We welcome you to North Shore Church located in beautiful Menominee, MI. Pastor Duncan Ross shares a heartfelt introductory message to all who are looking for a place to worship, grow, and connect.
We are aware of the problem with the sermon audio for the last several weeks and are working on correcting the problem as quickly as possible! The sermon audio from 3/15 should be working; please let us know if you have any issues accessing it. We will keep you updated on the other weeks as soon as we can. Thank you!
As we all know, the Coronavirus continues to change the plans of countless people and organizations and local churches have also been impacted. Because the incidence of the virus is still on the rise, North Shore Church, in an effort to protect our members and attenders and be good citizens, will also be temporarily changing our schedule. In keeping with the government’s recommendation to avoid group social contact, North Shore Church will not gather for either worship or Sunday School this coming Sunday, March 22 or the following Sunday, March 29. Membership Class and the Budget Approval Meeting will be postponed to a later date. Additionally, ALL gatherings scheduled to meet in the church building are canceled for the next two weeks as well. Decisions about small group meetings will be left to the groups themselves as to whether or not they gather. The elders will be monitoring pertinent details concerning the spread of the virus and will make decisions about our April schedule as soon as is prudent. We will keep you notified. If you have any questions, please call the church office at 906-863-3212.
Ladies, come and join us for a look at the book of Hebrews presented by Helen Larsen. Helen has been studying the book for several months and would love to share with us some of the things she has been learning! We will meet on Tuesday, March 24th from 10:00 am-12:00 pm in the Fireside Room. Bring your bible and a notebook and come ready to learn more about this incredible book.
For questions on this event, please contact a member of the Women’s Ministry Team (Joelle Mueller, Beth Horvath, Delight Murphy, Kim Frederiksen, Barb Wells, or Rebbecca Peanosky).
We continue this week in our brief series of messages from the Old Testament book of Jonah. As we said last week, Jonah is forever identified as the book where a fish swallows a prophet. But it has so much more that is genuinely helpful to those who want to know and love God better. Last week, as we walked through chapter one, we were introduced to Nineveh—the city to which God called Jonah to bring his message of judgment.
The Assyrian Empire that Nineveh was a part of was the dominant power in the Ancient Near East and it was infamously brutal and savage. The Assyrians were hated by all other nations and the Jews shared that hatred of them. These pagan idolaters in Nineveh were the worst enemies of the Jews and when God called Jonah to physically relocate to this place and pronounce his judgment on it—he was calling this prophet to make unique and remarkable sacrifices.
Jonah had been a prophet or a spokesman for God for years when the events of this book play out. However, he simply could not stomach the prospect of preaching to these wicked people in Nineveh. So, he bolted from God’s presence and immediately sought to sail as far away from Nineveh as he could. This was a case of instantaneous rebellion from Jonah and the author very intentionally paints a negative picture of him as he contrasts this Hebrew prophet of God with the pagan sailors who he accompanied aboard this ship sailing for Nineveh.
This first chapter also reveals some powerful truths about God. One is that God is completely sovereign over his creation. He is in control—not only over the wind and wave that he used to violently batter Jonah’s ship. He was also sovereign over Jonah. We see this in the fact that, though Jonah took many, very intentional—even drastic steps to escape from God’s call on him to go to Nineveh, he could not escape God. As we’ll see again today, God in his sovereign power foils his escape plans, drags him back to himself and later, reissues his commission to Jonah to go to Nineveh.
This morning, you heard Brian begin with the account of Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish. That part of this story is so far-fetched that it has caused many over the centuries to doubt whether any of this actually happened. When we’re confronted with those kinds of doubts and even ridicule for believing such an outrageous story, there are at least two responses that are the most common. One is—some believers seek to scientifically prove that it was indeed plausible for this event to have occurred. These folks try to address questions about what kind of animal might this have been that swallowed Jonah.
Here, you find topics discussed like the average size of the esophagus of a Sperm whale and how long it takes for digestive juices to reduce a person to mush. Although you can read several opinions online about those questions, it’s generally not a profitable direction to take. This is because it’s simply NOT possible to prove scientifically that it is plausible for what Jonah describes here to happen-because there are no verifiable instances where this has ever happened before. Even harder to know for certain is how Jonah could have known that he’d been in the belly of this creature for three days and nights.
A more sane response to these kinds of questions related to Jonah or any miracle in the bible is to root your faith, not in finding a rational explanation, but in the infinite power that God has to do ANYTHING he wants to do. If God can create the sun, moon and stars, then keeping a man alive in the belly of a sea creature for three days and nights is a piece of cake. If finite, fallen and foolish humans can build submarines that enable hundreds of men to live in the ocean for months at a time, then the all-powerful Lord of the universe can surely create a fish to with a belly large enough for a passenger.
It’s also helpful to remember someone with amazing credibility and who clearly believed this story. That would be, Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus cites Jonah’s three-day-and-night journey in the belly of a fish, and he doesn’t treat it like a myth or fairy tale or a parable. He teaches it as historical fact and compares it to another well-verified historical event, his own burial and resurrection. If Jesus, who knew everything and believed this story, then it would seem more credible for others to assume it’s a true story.
