Why did Jonah flee from the Lord’s presence? What does this teach us about our own sinfulness? In this session of Secret Church 23 on Jonah 1, Pastor David Platt explains why Jonah ran away from the Lord in disobedience. He reminds Christians that God’s Word is authoritative and that he is absolutely sovereign. David Platt concludes this session by warning Christians to ground their identity in how God defines them instead of how the world defines them.
- What do we learn about God?
- What do we learn about us?
- What do we learn about the world?
All right. Strap your seatbelts on and let’s go! Secret Church in Jonah, one of the best-known stories in the entire Bible. Everybody knows this story because of a fish swallowing a man, which is sure to fascinate children and capture our imaginations. But the problem is there are only three verses in the whole book that talk about a fish and there’s really not a lot of detail in those verses. If we’re not careful, our fascination with this fish can cause us to miss so much wonder in this book.
Jonah is a masterpiece of literature that has inspired authors, painters, poets and musicians. Far from being some fairy tale about a fish, this is a real story with surprising relevance for our lives and the world we’re living in right now.
Now, if you’ve done Secret Church before, you’ll notice that our Study Guide is very different. It’s designed less around filling in blanks, although there are some of them, and is designed more around you taking notes in the actual text of the Bible as we walk through it. So I want to encourage you to get a pen and write. Take all kinds of notes as God speaks to you through his Word.
I’m going to point out some things in ways that I hope will help you. One of my aims is that by the end of this time together, not only will you know Jonah really well, but you’ll have a resource on your shelf, full of notes on every word in this book of the Bible that you can look back to in the future. Another aim is not just for you to have notes written on pages, but for you to have God’s Word imprinted on your heart in such a way that your life and the direction of it looks different as a result of what we’re about to do.
So I invite you to open your Study Guide to Jonah 1:1 and we’re going to meditate on Scripture which is what God calls us to do. We’re not just to read it, but to meditate on it, to soak it in.
I like to use the illustration of when Heather, my wife, and I started dating in high school. She was the first girl who really ever paid any attention to me and she wrote me letters. I would devour every word. When I’d get a letter that started with, “Dear David…” I would think, “Dear. I think she likes me.”
Then she’d write a sentence and put a smiley face. I’d think, “Why a smiley face, right there after that sentence?” Then she’d tell me she’s praying for me and I’d think, “Huh. In what way? Is she praying for me like she prays for all kinds of people and I’m just one of them? Or is she praying for me like she prays for her future husband?” I soaked in every single word and phrase to discern exactly what she was saying, thinking, feeling and meaning.
You might say that sounds pretty obsessive, and I might agree with you because I was in love. And that’s kind of the point. We love God, we love his Word, so we want to know what he’s saying, thinking, feeling and meaning. We’re obsessed. So we’re going to explore his Word like we love it, like it’s a cave of supernatural treasures—because it is. Psalm 119:162 says, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoils.” What a great verse. What a great word: spoil. That’s what we’re about to do. We’re going to find, discover and enjoy the spoil in the book of Jonah.
We don’t actually know who wrote this book, but the author is a master of the Hebrew language. He uses different words and literary devices at different points to bring this story to life. I’ll point those places out along the way. Just know that as I do, my aim is not to impress you with my Hebrew. One, my Hebrew is very unimpressive. And two, I don’t assume that even if my Hebrew was great, that would impress you.
That’s probably not at the top of the list of most impressive things in your mind. But when I point these things out, make notes so you can see some of the beauty of this book come through; things that don’t come through automatically in the English translation. Then as a side note, by the end of our time together, you’re going to be able to impress others with some Hebrew.
All right, enough set up. Let’s go.
Jonah 1:1 says, “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying….” Let’s pause and ask some questions and make some observations on just this verse. First, let’s ask who is writing this? As I mentioned a minute ago, we don’t know. It could be Jonah, which would be a pretty humbling thing for him to do, because—spoiler alert—the picture we get of Jonah is not that great in this book. It could be a contrite, humble Jonah who wants others to learn from his experience, Or it could be somebody else. We don’t know.
We also don’t know when it was written. It’s interesting how this books starts pretty abruptly, without some of the important details we see in other Bible books, especially prophetic books.
The Word of the Lord came to Jonah
Think for example about the first verse in the book of Haggai. He was another prophet who wrote, “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest.” That’s a lot of detail.
- When? “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month.” That’s pretty precise.
- Then, who? “The word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to
- Zerubbabel,” who was the son of Shealtiel, who was the governor of Judah.
It was written “to Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest.”
Here in Jonah, we don’t have any of this. We don’t know when this happened. We don’t know where Jonah is. We’re not even told that Jonah was a prophet, which we’ll talk more about later.
We just have this abrupt start: “Now…” The Hebrew word here introduces a story, almost like we might say, “Once upon a time…” So immediately we’re thrust into this story. No setting. Instead, we have a sudden word of the Lord. It’s like the author of Jonah is saying, seemingly out of nowhere, “Jonah got a word from God he was not expecting and it blindsided him.” It “came.” We don’t know how it came. An audible voice? A vision? A dream? We don’t know. II just came “to Jonah.”
