Jonah 1:1-16

April 28, 2002

Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

Many of you have played word association games over the years. You know how they work. Someone says a particular word, and you respond with the first word that comes to your mind. If I say “good,” for example, you would most likely respond “bad.” If I say “big,” you answer “small.” If I say “short,” you reply “tall.” And if I say “day,” you no doubt would say “night.” What do you think of when I say “Jonah.” For many, its probably the word “fish.” When we hear the word “Jonah,” our minds typically shift to the fish. In the process, we too often miss the overpowering themes that this short and to some extent familiar story seeks to address.

We actually know very little about the main character in the story. In 1:1, we are simply informed that he is the son of a certain Amittai, about whom we know even less. According to 2 Kings 14:25, the only other reference to Jonah in the Old Testament, he hailed from the village of Gath-hepher, located in the northern region of Israel. He was also a rather nationalistic prophet who deeply loved his country and similarly hated Israel’s enemies. In Jonah’s day, the chief among those enemies was the mighty Assyria, the country that eventually conquered Israel in 721 B.C. Imagine how Jonah must have felt–he had been in Israel during her heyday, her glory years, and he could very well have been present when she fell. Well, I am jumping ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that there was no love lost between Jonah and Assyria–he had had it up to here with all the trouble that the Assyrians had caused for him and his people.

There is little else that we can say about Jonah the person, but it is important for us to understand the type of character that the writer of this story wants us to envision–the various experiences and attitudes that he brings with him to the table.

As we begin to zero in on the book itself, you will notice that it consists of four chapters, each of which recounts a scene in Jonah’s adventures. In chapter 1, we encounter Jonah the Flabbergasted. In chapter 2, we will meet Jonah the Fishfood. Chapter 3 will introduce us to Jonah the Follower, and chapter 4 describes Jonah the Furious. Today, we will concern ourselves with Jonah the Flabbergasted.

On a particular day, somewhat like today, the word of the Lord came to Jonah. Precisely how it came is not mentioned. What is important is that Jonah was specifically and clearly commissioned by God. He was not elected by his fellow Israelites, nor was he installed to the prophetic office because of his family background or training. Jonah was a prophet because God spoke to him and called him.

It is immediately captivating, of course, to notice the job to which Jonah is called–“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it.” Nineveh? The capital of Assyria? Questions would immediately arise in the minds of the early Hebrews, including Jonah. Why Nineveh? What language would Jonah speak? The Ninevites, after all, spoke Akkadian, and Jonah spoke Hebrew. And even if Jonah did figure out how to communicate, why would the Ninevites listen to him? Why should he go to Nineveh itself? When other prophets denounced foreign nations, they typically did so from the comfort of their own homeland. Why Nineveh? “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it.”

Jonah, to say the least, was flabbergasted at his latest assignment, much like you might have felt had God called you to preach in the center of Moscow when American-Soviet relations were at their coldest. So, he hesitated, a hesitation that quickly resulted in his running away, heading, going down, finding, paying, going aboard, sailing, and fleeing. Where we would normally expect to read “And Jonah set off and went to Nineveh as the Lord had commanded,” we instead find in its place: “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed to Tarshish.” All of the readers are in shock. It is more stunning than John Wayne falling off of his horse or Ben Matlock losing a case. Jonah, an Israelite prophet, actually dares to disobey the call of God.

But that is precisely what Jonah did. He devised his own plans, and rather than heading east over land, he went clear in the opposite direction over water. Jonah headed for Tarshish, and it was all down hill from there–down to Joppa, down into the sea.

This otherwise alarming story becomes rather comical when we pause to consider Jonah’s desired destination. For one thing, Tarshish is located clear in the opposite direction from Nineveh, way over on the other side of the earth. For another, traveling there required an ocean voyage. The Israelites, unlike many of you, did not like water. How many “boat scenes” are there in the Old Testament anyway? The sea was unknown and mysterious. And to make matters worse, many people in the ancient world believed that an eery sea serpent named Leviathan or Lotan lived out there. No, the Israelites did not like water. They would have agreed with my mother–water is only good for bathing and drinking, not for traveling over. “I have to put as much distance between God and me as I can,” Jonah must have thought, “and I’ll do whatever I can to do it!”