This prayer we heard a few minutes ago of Jonah’s in chapter two is the turning point in the book. It’s in this chapter where Jonah comes back to God and is ready to go to Nineveh and preach to wicked Assyrians. This prayer is in the form of poetry and Jonah quotes many phrases from the book of Psalms. It’s important to clarify the way Jonah composed this poetic prayer. Obviously, Jonah didn’t have parchment paper and ink with him inside the belly of the fish. This prayer was obviously written after this event. But because its Jonah’s account of this event and because its inspired by God, this poem accurately represents the events described here as well as the feelings Jonah had at the time.
The poetic prayer divides into the three parts. The first and shortest section we could call “God’s rescue of Jonah.” The second part we could call “God’s discipline of Jonah” and the third part is “Jonah’s response to God.” First, let’s briefly look at God’s rescue of Jonah. Even though the rescue obviously follows Jonah’s time in the ocean, we’ll look at it first because it appears first in the text. You can find at least three elements of God’s rescue. The first element is one you see so often in Jonah and that is—God’s rescue of Jonah was totally sovereign. God is always sovereign—that is, he is always in complete control of all things. But in Jonah, we see his sovereign control over persons and events in very obvious and powerful ways that force us to see his sovereignty.
In 1:17, the author credits God with the rescue saying, “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” The presence of this unique fish in these waters was no coincidence. Whatever kind of sea creature this was with this strange capacity for swallowing rebel prophets, God sent it to this area so that—at precisely the right moment in time, when Jonah as mere moments from death, the fish would deliver him from this watery grave. In verse 10, when the fish had accomplished its mission, the author is again careful to explicitly credit the LORD. “And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” This prophet regurgitation occurred at the precise moment of God’s prompting and God gave that order when the fish was near dry land. This story again shows us what a big God we have, and we must need to be constantly reminded of that because the bible is chocked full of evidence of it. The author wants us to see how muscular God’s sovereign power is to deliver Jonah like a package to whatever destination HE chooses in whatever form of transport HE chooses.
Another element of this rescue of Jonah is—God’s rescue of Jonah was fruitful. We will see just how fruitful this was regarding Jonah’s future ministry later in the book. But we see the “firstfruits” of this rescue in Jonah’s heart. Verse one says, “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish.” The instructive phrase there is “the LORD his God.” That’s the author’s way of telling us that this prophet, who had not only rejected his call to be a prophet, but also rejected God himself, has now turned back to him God in some way. As we’ll see, the rest of the prayer supports that Jonah has reconnected with God. He has gone from running from God to crying out to him in prayer.
The second part of this story begins we see in verses three and four. Let’s look at God’s discipline of Jonah. When we use the word “discipline” for how the Lord treats one of his people, we are not talking about him being disgusted with someone and letting them have it. Hebrews 12 tells us that when God disciplines his people, it is rooted in his love for us and is intended to produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” [12:11] and to the end “that we might share his holiness” [12:10]. God’s discipline is intended to train those he disciplines, and we clearly see that intent here as Jonah describes his terrible trial in the ocean.
Did you notice that Jonah’s prayer says nothing about what it was like in the belly of the fish? We can imagine that this would not have been at all pleasant. But when Jonah recounts God’s discipline of him, he completely limits that to this harrowing experience in the water before the fish swallows him. For Jonah, THAT time under water was the worst part of this entire experience and he clearly sees that this came directly from God. In verse three Jonah prays to the LORD, “For you cast me into the deep and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.” Again, we see that one element of God’s discipline is God’s discipline of Jonah is God’s sovereign doing.
We know from the story that it was the sailors who throw Jonah overboard. But Jonah clearly understands that his near drowning experience was an act of God. Jonah sees these sailors as God’s tools he used to throw him overboard. To Jonah, it would have been no less evident that God was behind this if God had sent fiery angels to fling him into the sea. In his prayer to God, he calls the waves and billows on the surface of the ocean, “your waves” and “your billows.” Again, Jonah sees this entire trip into the sea as God’s doing.
Another element of God’s discipline that the author goes out of his way to reveal is God’s discipline of Jonah is severe. Part of the reason this is written in graphic poetic language is to better capture the sheer terror Jonah must have felt as he descended into the deep. Notice the progression here. In verse five, he says, “The waters closed in over me to take my life.” So, after he hits the water, he immediately begins his descent. Next, he says, “the deep surrounded me.” So, he’s sinking deeper and is totally surrounded by miles of water. Finally, he vividly communicates what happened when he had sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
He says in verse five, “…weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.” The scholars tell us that the words translated “wrapped about my head” convey that Jonah was “hopelessly entangled.” If you’ve ever had a near-drowning experience, you know the terror it is to be totally out of control under water and feeling entombed. In verse two, he summarizes the experience as being in “the belly of Sheol.” Sheol was the Hebrew word for what they believed was an underground cavern where the souls of dead people ended up. That’s how trapped Jonah felt and it’s clear that he knew with absolute certainty that he was a goner. That’s what he conveys in verse six where he says, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me, forever…” He was so certain of his imminent death that it felt as if the door of death had been bolted behind him and that it was impossible for that door to ever reopen for him. Jonah KNOWS he is a dead man at this point. He summarizes the experience in verse seven by saying, “When my life was fainting away…”
One modern-day comparable experience that illustrates this kind of certainty of death would be if you were on a jet airliner at 38,000 feet and both engines failed. After some time gliding, the plane eventually falls from the air at a rapid descent. You are in free-fall for about 30 seconds and by that time, you have no doubt that you and everyone else on that airplane will very soon be violently reduced to a statistic. That kind of absolute, abject horror of the utter certainty of death is what this poetic language intends to communicate. Then, as Jonah is trapped and is certainly mere moments from death by drowning, he says in verse six, “…yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.”