I already mentioned that Jonah is not called a prophet here, or anywhere else in the book of Jonah for that matter. However, we know he was a prophet for two reasons. One, because “the word of the Lord came to Jonah…” This phrase appears over 100 times in the Old Testament to introduce a message from God to a prophet. We’ll see it seven times in this book. The mark of a prophet was that they received a word from God.
The other reason we know Jonah was a prophet is because there’s one other mention of him in the Old Testament. So let’s go outside the book of Jonah for a minute to understand what’s happening inside the book of Jonah. Let’s go to 2 Kings 14, where Jonah appears: 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.
Now, this passage definitely gives us some historical context. Jonah was a prophet from Gath-hepher, which was not far from Nazareth. He was prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam. So hat was about 782-753 B.C. That’s important because it places Jonah as an eight-century prophet, which would make him a contemporary of guys like Amos and Hosea.
Now, think about this context because 2 Kings 14 is telling us here that it was a time of much “evil in the sight of the Lord.” I want you to make a note and remember this Hebrew word for “evil.”
When you transliterate—in other words, what does the Hebrew word sound like in English?—it sounds like “ra.” Say that with me. See, you’re learning some Hebrew. This word is fascinating. We’re going to see throughout this journey that it has a dual meaning. It means evil or wickedness on one hand, and calamity or trouble on the other—which go together, right? Evil or wickedness against God brings calamity or trouble in our lives and in the world. We’re going to see in the book of Jonah why this word is so important. Evil sounds like ra. Just hold on to it for now.
Jeroboam was doing evil— ra. He was sinning in the ways of his father and leading Israel to sin. Do you know what Amos and Hosea were doing? They were speaking out against Jeroboam. Let’s look at some examples:
- Hosea 7:3, where Hosea denounced King Jeroboam and the people: “By their evil they make the king glad, and the princes by their treachery.”
- Hosea 13:10-11, where God through Hosea calls Israel back to himself as king: “Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities? Where are all your rulers—those of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath.” Hosea is speaking directly against the king, and Amos does this all the more pointedly.
- Amos 7:8-9: “Then the Lord said, ‘Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’” Do you know what happened, once Amos said that, and Jeroboam heard about it? His priest, Amaziah came to Amos and said, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13). Did you see that? Amos was just kicked out of Israel, forbidden to prophesy there.
Restoration through the Word of the Lord
So that’s what was going down between Jeroboam, Amos and Hosea, but not Jonah. Did you notice what we read in 2 Kings 14? He got a different assignment. Look back at 2 Kings 14:25-27. Talking about Jeroboam, this evil king, the Bible says:
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. 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. 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.
Did you catch that? Consider a little background here. For years, the nation of Assyria to the north had been threatening to overtake Israel. The Israelites had a history of making payments to Assyria because Israel was subordinate, even subservient to them. The Assyrians were powerful and vicious. They were known for their brutality in war. They wouldn’t just overtake people; they would slaughter them. Assyrian records boast of live dismemberment, parades of heads, stretching prisoners with ropes and skinning them alive, then displaying their skin on the city walls and poles.
One Assyrian king bragged about how he had won a battle and killed over 3,000 men and captured others. He wrote, “Many of the captives I burned in a fire. Many I took alive. Some I cut off their hands to their wrists. Others I cut off their noses and ears and fingers. I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers. I burned their young men and women to death.” Then those who lived were cruelly enslaved.
Listen to how Nahum 2:12 describes the Assyrians: “The lion tore enough for his cubs and strangled prey for his lionesses; he filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh.” The Assyrians were brutal and powerful, not a good combo. Just before Jeroboam became king, Assyria started to weaken. Then when Jeroboam became king, God gave a word to Jonah to go and deliver to the king, likely in the court in Samaria, the capital of Israel.
He gave him “the word of the LORD”—there’s that phrase back here in 2 Kings 14:25—and the word that came through Jonah was that Israel is going to retake cities and Israels borders are going to expand because God sees and loves Israel. So Jonah spoke this word, then it happened. What Jonah said came true. Israel’s borders expanded, which made Jonah a what? He was a hero, a national hero. Forget Amos over there, prophesying against Israel. Keep him quiet. We want Jonah. We want to hear what Jonah has to say.
Jonah 1 Declares the Urgency of the Gospel
Just imagine this. Certainly for those of us who live in the United States—and this is also true in countries around the world—national borders are a pretty hot-button issue. Any prophet in a nation who says, “Our borders are going to expand,” then it happens—you’re the man. Jonah was the face of national prosperity and pride for Israel.
So with all of that information, now we come back to Jonah 1:1 and we have a whole new perspective on this first verse. “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying…” If you’re an Israelite hearing this story, you’re thinking, “Yes, we love it when God’s word comes to Jonah.” You rise up with national pride at just the thought.
Then one more thing about this first verse. It clearly and succinctly sets the stage for a book about two main characters: the Lord and Jonah, the prophet. This is a book about who the LORD God really is, and this is a book that reveals who Jonah, the prophet, really is, as a representative of the people of Israel.
When you put all this together, this first verse may not contain a lot of details, but it sets the stage powerfully for the next verse to shock us. So what did God say to Jonah, the son of Amittai, the Israelite hero? He said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” Feel the force of this verse. There are three imperative verbs, which are commands: arise, go and call.
