We all know that the story of Jonah is downright shocking. It’s the kind of story that grabs the attention of children, which is why it is often taught in Sunday School. But I think sometimes we don’t ever get beyond our surface level, Sunday School understanding. If you ask me, the story of Jonah is the greatest short story ever written. The story of Ruth may be a close second, but it’s just brilliant and chalked full of truth.
One of the things that makes Jonah so engaging is that the narrative is filled with shock and surprise. Sometimes we think that the fish episode is the only shock element in the story. That is far from true. In this post, I want to highlight five things that are truly shocking about this story. A closer study would no doubt yield more, but I simply hope to take you deeper into the text than perhaps you have gone before.
- Jonah tries to run away from God
Very early in the narrative, God told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (1:2). These were clear instructions from the Lord God Himself, but for some crazy reason, Jonah chose to flee from the presence of the Lord.
It could be argued that people run away from God all the time, and that is true (Isaiah 53:6). They reject the word of the Lord in favor of doing things their own way and in their own wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:16). But Jonah, God’s prophet, was more than a little naïve to think he could get away with this.
- Jonah falls asleep in the midst of a hurricane
Jonah’s plan to run away from God compels him to board a ship headed for Tarshish, which is kind of like the other side of the world compared to Nineveh. He wanted to get as far away from his assignment as possible. So God caused a “tempest” or what we call a “hurricane” to engulf the ship. But shockingly Jonah fell asleep in the belly of the ship. The pagan sailors on board were simply aghast, and the Captain finally woke him up.
What are we to make of this? I have heard it said that Jonah was so tired from running away from God that when he finally had the chance, he fell fast asleep. Not sure if I would go along with that, but whatever the case, God had his attention now. Jonah knew immediately that he was to blame.
As an interesting side note, the closest parallel to this in the Bible is when Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus was exhausted from ministering to the multitudes and He fell asleep in the midst of a storm. This story offers a striking example of His humanity, but also of His deity when He calms the storm.
- Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish…..survives….and is vomited up by the fish
This is the “shock” part of the narrative that everyone knows about. After Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, and they reluctantly agree, Jonah quickly finds himself being swallowed…..and yet not dying. In fact, chapter 2 is all about Jonah crying out to God in prayer and affirming His power to save and deliver.
As you read this story, you can’t help but notice God’s providential hand throughout. God is directing every part of this story, including the end of chapter 2. “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (2:10). Clearly, God was not finished with Jonah yet. The word of the Lord would come to him a second time, and he would be given another chance to complete his mission.
- The people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s message of judgment
When Jonah finally made it to Nineveh and preached his eight-word sermon, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” something truly shocking happened. The people believed God! They didn’t laugh Jonah out of town. They didn’t kill him. They didn’t even persecute and slander him. No, they believed God’s word through His prophet, and they repented.
You have to understand that Nineveh was an evil, wicked city (1:2). When you read through the prophetic books of the Old Testament, it is common for the people to reject the prophet’s message, whatever prophet it happens to be. But Nineveh heard the message, they believed the message, and they responded in kind. The king of Nineveh even repented and called upon everyone to “call out mightily to God” (3:8).
One of the great ironies of the book of Jonah is that his pagan audience does a better job responding to God’s word and God’s power than he does. Even at the end of chapter 1, after they threw Jonah overboard and the sea calmed, the sailors “feared the Lord” and offered vows and sacrifices.
- Jonah is angry when revival breaks out
This is perhaps the greatest shock of all. After the Ninevites believed God’s word and God held back His judgment, Jonah is not happy. He gets all pouty and winy and even angry. Let me ask you, what preacher wouldn’t like to see revival break out in such a manner? Chapter 3 is nothing but genuine repentance on the part of the Ninevites. How cool would that be! Unfortunately, Jonah didn’t think them worthy of God’s grace and mercy. He would have been happy to see them die in their sins.
Jonah’s prayer is revealing. He prayed: “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? 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” (4:2).
Jonah nailed it. This is really the heart of God. God is gracious, merciful, and loving. Through the sacrifice of Christ and His resurrection, God gives His people what they don’t deserve (salvation), and withholds from them what they do deserve (His wrath).
I sometimes wish I go could back and read Jonah again for the first time with fresh eyes. Just when you think you have heard it all, another shocker comes your way. But it all serves to illustrate the character of God and His heart for the lost. It is a beautiful story with a beautiful message.
I am so thankful that God doesn’t give up on reluctant prophets like Jonah. I am so thankful that God pities the “Nineveh’s” of the world that are lost in sin and darkened in their understanding. I am so thankful that years ago God met me where I was at. Though I was dead in my trespasses and sins, He showered his grace and mercy upon me. And He continues to do that to the glory of His great name. Praise God!
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).