Really Big Fish!
Read – Jonah 1:1-3:3a
Key Verse – But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD (Jonah 1:3a).
Key Thought – You cannot run from God.
Jonah was a prophet. He was the son of Amittai (2 Kings 14:25), and he was from Gath Hepher, which was in Galilee near Nazareth. He lived and prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel. He predicted that it would be a time of political peace and prosperity (2 Kings 14:25), which it was. King Jeroboam expanded the kingdom, and retook many of the lands that had been captured by Israel’s enemies, to the extent that his kingdom very nearly reached the dimensions it had been under David and Solomon. It was a time of peace and safety and prosperity for Israel. Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, which is how we are able to place him in the historical timeline, and Jesus mentioned him in Matthew 12:39-41, 16:4 and in Luke 11:29-30. Other than those references, everything else we know about Jonah comes from this Old Testament book bearing his name.
Ninevah was a huge city, located just east of the Tigris River, about 550 miles northeast of Samaria. It was second only to Babylon in size. It was located in what is now Iraq, very near the modern town of Mosul. The city was originally built by Nimrod (Genesis 10:11), who was the great grandson of Noah. It’s ruins are still visible today.
God called Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach. Notice:
God sent Jonah east, but Jonah went west.
God gave Jonah a commission. Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it (Jonah 1:2). There was nothing unusual about this commission, as it was the same commission God gave most prophets. Go to a place and preach to them. Perhaps the fact that God was sending him to a foreign and heathen people was a bit unusual. Only a couple other places did a prophet minister outside Israel. But other than that, this was standard prophet stuff. God sent him to go and preach.
But Jonah disobeyed God’s instructions, and instead of travelling northeast to Ninevah, he travelled 35 miles to Joppa, boarded a ship there, and set sail for Tarshish, which is about 2500 miles further west, in the south of Spain. He was fleeing as far as he could in the opposite direction. It would be analagous to God saying to me, go north to Ravenna, and preach to them, and I went south all the way to Key West instead.
So Jonah ran… he got on a boat and headed the other way. He went DOWN to Joppa (Jonah 1:3). What a description that is of running from God. We are always going DOWN when we are running from God. There is no UP to it, only down down down down down. And he paid the fare thereof. Again, anytime we run from God, there is a cost to be paid. Donald Grey Barnhouse said, “When you run away from the Lord you never get to where you are going, and you always pay your own fare. But when you go the Lord’s way you always get to where you are going, and he pays the fare.””1
God stopped Jonah from going west.
Jonah might have thought that once he was on the boat, he had safely escaped God’s call. He might have been breathing a sigh of relief at having avoided a difficult assignment. But notice how verse 4 begins – But the LORD…. God was not done yet.
He sent a great wind… a storm. The mariners on the ship were seasoned sailors, and yet this storm terrified them. Literally, God caused a wind to burst forth. This was no ordinary storm. An ancient commentary said God, “hurled a greate wynde into the see.””2
The mariners did everything they knew to do during a storm. They lightened the ship (vs. 5), and they prayed to their false gods. I can imagine the chaos and terror that must have been evident throughout the ship. But amazingly, Jonah just went down into the bowels of the ship and was sleeping.
One overriding theme seen throughout the story is the lack of concern for others shown by Jonah. His apathy in the midst of this storm, while everybody around him was terrified and crying out to their gods for deliverance, demonstrated just how little he cared for their souls. This same theme is seen in his attitude toward the Ninevites. He just didn’t care about them… actually wanted them to face judgement. Another overriding theme is Jonah’s attempt to run from God, and that is also seen here. He was running as far in the opposite direction as he could run and now in the face of God’s wrath being poured out on the boat, he went down into the furthest depths of that boat, still trying to get as far as possible from God. I can imagine him hiding down in the darkest little corner of the hold curled up in the fetal position.
But Jonah, with all his faults and disobedience, was a believer. The sailors, realizing this was no ordinary storm and obviously the work of God, cast lots to see who God might be judging (vs. 7). Of course, the LORD directed the lot to point out Jonah. When he finally realized he could not run any further from God, his belief came out. He told the men, I fear the LORD. Now, his words confessed something there that his actions weren’t demonstrating at that moment. His life didn’t line up with his lips… his walk didn’t fit his words, but he confessed to being a servant of Yahweh, the One who made the sea (vs. 9). As he uttered that last phrase, I can imagine his eyes and their’s gazing with awe at the waves towering above the shuddering little ship.
Knowing the storm was on account of his disobedience, Jonah told the men to cast him into the sea. But the pagan sailors didn’t want to kill Jonah, perhaps demonstrating more compassion than Jonah did for them, or for the Ninevites. They tried to row against the storm, but no amount of rowing could defeat the storm God had sent. He just made it worse until they acceded and threw Jonah overboard (vs. 15).
The sudden calm that occurred at the very moment Jonah disappeared beneath the waves must have been amazing, for the pagan sailors immediately recognized God in it (Jonah 1:15-16).
