Jonah wants to escape the LORD’s command to preach against Nineveh. That is why he wants to flee to Tarshish. For this he finds a ship in Joppa (verses 1-3). But the LORD sends a heavy storm. The ship is in danger of perishing. Jonah is forced to acknowledge that the storm has risen because of him (verses 4-10). At the request of the crew, he indicates what needs to be done to stop the storm. When he is thrown into the sea, the sea becomes calm (verses 11-16). The LORD takes care of him further by sending a big fish that swallows him.
1 The LORD Speaks
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying,
This is not the first time that the word of the LORD comes to Jonah. He is no newcomer so to speak; he knew the voice of the LORD. As has already been said, he is a prophet in the time that Jeroboam II is or will soon be king. He has prophesied that lost territory of Israel will be recaptured (2Kgs 14:25).
He would have had no trouble bringing that message. That must have been a great pleasure to him. It was of course also for this Israelite in heart and soul an enormously beautiful prophecy that he was allowed to proclaim. With such a message you like to go to your peers. He will not have had the name of ‘prophet of doom’, as several of his fellow prophets must have had.
How the word of the LORD comes to him now is not told. That is not strange, by the way. There are many prophets who do not mention this. Somehow Jonah has become aware that the LORD wants him to go to Nineveh to preach.
Also today the Lord wants to make clear to each of His own what they should do, where they should go, what they should say. He speaks through the Word we have in our hands. If we read that prayerfully, we will hear what He tells us. Not only do we then understand in a general sense how He wants us to live. We will also hear His specific mission that He has for each of us personally. This is not done by hearing supernatural voices, it is not a vague, emotional affair. Whoever is truly and submissive focused on the Lord when reading His Word, will understandably and clearly hear from Him through His Word what He wants.
2 The Command
2 “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”
The command Jonah is now given is different from the one we read about in 2 Kings 14 (2Kgs 14:25). This time it is not a message that a person likes to take with him to the streets, it is not a message that people are waiting for and that makes the preacher an appreciated man. He must now preach doom.
That would not be pleasant if it he had to go to his own people. But he is not sent to his own people. He must go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. That is an ancient city. It is first mentioned in Genesis 10 (Gen 10:11). Sennacherib made the city the capital. The Medes and Persians destroyed her in 612 BC.
The fact that Jonah has to go there is certainly unique. It has not happened before, at least according to what we read in Scripture, that a prophet with a message from God has been sent to the Gentiles. But it is not for a servant of God to determine the place of his service, nor what he should preach.
The LORD makes him a partner in His motives, in order to send him to Nineveh. He tells Jonah that the wickedness of the city has come up before Him in heaven (cf. Gen 18:21; 1Sam 5:12). The good is completely missing in there. The city is corrupted through and through. For Nineveh, there is nothing left but judgment.
It is a great city because there are so many inhabitants. It is also a city with enormous wealth (Nah 2:9). The number of inhabitants and the great wealth ensure that also its power and influence on the empire, of which it is the capital, is great. Large in size is the evil of its many inhabitants who live in revolt against God. God can no longer bear it. Judgment must be announced.
3 Jonah Flees
3 But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
Jonah does not like his task. This is not in itself a shocking or new phenomenon. Moses also had his objections when God called him (Exo 3:10-14; 4:1-17) and also Gideon did not jump for joy when God called him (Jdg 6:11-24). But there were other things present with them than with Jonah.
Servants of the LORD, prophets, are not machines. They can resist the will of God. With Moses and Gideon it was a feeling of inability. They did not feel able to carry out the great task they were given. In Jonah’s case, it is clear unwillingness, based on pride. This gives Jonah the doubtful honor of being the only prophet who pertinently disobeys God, a prophet who simply refuses to follow His command.
The LORD could have stopped Jonah. Yet He lets him go, but without losing sight of him. He lets him go, as far as He finds necessary. Whoever leaves the way of obedience inevitably also leaves the presence of the Lord. Not that the Lord no longer exists for such a person, but the heart loses consciousness of His presence. Of course, it cannot be else. The Lord never goes along on a path of unfaithfulness.
Jonah’s aim is certain. He doesn’t go to Nineveh, but completely in the other direction, to Tarshish. It is not exactly clear where Tarshish was located. It is believed to be in Spain, in the west, while Nineveh was in the east. Why he wants exactly to go to Tarshish, is not mentioned.
He “found a ship”, as we read. This indicates that he has consciously worked in his search for a means that could bring him to his willfully chosen goal. He must have seen it as a confirmation that in Joppa – that is the present Jaffa, which in the New Testament is called Joppa (Acts 9:36,43) –, he finds a ship that is about to leave for Tarshish. He has, so to speak, the wind behind, the circumstances are favorable.