The word for arise literally means, “Get up!” It carries a sense of urgency. “Get up now and go.” This is how God often speaks to prophets he’s sending. The same exact words appear in 1 Kings 17:8-10 when God speaks to Elijah: “Then the word of the Lord came to him, ‘Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’” What did Elijah do? “So he arose and went to Zarephath.”
This same thing is in Jeremiah 13:6-7: “And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates.” This is normal language from God to a prophet—with urgency: “Get up and go!” But the next two words are not normal in any way. “Arise, go to Nineveh.” We need to feel what Jonah felt, what the audience would have felt, as soon as those words came from God’s mouth: “Get up and go to Nineveh.”
There are at least two shockingly abnormal things about this command. One, Nineveh is in a foreign nation. It’s outside of Israel, making this command unprecedented in Old Testament prophecy up to this point. It was normal for a prophet to speak about a foreign nation. Many prophets declared God’s judgment against foreign nations; that prophecy would usually serve either to comfort God’s people by reminding them these nations would one day be judged, or that prophecy would serve as a warning to God’s people so they wouldn’t make an alliance with those nations in light of their judgment to come. God would lovingly use this prophecy to keep his people from disaster.
But this is different. This is not God giving a word to Jonah about a foreign nation. This is God telling Jonah to go to a foreign nation. This is God telling the prophet associated with Israel’s borders to cross those borders. Just as God sends prophets to the people of Israel to comfort or warn them and keep them from judgment, the implication is that God is sending his prophet to another nation to either comfort or warn them and keep them from judgment.
This leads to all kinds of questions, because we know God loves the people of Israel in the Old Testament, but does God love all the nations in such a way that he would send his prophets to them? That’s the first thing that’s shocking here. God is calling a Jewish prophet to go to another nation with a message of comfort or warning, trying to keep them from judgment.
Then the shock goes to a whole other level when you realize which foreign nation God is calling Jonah to go to—the people of Nineveh, “that great city.” The word for ‘great’ here, which we’ll see many times in this book, means significant, large, prestigious, important, even invaluable. It’s a city that we actually see all the way back in the beginning of the Bible.
Genesis 10 tells us the history of nations that descended from Noah and his family. Listen to this, starting in verse eight: “Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD. Therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.’ The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh.”
Jonah 1 Speaks of God’s Loving Calmness
What? Did you hear that? Nineveh was the first city upon which a foreign nation was founded? Assyria. Cruel, vicious, brutal, powerful Assyria, the vile enemies of Israel. God says, “Jonah, get up and go to the heart of Assyria, to Nineveh.” Just so you know how much disdain the people of Israel had for Nineveh, we’ll talk about Nahum later, which is an entire book of the Bible devoted to the evil of Nineveh. In the early church, Nineveh was regarded as a symbol of the devil himself. No Israelite was neutral when they heard the word Nineveh.
So just imagine being Jonah—or any other Israelite. You want to stay as far away from Nineveh and Assyria as possible. Even the mention of this city or this nation incites terror in you, so the last thing you want to do for this wicked, evil people—that, by the way, is waning in power—is to give them a message of comfort or warning that might keep them from judgment, especially if you’re the prophet who represents pride in Israel. You want this terrorizing nation to experience total destruction.
Now this leads to the third command in this verse. God said, “Call out against it”—against Nineveh, this great city— “for their evil…” Guess what Hebrew word that is. You’ve already learned it. Ra. Make a note. It’s the same word that we saw in 2 Kings 14 to describe the evil and calamity of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam. Now this word is describing the evil and calamity of the people of Nineveh, the Assyrians.
Let’s make the connection. The point is clear. When God saw evil and calamity in Israel, in 2 Kings 14, what did he do? God lovingly spoke to them through his prophet Jonah. Now when God sees evil and calamity among the Assyrians, what’s he doing? God is lovingly sending to them his prophet Jonah. This phrase, “their evil has come up before me,” literally means “it’s a cause of concern for me.”
This leads to tension around what God is saying here. We’ve got to feel it. Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes. You’re the prophet of national Israelite pride and God is telling you to get up and go to your enemies, the people who have brutally terrorized your nation and other nations. Tell them God’s word, knowing God’s word may lead them to repent and might keep them from destruction.
So to go and do this, first of all, would be risking your life. To go to the dangerous inner city of Nineveh, the heart of Assyria—as an Israelite? Israelites don’t go there. Then, if you live long enough to speak this word, once they hear you, they could kill you, just like Israelites did with prophets who said things they didn’t like. Or, what if they actually listened and turned to God, then as a result they rebound in their prosperity? What would his fellow Jews say when he came back to Israel? “You just saved the enemy?” You will no longer be a national hero; you may not even be allowed back in Israel. This is called being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Now, here’s the deal. I want to be careful because we’re starting to get into conjecture about what Jonah is thinking. We’re about to read what Jonah decided to do at the beginning of verse three. But I want to point out here, that between the end of verse two and the beginning of verse three, the author intentionally does not tell us what Jonah was thinking, nor how he made his decision. We’re going to have to wait until chapter four to find out what Jonah was really thinking. The author is intentionally leaving that piece of information out at this point to keep us in suspense, knowing that God’s Word has just introduced major tension into this story.