It seems, however, as though Jonah grossly misjudged God’s involvement in all of this. Rather than being a helpless victim of Jonah’s rejection, God intervenes in his own way–“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.” There is panic on board. You know, disobedience is that way–it always affects someone else. Sailors are running to and fro. Prayers are going up to every known god. Cargo is being tossed into the sea. But all to no avail. Their varied and frenzied efforts did not provide the solution, and the problem was not the cargo, at least not in the form of boxes and chests. The troublesome cargo lies nestled somewhere in the bottom of the ship, sleeping from the over exhaustion which resulted from his all-out effort to free himself from his assignment. The same storm which alarmed the crew rocked Jonah to sleep.

At once, Jonah is confronted with what must have seemed like a dream–“Get up and call...,” the very words that God had spoken to him only a short time earlier. But it is no dream, and with the casting of lots and a series of abrupt questions, the truth comes out–“Jonah is a Hebrew, running away from God.” Why, in simply hearing the story, the pagan sailors experience more fear than Jonah ever did. Even when told of the solution, they opt to row and row and row, hoping to get back to dry ground rather than to take the life of this otherwise unknown individual. Jonah, an Israelite prophet, running from God. The sailors, worshipers of foreign deities, calling on God. It is almost too much to imagine.

But rowing the boat does no good. One can not simply turn back the clock and start over. Jonah deserves to die, and he himself knows it. Finally, Jonah is ready to surrender. Reluctantly and prayerfully, the sailors do the only thing left for them to do–they throw Jonah into the sea. Immediately, the sea grows quiet, like a ravenous lion satisfied after devouring a defenseless gazelle. Everyone on board spontaneously worships God. And Jonah? He got what he deserved. After all, he ran from God, and now only God can save him. Jonah the flabbergasted,
floundering in the depths of the sea.
It is an unusual story, isn’t it? A job is given to an individual, a prophet no less, but we do not find the “Lord, Here am I. Send me!” that Isaiah is famous for. Neither do we see the immediate compliance demonstrated by Jeremiah who did precisely as he had been commanded. We don’t find that inclination toward obedience seen in Elijah, who, when told by God to present himself before Ahab, did precisely that. For that matter, we don’t even find the argumentative reluctance of Moses, who took God to the negotiating table before finally accepting his call. Jonah simply says “No! I won’t do it!” And he runs away. It’s shocking, and if we can begin to understand some of the dynamics here in Jonah 1, we may be more inclined to avoid the type of mess in which Jonah soon finds himself. Notice these things:

Jonah, first of all, acted on the basis of his feelings rather than according to what he knew was right. Jonah’s problem was not discerning the will of God. He knew precisely what God’s will was–he simply did not feel like doing it.

Now again, I can in a sense understand how Jonah must have felt at this time, and to be perfectly honest with you, most people would have felt the same way. After all, Assyria was indeed an ever increasing power during the reign of Jeroboam II, an international menace that thrived on extending their own borders at the expense of the weaker surrounding nations. Assyria seemed to cause trouble for everyone–why should Jonah go to Nineveh, its capital? The Ninevites were the last people on earth that he cared about.

But there was also something personal at stake here for Jonah. You see, he wasn’t simply afraid to go to Nineveh. Anyone who volunteers to be thrown into a raging sea could not be totally lacking in courage. No, Jonah’s problem, as we will see more clearly when we come to chapter 4, was that he knew that God would be gracious and compassionate to the people of Nineveh, and he did not want him to be. Such compassion troubled Jonah for at least two reasons. For one thing, the dastardly Ninevites would escape the judgment that they rightfully deserved and that Jonah so desperately wanted them to receive. For another, Jonah’s prophecies concerning the destruction of Nineveh would not come to pass if God extended his mercy, and he would therefore be considered a false prophet. What is a false prophet to do other than stand in the unemployment line? All of these things, these attitudes, these dynamics, then, constrained Jonah to the point where he simply did not want to go to Nineveh. He did not feel like doing it! So he didn’t.

Jonah was wrestling with certain feelings and struggling with various attitudes and prejudices that, when blown out of proportion, kept him from doing the will of God. Jonah, apparently, had never learned to act first, and to let his feelings take care of themselves.