Now, try for a minute to get inside Jonah’s head at this moment. His terror must have been real as the sailors grabbed him and threw him over the side. He must have believed himself a dead man as the waves closed over his head. He had disobeyed God and now he must have abhorred that decision. As he sunk deeper and deeper into the sea, he must have thought over and over, “I wish I’d obeyed. None of this would have happened had I only done things God’s way.”
But God wasn’t done with Jonah yet. Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). Interestingly, this is where people decide they’re going to doubt the story. “That’s impossible,” they say. “That couldn’t happen… whales can’t swallow people… and even if they could, nobody could live inside the intestinal tract of a such a thing for three days,” they say.
Of course, there are several possibilities for the great fish… creatures that exist today, all of which could have easily swallowed a man. Sperm whales and whale sharks often come to mind. It’s also possible that this fish was something specially prepared just for Jonah, as implied in the first half of the verse. The only place where it is referred to as a whale is in the King James translation of Matthew 12:40 – For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. There, as here, the actual translation of the word is not whale, but rather “great fish.” Some would say it is more accurately translated “sea monster.”
Regardless of what the fish was, it swallowed Jonah and carried him in its belly for 3 days. It was a miracle, no matter how you look at it. But we believe Jesus died and was buried in the grave for 3 days, and then rose again! How can we question this lesser miracle, which Jesus Himself said was a picture of his death and burial and resurrection (Matthew 12:39-40).
We often think of the fish as God’s judgement on Jonah for running from Him, but Jonah didn’t see it that way. When the water closed over his head, he thought himself dead. And when he discovered himself alive in the belly of a fish, he praised God for his deliverance! Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 was not a prayer for deliverance. He doesn’t ask God for anything in it. It is a song of praise, thanking God for delivering him from drowning. I don’t imagine he expected anything but drowning when the men threw him into the sea, but suddenly he found himself alive in the most unexpected of circumstances and places! So he praised God. You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God (vs. 6).
God sent Jonah east, again.
Jonah 2:10 is one of those verses that you can’t help but visualize. What must that have looked like? Imagine being a fisherman on the shore when that happened! I recall one fundamentalist preacher friend fancifully describing Jonah with all his hair gone and his skin bleached white from gastric juices… his clothing dripping with slime… holding his Scofield Bible in the air and running toward Ninevah shouting, “REPENT!” What a sight!
Well, notice that God’s instructions to Jonah had not changed (Jonah 3:1-2). He was to go to Ninevah and preach. What did change now was Jonah’s response to God’s instructions. This time Jonah arose and went to Ninevah (Jonah 3:3).
We’ll pick up the rest of the story next week, but let’s pause here and consider:
What it Means
There are several applications that come to mind from these first two chapters in the story:
God controls EVERYTHING. He is SOVEREIGN.
That means everything… in YOUR life… everything.
Think about this.
- God had the man for the job picked out and prepared – Jonah.
- He knew all about the boat.
- He knew the course it would take.
- He knew right where to send a storm to stop it.
- He had the storm all ready to go.
- He controlled the lots, so that Jonah was picked.
- He intensified the storm when the men tried to avoid killing Jonah.
- He had a fish all prepared.
- He had a spot picked out on the beach where Jonah was going to end up.
Jonah had no doubt packed and prepared for his long trip to Tarshish. He had boarded the ship with lots of luggage and stuff, but in the end he found himself on the shore with nothing but seedweed and stomach juices and gunk.But he was thankful, for he knew God had delivered him. And when next he heard God’s instructions, He knew he’d best get moving, for God controls EVERYTHING.
God is sovereign over everything: He sent the wind (1:4), He directed the lot to point out Jonah (1:7), He created and sent the fish (1:17), He gave the fish a belly ache so it would vomit Jonah out (2:10). God controls EVERYTHING. He is SOVEREIGN over everything. May we never forget that when we are tempted to run from Him.
There is a cost to running from God.
Did you notice that Jonah paid to get on the ship, and he paid again when he got off! If God tells you to do something, and you run the other way, you’d better get out your wallet, for the cost will be high.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “What do you mean by running from God, Pastor? I see what it meant when applied to Jonah, but how would a person today run from God?” Well, it’s really pretty simple. Jonah was given a clear instruction which he refused to obey. We often do the same. We are told what God wants from us, but we run the other way.
- We see it often in relationships – God says that a Christian should never marry a non-Christian, and yet it happens all the time. And the cost is high.
- We see it in the number of Christians who turn to divorce when things get tough. God says He hates divorce, that there is almost no reason ever for divorce, and yet according to some statistics the rate of divorce among Christians is HIGHER than among non-Christians. And the cost is high.
- We see it in the immoral lifestyles so many engage in today. God says living together outside of marriage is always sin… never right. Yet the number of believers living in such arrangements has never been higher. And the cost is high.
- We see it in the idols so many Christians cherish – choosing to worship other things than God – pleasure, wealth, career, etc. And the cost is high.
When we know the word of the Lord, and make a conscious choice to ignore it or run from it, then we are as Jonah, running from God. And there is a fare to be paid. It will cost you, and it will cost you a lot.