So what does Jonah do? Verse three starts, “But…” It’s never a good word to see right after God has given a command. “But Jonah rose…” That’s the same action God told Jonah to do at the beginning of verse two: “Arise, get up.” Jonah got up, all right. He “rose to flee…” We’re expecting to see Jonah do what other prophets throughout the Old Testament do. Like Amos 3:8 that says, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” God is a lion. When he speaks, you do what he says. But not Jonah.
Jonah rises and runs. This verse is fascinating. Look for words and phrases that repeat as you read through it: “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.” Do you see the repetition? Two times we see the phrase, “from the presence of the Lord.” He’s fleeing away from God. That’s the exact opposite of what we see with other prophets. God’s word came to Elijah and he went. God’s word came to Jeremiah and he went. God’s word came to Jonah and he fled.
There’s another phrase that’s repeated twice. Jonah “went down” to Joppa and found a ship. He paid the fare and he “went down” into the ship. The author is describing a downward journey in contrast to God, who is up. Look back in verse two. Nineveh’s evil has “come up before me.” Circle the word “down” in verse three. We’re going to see it a few more times in this chapter.
Then there’s one more picture of repetition in verse three. Three times we see Tarshish mentioned. He fled “to Tarshish.” 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.” Why does he mention it three times in one verse? Well, look at the geography. I want to show you on the map here what’s behind this verse to help us understand. Jonah receives this word from God in Israel.
Remember, Assyria is to the east-northeast of Israel. And Nineveh is specifically east-northeast of where Jonah is. So God says, “Go to this city that’s east-northeast of you,” and Jonah goes down, both physically and spiritually, to Joppa, a Mediterranean port city that’s actually near Jerusalem, where he can find a boat that will help him get to Tarshish. Whereas Nineveh was east-northeast of Jonah, Tarshish was the furthest known western place in the Mediterranean world. Based on 2 Chronicles 9:21, it’s estimated that the sail to Tarshish would take about 12 to 18 months.
In other words, Jonah was literally—physically and spiritually—going as far away from God and God’s call on his life as he could possibly get. And it was costly. He paid the fare to do this, which was likely a whole lot of money, but Jonah clearly believed it was worth it. In fact, look with me at the description of Tarshish in Isaiah 66:19: “And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory.” That’s how Tarshish is described. Jonah wants to go to a place so far away, where people haven’t heard about or seen God. Why? Because Jonah doesn’t want, in his own life at this point, to hear God or see God.
Jonah Tries to Run from God
So the question is why? What is it in God’s word to Jonah in verse three that made him respond so drastically in disobedience? Is it because he’s afraid of what could happen to him in Nineveh? Is it because he’s afraid of what could happen to his reputation in Israel? Or is there something deeper here? We don’t know yet. All we know is that Jonah has decided to give up on God. But God has not given up on Jonah.
Look at verse four. “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.” So the same word that starts verse three starts verse four, as things go in a direction we might not expect. Just think about how the story could—or maybe should—go at this point. Jonah was not the only prophet that God could call on here. There were many other prophets in that day, which means at this point, God could have let Jonah sail off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Then God easily could have raised up another prophet to go to Nineveh. But God didn’t do that.
In the coming verses, I want us to think about why God didn’t do that. We’ve been talking about Jonah’s motives in this picture. Let’s also think about God’s motives in this picture. Why is God doing what he’s doing? This is interesting. In Hebrew, word order usually puts the verb before the subject; in English we put the verb after the subject. Verse three does this, but here in verse four, the Hebrew does something out of the ordinary and puts the language just like we see here in English: “But the Lord…” This puts the subject first, emphasizing how God took the initiative here. “The Lord hurled…” God threw. You might circle that word, because we’re going to see it three more times in this chapter.
God hurled, or threw, “a great wind upon the sea.” That word ‘great’ we’ve already seen in previous verses to describe Nineveh. We’re going to see it 11 more times in this book. “A great wind” —this gale-force wind, hurled by God, caused—“a mighty tempest on the sea.” When you read the Hebrew here, the words the author uses actually sound like waves crashing against the side of a ship, in such a way that “the ship threatened to break up.”
This is a personification of the ship. It’s using language that would normally be used for a person, like the ship is thinking about it and threatening to tear apart. The irony is pretty thick here. Jonah is trying to use a ship, a sea and the wind to run away. It’s like the ship, the sea and the wind are conspiring together, under God’s direction, to keep Jonah from running away. But it’s not just affecting Jonah.
Look at verse five: “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…” So now for the first time we have more characters in the story: the mariners—sailors—were experts at sea. And they were afraid. Circle that word, because it will be important as we keep going through this chapter: they were afraid.
This is saying something, because surely these guys had seen bad weather before. But this was unusually bad; we might say supernaturally bad. So what did they do? “Each cried out to his god…” These sailors were likely from different nations, believed in different gods and obviously attributed this storm to one of those gods. They’re thinking they’ve offended some god in some way, so they start crying out to all their gods to cover their bases.
At the same time, they “hurl.” This is the same word that’s used earlier about what God did in hurling the wind upon the sea. Here they hurl the cargo in order to lighten the load. So we have this scene of prayer, panic and fear on the deck of the ship. Look at Jonah 1:5: “But”—again, total contrast, introducing something surprising to see—“Jonah had gone down.” That’s the third time now we’ve seen this phrase. He’s going down, twice in verse three, now again in verse five. Think not just of a downward journey physically, but also spiritually.
