An Invisible Sovereign (Jonah 1:1-3)

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I am fairly sure that the urge to run away is common to us all. Perhaps, as a child, you at some point contemplated the attraction of running away from home and being free from your parents’ control—punishing them! Many of us know what it is to be overwhelmed at times and to consider escaping—getting away from circumstances or responsibilities that we find claustrophobic or simply “too much to bear.” We consider it unfair that life should throw us curveballs and so we seek some means of escape.

It is at times like those that you simply cannot see, cannot comprehend, that your battle really is a battle against the authority of God. You may be tempted to grumble against your boss, your spouse, your family or the government (“why have you done this to me?”) but in fact your real complaint is with a sovereign God.

In worship, we battle with the idea of a God who is invisible. Our hearts are given to idolatry, and we want to see the object of our affections. It is for this reason that we are tempted to, as it were, cast and fashion golden calves (cf. Exodus 32).

But in life, we battle with a God who is sovereign—behind and beneath and above—and responsible for everything that we face.

As we struggle with this reality of an invisible Sovereign—a God who, though unseen, orders all events in history from His throne in heaven—we must look to the Scriptures to help us face life with a positive outlook. One place in Scripture that helps in this endeavour is the book of Jonah.

In this study, we begin a several part journey in a series of meditations and learning lessons for life from the book of Jonah.

Having recently emerging as a church family from a study and contemplation of idolatry—centred in Exodus 32—we would all benefit from seeing afresh the reality of God’s hand in our struggles. It would be good for us to realize afresh that, when we are tempted to run away from the pressures and responsibilities of life, we cannot outrun God. He will reel us in, and the process leading to submission can be painful, frustrating and costly!

In summary form, the facts are simply these: Jonah was a historical figure, a man who had received a commission from God and rebelled—and ran. But the invisible Sovereign reeled him in. Let’s consider some pertinent issues from this brief historical narrative.

Where do we find the book of Jonah in the Bible?

The book of Jonah is found amongst the Minor Prophets at the back end of the Old Testament. They are called “Minor” Prophets not because their message was minor, but simply because—when compared to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (the “Major Prophets”)—their message is generally briefer.

How would one locate Jonah in the Bible? When I was a child, I was taught an Afrikaans ditty—or mostly Afrikaans—to help place the Minor Prophets in their correct order, and it has stuck with me ever since. Unfortunately, the ditty does not translate as well into English. In Afrikaans, it reads: Hou jou arm op jou maag net hier—zebras have zebra markings. The English translation would be “Hold your arm on your stomach right here—zebras have zebra markings.” You can see why the English translation does not fit the sequence.

Hou (Hosea) jou (Joel) arm (Amos) op (Obadiah) jou (Jonah) maag (Micah) net (Nahum) hier (Habakkuk)—zebras (Zephaniah) have (Haggai) zebra (Zechariah) markings (Malachi). It’s a silly little saying, but it has never escaped my mind, and I usually begin reciting it automatically when I start looking for a particular book within the Minor Prophets.

As you can see, Jonah is located between Obadiah and Micah. His is the fifth book in the collected writings of the Minor Prophets; the eighth last book of the Old Testament. As a church, we toured the Minor Prophets just a couple of years ago in our Family Bible Hour ministry.

Historically speaking, the Minor Prophets ministered during a time of chaos in the nations of Israel and Judah. Saul, David and Solomon had ruled the twelve tribes as a single nation, but the kingdom was divided during the reign of Rehoboam, Solomon’s foolish son. Ten tribes—known collectively as Israel—chose Jeroboam as their leader, whilst the remaining two tribes—known collectively as Judah—followed Rehoboam. Israel and Judah were seldom at peace with one another, and even more rarely with surrounding nations.

As a general rule, it is helpful when studying the Minor Prophets to ask which of the two nations the prophet in question ministered to: Israel or Judah. In Jonah’s case, that is not a particularly helpful question. In point of fact—at least during the events recorded in the book bearing his name—he did not minister to either of these nations. Instead, he was sent by God to the capital city of Assyria.

We know from 2 Kings 14:25 that Jonah was from Gath-hepher, which was located in the northern nation of Israel, and that he ministered during or shortly before the reign of King Jeroboam II, which made him a contemporary of Elisha. The prophecy reference in 2 Kings 14 concerned Israel, but outside of that we have only the information recorded in the book bearing his name.

