The book of the prophet Jonah may be brief but it is packed with incident and drama. This first chapter sets the scene as the prophet receives a commission from his God that he can scarcely believe and will not obey. He sets out to flee; not for his own life, but as he perceives it, for the national life of his people. But Yahweh adds miracle upon miracle to teach His wayward servant that God will not be defied; that He is indeed the God of all flesh, and to demonstrate to Jonah before Nineveh is even in sight, that the Gentiles can respond to His word.

Jonah’s Commission: His Response (Jonah 1:1–3)

The opening words of the book of Jonah follow what is almost a formula for most of the prophetic books: “The word of Yahweh came unto Jonah…”. But this expression is no mere form of words. It expresses a formidable truth. When the word of Yahweh comes, it comes with power and purpose. There will be a result. We learn this as early as Genesis chapter one: “And God said, Let there be light”. The irresistible outcome followed: “and there was light”. The Psalmist continues the thought in Psalm 33:6–9: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made…For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast”.

We might rightly reflect that Jonah was about to learn this lesson the hard way. But how often do we demonstrate that we too have yet to fully comprehend the inevitability of all God’s purposes. “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please.”

So that word with all its power came to Jonah. It was a word of command, calling for commitment and immediate action. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it.” Jonah knew all about Nineveh, the bitter enemy of Israel. God calls it here “that great city”, an expression used of Nineveh four times in the book of Jonah (1:2; 3:2,3;4:11). If we needed to ask why God uses that expression (and Jonah did not, he understood immediately), the last reference in chapter four explains: “Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons…” A cruel and wicked people the Ninevites, yet there were a hundred and twenty thousand of them, lost to sin to be sure, but still God’s creatures. It was Paul, recalling with bitter anguish his life before Damascus, who declared: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners”. There were no end of sinners to be saved in “Nineveh, that great city”.

“Arise”, Jonah is bidden. It is a word that calls for a change from repose and inaction to action. It is the resurrection word! Jonah, get up, there is work to be done. And what a work, for a prophet of Israel to preach to the Gentiles. The reason is given: “for their wickedness is come up before me”. The allusions are clearly to the days of Noah (Gen 6:5,11,12), and Lot (Gen 18:20,21). In each case opportunity for salvation was offered and repentance would stay the hand of judgment. Jonah was an outstanding Bible student and all of the implications were crystal clear to him. If he went to Nineveh, there was a possibility they would respond with repentance, the hand of judgment for their wickedness would be stayed, Nineveh would not be destroyed, and would therefore survive to continue as a terrible threat to Israel.

Utterly swayed and utterly deceived by this reasoning, Jonah makes a deliberate decision to refuse his commission and flee from his responsibility. So he presumes to set his own judgment above that of Almighty God who knows the end from the beginning. What dreadful folly. But consider this. Jonah received a commission, considered its implications, placed what he saw as the survival of his nation ahead of his own responsibility, and conscious no doubt of the adverse Divine judgment that would ultimately come his way, made a deliberate choice: Israel before Nineveh, even if it cost him eternity. We have received our Lord’s commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”. It is no less weighty than Jonah’s commission. He defied his God with deliberate intent because of a passionate love of Israel. Our defiance more often is less from passion than from procrastination. Not a matter of intent or deliberate choice, but a failure of will. Not a fleeing away, so much as a hiding away. Laodicea reborn in the last days. We can do better than this.

Tarshish

There is a terrible symmetry in these early verses of Jonah chapter one. “Arise, go..”, was Yahweh’s command in verse two. “Arise, flee…”, is Jonah’s response in verse three. He set out to flee to Tarshish. This was no random flight. He had thought about it and decided where he was going. Note the emphatic threefold repetition in this context:

“…to flee unto Tarshish found a ship going to Tarshish… to go with them unto Tarshish” And this is recalled by Jonah in Chapter 4:2, “I fled before unto Tarshish”.

Doubtless Jonah is seeking to flee to the furthermost realms of the world, to the very bounds of the trade routes. He recalled that for Solomon’s trading vessels, directed by the sturdy seafarers of Hiram of Tyre, it was a three year round trip (2Chron 9:21). Perhaps, too, having made that dreadful decision to flee from his God and his land, he remembers that Tarshish was a place of some wealth, and after all, having left all behind, having ‘left the truth’, he must get on.

The record emphasises not only his destination, but with another example of threefold repetition we are reminded just what it is that he is abandoning. He fled “from the presence of Yahweh”. The phrase appears twice in verse three and again in verse ten. Well, there’s a choice to ponder. The “gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks” of Tarshish, or “the presence of Yahweh”. Jesus expressed the dichotomy as “treasures upon earth” or “treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:19–21). Those choices are before us every day. And every day, in the unseen recesses of our heart or in overt actions for all to see, we make our choices, which will bear their fruit in time.

The Presence of Yahweh

The expression “the presence of Yahweh” warrants a separate consideration in its own right. The Psalm ist, expressing the mind of the son of God, puts it this way: “Thou wilt show me the path of life”; and then, with overflowing joy at the prospect of being with his Father, “in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psa 16:11). Israel was Yahweh’s land, the place of His presence, of His worship and of His people. But locality does not determine whether we are in the presence of God. Paul directs us to His presence, explaining the principle this way: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God…For ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col.3:1–3). The human heart, left to itself, will not sit comfortably in the presence of God. We must earnestly desire to be there, prayerfully seeking to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, seeking that we might, to use Isaiah’s words, have a “mind…stayed on thee” (Isa 26:3). We will not achieve this by wishing it were so, nothing short of unremitting daily toil and commitment will do.

