For about the past year, I have led a Bible Study at a women’s shelter on Wednesday evenings. Usually 3 or 4 women attend, sometimes, more. This past week, we had someone new to join our study, an 8 year-old girl. After a few pleasantries and I asked her if she was planning to stay for Bible study, she said, “sure!” I asked her if she had a Bible, and she jumped up saying, “hold on let me go get it!” She came back with a Bible story book, that was her Bible. My intention was to read and discuss the book of Jonah, so I looked in her table of contents and sure enough, Jonah was there. I asked the ladies if it would be okay if we read the story from her book, then from the Scriptures. Everyone agreed.
As children’s books go, the story was greatly abridged, but it did not leave out too many highlights. God told Jonah to go and preach against Nineveh, but Jonah did not want to so he ran away to board a ship to Tarshish which was the complete opposite direction. Once the ship set sail, a terrible storm pounded and tossed the boat frightening the entire crew, except Jonah who was asleep in the bottom of the boat. The crew began throwing things overboard to lessen the load thinking it would help, but nothing did. Suspiciously, they cast lots to determine which of them was responsible for the storm. The lot fell on Jonah. They asked him to pray to his God to calm the storm. Jonah knew the reason for the storm, it was because of his disobedience. In his humility, he told the men to throw him overboard and maybe God would calm the storm. They tossed him out into the sea and immediately, the storm ceased. Soon a large fish, some say a whale, swallowed him. For 3 days and 3 nights, Jonah remained in the belly of the animal. During that time, he began to pray and he told God that if given a second chance he would do as he was told. The fish vomited Jonah out onto dry land. Jonah went to Nineveh and preached to the people telling them God was not pleased with them and that in 40 days His judgment would occur. The people feared God and repented of their sins. This was the end of the children’s book.
We were prompted to discuss times when we had each been disobedient and what the consequences had been, as well as the meaning of repentance. When we switched over to the Scriptures, the brief 4-chapter book of Jonah, there are a few more things to notice.
These men’s hearts were transformed because of Jonah's testimony. In v. 5-6, the men were worshiping idols and praying to them to calm the storm, but it was not working. When Jonah said he worshiped the capital-G God, who made the sea and dry land, then they observed the calming of the sea for themselves once they threw him into the water, their prayers changed. They were no longer praying to the gods, they were praying to the Lord, the God of heaven. v.16 says, “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” Even in his disobedience, Jonah, a prophet, led people to worship the one and only true God.
Jonah points us to Christ. In times when I have run away from or ignored a command from the Lord, sleep has escaped me. I can find no peace until I repent and obey. Scripture tells us that Jonah was below deck in a deep sleep. Who can sleep on a boat during a storm? Jesus did - He was asleep on a boat with His disciples. Mat. 8:24-27 “Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
26He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
27The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
Jonah did not command the storm, but the storm certainly calmed once he was off the boat. The men thought for sure they had thrown him to his death. They knew nothing about the large fish. When we think about it, 3 days in the acidic belly of a fish, there’s total darkness, probably slime and seaweed, and let’s not talk about the smell - that would be a death-like experience. Matthew 12:40 “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
God hears our prayers. The children’s book mentioned that Jonah prayed, but Chapter 2 of Jonah expresses his deepest heart cries. They read much like the Psalms of David, who also was in great distress. Jonah, called on the Lord knowing God’s grace was his only help.
6To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
God uses our obedience as a part of His plan. The children’s book explained that once the fish vomited Jonah out onto dry land, he went to Nineveh to preach against it - as God, again, told him to do. Scripture says, v. 3-5, 10 “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” 10When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. When we read chapter 3, I asked each of the ladies and the girl, how they thought this reaction from the people, to turn towards God likely made Jonah feel. Everyone said it should make him feel good, satisfied that he had done what God told him to do, and that people responded favorably. One lady said, there’s nothing worse than sharing the Gospel with someone and having them argue with you or saying thanks but no thanks.
We must all check our attitude or God will check it for us. Jonah 4 begins, “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Hmmm, I wonder why Jonah felt this way! Did he not believe that the people of Nineveh deserved the opportunity to know, love, and serve God as he did? Did he believe that for some reason their sins were too great to warrant forgiveness and God’s love? Did Jonah think God was only for people like him, whatever that means? Heart check - what are my beliefs? Is there someone or some group I find to be unworthy? Why? Do my beliefs agree with the Word of God? It appears that while we have questions about Jonah’s reasoning, God understood without Jonah voicing his thoughts and feelings. God understood so well that He lovingly gave Jonah an illustration. Jonah went to the edge of the city to build himself a dwelling. It was hot and he had no shade. “6Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’”
God always has the last word. In Jonah 4, God asks Jonah twice if it is right for him to be angry, and twice Jonah confirms that it is right, and that he would rather be dead. If we know God to be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, [one] who relents from sending calamity, we cannot keep that to ourselves. He is the God of all Creation and everyone no matter their age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, career path, nationality, or their sins - He is God over them, too, and it is our responsibility to share His love with them. The children’s book didn’t touch on the 4th chapter, but it ends with these words from God. “But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” Amen.