-27. The affliction of Israel was very bitter, but the Lord told Jonah to prophesy a hopeful future, and it came to pass! You might say that Jonah was a central figure in a resurgent, nationalistic Israel. To put it another way, he was a prominent Israeli patriot, helping to rebuild the country, making Israel great again. There he was enjoying the new and improved Israel, known for being a great citizen, and along comes God and…well, let’s see exactly what God was asking of him.
Nineveh was, more or less, the capital of the Assyrian empire. As I briefly, mentioned, Assyria was one of the great world empires for many centuries. In addition, Assyria had historically been one of the most dangerous of enemies to Israel, Jonah’s own country. The Assyrians were violent and brutal, and they utterly destroyed their enemies. In fact, one of the ways Israel was “afflicted” (2 Kings 14:26, above) was by the Assyrians, who kept eating away at Israel’s territory, and demanding tribute from the Israeli kings.
Often, when the Assyrians conquered another nation, they deported tens of thousands of the conquered citizens, and forced them to live in a different country, far away. They sent the citizens of the distant country to repopulate the most recently conquered one. This way, the conquered people ended up living in a land where they had no sense of history or patriotism. It was an effective way to prevent people from regrouping as nation. Instead, their primary identity became people who belonged to Assyria. It was a brilliant, though terribly cruel, strategy.
However, Assyria, like Israel before the time of Jonah, had fallen on hard times. Some of the sub-rulers (something like governors of provinces) had sensed weakness in the emperor, and they were ambitious, and so they rebelled. Though ultimately, the rebellions failed, Assyria, for a time, was not strong enough to keep conquering other lands. In fact, this is one reason that Israel was able to become strong again during Jonah’s ministry. With a weakened emperor in Nineveh, King Jeroboam II was able to stop paying tribute, and reconquer some of the territory that Israel had been forced to give to Assyria.
Now, understand what all this mean to Jonah. He had made a name for himself as an Israeli patriot. When people reflected upon how Israel had regained its former greatness, Jonah was one of the names that came up. Yet now, the word of the Lord came to Jonah and said, essentially this: I want to you to go to the capital city of Israel’s mortal enemies, the Assyrians. I want you to preach my message there so that they, too, may have a chance to repent, and to retore their empire to greatness.
But if the Assyrians repented, and they were restored to greatness, what would that mean for Israel? Wouldn’t it mean that Israel might once more be threatened by Assyria? Wouldn’t this threaten to undo all the wonderful things that Jonah had helped build in Israel?
As it turned out, Jonah’s fears were well-founded. The people of Nineveh did indeed repent as a result of Jonah’s teaching. Assyria did indeed regain its former strength, and then some. It was indeed the Assyrians who eventually destroyed Israel (though not during Jonah’s lifetime).
Now we are prepared to understand the first three verses of the book of Jonah:
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. (Jonah 1:1-3, ESV)
With all of the background we now have, it is easier to understand why Jonah fled. He did exactly the opposite of what God told him. The Lord said “Arise.” Or “get up.” Jonah did that, but then immediately instead of continuing “up” he got “down.” He went down from the hill country of his home to the sea, and then went down into a ship. He will go down even further before he starts coming back up.
Nineveh was to the north and east of Jonah’s home. Tarshish is believed to have been in southwestern Spain, so Jonah went in almost exactly the opposite direction of where God commanded.
Now, although we have seen that Jonah had his reasons, it may be helpful to understand some other things about Israel during his lifetime. Although God, in his mercy, allowed Israel to prosper for a while, most of the Israelites from the king on down persisted in doing evil and worshipping idols and false gods, and using their power for personal gain. They oppressed the poor and weak, and cheated those who could not effectively protest.
There were other prophets who were ministering at the same time as Jonah: Hosea and Amos. Jonah had the prime job, a calling to prophesy certain things, things that made him popular with the rulers and the people. But the other two had the hard job of telling the people that even though God had given them a reprieve, unless they repented, it would not last (see for example, Amos chapter 7:1-9). Judgment was coming for all the evil that the Israelis had persisted in doing. Jonah conveniently “forgot” about all this when he bolted.
Part of Jonah’s problem was that if he obeyed God’s word he was going to go from being a hero to a traitor. He would have to give up the good opinion of most his people. He would probably even lose friendships over this. The other prophets had already had to make that choice, and they were despised by most Israelites. Jonah wasn’t ready to give up God, but he wasn’t ready to give up being popular. So he ran.
This brings up one of the central issues that concern the book of Jonah. Is God your King, or isn’t he? Does he have the right to ask absolutely anything of you, or do you want to retain your right to tell him no if you don’t like it? Jonah apparently believe that God was his Lord, but it was more of an abstract idea to him. When God asked him to do something concrete and specific that didn’t fit Jonah’s desires, Jonah balked.
I think it is important for us to understand that this matters in real life. I believe God could heal the intense chronic pain I’ve been dealing with for years, if he chose to. But I also believe, he has the right to ask me to continue to suffer this way, even if I don’t understand why. Does he have the right to ask something similar of you?
All this might seem very heavy-handed. However, as we continue through the book, we will see that in fact, God is very gracious and kind to Jonah, over and over, even when Jonah behaves quite badly. Another primary message of this book is that there is grace for our mistakes. As we wrestle with giving God the right to our entire life, there is grace and kindness from God.
I made a rash promise that we might be able to finish the book of Jonah in just four messages. I can see now that it might take more than that. I still think we’ll be done in fewer than ten sessions, but as always, it depends upon how the Holy Spirit leads. For now, I think we have enough to begin applying to our lives right now.
Think about a time when you ran from God in some way. What prompted it? What did your “running” look like? (indulging your sinful flesh, quitting church, being angry at God, becoming an atheist etc.)
Jonah didn’t like God’s Word to him. He “conveniently forgot” that Israel had turned away from God and was deserving of judgment. In those times when you don’t like what God’s word says, what sorts of things might you be “conveniently forgetting?”
Part of Jonah’s fear was that if he obeyed God’s word he would lose his good standing in the culture. I think we in the cultures of Western Civilization are living in a time when this is true of most Christians. More and more, if we remain faithful to God’s word, we will be looked upon as ignorant and bigoted and hateful, even when such things are untrue. What does this mean for you? What are your thoughts about how to handle these pressures?
The underlying issue is this: is God our King, or not? Is there anything that we do not allow him to ask of us? How have you dealt with this question up to this point?
What is the Lord saying to you through Jonah’s life this time?