Jonah, Peter and Joppa

Having made the wrong choice, there is nowhere for Jonah to go but down. To make sure we get that point, the record tells us that he “went down to Joppa”. Then to make sure that we have really got the point, we are told that having found a vessel going to Tarshish, he “went down into it”. Decline once begun, develops its own irresistible momentum, and then how difficult to reverse. Mention of Joppa should set us thinking. It was the logical destination for Jonah’s purpose, being the nearest major sea-port. But the connections between Jonah at Joppa and Peter at Joppa are too obvious to miss. Peter’s name connects him to Jonah for he is “Simon Bar-jona” (Matt 16:17). Both men find themselves at this place, faced with life-changing decisions, and pondering what for them were momentous questions. Does God take cognizance of Gentiles? Is His gospel and His salvation for them too? God Himself gives the answer resoundingly in the affirmative and charges Jonah and Peter both with the task of taking that gospel to the Gentiles.

Peter responds wonderfully to the circumstances of the moment, persuaded by the vision thrice repeated, of the vessel, bearing all manner of creatures, knit at the four corners. He declares his new found conviction happily to Cornelius and his household in Acts 10:34–36. “To him [Jesus],” concludes Peter, “give all the prophets witness [Jonah is emphatically included], that through his name whosoever [Jew and Gentile] believeth in him [quoting John 3:16] shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).

Jonah goes down into a vessel, bearing all manner of creatures, knit or brought together from the four corners of the globe, and through terrifying circumstances is brought at last, though not happily, to the same conclusion as Peter, preaching the gospel to the Gentiles with stunning effect.

Not only did Jonah go down into that vessel, but the record points out tellingly that “he paid the fare thereof”. Now we read of many a journey in scripture, and a number of them by boat. We might even assume in some cases that a fare was paid. But in only this case are we actually, pointedly told that this was so. And surely that little phrase is in the record, to have us understand that when we put ourselves at cross purposes with our God, then there is a cost and we will pay it, in full. God says: Go east. Jonah says: I’m going west. Well, pay the price then!

A Mighty Tempest – Jonah 1:4

“But Yahweh sent out a great wind into the sea” and all the schemes and plans of Jonah were ended in a moment. Man proposes; God disposes. “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Prov 16:33). So Saul of Tarsus, with his characteristic boundless indomitable energy, fired by zeal and rage, is driven blinded into the dust on that fateful Damascus road to be changed, his life turned upside down to learn that God is in control and always was. How hardly we learn that lesson. We want to go our own way. We want to control our own destiny. And when God blocks our misguided path, we seek another way through. But the redeemed will be those who relinquished all control to their Lord. “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth” (Rev 14:4).

This is the first of the eight miracles of the book of Jonah. God is active through His angels in the work of salvation, then and now. The great wind was “sent out”. A violent expression, the sense is “hurled” or “thrown”. In fact it is translated “cast forth” in Jonah 1:5,12 and 15. So sudden and severe was the wind, it threatened to destroy the vessel. The sailors had never experienced a storm like this and were seized with fear. So much so that these men of diverse backgrounds and nationalities each cried to their gods. They were to learn how futile that was. The next response was to begin to “cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them”. When life is at risk, get rid of all the baggage and all the stuff. It seems so valuable, so important and central to our life—but it will destroy us. “Let us lay aside every weight” is the apostolic injunction. But “this is an hard saying; who can hear it?”

And in the midst of this turmoil, the howling wind, the crashing waves, the terrified cries of the sailors, the frantic activity of desperate men, Jonah is down in the depths of the ship, oblivious to it all, fast asleep! Not for long. The captain appears, angry that his passenger is not helping. What are you doing asleep? But his next two words ought to have chilled Jonah to the bone: “Arise, call…” This was Jonah’s Divine commission in the exact words of verse one! “Arise go to Nineveh that great city and cry against it.” And in those first moments of clarity as he awoke from sleep, to the realisation of the plight of that vessel, and then to hear those words, can we doubt that Jonah knew, he just knew that these circumstances were of God and that he had been caught out, heading away from the direction of duty, fast asleep!

The captain doesn’t need the help of this landlubber with the ship; this superstitious sailor wants Jonah to add his voice to that of his crew in crying to his god. Who knows? One of their gods might help. His next phrase expressed the very issue that Jonah was involved in: “if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not”. Is their anyone, who at least once in their life, in some dark night of fear and doubt, has not anguished over this thought. Does God really care, can He seriously be interested in me? The wonderful reality is that He does: “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. The challenge for Jonah was that, while he was happy for God to be a God of mercy for Israel, he absolutely did not want that mercy for the Ninevites; so what will be his attitude to his Gentile shipmates? Interesting, too, that the words of the captain here are the very words of the king of Nineveh in chapter 3:9. The common plight of all flesh is mortality, and God only has the remedy.

The record of another storm seems to contain many verbal allusions to this record (see chart below).

Jesus was going with the disciples to a predominantly Gentile region. On alighting from the vessel he is met by Legion who, to follow the record of Mark 5:2–5:

6-8

  • had his dwelling among the tombs (v3)
  • a man with an unclean spirit (v2)
  • no man could bind him, no, not with chains (v3)
  • neither could any man tame him (v4)
  • always… crying, and cutting himself with stones (v5).

To paraphrase, he was insane, uncontrollable, constantly associated with death, powerful and self-destructive, aware of and lamenting his condition but unable to change it. He is a living parable of sinful, death-stricken mankind: in particular of the condition of the Gentiles, and perhaps more particularly in view of the striking allusions to the Jonah context, of the Ninevites, cruel, unstoppable, destructive and doomed. Jonah and all in his vessel were saved from the storm, and he ought to have acknowledged that if God could save him, undeserving as he was, then He could show mercy to the Ninevites too. Jesus saved the disciples from the tempest, and then Legion from the tempest of his terrible life. Was there really such a difference?