Nineveh, as already noted, was the capital city of Assyria. It was located far away to the northeast of Palestine, in the region of modern-day Mosul (Baghdad) on the banks of the Tigris River. The Assyrians at that point in history were enemies of Israel, and particularly ruthless enemies at that. From a human perspective, the prophet’s hatred for this bloodthirsty people is understandable—particularly considering that Jonah’s own nation was next on Assyria’s “to-conquer” list.

The fact that Jonah was sent to non-Jews is an interesting fact and one of which we must be aware. We will see the reason for this as we make progress through these four chapters, and it was clearly a key factor in what motivated Jonah to disobey God in the first place.

What must we notice from the text?

The book of Jonah is brief. It can be read in a single sitting in no more than seven minutes. You will find it helpful to do so, and I encourage you to read the narrative out loud.

The story might be divided easily into two parts, with the key to division lying in the repetition of the phrase “the word of the LORD came to Jonah.” We find this phrase in 1:1 and 3:1. Chapters 1-2, then, record the story of Jonah’s disobedience, whilst chapters 3-4 record the story of his obedience.

We should not miss the significance of the fact that “the word of the LORD came to Jonah.” Much was happening in Israel at this time in history. The nation, largely, had apostatised from the faith. Despite the bold witness of Elijah and Elisha, the kings of Israel persisted in idolatry, and led the people in the same. It was increasingly necessary for God to respond to this apostasy.

And yet in the midst of all this busyness, Yahweh was paying attention and taking note of events and attitudes in faraway Nineveh. He was involved in the history of mankind. And His compassionate involvement moved Him to speak to His prophet in Gath-hepher and to send him with a word to the Assyrians on the banks of the Tigris.

The story of Jonah is, in many ways, a story of contrast. The word “but” is found no fewer than eight times in the text, and each time it draws our attention to a dramatic reversal in the storyline. The phrase “God appointed” is also of particular importance. In the story, God appointed a wind, a fish, a plant, a worm and a scorching east wind. God was clearly busily at work in the life of his disobedience and ill-tempered prophet.

The story is full of twists. This does not surprise us, because if we know anything about life it is that things rarely travel in a straight line. Life takes all manner of twists and turns, and the story of Jonah reflects this truth well.

Of course, an overarching principle for us to learn is that God does not only love one nation. Israel, to be certain, was His chosen nation, the one on which He had set His love in a particular way. But God’s intention was never to save the Jews to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Jonah gives us an old covenant illustration of this important truth. And, of course, the New Testament builds on this (Acts 10:34-35; Romans 3:29; etc.).

The story of Jonah teaches us, furthermore, that great things happen when God’s truth is proclaimed. The Ninevites repented when confronted with God’s truth. Jonah knew that they would—and in that his theology was better than ours often is—and it comes to us as a wonderful encouragement that an entire city was converted by the gospel preaching of one man. The preaching of God’s Word is designed to bring faith to its hearers (Romans 10:17), and we would do well to remember this.

Who was Jonah?

Our text informs us that Jonah was “the son of Amittai.” We know of Amittai only what we read right here: that he had a son named Jonah. He was an obscure man, but he brought forth a productive son!

We should be encouraged from this that, whilst most of us are no doubt destined to live lives of obscurity, our children can, by God’s grace, achieve far greater things than we ever will. This should drive us to pray passionately that God would accomplish this. May God use our children in a far greater way than He ever used us! May He use the next generation in our local churches in a far greater way than He ever used our generation!

As we have already seen, Jonah was an Israelite prophet and a contemporary of Elisha. As a prophet, his task—his vow to God—was to go, do and say exactly as instructed by Yahweh. It was according to Jonah’s prophetic word that Israel’s borders were expanded and that towns formerly captured by Gentile nations were restored to Israel. Jeroboam II was an evil king, but (under the ministry of Jonah) he expanded Israel further than his father did, matching the boundaries established by David and Solomon. Jonah therefore witnessed first-hand the restorative compassion of God, extended by grace to a wayward people.

Jonah’s name means “dove,” and he was (as we shall see) a type of Christ. His mournful message—repent or suffer destruction—fit this type well.

Jonah was also a racist—or at least toward the Assyrians in particular. He resented the fact that God’s light extended to the Gentiles (cf. Luke 2:32). He could accept the fact that God would show grace to apostate Israel (2 Kings 14:25), but he could not accept that God would show the same grace to wicked Assyria. He knew that God would do so, but he was unhappy about it.

What was his assignment from God?

