For this study, we'll only be camping out in the first 3 verses of this book. Why? Understanding these verses is important in shaping our understanding of the rest of the book, for it sets the tone and helps prevent us from being distracted by red herrings. After all, for many of us that have grown up in the church, we remember the book of Jonah as the one with the big fish. To help us understand the book, this study will serve as an overview and introduction by focussing on the history of Israel at this point in time, who Jonah is, and of course, who this God is.
(A) Introducing Israel (Jonah 1:1a)
At the time of writing the book of Jonah, Israel was under King Jeroboam (782-753 B.C.). God's one people had split into 2, Israel and Judah, each with their own separate king (2 Kings 14:23-28). Jeroboam was the king of Israel and we are told that he "did what was evil in the sight of the LORD" (2 Kings 14:24). 2 Kings 14:23-28 helps us understand the spiritual and political landscape of Israel during the time of Jonah, and also shows us a bit about the ministry of this prophet. The people of God were afflicted and were suffering (2 Kings 14:26). Jeroboam, the king God raised "restored the border of Israel" (2 Kings 14:25). This was a fairly strong government compared to previous kings and the people of God were able to reclaim part of their borders and land. Jonah appeared to have a fairly extensive beyond what we read in the book of Jonah. This is an Israel that is relatively strong but still under threat. They were still suffering affliction under the nation of Assyria.
The nation of Assyria was known for their strength, brutality and oppression (2 Kings 19:17-18). Historical records, such as the annals of the Assyrians record for us some of the exploits of this nation famous for their violence and war:
“Their blood, like a broken dam, I caused to flow down the mountain gullies…I hung the heads of Sanduarri [king of the cities of Kundi and Sizu] and Abdi-milkutti [king of Sidon] on the shoulders of their nobles and with singing and music I paraded through the public square of Nineveh…Their dismembered bodies I fed to the dogs, swine, wolves, and eagles, to the birds of heaven and the fish in the deep…. What was left of the feast of the dogs and swine, of their members which blocked the streets and filled the squares, I ordered them to remove from Babylon, Kutha and Sippar, and to cast them upon heaps…”
The Assyrians were not people that were occasionally mean or periodically violent. Rather, they celebrated their power and relished the ability to afflict another nation. Israel suffered under the hands of the Assyrians, whose capital was Nineveh. In Nahum 3:1-5, God distills their culture down in this oracle and pronouncement of judgment.
It is also important for us to know what the Bible says about the background story of the nation of Israel up to this point in their national history. The image below shows the key events in Israel's history up to Jonah.
Creation (Gen 1, Acts 17:26) set the stage for all things, and marked the beginning of all peoples.
But the perfection of creation was marred by the fall (Gen 3). This is the Bible's structural root for all failings and conflict. There is nothing that cannot be traced back to this. And in case there is any doubt about the extent and effects of sin, Gen 6:5 is a complete pronouncement of judgment on human nature. However, Gen 3:15 contains a promise of redemption.
The promise to Abraham (Gen 12:1-8) reveals another portion of this redemption. Here, to be "blessed" does not mean material provisions but it means the undoing of the curse in Gen 3. God promises that through Abraham will all the peoples of the earth be redeemed. In every generation, this promise of salvation through this family is renewed in the covenant.
Abraham's family develops, and eventually becomes a nation by the beginning of the book of Exodus. But, Israel is enslaved and God's plan of blessing seems to be thwarted. How can this nation be saved to do their business of holding out blessing to the world? God comes with a strong hand and mighty arm to break the hold of their captors, and this is recorded in the Exodus account. He also brings them to the promised land, and even gives them the law. It seems that God's promises are coming through, but then, the kingdom splits into 2.
What was formerly one nation is now ruled separately. Israel is in the north, while Judah is in the south. Israel and Judah were oppressed by nation after nation.
This forms the context of the book of Jonah, and the question we are meant to ask at this point is, "Where is the hope of salvation now?" What will happen to God's people? As the rest of Jonah unfolds, we will also see that this book is full of surprises and ironies. God promised to deliver His people, but yet Jonah was told to go to Israel's enemies and preach a message of repentance to them. What is going on? Even the circumstances of Israel also challenges us to consider the greater plans and working of God. How in sync with God's plans are the people of God? Let us not forget that our greatest problem is sin therefore God's greatest plan is to bring about salvation. Israel had a special role as His people to be the means of blessing the world. Yet, the people of God (as we see here) seem to only be concerned with their problems with their neighbour and their immediate welfare.
(B) Introducing the missionary (Jonah 1:1-2)
The narrative begins with the word "now" (Jonah 1:1). This is a time reference and sets up the key events in this story. This narrative begins with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah. This key action -- the arrival of the word of God -- is very common in Scripture, but we tend to gloss over this. The single action that launches everything else in this book is the word of God coming to Jonah. This word came through verbal, spoken words and did not appear through writings in the sky or in papyrus etc. Why is this important? What is so significant about a God who speaks? In Deut 18:20-22 we read of the criteria for a prophet. Moses laid it out clearly so that Israel understood and knew that God uses prophets and God puts words into their mouths. The accuracy of their speech also confirms their office. 2 Pet 1:20 reiterates this idea that the words of these prophets the words of God. Thus, Jonah was to act and acted not because he saw an opportunity or planned to do so. It was because the word of the Lord came to him. The prophet first receives prophecy, then gives prophecy. This is important for us to understand, and this is why we call it "God's word".
