Dr. Richard L. Strauss
August 14, 1960
The one book of the Bible that has received the most scorn and the most ridicule at the hands of the critics is the book of Jonah. Certain denominational Sunday school literature in our day will boldly state that this very well may be a myth or legend, and that in fact it need not be a real historical fact. It is the spiritual instruction that we received from it that is of importance, not the historical fact. I agree that God saw fit to put this book in the canon of Scripture for our spiritual edification, and that this is the most important thing to emphasize. But to say that the book may not or need not be historically true is not to argue with me, it is to take issue with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Turn in your Bibles to Matthew 12:40. Jesus said, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
To say that Jonah never lived--never prophesied, never tried to run from God, never spent three days and nights in the belly of a great fish, never returned to Nineveh to preach--is to call Jesus Christ a liar. He fully believed the story of Jonah. He was the omniscient Son of God. To pretend that He believed it when He knew that it was a fairytale would have made Him a liar as well. To deny the reality of Jonah is to deny the reality of Christ's resurrection, for Christ said it is an exact parallel. So it boils down to the simple fact: If one wants to call the story of Jonah a myth, one had better repudiate all claim to Christianity to be consistent, for Christ could not have been the sinless Son of God and you and I are yet in our sins. That may sound rather bold to you, but if you're going to hold to the divine inspiration of Scripture, then that is the only logical conclusion to which you can come.
We are beginning a series of messages then, not about a fable, but about a real man, who lived, who had real experiences a great deal like yours and mine, and who wrote some of them down for our edification. It is a diary, if you please, the diary of disobedience. A personal record, the record of rebellion. And we are confident that Jonah was restored to fellowship with God and usefulness and his service, or else he would never have written the book that bears his name. But we are grateful to him for the courage to admit his mistakes, and the courage to record them for our learning and our warning. With that introduction, we turn to the text of Jonah.
Jonah's Disobedience (Jonah 1:1-3)
You will find that the first chapter of the book of Jonah falls into three normal divisions. If you have a version of the Bible that divide the Scriptures into paragraphs as well as chapters, you will see that they are natural divisions, according to the thought. (This is an excellent way to study your Bible--you ought to have such a version.) Verses 1-3, Jonah's disobedience. Verses 4-10, Jonah's discovery. Verses 11-16, Jonah's discipline. Verse 17 properly belongs to chapter 2 where we will put it in our study. Verses 1-3 then, Jonah's disobedience.
"Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying..." The word "now" is the same Hebrew word as the word "and, "so we have a book beginning with the word "and." Very unusual indeed. I think Jonah is merely identifying himself with the stream of Old Testament prophets of God. Just as the word of the Lord had come to many before him, so now also it came to him. "And the word of the Lord came to Jonah." God's word, in this case, was a command. It was Jonah's marching orders. It was God revealing His will to His servant. Many Christians today wish they could find out God's will in such a direct and definite way. It would solve a great many problems, they suppose. "Young person, arise, go to such and such a school and prepare yourself for the missionary work in Borneo for the wickedness of those people is come up before Me, and their need of the gospel is great." That would solve a great many problems, wouldn't it, or would it?
I don't really believe it would. For you see, we, like Jonah, we are human, and even if we know clearly and indisputably what the will of the Lord is, that is still no guarantee that we will obey it. Christians in our day do pretty much what they want to do, and if we didn't have the excuse, "Well I don't know what the Lord wants me to do," we would probably find another excuse. Jonah was a prophet of God. There is little doubt that he had enjoyed a degree of success in ministering for the Lord up to this point. He was an established prophet of God. Yet even though he knows the will of the Lord unmistakably he does just the opposite (v. 3). Instead of traveling 500 miles northeast to Nineveh, he goes down to the seashore and buys a ticket on a boat heading 2000 miles due west. He's made up his mind to flee from the presence of the Lord. Now this was ridiculous! He was a prophet of God. He knew the Scriptures. Certainly he had read the Psalms of David. Certainly he was familiar with the doctrine of the omnipresence of God as taught in Psalm 139:7–10. What reason could have possibly caused Jonah to engage in such sheer folly, in such illogical nonsense as this?
There have been a number of reasons given for Jonah's rebellion and disobedience, and I frankly don't know who's right. Maybe there is an element of truth in all of them. For one thing, Jonah was a Jew, and quite a patriotic one at that. He had little love for Gentiles, and it was probably difficult for him to understand how God could love them. The conversion of Gentiles would not bring a great deal of joy to his intensely nationalistic heart. Furthermore, the conversion of this hated Gentile city, the capital of one of the most ruthless nations that ever sent out an army, the nation of Assyria, might well be and the downfall of Israel, the loss of prestige, and possibly destruction. Third, as the prophet himself suggests in the last chapter, his reputation as a prophet was at stake. He was to go and preach that judgment was coming, yet if the people repented, God might change His mind, and not send the judgment, and Jonah would look like a faker. He was afraid that his ministry might be successful. I think there is an element of truth in all three of these suggestions. Some have said that Jonah was just a coward. I hesitate to accept that. His attitude and experiences in the rest of the book would hardly justify such an idea.