Jonah was sent to the most renowned city on the face of the earth. His was a unique commission to go to the heathen. The seven angels with the seven last plagues would many centuries later sing about precisely the kind of mission that Jonah received:

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

(Revelation 15:3-4)

Jonah was an instrument in the hands of a jealous God. The Assyrians had made God jealous with their idolatry (Deuteronomy 32:21), but instead of destroying them God intended to save them. This would ultimately work to make Israel jealous (Romans 11:11)—beginning with Jonah!

Jonah’s story also foreshadowed the Lord Jesus Christ—with particular reference to his experience in the belly of the whale. Jesus spoke specifically of this during His earthly ministry:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

(Matthew 12:38-41)

He was the recipient of a sovereign command—it would happen, despite his initial reluctance—and of a righteous command (1 Peter 4:17-18 ).

How shall we treat this story and fit it into our worldview?

How are we to understand this book? Some interpreters have argued for an allegorical or parabolic interpretation. This, however, does not fit the biblical revelation. The story is unlike any parable or allegory found anywhere else in Scripture. Clearly, the writer intended it to be understood as historical narrative, and Christ’s references to Jonah as a historical figure (Matthew 12:38-41; Luke 11:29-32) lend credence to this interpretation. Our love for Christ and His credibility in our eyes dictates a literal, historical understanding of the facts, and present us with a wonderful opportunity to submit our understanding of reality to God’s infinite power to bring about whatever He pleases—which is precisely the nature of saving faith!

The book of Jonah has all the marks of a prophetic narrative, like those about Elijah and Elisha found in 1 Kings, which set out to report actual historical events. The phrase that opens the book (“the word of the LORD came to”) is also at the beginning of the first two stories told about Elijah (1 Kings 17:2, 8 ) and is used in other prophetic narratives as well (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:10; 2 Samuel 7:4).

Just as the Elijah and Elisha narratives contain extraordinary events, like ravens providing bread and meat for the prophet (1 Kings 17:6), so does the book of Jonah, as when the fish provides transportation for the prophet. In fact, the story of Jonah is so much like the stories about Elijah and Elisha that one would hardly think it odd if the story of Jonah were embedded in 2 Kings right after Jonah’s prophetic words about the expansion of the kingdom. The story of Jonah is thus presented as historical, like the other prophetic narratives.

There are additional arguments for the historical nature of the book of Jonah. It is difficult to say that the story teaches God’s sovereignty over the creation if God did not in fact appoint the fish (1:17), the plant (4:6), the worm (4:7), and the east wind (4:8 ) to do His will. Jesus, moreover, treated the story as historical when He used elements of the story as analogies for other historical events.

The story of Jonah is not, however, history for history’s sake. The book is clearly didactic (as the allegorical and parabolic interpretations rightly affirm); that is, the story is told to teach the reader key lessons. The didactic character of the book shines through in the repeated use of questions, 11 out of 14 being addressed to Jonah, and the question that closes the narrative leaves readers asking themselves how they will respond to the story.

When we read of God’s instruction to Jonah in v. 2—“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me”—we must be careful not to understand it in ways that suggest that all we need to do as sinners is behave and we will feel better and God will no longer be displeased. This is the error of moralistic, therapeutic deism.

Moralistic, therapeutic deism wants us to believe that we have merely “made mistakes” and done some “bad things.” If we can but correct our bad behaviour, we will feel better about ourselves and will have no reason to fear any punishment from God—if indeed God exists. In the theology of moralistic, therapeutic deism, the solution to guilt lies in our own ability to correct our behaviour. There is no need for Christ, the cross, repentance, and forgiveness.

But this is not the gospel of God. The gospel call is not simply an invitation to behave so that you will feel better about impressing God; it is a command to surrender your righteousness and trust in the blood and righteousness of another. And Jonah’s story (“the sign of Jonah”) is designed to point us to this Christ.

As Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so Jesus spent three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. But as Jonah did not remain inside the whale—as he was expelled by the sovereign power of the invisible God—so Jesus did not remain in the grave. He died on our behalf, and He rose victorious from the grave by the sovereign power of God. And His righteousness is now freely available to all who will receive it in repentance and faith.

So, will we do what God calls us to do? God commands all people everywhere to repent. His kindness is displayed in the story of Jonah by not immediately destroying Nineveh in its wickedness, but in sending a preacher to it. God is holy and must act against sin. He has not changed. But, praise be to God, He has already acted in a definitive manner. He laid the punishment for the sins of His people—the Ninevites included—on the sinless shoulders of His Son, and showed that that substitutionary sacrifice was accepted by raising Jesus from the dead.

We have heard the joyful sound—Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around—Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to ev’ry land, climb the steeps and cross the waves;
Onward! ‘tis our Lord’s command—Jesus saves! Jesus saves!