Such ‘pieces of luck’ give a person who stubbornly plans to map out his own way, while he is against the Lord’s will, a wonderful feeling. We are all masters in justifying a self-willed way of doing things that we know go against the Word of God by lucky circumstances. This camouflages our disobedience to the Word of God. The fact that circumstances seem positive while on a path of disobedience is never proof of the Lord’s blessing.
The road of Jonah is the road down. He goes down to Joppa and he goes down into the ship (verse 5) and later he goes down even deeper into the sea (Jona 2:6). Joppa is said to mean ‘beauty’ or ‘submission’. ‘Beauty’ seems to be a suitable starting point, but it leads to ‘submission’, bondage. The ship that leaves there will take you while you sleep to your destination, if God does not intervene. That easy do you get out of the Lord’s presence.
The leaving of the presence of the LORD is a conscious act and therefore sin. It places Jonah in the dark company of Cain, who also left the presence of the LORD (Gen 4:16).
Maybe we shouldn’t think that Jonah wanted to hide from God. Presumably, he knew Psalm 139 well, so he knew that this was impossible (Psa 139:1-12). But on someone who consciously disobeys, the Word of God loses its powerful impact. Jonah did not want to do what God had told him to do. Therefore he left the land where God dwells. “Away from the presence of the LORD” also means “away from the land of the LORD”.
Jonah does not flee out of fear for difficulties he would face during his service, but because he is afraid that the LORD is showing grace to the city of Nineveh. As a Jew, he begrudges grace to the Gentiles. This begrudging of grace to the Gentiles we regularly encounter in the Gospels and in the book of Acts. The Pharisees become furious when the Lord Jesus in His parables refers to grace for the Gentiles (Mt 21:33-46). The Jews become furious when Paul speaks about it (Acts 22:17-22).
But it is not only the unbelieving Pharisees and Jews who show their displeasure when there is talk of grace for the Gentiles. It took effort for the Lord Jesus to convince Peter to go to a heathen (Acts 10:1-16). Fortunately, Peter was persuaded and fulfilled the calling (Acts 10:17-23). But the background is always the same: if Gentiles would accept salvation, it would have been the end of the privileged position of Israel, to whom the LORD had, according to their conviction, revealed Himself exclusively.
As a Jew, Jonah cannot bear to see a pagan city so favored in this way and share in the mercy and salvation of God. As a prophet he can’t bear that his word doesn’t come true and that even before the eyes of these uncircumcised people. He must preach that God will turn the city upside down after forty days. But that will not happen if they repent. Jonah knows that. But he does not want to be seen as a false prophet. That will be the case if the city repents. His words will not come true. The city will not be turned upside down even though he preached it.
In 2 Kings 14, Jonah was chosen as the messenger to make known the mercy of God in the days when Israel sighed under the terrible yoke of the enemy (2Kgs 14:25). He was then the bringer of good news for his people. He liked to do that. But in his pride, he cannot accept a task intended only for the nations, through which they also will share in the mercy of God. For he knows that God is merciful (Jona 4:2).
Jonah pays the price for the crossing. There is always a price tag attached to the road that leads away from God. The price is the loss of self-respect, the robbery of God’s presence and the violation of conscience. Nevertheless, the full price is paid. But if we have paid for everything and lost everything, we will not succeed in achieving our goal. We are thrown out of our own chosen ship into the ocean.
Then God brings us back ashore at His expense and in a ship of His making. The morning of departure can look sunny and beautiful, there is no cloud in the sky. But God can send a storm after the runaway to bring him back to Himself.
4 The LORD Intervenes
4 The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up.
Of course, the LORD could have encountered Jonah earlier on. But He lets Jonah go as far as He deems right. It doesn’t get out of His hand. He never loses control of a case He has begun. He has given Jonah a task and He wants Jonah to carry it out.
The beginning of the journey must have been very smooth. So smooth, that the gentle swaying of the ship has swayed Jonah asleep. Then it is God’s time to intervene. He knows exactly when to intervene. He also has the appropriate means to do so. God sends an obedient servant to follow His disobedient servant. That obedient servant is the wind. From His treasuries God sends this servant in favor of His runaway servant (Psa 135:7c; Pro 30:4).
At first sight, a storm does not seem to be favorable. The ship is in danger of being broken up. Jonah and the other persons on board face destruction. But if God uses a storm in the life of His own, we can be sure that the storm will not get out of His hand and that it is a blessing.
