It was a pretty interesting night when I studied the book of Jonah. My initial study of the book happened at a men’s retreat last month. It was about 3 am and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep very well, so instead I just sort of picked a book in the old testament and started reading. As I returned to those notes this past weekend to write these blogs about Jonah, I found several different pastors in my church making mention of Jonah. That’s been happening to me a lot lately, as I find whatever thing in the Bible I’m reading and studying to match up with the things my pastors and teachers end up preaching/teaching about at church. It’s just another one of those incredible ways in which God seems to always be at work in our lives.
The Book of Jonah
This well known story in the Bible was written somewhere around 750 – 700 bc. Most people seem to agree that the book was written by Jonah himself.
Before I even jump into this further, I want to address something. We all know the part of this story when Jonah gets swallowed up by a giant fish/sea creature of some sort and is inside of it for three days. A lot of unbelievers like to point at this and challenge it and try to use it to discredit the Bible. I’m glad I’m not someone who gets too hung up on stuff like this, because as you’re going to see over the coming week +, I got a ton of great stuff out of the book of Jonah. As for how Jonah survived in the fish, well, when God is involved, anything is possible. Maybe Jonah naturally survived inside the fish, maybe it was a miracle of God that kept him alive, and there’s even an interesting theory that Jonah died in there but God resurrected him three days later. I’d encourage you not to get too hung up on that stuff though. One thing we do know is that later in the Bible, Jesus points to Jonah’s time in the belly of the great fish, presenting it as a real event that really happened. And if it’s a fact to Jesus, then it’s dang sure a fact to me. For me, that ends the argument and the discussion. For an unbeliever who doesn’t give Jesus’ word the same weight I do, I can understand if your skepticism persists. I’d just encourage you to push past it the best you can, because I think there’s some great wisdom and lessons in this book and it would be a shame to miss out on them.
I’m not going to break this book down by verses, because what really struck me is more of a theme than a particular verse. I’m assuming everyone knows the story of Jonah, but if not I’m going to do a quick breakdown. God tells Jonah to go to the City of Nineveh, which was an evil place filled with some very bad people, and tell them that God’s noticed their evil and that in forty days they will be overthrown/destroyed. Instead of doing this, Jonah hops on a ship heading the opposite direction. A terrible storm hits the ship, and the sailors figure out it’s happening because God is angry with Jonah. They toss Jonah overboard, he gets swallowed by a giant sea creature, and lives for three days in the stomach of this creature. Eventually he repents, so God has the great fish puke him up on the land. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh again, and this time he does it. When the people of the city hear his message of God’s impending wrath, they repent of their violent ways and ask for forgiveness from God. God is moved by this and calls off the disaster he had planned for their city. He later references the 120,000 people in the city who “don’t know their right hand from their left”, which several study books say means there were 120,000 children in the city. Jonah is incredibly angry over this outcome, saying the whole reason he wanted to avoid coming to Nineveh is because he knew God is merciful and that he might spare the city. Jonah wishes for death, sits outside in the heat cursing life and that’s pretty much how his story ends.
Now here’s the thing. When I read this, I wasn’t aware of any of the history or events going on in the books of the Bible that lead up to the book of Jonah. I just jumped to the Book of Jonah for reasons I don’t even remember now (it was 3 in the morning, after all). And honestly, one of the things I took out of the book was just how ridiculous Jonah was. What a whiner! What a baby! He’s so moody, so defiant, and so bitter, and I really just assumed that’s the kind of guy he was. It was my big brother who encouraged me to dig a little deeper into the history of this book of the Bible, and I’m glad he did because it really breaks this story wide open.
Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, a great enemy to Jonah and his people. Not only was Nineveh actively attacking and invading Israel, but their tactics were brutal and bloody. You’d think that Jonah would be overjoyed to get the call from God to go and proclaim impending doom for Nineveh, but as he reveals later in the book, Jonah had a sense of what was going to happen once he got to Nineveh. He knew the nature of his God, and he knew that if the people of Nineveh repented then God would likely spare them. This outcome upsets him so much, he’s so set against the evil people of the Assyrian Empire, that he’d rather run from God’s call than take the chance that Nineveh repents and are spared God’s wrath.
As an American civilian born in the 1980’s, I find myself struggling to find a point of reference for the situation Jonah found himself in. Where previous generations had nazi Germany and communist Russia, the enemies of my generation aren’t as clearly defined. I think the best I can do is return to the troubled times of 9/11/2001, as the al-Qaeda terrorist organization became a hated enemy of America after the terror attacks they carried out against us. For the sake of my example, let’s say that al-Qaeda had a well known base they operated out of at the time that houses not just them, but also their families. So, the 9/11 attacks happen, America is united in righteous anger against them. Imagine this time, and imagine that God talks to you and tells you to go to the al-Qaeda base and tell them He knows of their evil ways, and He’s going to bring them down in forty days. But you know God, and you know that if these al-Qaeda people hear of God’s impending wrath, they might repent, and God might spare them and their families.
So yeah, I know that’s a little bit elaborate, but it’s really the only way I could put myself in Jonah’s shoes. Maybe it seems silly to you, but for me I think it’s important to make a little extra effort to really try to relate the story to our own time so we can have a fuller understanding of the situation unfolding in this book. Connecting Jonah’s situation to one I could possibly find myself in gives me insight into Jonah himself. Understanding why he reacted the way he did, the pain it caused him to go to that evil city, full of people who had been committing atrocities and brutalities against his people, just knowing the history of the situation, it gives me such a deeper and fuller understanding of who Jonah was. And understanding him better helps me understand this book of the Bible better.
CLOSING AND PRAYER
I want to apologize in advance for any of these book of Jonah entries that feel like they cut off abruptly. I’ve written a lot about the book, and in the interest of not just dropping a 5,000 word dissertation on you, I broke down this study into several parts. Unfortunately there wasn’t always a perfect stopping point, so forgive the few of these entries that might not end perfectly. I hope you’ll stick with me through all of the Jonah entries, as I really feel like God revealed so many different things to me as I studied this book of the Bible.
For prayers today, let’s pray for divine encounters. Pray that God will put your life on an intersecting path with someone else, that He’ll bring in front of you someone that you’re meant to interact with. Maybe they need to hear about Jesus, maybe they need guidance in their walk with the Lord, or maybe they just need an encouraging word from a stranger. Whatever the case, let’s pray that God set something up so we can be a help to someone in need.
I hope everyone’s week is off to a fantastic start! I love you guys so much. I say it every blog post, but not out of habit, but because I mean it. Even if you’re a stranger that I’ve never met, I want you to know that I love you. And there’s a great big God who loves you too, who desires to have a relationship with you.