God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the nation Assyria. Nineveh was in a period of brief decline, yet was a great city and the Assyrian army was still quite powerful. Nineveh would rise in power again but at the time God called Jonah it was experiencing a bit of decline.
The Assyrians were known for their brutality on the battlefield. Many cities surrendered to them rather than face what they did to survivors who resisted. Israel was in a period of great power yet even in its slight decline Assyria posed a great threat. Any war with Assyria would be costly and any Israelite would rather avoid paying that cost. So it was to his nation’s enemy that God sent Jonah.
It’s not hard to see why Jonah went the other way! He hopped on a ship to Tarshish—to the west, not northeast to Nineveh! God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn them. God wanted the city to repent and turn from their wickedness so that he could spare them, but that is the last thing Jonah wanted. He hated all Assyrians. He hated the city of Nineveh. They were the enemy! This is why he bought a ticket on a ship headed the other direction.
As we’ve seen, God raised a huge storm to put Jonah back on track. The experienced sailors tossed cargo overboard in an attempt to save the ship. Then they cried out to the various gods they worshiped. Finally, they pleaded with Jonah to cry out to his god, too. Jonah, being a gifted—though disobedient—prophet, told them of his God who created all things and therefore is in control of all things. He then told them to throw him overboard, in order to spare their lives. He knew his disobedience was the problem and by removing him from the ship he thought God would have no reason to harm the sailors. The sailors, however, knew that this meant certain death, which appears to have been Jonah’s motivation as well. After attempting to row to land they finally relented and tossed him over. The sea was immediately calm and the sailors worshiped the God of Israel and offered sacrifices to him and made vows to him, presumably to worship him alone.
The story picks up with Jonah in the water.
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.Jonah 1:17–2:10 ESV
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Jonah was from the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom had rejected the true temple in Jerusalem as the kings in the north did not want Israelites traveling to Judah to worship for fear they would side with Judah in a war. They built replacement temples in the cities of Dan and Bethel, temples God did not authorize and did not recognize as legitimate.
It is very interesting that when Jonah finds himself in the belly of a fish that he cries out to God in faith and repentance that he “shall look again upon your holy temple.” He says that his prayer came to the Lord into his holy temple. It is clear that Jonah is not speaking of the false temple in Dan! He says that it was only when his “life was fainting away,” that is, when he was dying, he “remembered the LORD,” and his prayer was heard.
See the mercy of God! He was planning to show mercy to the city of Nineveh, but they had no knowledge of the Lord. Jonah’s rebellion was deliberate. He chose to reject the temple in Jerusalem. He chose to go the opposite way. He chose to sleep during the storm instead of proclaiming God’s greatness to the sailors, only telling them when he was forced to. He chose to be thrown overboard so that he would die and therefore not have to go to Nineveh after all. Yet God showed him mercy. The Lord spoke to the fish and the fish spit him out onto dry ground.
Sometimes God allows difficulties into our lives as discipline intended to get us on the right track. Not every difficulty is a result of our sin, of course, but in every difficulty God is molding us and shaping us, that we might better understand him and recognize him and worship him. God is ever working to make us into the men and women he created us to be. He is making us to be like Jesus, even if he has to send a storm to put us back on track.
Let’s spend time praying for one another today, praying that we would pursue holiness and obedience. Pray that we would receive God’s power over temptation and a desire to honor him with our minds and our actions and our words. Let us be quick to praise him today.