We know this because of this next phrase: “…into the inner part of the ship…” ‘Inner part’ is a word that’s used in other parts of the Old Testament to describe descending into death or Sheol, the abode of the dead. Look at Isaiah 14:15: “But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.” That’s the same language that’s used here to describe how Jonah has gone down to a dark place. So there’s a physical dynamic at work here.
Jonah, the disobedient prophet is exhausted, maybe even depressed. Think about it. His career as a prophet is over. He’s exiling himself from his home and his country. He’s at a low point. He just wants to get away from everything. At the same time, on a spiritual level, he’s at a low point. He’s descending toward spiritual death. Then look at this next phrase. He had laid down, “…and was fast asleep.” Language of sleep like this is used at other points in the Bible to describe when somebody falls into a deep slumber right before a significant encounter with God:
- Genesis 15:12: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” Then the LORD spoke to Abram.
- Daniel 8:18, “And when he had spoken to me, I fell into a deep sleep with my face to the ground. But he touched me and made me stand up.” Then God spoke to Daniel through an angel.
So the stage is set here for Jonah to wake up and encounter God. Now watch what happened In verse six: “So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper?’” Translation, “What is wrong with you, bro? What are you doing?” Then watch this.
The captain says, “Arise, call out to your god!” Do you recognize that language? “Arise.” Get up. That’s the first word God spoke to Jonah back in verse two. Arise, get up, and “call out,” which is also the same word God spoke to Jonah is verse two. Get up and call out to Nineveh.
Jonah 1 Explains the Fear of God
Just imagine what’s going through Jonah’s mind at this point as he wakes up and literally cannot get away from the words of God. Now they’re just coming through this mariner sea captain. And the irony goes even deeper, because now you have a pagan ship captain from a foreign nation telling Jonah, the prophet from Israel, that he needs to pray. “Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” The captain of the ship, the expert on the ship, realizes this storm is so bad that they’re in danger of perishing and he’s desperate for divine help. Do you see the irony? The prophet from Israel is running from God and this pagan ship captain from another nation is doing anything he can to seek God. And it’s not just him.
Back to the mariners in verse seven: “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.’” Lots were pretty commonly used in that day for decision making, including in the Bible. When they were discerning a replacement for Judas in Acts 1:24-26, it says:
And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” We’re not completely sure how this worked, but lots were probably a lot like dice, with different sides and colors that you would cast to discern between multiple options. God’s people would use lots to determine God’s direction. These sailors decided to cast lots, so they could know on whose account this “evil” had come. Guess what Hebrew word that is. There it is again—ra—evil or calamity. “Who’s responsible for this calamity that has come upon us?” “So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.”
Picture the scene. There are all these sailors, the captain, and Jonah,. They’re gathered in a circle in the middle of a raging storm. They cast the lots. This guy’s okay. That guy’s okay. This guy’s okay. That guy’s okay. Then the lot falls on Jonah and everybody stops and stares at him. Immediately they pepper him with questions. “Then they said to him, ‘Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us.’” Again, ra, evil.
“On whose account are we experiencing this calamity?” Remember the dual meaning. “Who has done evil to cause this calamity? Who has offended the god responsible for this storm?” In that day, pagan people associated the gods with different aspects of a person’s life. You’d have a god associated with your trade, occupation, city, nation, family or your clan. So they asked, “What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” They wanted to know what god is at work in this storm.
Jonah 1 Praises the God of Heaven
Jonah’s response was enlightening, to say the least. “And he said to them…” Keep in mind—this is the first time that Jonah actually speaks in the whole story. Up to this point, Jonah hasn’t said a word that we’ve read. So what are his first words? “I am a Hebrew…” He identifies himself with a common term the Israelites used to introduce themselves to foreigners. It’s pretty interesting, isn’t it, that the first words to come out of Jonah’s mouth—out of the mouth of the prophet associated with nationalistic pride—are, “I am a Hebrew. This is who I am, my identity.” Then he continues, “…and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” That’s interesting, don’t you think? Does he really?
Circle that word ‘fear.’ You’ve already circled it once with the mariners. We’ll come back to it. “I fear the LORD…” If you’ll notice in the Bible, whenever you see capital L, small caps ORD in your Bible, you know that’s the Hebrew name for God—Yahweh. It’s the covenant name with which God revealed himself to Moses and God’s people Israel. This name represents God’s special relationship with Israel.
Then Jonah elaborates that the LORD is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah is saying, “I know the LORD who is in control of all of this—the heavens, the sea and the land.” Immediately in verse ten, “Then the men were exceedingly afraid…” Circle it again: ‘afraid.’ Fear. The language actually repeats itself. It’s literally, “The men feared with a great fear when they heard who the LORD was.” Which makes you wonder who’s really showing true fear in this story, specifically fear of the LORD? Jonah is saying he fears God, but the sailors sure seem like the ones who fear God.
“And they said to him, “What is this that you have done!” Notice that it’s an exclamation, not a question. The first time we see this language in the Bible is in Genesis 3, the third chapter in the Bible, right after Adam and Eve commit the first sin ever in the world. We read in Genesis 3:13: “Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’” Just as God knew what Adam and Eve had done, these sailors knew Jonah had done something seriously wrong. It wasn’t just affecting him; it was affecting them.