It is the grace of God Who seeks His servant and does not let him go in a way of sin for a long time. Sin always brings storms to a person’s life or family or to the church; sin never brings rest. It is beneficial to recognize in these storms the call of God by which He wants to awaken us, so that we may do His will again.
5 Prayer and Action
5 Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten [it] for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep.
It must have been a colorful group of people on board that ship. Superficially viewed their common goal is to ensure that the ship reaches its destination. Through the distress will come to the surface what is in the heart of everyone. Everyone confesses his faith, but it is not a unity of the faith, for every man cries to his own god.
In the same way, it seems that in a given company, everyone delivers his or her share to its success. But when there are storms or setbacks, it brings to light what someone believes. Then everyone has his own belief. We see this in politics, but also in the church. The Word of God is not consulted. Every man acts according to his own view.
The world is in need. Anyone who has an eye for this will try to do something about it according to his own view. At all kinds of conferences that are organized because of the need, people do not get together. Everyone continues to fight for their own interests. These interests are nourished by an ideology, a philosophy, a religion without faith in Jesus Christ as the Mediator between God and men. The prayer of the sailors is an expression of powerlessness in which a higher power is called upon.
In addition to their individual need which brings them to pray individually, there is also a common acting. Together they throw the cargo overboard. They want to lighten the ship so that it is easier to steer in the storm. But making the ship lighter does not change the intensity of the storm. It rages in full force. Only when the cause of the storm is known it can be calmed down. Thus, man is always busy to make problems bearable and manageable, without wanting to face the cause.
The problem of the ship is sleeping in the hold of the ship. Jonah has fallen into a deep sleep in the careless opinion that he had succeeded in his intention. How could he think that God would stop him at sea and bring him back from his disobedient way?
His sleep is not the sleep of trust, as with the Lord Jesus (Mt 8:24) or Peter (Acts 12:6). His sleep is the sleep of an insensitive conscience (1Thes 5:6). He thinks he is safe. He believes he has succeeded in his aim. But his sleep makes him insensitive to the disaster he is causing to his fellow passengers.
Maintaining one’s own self also causes others to end up in misery. This can be applied to the family or the local church. If someone doesn’t want his reputation to be damaged and demands his right where he should be tolerant, it is a disaster for the whole family or the church.
6 Wake Up and Pray!
6 So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps [your] god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”
What a shame when a pagan must reprimand and call upon a believer to pray. Numerous Christians are completely indifferent to the fact that the world is figuratively on fire. The fate that awaits millions of people to be tormented in hell forever does not bother them. How many Christians aren’t concerned about the fact that a family member, their neighbors or their colleague, their fellow pupil is on the way to eternal damnation?
Does it still touch us? “How is it that you are sleeping?”! We gaze at the entertainment that the Internet and television offer us. We roam the world wide web through countless ‘interesting’ things. We appease our conscience that we do not view the most terrible programs or sites. And the precious time passes by and spiritually we slowly dip away and sometimes literally. After a while it turns out that we have sunk into a very deep sleep.
There is not much difference between a deep sleeping and a dead person. Therefore the call must come: “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14). It is time for a captain to come and wake us up. Shame on us, sleeping that fast, while the need is increasing more and more. Can we do nothing? Don’t we have boldness? Then let us rise up and pray to our God. No one needs a gift to pray. The smallest child can do that.
What is needed is faith. “And without faith it is impossible to please [Him], for he who comes to God must believe that He is and [that] He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6). Or has our faith in the living God also ended? Does our faith no longer live? Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day; how many Christians do it hardly ever once a day? Let us wake up and pray for our lives and for the lives of those who are with us on board our life ship!
7 And the Lot Fell on Jonah
7 Each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity [has struck] us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
Jonah is awakened. Would he have fulfilled the captain’s call and prayed to God? Or would his conscience have spoken in the remembrance of the LORD, from Whom he is fleeing? It is not mentioned. In any case, he still does not tell what is going on. Jonah is silent for as long as he can, although he knows why the ship is in distress. If people are ashamed, but their own will is still active because it has not yet been judged, a lot of chastisement is needed to bring someone back on the right path.
The sailors see so many unusual things in the storm that they attach the right meaning to it. It is a storm that is the fault of one of those present on the ship. For Jonah, the storm is a catastrophe coming from the LORD (Amos 3:6b). For the heathen sailors it is a message of some divine justice (cf. Acts 28:4).
Special events often lead to a call to the conscience. God wants all kinds of national or personal disasters to have that effect (cf. Isa 26:9). But nobody on the ship wonders: ‘Am I the cause?’ It must be someone else. To find out they cast lots.