The use of poetry is intended to cause us to feel the desperate situation in which Jonah found himself. The point is—this was severe discipline from God. God brought Jonah to the very brink of death—allowed him to feel the utter terror that comes from this kind of utter hopelessness. This was not like your friend at the swimming pool holding your head under water for a few moments. If you have a dream like this, you wake up terrified.
God could have stopped the discipline at this horrific storm he brought that caused the pagan sailors to cry out to their gods in terror. THAT was surely a horrible experience where everyone had all but given up any hope of survival. But God causes Jonah, not only to endure that terrible trauma, he had a much worse one in store for him after he was thrown in. This was severe discipline for Jonah—severe enough to cause him to decide it was ok for him to preach to those undeserving Ninevites.
The third part of the poem reveals Jonah’s Response to God. We’ve seen much of this already but notice five short elements of Jonah’s response. First, as we have seen, Jonah is desperate. His summary of this event in verse two says, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress…” One scholar says that word translated “distress” communicates that “…Jonah believed that he was as good as dead, that he had been “eaten” by death, which was often spoken of as an enemy that devours.” So, before Jonah was “eaten” by this fish, he had, in his mind, already been eaten by death and he is utterly terrified.
A second element of Jonah’s response is Jonah is thankful. Unless you have been through such a hopeless, near-death experience, you surely cannot appreciate the pure glee associated with getting back your life after you had been certain it was lost. The adrenaline rush alone from that must have been overwhelming. We see Jonah’s thankfulness in verse nine as he says to the LORD, “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you…” Jonah will worship the Lord in ecstatic thanksgiving fitting a man who had lost his life only to miraculously find it again.
Another element of Jonah’s response is Jonah is refreshed in his commitment to the Lord. This is what is conveyed when he says in the second half of verse nine, “what I have vowed I will pay.” He doesn’t specify tell us the nature of this vow he had made. Perhaps Jonah vowed to God that, if he saved him from this certain drowning, he would never refuse God’s call to preach again. We can’t know for certain. What we CAN know is that this rescue of God, for at least a short time, made Jonah more committed to the LORD and we see that in his journey back to Nineveh.
A fourth element of Jonah’s response is Jonah reaffirms his trust in God’s power to save. That’s what he means in the last sentence in verse nine. “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” That is—no one but God saves from imminent destruction—be it in drowning or in spiritual judgment—no one but God. Commentators tell us that this verse serves as the pillar verse of the entire book of Jonah because it supports everything else here. God saves Jonah and God will save the Ninevites if they repent. At least one scholar has said that this is the pillar verse of the entire Bible!
A final and the most fascinating element of Jonah’s response is found not in anything Jonah says, but in what Jonah does not say. In his response, Jonah is manifestly incomplete. Did you notice the absolutely glaring omission in Jonah’s prayer? Think about it. He has just gone through this horrific ordeal where his life flashes before his eyes in the certainty of his imminent and violent death. He is rescued and he is thankful, newly committed and reaffirming of God’s power to save. But ALL of this trial that he has written so graphically about in his prayer is due to one thing. That is—his fateful decision to run from God to Tarshish. THAT was the root cause of ALL of his troubles. God did nothing to him here except in direct response to Jonah’s willful sin of rebellion.
Jonah is grateful, recommitted, newly appreciative of God’s saving power, but one thing Jonah is not is—penitent. There is ZERO explicit evidence of Jonah expressing regret for his sin against God even though we know from chapter one that he was absolutely aware that HE and his sin were the cause of this calamity. And yet as Jonah makes his confession of this amazing trial and rescue, as it relates to any sign of repentance, he is as silent as the grave from which he had been rescued. In verse nine Jonah speaks of offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving. What about another, much more important sacrifice?
Jonah promises that he will make sacrifices to God in response to his rescue of him. But in King David’s psalm of repentance, Psalm 51, he says in verse 17, “17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” You can look high and low throughout the length of Jonah’s prayer and you will not find one scintilla of evidence pointing to “a broken and contrite heart” over his rebellion. In verse four, when he speaks of his earlier separation from God, it would have been accurate for him to say, “I intentionally and rebelliously fled from your presence.” But notice how does he expresses his separation from God in verse four. “I am driven away from your sight.”
