Jonah: God Appointed a Prophet

Written by admin on Jul 08, 2013 in - No Comments

(Due to technical issues there is no sermon audio for this week’s sermon.)


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.

4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:1–17 ESV)

Without question, one of the most well known stories in all the Bible is the story of Jonah and his adventure with the great fish. We often call it the story of Jonah and the Whale. This story is an instant favorite of children when they hear it for the first time. While it has been called a literary masterpiece, the book of Jonah remains simple enough for children to read and enjoy. This is truly one of the all time great stories.

But the elements that make it a great story also lead to much speculation over whether the book of Jonah is merely a story. Could a man really survive in the belly of a fish for 3 days and 3 nights and then be vomited up on dry land and walk away from it? Is this fact or fiction? Are we dealing here with history or hyperbole?

That is where I would like to start this sermon series. By addressing the historicity of the book of Jonah. If you haven’t already, I invite you, and encourage you, to turn with me in your Bible and follow along as I read.

The book of Jonah can be found in the Old Testament in a section called the minor prophets. Minor because of their size, not because of the importance of their message. You will find the twelve minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament. Begin by turning to the Psalms in the middle of your Bible and then by turning toward the back until you pass Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. After Daniel you will find Hosea which is the first Minor Prophet. Keep turning past Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, and then you have reached Jonah.

Jonah: Fact or Fiction?

Now that we all have the text before us, let’s begin our discussion on whether the book of Jonah is fact or fiction by asking the questions: Was Jonah a Real Person? And, if so, who was he?

Look with me again at verse 1:

1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai…

Jonah the son of Amittai. What do we know about this man? Well, first of all we know that Jonah was indeed a real person. The Bible speaks of him in 2 Kings 14. A book which was specifically written to record the history of the kings of Israel identifies Jonah as a prophet who predicts a military victory for Israel and the expansion of their territory. Let me read to you from 2 Kings 14 beginning in verse 23. You don’t have to turn with me, just stay in Jonah.

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. (2 Kings 14:23–26 ESV)

So not just any Jonah, but Jonah the son of Amittai, is listed here as a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II in the eighth century BC. In other words, Jonah the son of Amittai, was a real person who lived in a real place, during a certain time in history. And not only that, but 2 Kings identifies him as an accurate prophet. He was a man who the Lord spoke through.

Would it not be somewhat strange, then, to take a real prophet who was known by God’s people and write a fictional account about him? And would it not be more strange if the people of Israel knew the book of Jonah was fiction and still included it within their canon of Scripture in a section specifically meant for prophets who heard from and spoke for God?

Notice how this book begins: “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah…” That phrase, “the word of the LORD came to,” occurs over 100 times in the Old Testament, and it is a phrase that always gets your attention because you know that God is about to speak to or through a prophet. And so for the original readers of this book, it would have been difficult to read those words and not expect a factual, historical account to follow. And traditionally, Jonah has always been treated as a historical account. It is a somewhat recent idea to treat Jonah as only a story or a parable and not historical fact.

But the greatest evidence of all that I have for you this morning regarding the historicity of Jonah, comes from the mouth of Jesus himself. I will ask you to turn with me to Matthew 12. Save your spot in Jonah, but look with me at verses 38 to 41 of Matthew 12.

In Matthew 12:38 we see Jesus being approached by some scribes and Pharisees demanding a miraculous sign from him to prove he was the Messiah. Follow along with me and notice how Jesus responds to them:

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 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. 40 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. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment 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 ESV)

Now I am really not sure after reading that how anyone could conclude that Jesus did not see the story of Jonah as a historical account. Jesus relates Jonah being in the belly of the fish for 3 days to his forthcoming 3 day stay in the tomb. And while it could be argued, I guess, that Jesus was just using the well known story of Jonah as an illustration, verse 41 pretty much destroys that notion. In verse 41, Jesus speaks very factually about the people of Nineveh. He says that because the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, they will rise up at the judgment and condemn the Pharisees. And notice in verse 39, he specifically calls Jonah a prophet, not something he would likely have done if the book of Jonah was not based on historical fact.

So with that I am going to rest my case. Jesus clearly saw the story of Jonah as historical. What more is there for me to say?