The casting of lots is often done in the Old Testament (Jos 7:16; 15:1; 1Sam 14:36-42). It also happens one more time in the New Testament before the Holy Spirit is poured out (Acts 1:26). After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we do not hear that the church uses it. That would also be contrary to the way in which God now reveals His will. We have the complete Word of God and His Spirit Who guides into all the truth (Jn 16:13).
After the lot has fallen upon Jonah, it is not possible to remain silent any longer (Pro 16:33).
8 Accountability Is Asked
8 Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account [has] this calamity [struck] us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
The sailors want an explanation from Jonah. They ask about his work, the profession he exercises. Maybe they do so with the thought that there may be something dishonest in it that has stirred the wrath of the gods.
This question can also be asked to us who claim to be Christians. What are we doing? Is that what we do a blessing or a curse to others? That applies to managing a business. Do we do business honestly, do we reward employees honestly, do subordinates get a fair assessment? It also applies to all kinds of other activities, including what we consider to be a hobby or leisure activity. What are we doing, why are we doing it and how?
They also ask Jonah where he comes from. Is there anything wrong in his background? What is his homeland? Who are his fellow countrymen? The answer to these questions can be important to determine what kind of man they have to do with.
These questions can also be applied to us who profess to be Christians. Where do we, as Christians, come from? Do we live out of the fellowship with God? Does that define our actions and the way we go? And is heaven our homeland? Can we say that we are citizens of heaven? And who are our fellow citizens? Are these all the children of God? If we’re asked those questions, when we’re in a position like Jonah’s, we’ll feel pretty uncomfortable.
9 Accountability Is Given
9 He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”
Only after lots has been cast and questions are asked, Jonah does come up with a statement. He is forced to do so. His explanation is therefore not yet a real repentance for his disobedience. His conscience has not yet been brought into the light of God. That is why the storm has not yet subsided and God must teach him even more.
Jonah acknowledges that he is to blame. He calls himself a Hebrew, a name that the Israelite has among the Gentiles (Gen 39:14,17; 40:15; 1Sam 4:6,9; 14:11). In his confession concerning God, he confesses the LORD as “the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land”. This means that Jonah does not confess God as the God of Israel, the God of one special people. He makes Him known to the sailors, heathen, as he should have done in Nineveh.
With this confession he indirectly condemns his own fleeing. He also says with this that you can’t flee from that God.
10 Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.
Jonah did not inform them about his being on the run when he boarded, but he did so in his answers to their questions. That his explanation about the LORD God is not a fabrication, is underlined by the circumstances. It filled the sailors with fear. It seems that the disgraceful disobedience of Jonah makes these heathen more impressed by God than the prophet himself.
A believer can tell with a certain indifference about God’s actions with him, while this makes a great impression on people who do not take God into account. When someone says he is punished by God for disobedience, it sometimes makes a deep impression on people who do not know Who God is. That’s because those people know by themselves how many things they have done in disobedience. In this way God can even use disobedience from those who profess His Name to impress others of His power.
Of course this does not in any way justify a person’s disobedience. And it is also the question of whether someone who is deeply impressed by God’s omnipotence also turns to God.
11 What Should We Do?
11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy.
Despite the fact that they now know the cause of the storm, the sea is becoming increasingly stormy. The wind does not calm down, but increases even more. Something more needs to be done. It may be that sin is discovered which is the cause of our problems. But it must also be handled properly, otherwise it will get worse and worse.
That is also the case here. Therefore, the sailors continue the examination. They do not want to choose a measure themselves, afraid as they are of the God from Whom Jonah is fleeing. They see in him a culprit, but also a penitent. He is the one who has to indicate what needs to be done.
12 Pick Me up and Throw Me Into the Sea
12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm [has come] upon you.”
It is courageous of Jonah to make this proposal. It is the language of the penitent. Such a person wishes to bear the punishment himself, whatever it may cost him, and not others who are innocent of it. He seeks no apology or relief. Without reserve, he takes the blame and justifies God in His actions. He acknowledges the hand of God in what is happening.
Jonah speaks here as a believing Israelite, who knows the solemnity of the righteousness of the holy God from the law and from the history of His people. He bows down under the judgment of God. At the same time, his proposal expresses his confidence in God. With his proposal, he says as much as: ‘Just hand me over to God’. He entrusts himself to God when he is no longer in the ship, for he understands it is the wrong place for him.
Jonah is a weak, indeed a very weak picture of the Lord Jesus. Jonah’s humiliation is the result of his disobedience. The humiliation of the Lord is the result of His impeccable obedience. Christ offered Himself in perfect obedience to die for others, that they might live.