That makes it sound like his role in this was passive. That God had for some unknown reason driven him away from his. That’s not at all what chapter one says. It’s clear that Jonah was the active participant here in running away from God. This was not about driving Jonah anywhere. It was about Jonah running from God!
This omission is so crucial in the way it contributes to one of the main messages of the book. The book of Jonah is filled with irony and we will see more of that in the weeks to come. But the central irony of the book is that Jonah here thankfully accepts the Lord’s merciful forgiveness and a second chance at life but, as we’ll see, his heart desperately wants to deny those expressions of mercy to the Ninevites. And, what the author is trying to tell us is that at least one of the major reasons why Jonah’s heart was not completely transformed here into wanting the Ninevites to repent and be saved is because, he never repented of hatred of them. Out of his gratitude to God for his rescue, he would stop running and go back to Nineveh and do the bare minimum there to be faithful to God. But there was no mercy in his heart toward the pagans because he never repented of his bigotry toward them.
This communicates some very important truths about how God changes a life in repentance. As we’ve said before the Greek word for “repent” literally means “a change of mind.” By a change of mind, we don’t mean, “I used to think that sinful attitude, desire or action was ok, but now I know it’s sinful—I’ve changed my mind about it.” No! Most of us know in our minds the difference between sinful and right attitudes, desires and actions. The truth is–repentance results in a change of behavior but is itself NOT a change in behavior. Now that may sound like an unimportant detail, but it’s actually very important.
The actual change in a person’s behavior is what the Bible calls “the fruit of repentance.” When John the Baptist was preaching repentance, his call was to “8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In Luke 3:8, Jesus says, “8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…” In Acts, Paul is preaching in chapter 26 and says of the Gentiles “… they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Repentance is not itself a change in behavior; it LEADS TO a change in behavior.
To repent of a sin means that you think differently about it in the sense that what you once found appealing you now find appalling. THAT kind of radical shift in your attitude toward your sin is repentance and Jonah doesn’t show an ounce of that. That’s why, on the one hand, a grateful Jonah is willing to go to the Ninevites and preach a terse message of God’s judgment—his gratitude will take him that far. But his heart toward the Ninevites hasn’t changed. The mercy that he had received from God over his sin had done nothing to soften his heart to want to give mercy to the Ninevites. That’s why, as we’ll see later in the book, when they repent of their sins, Jonah is positively adolescent in his reaction to it.
Paul says two things bring repentance to a sinful soul. In Romans chapter two, Paul says in verse four, “4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” In Second Corinthians chapter seven, Paul says in verse 10, “10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” So, on the one hand, God’s kindness and patience over our sin leads us to repent but on the other, godly sorrow produces repentance.
The way those two fit together is this—if you know in your heart how kind God has been to you in the cross, when you sin grievously, you will feel godly sorrow—sorrow directed toward God because you realize that you have grieved the heart of One who sent his only Son to die for you. ITS THAT response to God over our sin that brings about transformation. As we see the glory of Christ in the cross and we see and internalize God’s kindness to us there, then the sin we once found appealing we will now find appalling because we don’t want to grieve a God who has done so much for us.
Apply that to Jonah. Jonah had tasted of the Lord’s kindness in ways few people have EVER experienced it. Jonah was absolutely filled with gratitude over God’s kindness—so much so that he was willing to go preach to the Ninevites. But Jonah never experienced this godly sorrow, this penitence, this broken and contrite heart that David had. Deep down, he still hated the Ninevites and had not changed the way he viewed them or what they deserved. Because there was no godly sorrow in response to what he had one in response to a God who had been so kind in rescuing him, instead of repenting, he felt freedom to wallow in bitterness when the Ninevites turn from their sin.
We’re running out of time, let’s just leave the application at this. If we want to see transformation in our lives, we must preach BOTH halves of the gospel to ourselves. We’re always reminding the church to preach the gospel to ourselves every day. We need to be constantly reminded of how much God loves us because we cannot show the kind of loving, fervent obedience God wants from us unless that is rooted in a sense of God’s love and acceptance of us. If you are unsure of God’s love for you, you will never be radically obedience because “we love because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19].
The story of Jonah reminds us that we must not only show gratitude for God’s rescue of us in the cross. Jonah did that much with his rescue. What Jonah failed to do and what we must do if we are to live in constant repentance, is also remind ourselves of the horror of our sin before a holy God. We don’t do that to beat ourselves us. This is not spiritual self-abuse. But unless we see the tremendous debt that our sin had racked up before God, we will not rightly appreciate or be transformed by the knowledge that God in his grace has rescued us.
This is what Jesus is getting at in Luke chapter seven. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus into his house and the story ends up with the prostitute showing profound gratitude to Jesus for forgiving her sins while Simon is disgusted by this woman’s love for Jesus. Jesus summarizes the difference between this woman and the Pharisee in 7:47. Jesus tells Simon, 47 …I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” This woman saw what a terrible sinner she was. When she found forgiveness from Jesus, she was profoundly grateful and willing, with joy, to do whatever Jesus wanted.