But, nonetheless, there are even Christian people today who question the historicity of Jonah. They struggle to get around the miraculous events. “Do you expect me to believe that a man lived in the belly of a whale for three days?” Yes, and I expect you to believe that our Lord and Savior was born to a virgin. And I expect you to believe that he was killed on a cross and lay dead in a tomb for three days before he rose from the grave alive. Yes, and I expect you to believe that God spoke the universe into existence with nothing more than the words of his mouth. And I expect you to believe that Jesus walked on water. And I expect you to believe that Jesus healed people who were blind. And I expect you to believe every single miracle reported in the Bible.

I am confused as to how someone can claim to believe all this other stuff and doubt that God could have appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah and keep him alive in that fish for three days. If you can accept the truth about Jesus, you should be able to accept the truth of this story about Jonah as well.

Turn back with me to Jonah and look at chapter 1 verse 14. Perhaps these pagan sailors understood more about God than many professing Christians do today. Look at the end of verse 14: “For you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” He is God. He does whatever he pleases. The fact that we can’t prove it with science does not mean that God could not have done it. He does whatever he pleases. He is not bound by the laws of science.

Now… with that said. Let me throw a disclaimer in here. There are many Christians, real Christians, who still believe that Jonah is simply a parable to teach a lesson. And though I believe they are wrong, I also believe you can think that way and still be a God-fearing, Jesus loving, Bible-believing Christian. I don’t want to make something like this a measuring stick of someone’s faith, because it is not. BUT… one thing I would say to anyone who believes this way is that if you are a Bible believing Christian, then you must at least accept the fact that God could have done this if he wanted to. Again, he is God. He is all powerful and all capable. He does whatever he pleases. And so if you want to take this as a fictional account, I also think that as a Christian you should be able to admit he could have done this if he wanted to. That’s the same thing I say about a literal six day creation. He could have created it all in six seconds had he wanted to.

Now that I have established my conviction that this is a historical account, I would like for us to focus the rest of our time this morning on verses 1–3 in order to set the stage for the rest of this sermon series. We will cover much more ground in the remaining 4 sermons, but this morning I just want to focus on these three verses.

Going Down

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)

The primary thing we see in these first three verses is that Jonah received a word from God to Arise and Go to Nineveh and proclaim a warning to them. There is nothing necessarily abnormal about this call. It is Jonah’s response that is shocking.

In verse 3 we see that Jonah did exactly the opposite of what God called him to do. Well, he did “Arise,” but after that it was all down hill. And notice how the author of Jonah uses the word “down” twice in verses 2 and 3. Jonah went DOWN to Joppa and he went DOWN into the ship. Perhaps the author is making a point with the repetitive use of that word. He also repeats the phrase “from the presence of the LORD” to describe where Jonah was fleeing to. Yes he was fleeing to a place called Tarshish, but primarily he was fleeing from God and his call to go to Nineveh. And the author really wants to emphasize that Jonah is not going to Nineveh by repeating the word “Tarshish” three times in verse 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 1:3 ESV)

Now, we do not know for certain where Tarshish was. It was somewhere in the western Mediterranean which would have been the exact opposite direction of Nineveh. In the exact opposite direction from the place God told him to go and thus, away from the presence of the LORD.

Why the Hatred for Ninevah?

So the question we have to ask is why would Jonah do this? Why would a prophet of God, a man who was called to speak for God, and as we have already seen had done so in the past, why would Jonah run from God’s call to go to Nineveh? Why would he get on a ship headed in the opposite direction from the place he was supposed to go?

Well, the simple truth is that Jonah hated the people of Nineveh. He was a bigot. And he was putting his foot down about doing anything that might result in them not getting what he believed was coming to them.

There are two ways to tell a story. One way is to let people in on the outcome at the very beginning and then fill in the details along the way. Or you can wait until the end of the story to reveal the key piece of information that explains everything. Some of the greatest writers have employed the later method. But the problem with waiting until the end to reveal that key piece of information is, because you don’t know where things are going, you miss out on key information along the way. Have you ever watched one of those movies where you are totally surprised by how it ends, but when you go back and watch it again you pick up on a lot of the small details that you missed the first time you watched it. That is what I am talking about.

So instead of being a good story-teller, I have decided I would rather lay all my cards on the table this morning and tell you where we are going from the start so the details will stand out more along the way. So if you have never heard the story of Jonah, get ready, I am about to ruin it for you.