I remember an occasion soon after I began teaching at the college. I was working night and day preparing courses for the first time, and I came home one afternoon for lunch. Deb had obviously gone to a great deal of trouble to prepare something special, but I hurriedly ate and started walking back to the office. Every step of the way, I sensed this nagging tug, calling me to turn around and thank her for preparing such a wonderful meal. “I can’t,” I said to myself. “I don’t have the time.” Finally, when the tug refused to subside, I reluctantly returned to our apartment, threw my arms around my wife, and said “Thanks, dear, for the great lunch.” Do you know what happened? I suddenly lost all desire to go back to my office! I wanted to spend the rest of the day with her. I acted, and my feelings followed suit.

Jesus did not gather his disciples by saying, “If you feel like it, follow me.” He did not say to the rich man, “Go and wait until you feel an overwhelming burden for the problems of your society, and then give all you own to the poor.” He simply said, “Go and do it.” And what is the name of the fifth book of the New Testament? The thoughts of the Apostles? The feelings of the Apostles? No. The Acts of the Apostles.

Jonah knew exactly what he was supposed to do–he just did not feel like doing it. He had not learned to act on the basis of what he knew was right, and to let his feelings take care of themselves.

Secondly, the story does not progress very far before we notice a basic problem with Jonah’s theology. From all indications, Jonah believed that God was simply a local deity. He assumed, as did many people of his day, that gods exercised control only over certain geographical areas. Imagine, for example, that a particular god rules over Mechanicsburg, another over Bowmansdale, and still another over Grantham. Jonah believed that the god who was calling him to this formidable task ruled only in the vicinity of Israel. He apparently did not share the Psalmist’s sentiments, expressed so clearly in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

As a result of believing that God was a local deity, Jonah similarly thought that it was possible to run away from him and get away with it. “If I do not want to do what the God of Israel requires, I’ll just go elsewhere. Maybe the gods of Tarshish will treat me more favorably,” Jonah no doubt said to himself. While such theological convictions proved to be untrue, their effects on Jonah’s life turned out to be devastating.

That is why it is so important for us to “study to prove ourselves acceptable.” It is crucial that we participate in a supportive and instructive community such as this so that we can learn and grow. It is vital that we devote our energies to knowing God more intimately, and to understanding how he works in our lives and in the world. While our salvation thankfully does not depend on our achieving theological perfection, what we think and believe matters. Jonah could have saved himself a great deal of trouble if he had straightened out his theology a bit. Other prophets spoke eloquently about the sovereignty of God. Prophets like Amos announced God’s lordship over all of the world. Jonah, had he thought carefully about it, should have known that you can’t run away from God, and that running is never an appropriate response to God’s call. When you run as he did, you only end up at the bottom of the sea.

Finally, we notice in these adventures of Jonah that worship is not necessarily the same thing as obedience. Jonah readily acknowledges that he is a Hebrew–“I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord.” Unfortunately, he is not obeying him. God is not looking so much for people who will praise him and sing about him, as important as it is for us to do those things. God seeks for people who will do what he asks of them, men and women who will follow his call on their lives. Jonah claimed to worship God, but he was not obeying him.

So much of Jonah 1 boils down to this one thing–obeying God. So often we struggle to discover what God’s will for us is, as though it is some mysterious cloud hanging always just beyond our reach. Did you notice how little Jonah was actually told about his task? No details for when he arrived in Nineveh–those would come later. What he had to do first was act on what he had already been told. God would illumine his path through time.
All of us here this morning know, at least to some extent, what God’s will is for our lives. It is unmistakably clear in the Bible. We are to love the Lord with all of our hearts, love our neighbors as ourselves, share the Gospel with people around us, care for the poor and the needy, and be honest and upright. Micah states it so clearly: “...what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8)?” All of us can consciously begin to obey the call of God in these matters. Many times, the reason that things seem so fuzzy, so hazy, is that we haven’t really learned to be obedient to the everyday calling given to us. While seeking God’s will, we might actually be running from it. Knowing the will of God for tomorrow is directly related to obeying the voice of God today.

Everyone here this morning is either in the boat heading for Tarshish or on the ground traveling toward Nineveh. The trip to Nineveh is not always appealing, it does not always feel good, it may be tiring and long at times, it does not always make sense, humanly speaking, and it may leave us flabbergasted. But it is the will of God. And the boat to Tarshish? It will either never get out of the storm, or you will end up in awfully deep water.