If you think the story of Jonah is just about being swallowed by a big fish, then you’re missing some incredible truths! Here are five timeless truths from the life of Jonah:
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah 1:1-2
Okay, so the historical setting is the late 8th century BC. Jonah was a Hebrew living in Israel, and the Assyrian Empire was the big bully on the block, occupying modern-day Iraq and dominating the surrounding areas. Their capital city was Nineveh. Now, God didn’t want Jonah to preach against the sin of Nineveh from the comfort of his living room, his local church or his Facebook account. He wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against them in the middle of Nineveh. That would be like someone asking you to go to the middle of Taliban or ISIS controlled territory and start waving the American flag. I mean, you love your country and everything, but you’d also like to live. So, I don’t blame Jonah for doing what he did, because honestly, I probably would have done it myself. Jonah ran.
3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. 4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. Jonah 1:4-5
9 Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. Jonah 1:3-15
So, that didn’t work out so well. I don’t know if Jonah really thought he could run from God, but when you’re desperate, you’ll do just about anything. That leads us to our first timeless truth we can learn from the life of Jonah:
1. You can’t outrun God. This is a timeless truth that Jonah’s life illustrates for us in excruciating detail. Ancients thought that gods were territorial. If you were in Israel you were under the jurisdiction of the God of Israel. But God wasn’t just the God of Israel. He is the God of the heavens and the earth. He has no jurisdiction. Jonah could have sailed all the way to America, and God would have found him. You can’t outrun God.
It’s not that different today. How many people spend years and years running from God? Maybe you think because you can’t see God He can’t see you, so as long as you keep your secret life secret He’ll never find out. Maybe you think that if you run long enough and hard enough and far enough, God will eventually grow tired or lose interest and give up. If Jonah could come down from the stands of faith and speak truth to you, he would say, “you can’t outrun God. I tried, it didn’t work out too well for me.”
You can’t outrun God. If that’s you, right now, if you’re here in body but you’re not here in spirit, if you’re running, let me tell you how that’s going to end for you: badly. Jonah is thrown into the sea, but he doesn’t drown.
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry. Jonah 1:17-2:2
Jonah had a come to Jesus conversation in the belly of a whale. It’s hard to keep your dignity and pride when you’re being partially digesting by a whale. So, he decides it’s as good of a time as any to get his life right. Here’s the finish of his prayer:
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. Jonah 2:8-10
Some of you have been there. No dignity, no pride, life has beaten you up and literally vomited you back onto dry land. You never, ever, ever thought you would be where you are today. You never thought your career would turn out this way, that your marriage would turn out this way, that your kids would turn out this way. You never thought you would grow old, that you would lose your health, that you would lose your retirement. Whatever it might be, some of you have been and maybe you are right now in the belly of the whale. When you’re there, when you’ve been humbled by life or by God, you can give up, you can get angry, or you can get right. And that’s the second timeless truth from the life of Jonah:
2. If you’re in the belly of the whale, make the most of it. It’s no fun being in the belly of the whale. No one asks for it, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. But sometimes you find yourself where you never thought you’d be. So, when you’re there, make the most of it. James, the half brother of Jesus, talked about this in the New Testament:
6 That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”
10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:6, 10
This is called repentance. You can either humble yourself, or you will be humbled in the belly of the whale. Either way, we will all be humbled. That’s not a fun fact we like to celebrate, but it is a fact. So, when life has you beat down, you can give up, you can get angry, or you can get right. It’s never fun being in the belly of the whale, but when you’re there, might as well make the most of it. Jonah was vomited back on dry land, which leads to one of the most hopeful verses in the entire Old Testament, Jonah 3:1.
1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Jonah 3:1-3
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Doesn’t that fill you with hope? That leads to our third timeless truth:
3. God is the God of second chances. I grew up with this notion that the will of God was so narrow and rigidly defined that if I made one bad mistake, I would somehow miss out on the will of God and be on the sidelines the rest of my life. Some of you Christians think that. When you hear about God using people, some of you immediately think to yourselves: “Sure, God could have used me before I went through my 20s. God could have used me before my affair. God could have used me before I made a complete wreck of my life.”
If that’s you, look at the story of Jonah and find hope, because the word of the Lord came to Jonah again, after he had flagrantly disobeyed God and ran to the ends of the earth. If Jonah could get a second chance, so can you. With that, here’s a fourth timeless truth from this same passage in Jonah 3:
4. Stop waiting for God to tell you something different. Just as it’s important to note that God gave Jonah a second chance, it’s also important to note that when God did give Jonah a second chance, He didn’t give Jonah a different directive. God gave Jonah a second chance to follow through and obey what God had originally told Jonah.
And that’s important for us to remember today. Many times we’re on the sidelines, not because God put us there but because we put ourselves there by refusing to do what He’s asked us to do. Some of us have this mistaken notion that if we don’t like something God has asked us to do, if we just wait long enough God will change His mind and ask us to do something more agreeable to us. God doesn’t work that way.
It’s God’s world, we’re just living in it. If you would say, “God hasn’t spoken to me in years. I haven’t heard His voice for decades,” I would tell you: go back to the last thing God told you to do and do it. God is always waiting for us at the point of our obedience to what He’s already told us to do. If God’s clearly told you something to do but you don’t like it and you’re waiting until God tells you something different, just a heads up, you might be waiting around awhile.
That’s the fourth truth. There’s one more, but we need to set this up with a bit of narrative that comes from the last chapter in the book of Jonah:
3 Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Jonah 3:3-6
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:10
The large powerful pagan nation suddenly repents and turns to God. That doesn’t sound realistic, but it’s actually not that farfetched. This was a particularly rough stretch for the Assyrian Empire. There was widespread famine during this time, there were numerous revolts from the countries they had conquered, and there was an auspicious solar eclipse that happened in this time, which for a superstitious people would have freaked them out and would have been a sign that the gods weren’t happy with them.
And there’s an outside chance that when Jonah was spit back up on dry ground, somebody saw him. Perhaps his story preceded him before he even walked into the city. Either way, the completely unexpected happened and the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God, which was great! Wasn’t it? Well, not to Jonah.
1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Jonah 4:1-5
Jonah didn’t want to see the city of Nineveh repent. He wanted to see it burn. That’s our last timeless truth:
5. Do you truly want the world to repent or would you rather see it burn? Those people on the opposite end of the political spectrum, those people that practice a different religion, those people who support values that you abhor, do you truly want to see them repent and turn to Jesus or would you rather see them judged? Do we want to see the world repent or would we rather see it burn? That’s a heart check moment for each of us. Because God calls Jonah on the carpet for his heart:
6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” Jonah 4:6-11
When we show concern about things but not about people, our hearts are not in a good place. God didn’t say the plant wasn’t important, He said that it wasn’t right to show concern for the plant but no concern whatsoever for the people. Think about how hard Jonah’s heart had to have become to walk through the streets of Nineveh for forty days and preach. That’s what he did. He looked in the eyes of thousands of people. He saw women and men, young and old. And he wanted them all to burn. And he was angry enough to die when they turned to God. As Christians, I pray that we never give off the impression of Jonah, that we actually want the world to burn, that we care more about things or buildings or traditions than we do about people.