Primarily, this book is about God’s mercy to the whole human race. Jonah views God’s mercy as something only appropriate for his people and his culture. And Jonah was not alone in this belief, many Jewish people in Jonah’s day believed this way. And God was using the events in this little story to wake his people up to their bigotry.

By looking at a couple of verses from the last chapter we see this plainly. Actually look with me at the last verse in the book, chapter 4 verse 11. This book ends with God asking Jonah the following question:

Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11 ESV)

You see, Jonah was fine with God showing mercy to him and to the rest of the Jews. And he was probably fine with God showing mercy to other groups of Gentiles. What he was not fine with is God showing mercy to the Ninevites.

Look up with me in verse 1 of chapter 4. After learning that God showed mercy to the Ninevites because they repented, Jonah becomes angry.

I will read verses 1 and 2. Notice what Jonah says in verse 2:

1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 4:1–2 ESV)

Jonah’s problem was not with God’s mercy upon people who do not deserve it. Jonah acknowledges in this verse that God is a gracious God, a God of mercy, a God who is patient and loving. Jonah readily acknowledges this important description of God’s character that appears in several places in the Old Testament. Jonah’s problem is that God was going to show mercy to the Ninevites. A group of people he, along with the rest of the Israelites, despised.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. And Assyria was the most despicable, violent, vicious, and powerful enemy Israel ever had. For Jonah and the people of Israel, every Assyrian was considered a pagan enemy, vile and evil, wicked and savage. They were the epitome of what Israel hated. And Jonah hated the thought of God showing mercy to Assyrians instead of giving them what he thought they deserved. The Assyrians were brutal. They massacred and mutilated their enemies in the most disgusting ways. And at this particular point in the history of Israel, the threat of the Assyrians was soon to loom large again. It would be the Assyrians who would soon take the Israelites into exile. And so the last thing Jonah wanted was for the Assyrians to repent and be spared by God. Jonah knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and [a God who relents] from disaster” when people repent.

This book is in the Old Testament canon to remind us that God’s mercy extends to the whole human race. Not only to those who are like us. Not only to those who we like. And especially not only to those who we believe deserve God’s mercy. God’s mercy is gracious. He extends it precisely to those who do not deserve it. That includes you. That includes me.


You see, Jonah’s anger can basically be summed up with the question: “Can a righteous, just, and holy God forgive the vile, wicked, and evil Assyrians and remain righteous and just? Can God simply forget their sin and leave it unpunished?”

The answer to that question is: “No. God cannot just sweep sin under the rug and pretend it never happened. He cannot do that and remain a righteous and just God.”

Sin has a price and that price must be paid. That is true for the sins of the Israelites and for the sins of the Ninevites. And that is true for our sin today. God has promised to bring destruction upon those who do not repent of their sin. But as Jonah reminds us in chapter 4 verse 2, God is also a gracious God, a merciful God, a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And he is a God who relents from the destruction of those who repent and turn from their wickedness.

But he cannot pretend our sins never happened. There is a price to be paid. And that price was paid by Jesus Christ. Romans 3 teaches us that Jesus’ blood satisfied God’s righteous anger and coming wrath for those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death made a way for God to pass over our sins and remain righteous and just in the process. We do not have to worry like Jonah that evil people will not get what they deserve. Because the fact is that all sin is punished. It is punished either in an eternal hell or in the bloody hell Jesus endured on the cross.

God was able to relent from destroying the Assyrians for their sins because he was looking toward the day when Jesus would make full payment for those sins on the cross. And God is able to relent from giving us the punishment we deserve because Jesus has gone to the cross in our place as well. The cross is the place where God’s justice and his love meet. God’s justice is satisfied because sin is punished. His love is revealed in his willingness to die for us.

But God’s love and mercy are not limited solely to “us.” God’s mercy is available for “all.” This includes everyone from the homeless man begging for money down by the hospital to the vilest, Isalmic jihadist who hates every one of us and wants us dead. We do not have exclusive rights to God’s mercy and compassion. And we do not have control over who God chooses to show mercy to. God told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15 ESV).

It is high time for God’s people stop playing God by deciding who deserves God’s mercy and who doesn’t. Because the simple answer to that is none of us deserve it. That is what grace is all about. That is what Jonah is all about.

I am looking forward to the next four sermons where we delve into this a little more. And I am also praying that God will expose to each of us any prejudices that we have (known our unknown) which sometimes cause us to respond like Jonah when God says, “Arise and Go.”