But there is something even more sobering about running from God than the cost of it:
There is no possibility of success when running from God.
Many years before Jonah was born, David wrote Psalm 139. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10 NKJV).
Jonah would have known that Psalm, which was no doubt read often. As a prophet, he certainly would have been familiar with the Scriptures. I wonder if he was remembering those words as he sank beneath the waves. I wonder if he was thinking, “What a fool I was to think I could run from God! What an idiot to think I could go someplace He could not go, or do something He did not see.”
We all come to that point when we try to run from God, for we all learn the same hard lesson he did. It’s not possible. You might think you’ve got it all planned out, but He’s bigger than your plans. You might think your situation is different, but it’s not. You might think the warnings of Scripture don’t apply to you, but they do. You might comfort yourself with the thought that you’ve been running for a while now and seem to be getting away with it. “I’m doing just fine, Preacher!” Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NKJV).
In another of his psalms, David talked to God about the arrogance of those who think they are getting away with sin. He has said in his heart, “I shall not be moved; I shall never be in adversity” (Psalm 10:6). He has said in his heart, “God has forgotten; He hides His face; He will never see” (vs. 11). He has said in his heart, “You will not require an account” (vs. 13). But then comes verse 14 – But You have seen, for You observe trouble and grief, to repay it by Your hand.
There is no possibility of success when running from God. You won’t get away with it. Ever.
Finally, let me conclude with two applications which are aimed directly at those who are running now:
The correct response from one who has run from God, is to turn around and get back on the right path!
Perhaps you’re thinking right now, “I’m Jonah. I’m running. I know what God wants from me but I’m going the opposite direction.” Or perhaps your thinking, “I’ve been running for a long time, and I don’t know how correct that.”
Well Jonah is not only the example of how to run from God. He’s also the example of how to stop running. Jonah arose and went (3:3)! It didn’t matter that he had gone the wrong way in the past. He made a decision to turn around and go the right way starting now. And that’s the only correct response.
Turn around. Do right. Go where He wants you to go… that place you’ve been avoiding. Do what He wants you to do… that thing you’ve been running from.
Jesus told a parable of two sons. “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’”He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. “Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go.”Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” (Matthew 21:28-31 NKJV)
One son initially ran from God, but then turned around! That’s Jonah! Jonah arose and went (3:3).
Lyons Lawson was a deacon in my church in Michigan. He loved the Lord, and He loved telling others about Jesus. He told a story once about a business trip. He was driving to his destination when he noticed a young man hitchhiking. He stopped and picked him up, and as they drove they conversed, eventually talking about Christ and salvation. The young man listened, became convicted, and trusted Christ right there as they drove down the road. After he had prayed he looked up at Lyons and said, “Would you pull over here and let me out, please?” Lyons pointed out to him that they weren’t yet to his destination, and asked why he wanted out here. The young man replied that he now realized he needed to go back and face some things… make some things right. Lyons let him out and watched him run across the median to the other side and start hitching for a ride back in the direction from which he’d come. As he told the story, Lyons said, “I’ve never seen a better illustration of repentance than that.”
Turn around… go back… start over…. Jonah arose and went!
God won’t give up on you.
It’s easy to look at what happened to Jonah here and think we see an example of God’s judgment. But in reality what we see is example after example of God’s grace.
- It was God’s grace that brought Jonah into the world.
- It was God’s grace that made him a preacher.
- It was God’s grace that gave him the opportunity to preach to the Ninevites.
- It was God’s grace that followed him onto the ship.
- It was God’s grace that sent the storm to stop him.
- It was God’s grace that caused the lot to select him.
- It was God’s grace that prompted the sailors to throw him into the sea.
- It was God’s grace that sent a fish to save him.
- It was God’s grace that carried him safely in the belly of that fish for 3 days.
- It was God’s grace that deposited him alive on the shore, and
- It was God’s grace that said once again, “Go and preach.”
Paul wrote to the Philippians, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6 NKJV).
We usually think about that verse with respect to our eternal security. But notice what Boice says about that verse. “God will certainly continue his work with us, regardless of what happens, and will preserve us for heaven. But this verse also means—we must not miss it—that God is so determined to perfect his good work in us that he will continue to do so with whatever it takes, regardless of the obedience or disobedience of the Christian. Will you go in his way? Then he will bless your life and encourage you. Will you run, as Jonah ran? Then he will trouble your life. If necessary, he will even break it into little pieces, if by so doing he enables you to walk in his way once again.”3
No, my brother or sister, even if you’re running, God won’t give up on you.
Are you running from salvation? Have you heard the gospel that Jesus died for you and calls you to believe and trust Him, but you’ve ignored it… avoided it… run from it? The fact that you’re still here and still hearing it, is evidence God hasn’t given up on you. Turn around, my friend. Trust Christ today.
Are you running from something else, Christian? What is it that you know God wants from you, but you’re ignoring… avoiding… running from? There is only one fix… one cure… stop running, turn around, do what He wants you to do.
- as quoted by James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 268.↩
- Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 683.↩
- James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 270.↩