Jonah clearly had not processed his sin against God but only his rescue of him. The result was that his heart was not transformed—he just wanted to repay God the favor he had done for him. If we want our hearts transformed by the gospel, we must meditate not only on what God has done for us, but the depths of our sin that made it necessary. May God give us the grace to be transformed for his glory and our joy as we preach the full truth of the gospel to ourselves.
 A few unverified reports have surfaced over the centuries, but nothing with any credible documentation.
 The Minor Prophets” Volume Two, A Commentary on Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Thomas McComiskey, Editor, Joyce Baldwin, commentator on Jonah, Baker Books, p 570, 1993.
 Smith, B.K., & Page, F.S. (1995). Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Vol. 19B, pp. 242-245). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Smith, 1995, Broadman and Holman.
Ladies and young ladies, join us as we inductively study Psalm 23! We will then get together on March 16th at 6:00 pm to share what we learned. If you have never studied inductively before, please join us! We have materials available and can show you the process before the discussion group meets. Inductive Bible study teaches how to observe and interpret the text, finishing in personal application.
Materials are available on the information table in the church foyer; otherwise, you can print the passage yourself and use your SOAK worksheet from past studies.
For questions on this event, please contact a member of the Women’s Ministry Team (Beth Horvath, Joelle Mueller, Delight Murphy, Rebbecca Peanosky, Kim Frederiksen, or Barb Wells).
Today, we begin a new series of messages from the Old Testament book named for the prophet Jonah. When people think about this book, their minds are drawn to the miracle of a big fish swallowing a man, swimming around for three days with him in his belly before vomiting him up onto dry land. It’s easy to understand why that’s the attention-grabber in this book. But within the pages of this beautifully written story, there is so much to teach us about God, his heart, his ways, his agenda.
We want to introduce this brief book today and set the table for our treatment of it. We need to do this because, like all the books of the bible, the events recorded in Jonah didn’t happen in a vacuum. They occurred within a certain period of biblical history with a certain set of political and spiritual realities operating in the background. Unless we know some of this background information, we won’t understand or appreciate the message of this book nearly as much as we should. So, the plan for today is to look at chapter one, which introduces the major themes, and weave this important background information into our treatment of what God reveals in this chapter.
Andy read the story for us and we want to divide it into the three main topics revealed in chapter one. First, let’s look at Nineveh because we must know something about this “great city” God calls Jonah to if we’re going to understand the main message of this book. We also want to use this first chapter to introduce us to the prophet Jonah himself as he is obviously very important to understanding what God is saying here. Finally, and most importantly, we want to focus on God and what he reveals about himself and the gospel in this story because HE is always the most important focus in any section of Scripture. So, taking our cue from Jonah here in chapter one, let’s plunge in.
The first two verses of the book tell us, “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.” Again, we want to begin our look at this book by focusing on the city of Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire it was a part of. If we do that, we’ll be much more equipped to know why Jonah responded as he did to God’s call to go to Nineveh. Nineveh was on the east bank of the Tigris River in what is modern-day Iraq about 250 miles north of Baghdad. God calls Nineveh a “great city” three times in Jonah because it was great in many ways. As we’ll see later in the book, it was a very large city for its time in history.
Beyond that, Nineveh was part of the Assyrian Empire. That means, first of all, that these people to whom God calls Jonah were not Jews. God had not brought these people into covenant with him and these Gentiles were not only enemies of Israel; they were enemies of the God of Israel. For God to call a prophet to go and preach to a Gentile nation was unheard of at this time. The prophets wrote out oracles of judgment and condemnation to Gentile nations like Assyria and Egypt and Babylon. But to call one of his Hebrew prophets to physical relocate to a hostile Gentile nation and preach his judgment to them was—without precedent. This is why some people call Jonah the world’s first foreign missionary.
Just as God was calling Jonah as a prophet, and for about the next 150 years, Assyria was THE big kid on the block in the Ancient Near East. They were the dominant power to be reckoned with. So, Jonah ends up prophesying to Nineveh as the Assyrian Empire was on the rise in this region. And the city of Nineveh—where God specifically calls Jonah to go—was the most powerful city in the Ancient Near East.
To put these events within an Old Testament timeline, the events in Jonah occurred around 760 BC—about 250 years after King David. The Assyrians were the dominant military power until they fell to Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar—the king we read so much about in the book of Daniel.
To give us another important historical reference point from the bible, the northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BC—about 40 years after the events in this story–and the nation that God used to bring his judgment on his wayward people was this same Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were his instrument of wrath against Israel and its rampant idolatry. The Assyrians easily conquered the northern tribe of Israel and exiled the Jewish people off their homeland. The carted them off to Assyria, about 650 miles away.
So, Nineveh is the most powerful city in the most powerful empire in the Ancient Near East at the time of Jonah. But even more crucial to understanding the story of Jonah is knowing something about the kind of people who ruled Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire. Historians tell us that the ancient Assyrians were as brutal as any other empire in human history. I could relay the way the Assyrians treated their conquered enemies but the sheer gore and violence of it would be “R” rated and not suitable for children.