Jonah is first told to "arise", then "go" and then "call out" (Jonah 1:2). The directive to Jonah is clearly spelt out in this series of verbs, and it's amazing to see read of how Jonah rose, but rose to flee. Instead of going up, he went down to Tarshish.
We will take a look at Jonah's response soon, but first, let us consider the character of God? What is God doing when He sends a warning? This shows us His mercy. He sends an unwilling prophet to bring His word to a people that does not deserve it. How would you describe this kind of God? What is He like? What does He care about? What are His priorities? This God of verse 1 is the same God that has filled the pages of the Bible from Gen 1 to here. He has consistently been about bringing good news and bringing His people back to Him, but we really do struggle to really believe that this God is merciful. Most of us think that God is a great white man in the sky waiting to get us when we commit mistakes and we also struggle to believe that God forgives and has already forgiven us in Christ. Sometimes, we also question the gospel, even if we are Christians. Jonah shows us again that God sends a messenger because He wants His forgiveness and hope to be declared. He wants a world that does not believe this is possible and even uses a reluctant prophet to bring this word to that disbelieving, hopeless world. God commands the same thing to his disciples and this was His final command to his people before He left (Matt 28:19-20).
The Christian God, the God of the Bible is a missionary God. To be His disciple and to be a Christian is about being a missionary. From the proclamation of the prophets in the Old Testament in Eze 33:11 to the words of Peter in the New Testament in 2 Pet 3:9, God has consistently been calling for the repentance of His people. This God has a heart for repentance. What does this mean for us today? It means that this is what we ought to be about, and have our identities wrapped in. If you are a Christian today and this mission doesn't grip you on some level, you have forgotten what it means to be forgiven or you might not even know this God! Let us not forget that this is good news. Let us pray that God softens our heart and help us see great need and that we will not forget who we are.
(C) Introducing Jonah (Jonah 1:3)
We read of how Jonah rose and fled to Tarshish, in the completely different direction from where he was supposed to be headed (Jonah 1:3). The description of Jonah also helps us understand who he is. He is the "son of Amittai" and ironically "Amittai" means "faithfulness", but the son of faithful is unfaithful to his mission. Notice also how Jonah carefully planned his escape. It is not part of the Israelite's culture to go on a boat. They were a landlocked nation and the sea is often associated with chaos, danger and hell. The Leviathan in Job is the embodiment of what Israelites think of the sea, as a watery grave for the desert people. For this man to go to the sea and to cross it is a big, big deal. He also brought enough money for his journey to Tarshish which was the furthest point of the known world (i.e. Modern day Spain). Jonah helps us see how our rebellion and sin may not be expressed in just a moment, but we can also intentionally plot our escape from God.
We are meant to see that Jonah ran away because he did not want to do what God wanted him to do. Actions show disobedience, but there is something more. Jonah wanted to go "away from the presence of the LORD" (Jonah 1:3). He did not want to see the smoke of the temple, smell the incense, hear the reading of the Scripture and so he resolved to run as far away as he can! How can the man of God behave in this way? Is Jonah a false prophet? We know from 2 Kings that his prophecies came true. Jesus also eventually confirms his authenticity (Matt 12:41). But what are we to do with Jonah? What does it mean in his heart, this prophet of God, that he wanted to get away from God's presence? What did he think and feel about God? Jonah really did not like his mission and must have hated the Assyrians vehemently. This would not be surprising, considering the extreme violence and warfare of these people. At the same time, there must have been an element of shame and guilt for being a prophet that did not want to do God's work. He could have rebelled against God and stayed where he was in silent protest, but there was something about God's word that he really understood and he could not just stay and ignore.
What would make someone so angry? He must have had a deep sense of who God is and that this God has messed his life up and completely overturned all the categories. He might harbor a heart hurt by God, afraid of God and what He is demanding. But this too is what it means to have a relationship with God. If you're a Christian today and your beliefs are binary in simple black and white, yes-no groups, books like Jonah and the rest of Scripture even messes up your categories. It challenges us to wrestle with the greys in the book. Those who know the Lord find themselves always in tension with Him as well. This side of heaven, our hearts do not beat in sync with Him. We come in confession with the greatest power this world has, confessing that we do not want what God wants and that left to ourselves, we would not come to Him. But He has placed His Spirit within us, and we wrestle with Him as a result of our relationship with Him.
Jonah helps us see what it means for sinners to have a relationship with this God. This is not the first time that man has tried to run from God. Our first parents tried to hide from God in the Garden of Eden as He was walking in the cool of the day. Till today, we are hiding in all sorts of ways. We hide in our jobs, or pleasure, music and entertainment, instead of listening to the words of God. Some of us are running right now. We know that there are things that God wants us to do, places that God wants us to be or people He wants us to meet. We are always running from God. But like how the missionary God did not give up on Jonah, as we will see in the rest of the book, this God did not give up on us. He pursues us relentlessly and knows us so intimately as Ps 139:1-12 attests to. He did not just send an army or angels to find us, but God Himself in Jesus Christ came came down to find us when we were lost. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.
Is God speaking to you today? How will you respond? Will you step out in repentance and faith, in obedience to His word, or will you continue running from the presence of the Lord?