Then Jonah 1:10 fills in some details about some dialog they had. “For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.” This is the same language we read in verse three. He was fleeing from the presence of the LORD. “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.” The urgency of the situation is rising, as the sea gets more and more tempestuous. The language is symbolic of the reality that the LORD—the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land—is not giving up on Jonah. And the sailors are wondering what to do with him.
Jonah’s reply was far more than they were thinking. “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.’” What a response! “Pick me up and hurl me.” You might circle that word. We’ve seen it twice already. “The LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea” (verse four). “They hurled the cargo…into the sea” (verse five). Now Jonah says, “Hurl me into the sea.”
Obviously, Jonah knows it’s because of him that this is happening, but why this solution? Think of other potential solutions. One, he could repent. He could fall on his knees and say, “I’m sorry, God. I should have obeyed you. Please spare these sailors, and me.” Or he could have said to these guys, “I’m running from God. The way to stop the storm is for us to turn around and for me to go back.” As we’re about to see in the next verse, that’s the solution the sailors were thinking about. So why does Jonah say, “I need to die.”
The One True God
Think about this. This means one of two things—or maybe both. One, maybe Jonah thinks God wants him dead. The repentance wouldn’t be enough, or obedience now wouldn’t be enough. Maybe Jonah thinks he’s so far under the judgment of God that death is the only option for him now. Or two, maybe Jonah would rather die than obey God. The one clue we have that this might be what’s going through Jonah’s mind is we’re going to see him talking again like this, like he wants to die. But we haven’t gotten there yet, so we’re again wondering about a question to which we don’t yet have an answer. Wy is Jonah so against God and proclaiming God’s word in Nineveh? Why would death be preferable for Jonah over obedience to God and going to Nineveh?
Back to the text. Verse 13 says, “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.” Jonah had just told the sailors how they could live—by throwing Jonah overboard. They don’t want to do that. They want Jonah to live more than Jonah wants to live. So they start rowing hard, but to no avail. Again the text says, “The sea grew more and more tempestuous,” which leads to verse 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.’” Wow. These sailors are now calling out to the Lord. They’re doing what the prophet of Yahweh is not doing. Jonah is refusing to call out to God, but they are.
This is the only prayer like this from pagan polytheists in the Bible. This is humiliating for a Jewish person to even read. Pagan Gentiles are doing what the Israelite prophet won’t do. They’re praying to and believing in the covenant God of Israel, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. Which is pretty different from where they started, when they were each praying to his own god, right? It’s interesting, this last phrase: “For you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.”
That phrase is used three other times in Scripture and every time it specifically refers to how false gods and idols are worthless, and that only the LORD, the one true God, hears and answers prayer. Let’s look at them.
- Psalm 115:3-8:
Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
- Psalm 135:5-7:
For I know that the Lord is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
- Isaiah 46:8-11:
Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,”
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
Jonah 1 Turns Away False gods
So now here in Jonah 1:14, we have sailors turning aside from praying to false gods, seeking the one true God, the Lord, knowing his purpose will be accomplished. This actually frightens them, because they don’t want to be found guilty for killing Jonah by throwing him overboard. So this actually leads to another question: why didn’t Jonah just throw himself overboard? Jonah is putting that responsibility on them and they’re afraid they’re going to die if they kill a prophet of the Lord. But at this point, things are desperate. They’ve tried everything they could. So they look to God, trusting in God and what his prophet has said to do.
Then verse 15 tells us, “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him” —this is the fourth time we’ve seen that word—“into the sea.” Let’s pause here.
Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes as these sailors pick you up and hold you over a raging sea. You think you are going to your death for sure. You’re realizing what disobedience to God looks like: a watery grave. You thought you were running to a great, exotic distant land, but in reality you were running to your death. This is where disobedience leads.
Then put yourself in the shoes of these sailors who are hurling him overboard, hoping that they’re doing the right thing as they throw this man to his death. Watch this. As soon as they do, “the sea ceased from its raging.” That word ‘raging’ is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to anger. The picture is clear: the judgment of God has been accomplished, so now everything is quiet.
Keep yourself in these sailor’s shoes. Can you imagine the awe they experienced as soon as they threw this man overboard, when the wind and waves got quiet, when they knew it was true that Yahweh, the LORD, is the God of heaven who rules the sea and dry land. They just had a personal encounter with him.
So verse 16 makes total sense: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” This is a fascinating verse that uses repetition in the Hebrew that we don’t really feel or get in the English. The text literally says, “The men feared the Lord with great fear.” Again, circle ‘fear’ here. Think about the progression of fear we’ve seen in these sailors. In verse five, they were afraid of the storm. In verse ten, they were afraid because they realized Jonah had disobeyed God. Now in verse 16, it all comes full circle as they fear the Lord with exceedingly great fear.
This reminds us of Mark 4, doesn’t it? The disciples are on a boat when a great windstorm arises. Jesus is asleep on the boat. They wake him up, he calms the wind and the waves, and what does Mark 4:41 say? “They were filled with great fear, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” The sailors in Jonah 1 and the disciples in Mark 4 were filled with great fear, because they realized they were in the presence of the LORD, the God of heaven who rules the sea, and they were in awe of him.