Let’s just say they did unspeakable, satanically inspired things to all their enemies and that made them THE terror of the Ancient Near East. World War Two Japan was known to be very harsh to its captured enemies. But they were rank amateurs compared to the Assyrians in terms of how they treated their enemies. This was a historically, epically brutalizing empire. Assyria was THE worst enemy of God’s people and the bane of the ancient world.
Everyone in the Ancient Near East was terrified of the Assyrians and they seethed in anger toward them because of their absolutely inhuman cruelty and brutality. THAT’S the nation that God called Jonah to go and preach his word of judgment to. Maybe now you get a better idea about why Jonah showed such hardened resistance and rebellion to God’s call.
So, let’s talk about this man, the prophet Jonah. In the book of Jonah, nowhere is he called a prophet. This is probably because at the beginning of the story he rejects his call to be a prophet. But we know that God called him to be a prophet of Israel because he’s mentioned in the history recorded in the book of Second Kings, chapter 14. There we discover that during Jonah’s early ministry as a prophet, King Jeroboam II is king over Israel. He is a wicked king and thanks to an unbroken streak of 200 years of wicked kings in Israel, the nation had been in a long and steady decline. In God’s amazing mercy however, during Jeroboam II reign, God chose to give him some military victories that enabled Israel to take back all the territory they had lost to their enemies over the preceding two centuries. God allowed them to extend their borders back to where they were during King Solomon’s reign when Israel was at its peak influence in the region.
The author of Second Kings is speaking of King Jeroboam and says, “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.” That tells us that Jonah was God’s messenger and he was given the enviable prophetic task of miraculously predicting something that probably no one would have expected—this re-expansion of Israel. Prophets didn’t predict things that were expected to happen.
They predicted things that only GOD knew would happen. So, this is choice duty for a prophet of Israel. Jonah gets to stand in the very presence of God and personally receive a message from the Lord –this amazing and encouraging prophecy which he then pronounces to a grateful nation of Israel. Jonah was preaching GOOD news to Israel and these words would have been met with celebration and anticipation.
So, even though this is the only time Jonah is mentioned outside the book of Jonah, we know that he was an already established prophet when God calls him to Nineveh. It also tells us that Jonah went from this really “cushy” prophetic duty—giving God’s good news of unexpected blessing to a receptive Jewish nation. He went from that assignment—to a uniquely difficult prophetic assignment—giving God’s BAD news of judgment to a very powerful and (what he assumed) probably a very hostile Gentile audience.
Verses two and three of chapter one in Jonah set the stage for the rest of the book. God tells Jonah, “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.”
You don’t need any great level of discernment to get the impression that Jonah is not favorably disposed toward this Nineveh assignment! Actually, the details of the story reveal a dramatic and violent reaction from Jonah. Jonah does NOT hear this very strange assignment from God and ask some follow up questions to clarify. There’s no discussion here. Jonah doesn’t enter into any prolonged period of anguish over whether to obey this very repulsive call from God. The story reveals NO evidence of ANY internal struggle within Jonah at the prospect of taking on this prophetic assignment. We see this in at least two ways in Jonah.
First, the impression we get here in chapter one that Jonah immediately runs away from God is confirmed in chapter four when Jonah later reveals why he refused to go to Nineveh. He tells God in verse two “2 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.” “Made haste” means “immediately.” So, the way this played out is clear. God in one moment tells Jonah the assignment he had for him. And Jonah, in the next instant, bolts from God’s presence and heads for the nearest ship bound for Tarshish. No struggle, no anguish—just, “Oh, you want me to prophecy to our hated enemies in Nineveh. I don’t think so. I’m out a’ here.”
Jonah’s rebellion is dramatic in a second way and that’s revealed in the alternate destination Jonah heads for. Nineveh was east of Israel while Tarshish at the time was literally THE FARTHEST KNOWN CITY to the west. It was on the southwest coast of Spain. The point is–Jonah doesn’t hear this assignment and then contemplate it on the Sea of Galilee a few miles away. No. He hightails it for the farthest place away from Nineveh he can find. He leaves the Promised Land of his fellow Jews to journey to a far-away place where Jews would have been all but non-existent. He goes to live almost exclusively among Gentiles in order to escape this wretched assignment.
It’s important for us to tease out what a horrible assignment God gives to Jonah to help us understand a bit more clearly Jonah’s visceral reaction to it We don’t want to be overly critical of Jonah. Jonah is a big target and from our distance of 2700 years, it’s easy to think of him as a complete loser who was just waiting for an opportunity to rebel against Yahweh. If we think that way, it’s because we don’t have an appreciation for what God was asking of Jonah. However, neither must we be too easy on Jonah because the story will not allow that.
The truth is—he had been given a unique and rare privilege to serve as a prophet of the Most High. He had stood in the very presence of God and God had spoken to him personally and infallibly of his plans for the future of Israel. He was in the inner circle of ALL inner circles! Only a relative handful of people in human history were ever been given the chance to experience what Jonah had experienced. We also know from many places in Scripture that God never sends his servants on any mission without giving them the grace to accomplish his assignments, but Jonah never even seriously considers obeying God in this instance. This mission was out of the question from the get-go for Jonah. So, with that mixed record, how do we measure Jonah? The only fair way to evaluate Jonah is to compare him with the other prophets.