Something similar as in Jonah is seen in David’s attitude after his sin of counting the people (1Chr 21:17). The statements of Jonah and David in which they offer themselves to pay the penalty are beautiful, but they are the result of their own guilt. When the Lord Jesus says: “Behold, I have come … To do Your will, O God” (Heb 10:7), it is to carry out God’s will in complete voluntariness on behalf of utterly corrupt sinners.
13 However, the men rowed [desperately] to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming [even] stormier against them.
Jonah’s offer to throw him into the sea goes too far for the sailors. They do what they can, not to have to take this measure. Although the sailors see that God’s wrath rests on Jonah, they are frightened to be the executors of the Divine judgment. They may have been impressed by what Jonah told them. They still look too much at the man in front of them. He is for them the representative of the God about Whom he has spoken. Should they throw him into the sea? They make every effort to prevent that from happening.
The acknowledgment of God’s judgment and acting accordingly are two things. Only when a person is totally at the end of his possibilities he wille bow before God’s judgment. The sailors must also experience this. When they see that they are not dealing with Jonah, but with the God of Jonah, they turn to Him.
14 Then they called on the LORD and said, “We earnestly pray, O LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O LORD, have done as You have pleased.”
The actions of the sailors reveal a beautiful character trait, which is a disgrace to Jonah. For they care more about the one life of Jonah than Jonah cares about the life of the hundreds of thousands in a whole city (Jona 4:11). In their confession they state that they acknowledge God’s right to life. Although they are not in connection with God, they do not grant themselves the right to take Jonah’s life. They pray for forgiveness for what they are going to do.
They call to the LORD because they have heard from Jonah that this is the Name of the God of Jonah. In this way they acknowledge His supremacy. They confess that the LORD acts according to what pleases Him: He has sent the storm and selected the guilty one by the lot.
Therein lies resignation. God never acts at random. He always acts according to His good will, according to His pleasure. This is the expression of His sovereignty. Whoever trusts Him will find in it the strength to act according to His will and to accept His actions.
15 Obedience and the Result
15 So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.
The sailors throw Jonah out of the ship, out of their company, into the raging sea that, as it were, calls for the handing over of the transgressor, so that peace and rest may come. We do not read how Jonah felt at that moment. But we can assume that, while he flees from his Master, he is now going to meet that Master as Judge.
God spares the sailors based on their prayer and their act of obedience. Prophetically, when we see the picture of Israel in Jonah, we have here the picture of what is written in Romans 11, that “their [Israel’s] rejection is the reconciliation of the world” (Rom 11:15a). After Jonah has been thrown into the sea, the sea becomes calm. After the rejection of Israel, the message of salvation goes to the Gentiles.
16 Fear and Admiration
16 Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
Suddenly the storm stops. After all that the sailors have already experienced, it makes their impression of the God of Jonah even greater. There is fear and admiration. They want to offer something to the LORD and therefore offer Him a sacrifice. They testify that He is worthy of their thanks and admiration.
Their gratitude is not only something of the moment, they also make vows with regard to the future. They will give Him even more when they have come ashore safely.
With this they rise above what Jacob once promised. Jacob set God’s conditions. If God proved Himself to be the God Who would bring him home safely, then Jacob would accept God as his God (Gen 28:20-21). These sailors make vows for Who God has been to them and not as a challenge to God to prove Himself by saving them.
17 Jonah Saved
17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
When Jonah has been thrown into the sea, he does not drown. The LORD takes care of him. He sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. Then the LORD does His work in Jonah. God, Who keeps life in the womb before birth, can also keep a Jonah in the stomach of the fish. The fish swallows Jonah, not to devour him, but to protect him. God saves Jonah because He still wants to use him.
The fact that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the fish can only be explained as a miracle. The Lord Jesus calls Jonah’s stay in the fish a sign (Mt 12:39). The miracle is not so much that Jonah is swallowed by a fish and comes out alive again. Nor is it a fish made by God especially for that circumstance. God could have made Jonah a super swimmer. God does nothing like that.
The miracle God does here is that He appoints the fish right there and at that time and that Jonah stays for three days in the fish to serve as a sign for the days that the Lord Jesus will be in the tomb. For the Ninevites, Jonah is a man who went through death and resurrection. There is, however, this difference between the Lord Jesus and Jonah: Jonah entered ‘the grave’ through disobedience, while the Lord came there through His perfect obedience. Jonah is rejected because of his unfaithfulness, while the Lord is rejected because of His faithfulness.