I believe one of the most used stories and books used for Vacation Bible School is the book of Jonah. Probably because the idea of someone being swallowed by a great fish and living in the belly of that fish for three days captures the imagination of young people at every age. Jonah, of course, was a real person not just some Old Testament parable. He was a historical figure. Jonah 1:1 says that he was the son of Amittai and this same Jonah, son of Amittai, is mentioned in II Kings 14:23-27. II Kings tells us that he was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Jeroboam II who lived in the Eighth Century before Christ.
But it is the book of Jonah that describes an important event in his life which revealed both a great gift and several weaknesses in this prophet's life (the good and bad). Let's open our Bibles and study both facets of this man's life to see if we can learn something about ourselves through him.
Jonah's Gift — Chapter 1
1The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, 2"Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me." 3But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
4The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up. 5Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep. 6So the captain approached him and said, "How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish."
7Each man said to his mate, "Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us." So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8Then they said to him, "Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?" 9He said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land."
10Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, "How could you do this?" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
- Jonah 1:1-10
Note that the story explains itself, but within the story we discover a man who had a great gift, the gift of prophecy. Now the gift of prophecy expressed itself in several ways and the book of Jonah demonstrates that Jonah possessed the gift in all of its form.
For example, there is prophecy in the form of:
1. Powerful Preaching
Vs. 2 – We are told that God sends him to use his gift, his ability, at a certain place and for a specific purpose. The gift is assumed, he knows he has it, he merely receives instruction on where to use it.
Vs. 10 – Jonah refuses to do God's will, but despite this, we get a glimpse of his ability as he shares his faith with the men on board the ship. There were pagans ready to worship anything, do anything to get out of trouble, but the Word says that they actually believed Jonah simply through hearing him speak to them. Not only did they believe him, they were ready to follow his instructions.
His ability was evident, even when it wasn't used in context. Even when Jonah disobeyed God, he couldn't hide the fact that he was a powerful preacher.
2. Precise Prediction
Another facet of the gift of prophecy in these times was the ability to accurately predict the future. Today anybody with a Website can set themselves up as a psychic; people applaud if a modern day prophet is right two out of three times; but in the Old Testament times, the true gift of prophecy was confirmed if all predictions were 100% complete. Any margin of error resulted in death.
11So they said to him, "What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?"—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. 12He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you." 13However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. 14Then they called on the Lord and said, "We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man's life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased."
15So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
We see that despite the terrible circumstances and consequences to Jonah, his prediction about the solution to the problem was accurate. The writer describes the attitude and actions of the survivors on the ship. In their worship and charge, the confirmation of this gift is recognized:
- They see the sign
- They worship the God that had been preached to them
- They offer true repentance as a sign of their sincere faith.
Even in disobedience, the word of the Lord does not return void.
3. Poetic Prayer — Chapter 2
17Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
2:1Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish, 2 and he said,
"I called out of my distress to the Lord,
And He answered me.
I cried for help from the depth of Sheol;
You heard my voice.
3"For You had cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the current engulfed me.
All Your breakers and billows passed over me.
4"So I said, 'I have been expelled from Your sight.
Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.'
5"Water encompassed me to the point of death.
The great deep engulfed me,
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
6"I descended to the roots of the mountains.
The earth with its bars was around me forever,
But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.
7"While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord,
And my prayer came to You,
Into Your holy temple.
8"Those who regard vain idols
Forsake their faithfulness,
9But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving.
That which I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation is from the Lord."
10Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.
Jonah expresses his plight and its solution. He is in an impossible situation buried alive (in the depths of Sheol). His only recourse is to cry out to God because in his present physical condition, God is truly the only one who could hear him. He looks at his surroundings and compares it to the times he worshipped the Lord in Jerusalem at the temple and how sweet that was. He has no offering of animals or money to make now, but he realizes that he can offer other things that are more precious (even though he's in the belly of a fish):
- He can offer praise.
- He can offer thanksgiving.
- He can offer his faith that God can save him.
- He can offer repentance and a promise of obedience.
From inside the belly of the fish, he realizes not only that God will hear him, but also that what God wants from man is always inside of man and doesn't require a fancy building or ceremony to give. Once he realizes this, once he responds to this, he is released from the fish a changed man, ready to use his gift.
Now the amazing thing here is not only that Jonah learned these things, but that he expressed them so eloquently in these few verses. One aspect of prophecy is the ability to express in beautiful language the mind and will of God. One will not find more beautiful poetry and powerful images in the Bible than are contained in Jonah's prayer.
And so, in the first two chapters, we are introduced to a man who possesses the gift of prophecy in all of its many expressions:
- Powerful preaching
- Praise prediction
- Poetic prayer
Jonah and Nineveh — Chapter 3
In chapter three we see how this gift was used in context and how effective Jonah was in his role as prophet.
1Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2"Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you." 3So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. 4Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown."
5Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. 7He issued a proclamation and it said, "In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish."
10When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
Again, the chapter is self-explanatory. Jonah goes to Nineveh and warns them to repent or else they will be destroyed. The writer describes the complete change of heart from the king on down. As a result of Jonah's preaching and their response to it, God spares the city.
The story would have ended here and we would have a marvelous story with a good lesson about repentance and God's love, all neat and clean. But there's another chapter that goes on to describe Jonah's faults.
Jonah's Faults — Chapter 4
1But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, "Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. 3Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life." 4The Lord said, "Do you have good reason to be angry?"
5Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. 6So the Lord God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. 7But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. 8When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, "Death is better to me than life."
9Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even to death." 10Then the Lord said, "You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?"
- Jonah 4:1-11
At first, Jonah runs away from God and we could conclude that he was just afraid and after the fish experience he gained courage, but this would be inaccurate. Jonah was not afraid, we know this for several reasons:
- He didn't deny his faith in front of pagans who were hostile to him.
- He offered himself to be thrown overboard.
- He didn't panic when swallowed by the fish.
- He went to Nineveh and preached against it after all, a traditional enemy of the Jews.
No, his faults are made evident after he has finished preaching.
1. He was prejudice — vs. 1-2
Some think that anger or impulsiveness were the problems, but the anger was the result of the true problem, prejudice. He was upset because God spared Jonah's non-Jewish enemies. These Assyrians, these pagans, were a thorn in the side of the Jewish nation. Here was a chance to wipe them out and God saves them.
He explains that he ran away because he knew God would forgive them if they repented and he did not want to be the one who offered them the chance. As far as he was concerned, they could and should die in their sins. He was prejudice and even God's acceptance of these people wouldn't force Jonah to accept them.
2. He was Presumptuous — v. 3-4
He assumed that he knew better than God. Now that they were spared, there would be no chance of defeating them. They might have to actually deal with them as brothers. Of course, history shows that they eventually lost the war with the North and Nineveh was destroyed as their repentance and safety died away. Jonah wanted to dictate to God what God should do with his life and the life of this nation.
3. He was Pig-Headed — vs. 5-11
He refused to acknowledge that God was the God of all. He didn't see that the same God who offered him refuge in the planet, also offered salvation to the entire city. He refused to believe his own preaching that God spared those who repented and called on him for forgiveness. He accepted that for himself, but wouldn't extend it to his enemies. In the end, his faults cancelled out his gifts rendering him unable to share in the rewards of his preaching. I think that's why the story ends abruptly with no closure because this reflects where Jonah was in his spirit - no closure!