The truth is that NONE of the Hebrew prophets who were faithful had it easy. The New Testament author of Hebrews speaks mostly of prophets when he says that they were “tortured, mocked, flogged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword. They were destitute, afflicted and mistreated—not a very appealing description. The prophet Isaiah preached to a hostile Jewish audience for 40 years with no evidence of any spiritual fruit. Jeremiah was treated despicably for much of his ministry and suffered much anguish. God repeated picked up Ezekiel by his hair like a rag doll and carried him to places where he would publicly act out these bizarre pantomime-like scenes for sometimes months at a time.
The call of the prophet was not an easy one. It would be easier for us to assess Jonah more positively if he’d even thought hard about the assignment and then, after days of struggle and in an anguished terror, ran away. That would have been no less disobedience, but it would help us empathize with him more. That’s not in the story. The story is–Jonah hears from God, Jonah bolts from God. It’s all very cut and dried here for Jonah. The author doesn’t present any better picture of Jonah for most of the rest of this chapter either. After he leaves God’s presence, he goes to the only seaport Israel had at the time, Joppa, and pays the fare to have this cargo vessel sail him away to Tarshish. This would have been expensive. So, Jonah didn’t just run away from God, he paid good money to run away from him.
When he gets on board the ship, the author helps us see how far Jonah had fallen. He does that by intentionally contrasting him with the pagan crew members aboard the ship. The result is that we see that Jonah–this “man of God” looks far less devout than even these pagan sailors. When the storm hits the ship, the pagan crewmen are crying out to their gods. They’re heroically hurling their cargo into the sea. They didn’t care that they were throwing a small fortune overboard—they were scared of dying and were doing whatever they could to rescue themselves.
Conversely, verse five tells us that Jonah is in the bowels of the ship, fast asleep. In verse six, the pagan captain rightly rebukes this prophet of Yahweh. “…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.” The captain can’t believe Jonah is asleep and not doing something to help rescue the ship. This pagan captain is acting as Jonah’s prophet—telling him to pray to his God. The pagans had been praying—Jonah had been sleeping. And if Jonah HAD BEEN awake, there’s no evidence he would have been praying because how do you pray to a God you’re running away from as fast and far as possible?
The sailors make a very common assumption about the gods that people made in these ancient cultures. That is—if a natural calamity (like a storm) hits and is so serious that it threatens to kill everyone on board ship, this must be one of their gods judging someone on this ship–someone aboard must have sinned against his god. So, they cast lots, which was the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of flipping a coin, to discover who the culprit is. Miraculously, God chooses to use this method of discovering his will to “out” Jonah. The crew members tell Jonah in verse eight. 8 “…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?”
Jonah is rather selective about which of those questions he chooses to answer. He responds in verse nine, “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.”
He tells them that he is a Hebrew—his race. He tells them that he worships the Hebrew God, Yahweh, and that the God he serves just happens to be the Ruler of heaven—where the storm originated—and the sea—that was bucking and heaving beneath them. He also tells them that he is “fleeing from the presence of the Lord.” But he doesn’t come across with his occupation. He leaves out that part of his resume and that is the whole point. The author twice tells us in verse three that Jonah was fleeing, “the presence of the Lord.”
When the author twice tells us that Jonah was fleeing the presence of the LORD, he’s telling us that Jonah is hanging up his prophet’s mantle. He didn’t reveal his occupation to these sailors because he had just resigned his commission. The author continues this contrast between the pagan sailors and Jonah and Jonah always comes out looking bad. The sailors mercifully try to avoid throwing Jonah in—they show mercy to this renegade Jew by trying to row their way out of the storm. They don’t have the nerve to pronounce the death sentence on Jonah, so they ask Jonah in verse 11, “…What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us…”
In verse 12, Jonah does something that is as close to a noble act as anything in this chapter. He says, “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.” Jonah tells them to hurl him into the sea, which was a good response, but it’s not as noble as you might first imagine. First, at this point, he and the rest of the crew know they’re all going to die apart from divine intervention. So, the choice for Jonah wasn’t between life and death. It was between being forcefully being hurled into the sea and going down with the ship.
Also, why did Jonah put this horrible responsibility on the sailors to kill him? The text tells us that he knows that the sea will calm down when he goes overboard. Since he knew that, why didn’t he just unceremoniously slip off the ship. That would have spared these sailors from the trauma of having to execute him. So, even in this seemingly noble act, Jonah is no model of chivalry. He’s no Sir Walter Raleigh, here.
A final contrast between Jonah and these pagan sailors is in their response to God’s miraculous act of deliverance. Verse 16 says, “16 Then the men feared the LORD [the God of Israel] exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” While Jonah is running from his covenant God and his call on his life, these pagans worship Jonah’s God in their gratitude for his rescue. That’s how the author introduces us to Jonah.
