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The story of Jonah is familiar, but how are we to approach it? Many dismiss it as fiction or myth, others see it as a parable or allegory. The view of Jesus is decisive – he treats this as a historical record (see Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32). Jonah brought an encouraging message about Israel’s flourishing during the reign of Jeroboam II (782-753BC) – see 2 Kings 14:25. This book is very different. We consider Jonah 1:1-17 The reluctant prophet.
1. The commission given
‘The word of the Lord came to Jonah’ (v1) – this is a commission directly from the Lord, with his full authority. It is a command to be obeyed. God requires action – ‘Arise’ (ESV). The specific mandate is ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it’ (v2). Most OT prophecies against the nations were not taken directly to them but were for the instruction of God’s people, but Jonah is to go and speak face to face with the Ninevites. It is a message of judgment ‘because its wickedness has come up before me’. The Lord speaks as Judge (Genesis 18:25), but the message also implies hope, for there is forgiveness for the repentant, including those in Nineveh (Jeremiah 18:8). If they repent, they will be forgiven.
2. The commission refused
‘But Jonah ran away from the Lord’ (v3) – going in the opposite direction. This is defiant rebellion. It is unlikely that Jonah thought he could escape the presence of the God ‘who made the sea and the land’ (v9), but he was trying to make the fulfilment of his commission impossible. Someone else would have to go. The reason for Jonah’s response is in 4:2 ‘I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God…who relents from sending calamity’. He does not want Nineveh to be spared and is afraid it will be. Probably he had 2 reasons:
Nationalism: Assyria was an enemy of Israel and he did not want it strengthened.
Isolationism: he was unwilling to think of God being gracious to any non-Jews.
3. The divine chastening
The Lord’s plan will not be thwarted and Jonah will be chastened. The wind and storm show the Lord is in sovereign control. Sadly the prophet is rebuked by a pagan for not praying (v6). God determines the outcome of casting lots and Jonah admits responsibility for events (v12). He realises his sin and the fact he is in God’s hands. Chastening has brought him to the point of sincere repentance, the result of God’s loving discipline (Hebrews 12:6), a reassuring truth that should always be an encouragement to God’s people when they go astray.
4. The divine mercy
Here we see the wonder of God’s grace. Despite Jonah’s sin, the Lord shows him mercy and provides the ‘great fish’ (v17) for his deliverance. God sets Jonah back on the path of obedience. Nothing but grace can explain this. Jonah is still commissioned to go to Nineveh – another token of grace. The God whose actions impressed the pagan sailors (v16) is able to change the sinful hearts of the Ninevites. Jonah’s mission can be a means of grace to them.