This leads them to offer a sacrifice to the LORD. The language there is also repetitive. It’s literally “they sacrificed sacrifices to Yahweh.” Then they made vows. The original language says “they vowed vows.”
The author is using the Hebrew language to make a point. Even if or when God’s prophet in Israel refuses to proclaim his word among the nations, God will still draw foreign nations to himself. Isn’t it ironic? Jonah is acting like an anti-missionary here, but even as he does, God is still using Jonah to draw the nations to worship him.
Make sure you catch this scene as chapter one comes to a close. On one hand, you have a shockingly disobedient Israelite. On the other hand, you have surprisingly transformed Gentiles. Let me say that again. Stow this away in your mind. At the end of chapter one, you have a shockingly disobedient Israelite and surprisingly transformed Gentiles. In this see what sure seems to be a major theme developing in the book of Jonah: the resistance of God’s people to the spread of God’s worship among the nations.
We’ll stop here for this section. Yes, there is still one more verse in chapter one, but there’s actually disagreement over whether verse 17 in chapter one in the original should actually be verse one of chapter two. Regardless, remember that chapter divisions are not a part of the original text. This scene is about to make a major shift, so before it does, I want to help us soak in what we’ve just read with a few takeaways. We’ll cover these pretty quickly because we’ve already seen all of them in the text.
His Word is Authoritative
From the opening words of this book, we learn that God’s Word is authoritative. The story starts with the word of the LORD to Jonah, then everything that happens after that revolves around Jonah’s response to that word. God’s Word is authoritative, so everything in your life, my life and in the world hinges on how we respond to it. This makes what we’re doing together right now all the more significant, right? We need to know and study, to meditate on and memorize, to hear and heed the Word of the LORD in our lives. Your life and my life hinges on this.
His Sovereignty is Absolute
The LORD is the God of heaven who made and who rules the sea and the dry land. Wind doesn’t just happen; God hurls it. Waves don’t just happen; God brings them. We do not live in a world governed by natural causes; we live in a world governed by a supernatural Creator. In the words of Psalm 147:
8 He covers the heavens with clouds;
he prepares rain for the earth;
he makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the beasts their food,
and to the young ravens that cry.
16 He gives snow like wool;
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
17 He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
who can stand before his cold?
18 He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.
God is sovereign over all nature. The rain falls, the wind blows, at his bidding. This leads to the third truth we learn about God.
His Wrath is Real
We see this from the start, as God speaks about the evil among the Ninevites. The picture is clear. Sin anywhere and in any nation is an offense against God and he will judge it. Similarly, the storm in Jonah 1 is a picture of God’s judgment. Think about the language we saw in Jonah 1: a great wind, a mighty tempest that grew more and more tempestuous multiple times, a sea raging. The wrath of God toward sin and sinful people is real.
His Mercy is Relentless
Again, from the start, God calls a prophet to lovingly bring his word to evil Ninevites. Then, as we said, God could have let Jonah go off in his disobedience into death, but he doesn’t. God is pursuing Jonah—and not just Jonah. God is pursuing pagan sailors who are worshiping false gods. God is revealing himself to them. Though this storm may seem severe, even this picture of God’s judgment is a demonstration of his mercy. Mark that down. Sometimes even God’s mercy may seem severe in our lives as sinners, which leads to what we learn about us.
We are Inclined to Rebel against God
It’s clear from verse three of this prophetic book—this book about a prophet—that we are all inclined to rebel against God. It’s going to be easy throughout this journey to look down on Jonah at different points. But before we look down on him, we need to look into ourselves. Have you ever run from God’s Word in your life? Have you ever run from proclaiming God’s Word in somebody else’s life? We’re all guilty here. We are all prone to flee from the presence of God and the call of God in our lives.
Years ago, Abraham Kuyper, a Reformed theologian and one-time prime minister of the Netherlands, said, “Our heart is continually inclined to rebel against the Lord our God, so ready to rebel that, oh so gladly, were it but for a single day, we would take from his hand the reins of his supreme rule, imagining that we would manage things far better and direct them far more effectively than God.”
We Run from God’s Word in our Lives
Each one of us runs from God’s Word in our lives, for many reasons and motivations. Maybe that’s part of the reason why we don’t yet know Jonah’s motivation behind his disobedience. Maybe the human author here—and all the more so the divine Author—is wanting us to consider: why do you or I run from God’s Word in our lives? Is it because we don’t trust God? Is it because we think we know better than God? Is it because we prefer our ways over God’s ways? Is it because it might cost us if we obey? Is it because we just don’t like God’s Word and we want to get as far away from it as we can?
Let’s see ourselves in Jonah and ask how and why do we run from God’s Word in our lives? Why is it that, just like in this story, all creation responds to the bidding of God—the wind, the waves, the rain—but when you get to you and me, we have the audacity to look God in the face and say, “No.”
We Run from Proclaiming God’s Word in Others’ Lives
Not only do we run from God’s Word in our lives, we run from proclaiming God’s Word in others’ lives. God has commissioned every follower of Jesus to be a witness to others about Jesus. But do you ever run from that commission? Have you or I ever stayed silent when we’ve had an opportunity to share the gospel? If so, what’s the difference between us and Jonah? The effect it the same, right? God’s Word was not shared.
