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Lessons from Jonah

By Mike Willis

The short book of Jonah tells the story of the prophet Jonah who refused to obey the commandment of Jehovah to call Nineveh to repentance. The zealous Jewish patriot did not want Nineveh to repent; instead he desired to see the city destroyed by the hand of God because of her wickedness since the Assyrians were the primary threat to the nation of Israel. Consequently, when God told Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, he fled to Tarshish.

The Lord sent a storm threatening the lives of those on the ship with Jonah. They threw their cargo overboard but still were not safe. In desperation, they cast lots to see for what reason God sent the storm. The lot fell to Jonah. He confessed his sin, telling the sailors that he had “fled from the presence of the Lord” (1:10). The valiant sailors desperately tried to navigate their ship to land. When this failed, the sailors followed Jonah’s advice and threw him overboard. The Lord then sent a great calm.

The Lord prepared a huge fish which swallowed Jonah. For three days and nights, he was in the fish’s belly. There he repented and prayed to the Lord. The fish vomited Jonah out on dry ground. The Lord gave his charge to Jonah a second time: “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee” (3:2). This time, Jonah went and preached to Nineveh.

The city heard the message of Jonah. The sign of the Lord in saving Jonah from death in the fish’s belly served to convince the Ninevites of the truthfulness of his message. They repented of their sins and God did not destroy the city (cf. the Lord’s conduct toward nations in Jer. 18:7-10).

Jonah was unhappy. He wanted the Ninevites destroyed. The pouting prophet went to a hill nearby Nineveh and sat to watch the Lord destroy the city. As he sat in the hot sun, the Lord sent a gourd to shade him. The next day the Lord smote the gourd that it withered and died. Jonah was angry that his shade, the plant, had died. God asked him why he could show sorrow for the loss of a gourd but would expect God to allow 120,000 children who could not distinguish their right hand from their left hand to perish.

On this note, the book closes, leaving us to ponder the lessons taught therein. I would like to suggest several lessons from the book of Jonah.

Man Cannot Escape God’s Presence

Jonah tried to escape his responsibility before God by running from his presence. He left his hometown, but he could not leave God’s presence. God’s all-seeing eye followed Jonah as he boarded the ship and fled to Tarshish. Like Jonah, many men today are trying to escape their responsibilities to God. They will be no more successful than was the prophet. God will still hold men accountable to him, regardless of how far they may run from his presence.

God Controls Nature

The book of Jonah emphasizes God’s control over nature as well. The Lord sent the storm to the sea (1:4). When the men threw Jonah overboard, the Lord sent the calm (1: 15). To save Jonah from death, the Lord prepared and sent a great fish to swallow the prophet (1:17). The Lord later commanded the fish to vomit the prophet out on dry ground (2:10). The book of Jonah emphasizes that “God in heaven, hath made the sea and the dry land.”

The Meaning Of Repentance

The book of Jonah vividly demonstrates the meaning of repentance. The Lord told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh” (1:2). In his rebellion against God, Jonah fled to Tarshish; he should have gone north-eastward but he fled north-westward. When Jonah repented, the Lord again commanded, “Arise, go to Nineveh” (3:2). Penitent Jonah went to Nineveh. The change in the will of the prophet produced a change in conduct.

The conduct of the Gentile Ninevites also demonstrates the meaning of repentance. When Jonah preached in the city of Nineveh saying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4), the people of Nineveh “believed in God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (3:5). What a contrast between this Gentile city which repented when one prophet preached to them and the Israelites, God’s chosen people, who refused to repent when prophet after prophet was sent to them! Their contrition before God, outwardly displayed by their wearing of sackcloth, demonstrated their sorrow for sin and resolution to turn from it. Hence, the book of Jonah demonstrates the meaning of repentance in these two examples.

God Loves All Men

Another important lesson taught in the book of Jonah is God’s love for Gentiles. The overly zealous, patriotic prophet did not want to see the Gentile enemy of Israel delivered from God’s judgment. He desired to see the heathens blasted from the face of the earth by the judgment of God. Therefore, he ran from his mission to call them to repentance.

In contrast to Jonah, God loved the Ninevites and was just as concerned for their welfare as he was for the Israelites. He saw that there were 120,000 innocent infants and young children who would die should judgment fall on the city of Nineveh. He loved them and cared for them. Consequently, he sent the prophet to warn them of God’s judgment and call them to repentance.

The Sin of Begrudging God’s Mercy

The incident of the gourd occurred to convert Jonah from his sin of begrudging God’s mercy toward the Gentiles. Contrast Jonah’s human pity on the plant with God’s pity on the Ninevites.

Jonah’s Human Pity

God’s Divine Pity

1. Pity on a gourd (plant).

1. Pity on Ninevah.

2. Short-lived plant.

2. Eternal souls.

3. Cost Jonah nothing.

3. God made & sustained city.

4. One plant.

4. Many people.

Jonah felt sorrow at seeing a gourd die but desired and would have rejoiced to see the thousands in Nineveh perish.

Jonah’s begrudging that God would forgive the Gentiles may very well be an Old Testament answer to the Jews who begrudged the gospel going to the Gentiles, to demonstrate that the nature of God had always been the same in his love for all of mankind. Through the apostle Paul, God revealed his desire for Gentiles to be grafted into the covenant, despite Jewish opposition thereto (Rom. 9).

Jonah and Jesus

The Lord Jesus confirmed the historicity of this book by using Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish as a type of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”. (Matt. 12:38-41).

He also used the incident of the miraculous sign of Jonah to the people of Nineveh as a type of the miraculous sign he would give to the world to confirm his message. Compare the sign of Jonah and the sign of Jesus.

Jonah

Jesus

1. Life given to save sailors.

1. Life given to save sinners.

2. Cast to certain death.

2. Died.

3. Buried in fish’s belly.

3. Buried.

4. “Raised” to life.

4. Raised from dead.

5. Incident a sign to confirm his message.

5. Incident a sign to confirm his gospel.

6. Mission to save the Gentiles.

6. Mission to save the Jews and Gentiles.

When one studies these parallels, he can readily see that Jonah was a type of the Christ. The God who sent his Son to die on Calvary prefigured his death by the events recorded in Jonah.

Conclusion

These lessons learned from the book of Jonah need to be taught to children of every generation. The surface lessons are easily grasped and the content of the book is deep enough to challenge every Christian’s mind. As a type of the Messiah, Jonah and the record of his prophecy cause us to glorify the God of all creation.

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