Finally, now that we’ve looked at Nineveh and Jonah, let’s see what this story reveals about God. In this chapter, we mainly see two attributes of God on display—his sovereign control over his creation and his great mercy. We see his sovereign control on multiple levels. First, the author is quite clear that God is the one that [v.4] “…hurled a great wind upon the sea, and a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” Also, when they tossed Jonah in, “the sea ceased from its raging.”[v.15] It’s clear that God does that. This is similar to the miracle that Jesus would perform much later on the Sea of Galilee. God fully deserved the worship of the sailors. He IS Lord over all creation. Every lightning bolt, every thunderclap, every storm and tsunami are measured out by God. He’s Lord over the wind and the waves.
God also shows his sovereign rule over Jonah. He gives Jonah a mission, Jonah rejects the mission. But God doesn’t fret about it and reassign the mission to Hosea or Amos. God called JONAH to Nineveh and he was going to GET Jonah to Nineveh. His sovereign power is more than a match for Jonah’s rebellion and his stubborn hatred of the Ninevites. The fact that Jonah books passage on a ship bound for Tarshish does NOTHING to hinder God from using Jonah on this mission to Nineveh. All the time and money and energy Jonah had spent to escape this assignment was ALL wasted energy.
God is bigger than any feeble plan Jonah has to run away. Ultimately, you can only successfully say “no” to God, when God allows you to remain opposed to him. If God wants to do something, you can’t stop him from doing it. In Job 42:2 Job tells God, “2 I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” As we’ll see next time, when Jonah balked at God’s mission, God made him an offer he couldn’t refuse! This is not the ridiculous so-called “Gentleman” God you sometimes hear Christians talk about who will never violate our “free wills.” This is the mighty sovereign God(!) of Psalm 115 who “…does ALL that he pleases.” [v.3] There is nothing that pleases God that he cannot and does not do and if that means using an unwilling prophet to preach to a hostile gentile nation, he will prevail!
But it’s not just God’s awesome sovereignty that we see here. God’s immeasurable mercy is also revealed here in multiple ways. First, he’s merciful to Jonah. As a rebel prophet on the run, God could have crushed him like a bug, but instead, he patiently pursues him. He could have just permitted Jonah to run off to Tarshish and miss the opportunity to see a series of amazing miracles in Nineveh.
Most dramatically, we see God’s mercy toward his enemies. The fact that he is even concerned about these evil pagan Ninevites (who he knows will one day drag away his chosen people) is …miraculous. God is merciful to his enemies and this is what Jonah couldn’t understand. Tim Keller in his commentary on Jonah puts it this way, “Jonah wants a God of his own making, a God who simply smites the bad people, for instance, the wicked Ninevites and blesses the good people, for instance, Jonah and his countrymen. When the real God—not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is thrown into fury or despair. Jonah finds the real God to be an enigma because he cannot reconcile the mercy of God with his justice. How, Jonah asks, can God be merciful and forgiving to people who have done such violence and evil? How can God be both merciful and just?”
This is a question many people have asked about God over the centuries. People naturally assume that a just God must punish the bad people and show his mercy to good people. But that assumption is riddled with falsehood. First, there ARE no good people as God measures “good.” The bible teaches that we all deserve God’s judgment—even one sin against God is enough for a holy, sin-hating God to condemn us to eternal punishment. Though some people are much more kind than others, no one deserves God’s mercy. He gives his mercy only as an undeserved gift.
So, because God is holy and must punish sin and we are all sinners deserving of his justice—his just punishment, how can he be merciful to us? How can God punish our sin without sending us to hell? How can a just God show mercy to sinners? We’re reminded of the answer in the Lord’s Table we’re going to celebrate in a few minutes. God IS holy and he MUST punish sin. Yet, he also loves sinners and wants to spare his people.
So, in answer to that dilemma, he sent his Son, Jesus to the earth. Jesus never sinned and never deserved God’s just punishment. But Jesus agreed to go to the cross where God would “impute” to him our sin and guilt. That is–he would copy and paste our sin and guilt onto Jesus while he was on the cross. He would pour onto his Son the wrath that our sins deserve.
That means that God is just because he punished sin the way it’s supposed to be punished—with his holy justice. But he doesn’t punish believers because Jesus took our punishment …as our substitute …in our place. He punished Jesus for our sins because he is merciful. In the cross, we see the perfect marriage uniting God’s just punishment of sin and God’s merciful forgiveness of sin. But its even better than that. He took the perfect righteousness of Jesus’ sinless life and, for anyone who will trust in Jesus, he copies and pastes that same righteousness onto us so that God will accept and love us the same way he loves his sinless Son, Jesus.
So, in God’s justice, Jesus gets our sin and receives the curse it deserves—God’s death sentence on the cross and his wrath against our sin. And in God’s mercy, anyone who believes on Jesus receives forgiveness of their sin and the very righteousness of Christ—his perfect life copied and pasted onto our lives. It’s in the gospel that we see the beauty of God’s justice and mercy.
As we move to the Lord’s Table, may God give us the grace to be amazed at his sovereign power and his justice and mercy for his glory and our joy.
 Smith, J.E. (1994) The Minor Prophets. (pp. 101-107). Joplin, MO: College Press. Electronic version.