If you’ve ever been to Secret Church before, or been exposed to any Radical resources, or heard me speak, or opened your eyes to the world, you would know that there are over 3.2 billion people in the world right now who have yet to be reached with the gospel. It’s not that they’ve heard God’s Word and rejected it. It’s that they’ve never even heard it.
How is that possible, with all the resources, travel and technology we have available to us today? Are not the unreached in the world a glaring indictment of how we have run from proclaiming God’s Word in others’ lives? Jesus has given us a clear word: “Arise, go, make disciples of all the nations. Get up and go to all the nations, all the ethne, all the people groups of the world. Warn them of coming judgment. Tell them about God’s mercy.”
So who are we to sit back in judgment of Jonah for not going to one people group, when we’re living in a time when over 7,000 people groups are still unreached by the gospel, when Jesus has told us to go to them? Again, as we wonder about Jonah’s motivation, let’s contemplate our own motivation. Why are we not reaching the unreached with the gospel? What is keeping us from obeying God’s command. Why are you and I running from proclaiming God’s Word in others’ lives—right around us, and all around the world?
Our Sin Inevitably Takes Us on a Downward Path Toward Death
We’re all inclined to rebel against God’s Word in our lives and proclaiming God’s Word in others’ lives, so our sin inevitably leads us on a downward path toward death. This is clear in the language of Jonah. He goes down, he goes down, he goes down. Sin does not take you up; sin takes you down toward death. Look at what has happened to Jonah as a result of his sin. He doesn’t even want to live.
See how disorienting, deceiving and dangerous sin is. Sin takes us to dark places. Make the connection with our lives. As long as you and I run from God’s Word in our lives and run from proclaiming God’s Word in others’ lives, we will live disoriented, deceived and ultimately dark lives. Our sin inevitably takes us on a downward path toward death.
And speaking of being disoriented and deceived, consider these last two takeaways from Jonah 1 about us.
God’s Word Defines Us
As soon as the lot is cast upon Jonah, the sailors ask five successive questions that basically revolve around one question: who are you? The first words out of Jonah’s mouth are, “I am a Hebrew.” Jonah points them to the fundamental position in his life for which he was most proud. He was an Israelite through and through. Sure, Jonah was a Hebrew. But is that how God would have fundamentally defined Jonah?
As you think about that question, think about your life. Is it possible for you or me to see ourselves with labels in this world—whether they’re chosen by us or given to us—as our fundamental identity over and above what God says about us in his Word? How are you prone to identify yourself in this world?
Are you an American? Are you a Christian American or an American Christian? What is primary, not just in the language you use, but in the priorities you live by? Who are you? What is your identity and how does that affect the way you live, the choices you make and the values you prioritize? We’ll come back to that one later.
Faith in God without True Fear
Isn’t that Jonah? He believes in God. He has a faith in God. He says he fears God, but the contrast with the sailors in Jonah 1 is making clear that Jonah does not seem to have true fear of God.
So is it possible for you or me to have a kind of faith in God that lacks true fear of God? When you think about it, Jonah’s faith in a sense doesn’t waver throughout this chapter. He believes in God; he knows God exists. Jonah just doesn’t want to have anything to do with God. Jonah has a kind of faith in God that lacks fear of God.
This leads to the question: do you fear God? Right where you’re sitting now, do you revere God? Is the fear of God evident in your life? On a daily basis, does the fear, awe, reverence and worship of your life look more like these sailors or more like Jonah?
God Draws Nations to Worship Him
We mentioned at the end of the chapter, even in Jonah’s disobedience to God’s command to go to a foreign nation, God is using Jonah to lead sailors from foreign nations to himself. While we haven’t read about it yet, God’s word is eventually going to go to Nineveh. This is a truth we see from cover to cover in Scripture. It’s encapsulated in a verse like Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth!” Then turn the pages of the Bible to the end, and you see where it’s all going in Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
What God is doing in Jonah is what God is doing in history. He is drawing and will ultimately draw people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, to know and worship him.
God Values Our Hearts
What we’re seeing in the book of Jonah is that God is not just intent on the accomplishment of his purpose; he is also intent on the hearts of his people. If God was just focused on the nations, specifically Nineveh and the Assyrians, then like we said, God could easily have gotten another prophet to do this job. But God didn’t. Why not? Because God is also focused on Jonah’s heart. In other words, God was not just concerned about Nineveh, God was concerned about Jonah.
Let that soak in, wherever you are right now. Yes, there are eight-plus billion people in the world and over three billion of them are unreached by the gospel. God is intent on every single nation, tribe, tongue and people knowing and worshiping him. At the same time, God is also intent on your heart. Right where you are, right now, God is intent on your heart. The same God who hurled the wind in Jonah 1 is the same God who is at work in your life. He’s the same God who’s speaking to you right now. So will you listen to him? And how will you respond to him?
That wraps up Jonah chapter one and leads us right into our first video about Iran. You know what’s interesting? Nineveh is modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq, meaning it’s right next to Iran. So let’s learn some about the history of Iran that leads to persecution there today. As we do, let’s ask God to do whatever he wants to do in our hearts for the accomplishment of his purposes among the nations. Watch this with me.