But can you hear Jonah talking to himself, piling up all these reasons for not going to Nineveh, until he had himself so worked up about it, he tried to do a stupid thing like run away from God? Christians have so many reasons for not doing what they know the Lord wants them to do. I'm being generous by calling them "reasons." In reality they are excuses. Call a visitation night, and write down all the important things that must be done by all the people in the church. Believers haven't changed much in 2800 years, have they? Still rebellious, still disobedient, still trying to hide from God. Jonah went down into the bottom of the boat in his day. Professing Christians today just pull the covers up over their heads on Sunday morning.
Jonah's Detection (Jonah 1:4-10)
A real Christian can remain out of the will of the Lord only so long, then something happens. And something happened to Jonah. The conjunctions in this chapter make an interesting study: "And" the word of the Lord (v. 1); "But Jonah" (v. 3); "But the Lord" (v. 4). The Lord always has the last word, or the last act. We wonder why God didn't stop Jonah sooner. Why did He let him get this far? I think it's a principle you will find all through the word of God: God permits sin so long--He allows situations to exist that displease Him for a while, then in His own time He moves in with judgment. That is what He did with Nineveh (v. 2). He tolerated that wickedness so long, then He decided to judge. That principle is true in your life, Christian. God will put up with that sin you've been cuddling, so long, then watch! That principle is true in our nation. God will tolerate the wickedness and immorality that has come to characterize our nation so long, then He will judge.
"But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea." Ah, the storms that occur as a result of the laws of nature which God put into operation are bad enough. But when it becomes necessary for God to send one for the purpose of bringing to light the sin of His child, it will be a devastating one. And these old mariners, these hardened, fearless, courageous old salts were petrified. They had never seen one like this. They had weathered storm after storm without injury, they could take care of themselves under ordinary circumstances, but this was more than they could handle. They threw their cargo overboard to lighten the load, and they cried out furiously to their heathen gods to help them. The ship master or captain of the boat rouses all the passengers, if there were any besides Jonah, tells them to beseech their gods for mercy. And when he gets to Jonah, lo and behold, Jonah is sleeping. How could a child of God sleep in a situation like this? Do you know a better way to smother a guilty conscience, to repress that nagging something that tells you that you are to be doing something else? Just go to sleep, and if you don't have any bad dreams, you have it made. I guess that's where many folks are on Sunday morning, when they ought to be here. Maybe that's where they are Sunday night. I don't know. I rather think TV is the culprit on Sunday night. That's another good way of escaping the world of nagging reality. Jonah didn't have TV, or he might have been watching it on this occasion.
But the sailors are not satisfied with praying, for it seems to be useless. They decide to cast lots to see who was to blame for all of this. This was a common way of deciding issues in that day, not a very reliable way, I fear, except on this occasion. It was quite reliable here, for God was in control, not chance, and as might be expected the lot fell upon Jonah. Can you picture the look on the face of the perplexed and petrified prophet? He was discovered! He was found out. His little game was out in the open. It was like a little fellow up on the stool with his hand reached all the way up to the top shelf, in the cookie jar, when mother walked in--exaggerated on a great scale, of course. And immediately the frustrated mariners begin hurling one question after another. One commentary I read said how calmly they asked these questions, one at a time. This is all a matter of imagination, for the Scripture isn't clear, but I don't see calmness here at all. This fierce storm is raging on every hand. For the first time in their lives probably they face the possibility of being destroyed. They must shout to be heard over the noise of the wind and waves, and rain is beating in their faces. Their hearts are filled with terror. They want but one thing, and that is to get out of this terrible situation. The questions are hurled fast and furious--five are asked before Jonah can get in an answer.
If there is calmness anywhere, I see it on the face of the prophet. The shock of discovery seems to have worn off, and we see a man resigned now to whatever God wills for him, and courageously he testifies for his God, and he acknowledges his sin. Obviously, these men have been exposed to the God of the Hebrews before, for when they heard His name they were yet more afraid. If every sinner could read this chapter and get just a faint glimpse of the wrath of God against sin. This mighty tempest was only a fraction of the wrath that will be poured out upon sinners on the great day of judgment. Were they to see the power of our God as demonstrated in nature, they would fall to their knees and cry out for mercy.
I could be wrong, but I think these men put their trust in the true God for salvation on this occasion as we shall know in a moment. The demonstration of wrath is necessary to bring some men to the Savior, and some Christians back into fellowship with the Lord.
Jonah's Discipline (Jonah 1:11-16)
At any rate, the one concern of the sailors is what they shall do. On what condition will your God deliver us from the storm? Notice what Jonah said. I don't know why he said it. There is not a record that God told him to say it, but it seems nevertheless to have been the Lord's will (v. 12). Notice, Jonah didn't jump over the rail into the sea. That would have been suicide. I do not think God justifies that action in any instance. It was to be the act of the sailors, not Jonah--he had merely to submit. They didn't want to do it. They tried with all their might to bring the ship to shore through the storm, but their efforts were to no avail. With a sincere prayer to God that the blood of this prophet be not on their hands, they did what they had to do, and cast Jonah into the sea. And as an evidence for their faith, I believe, they offered sacrifices to the Lord, and made vows to Him.
But let's get back to Jonah for a closing moment, floundering around in the great ocean without a life jacket. You've heard about the sea of adversity? Jonah was in it. You've heard of the ocean of despair? No one ever experienced that in quite the same way as Jonah did. To him it was real. He was experiencing the chastisement, the discipline of the Lord. Think back through the chapter and list the principles of discipline we found. First, God lets us have our way for a while. He doesn't always move in immediately with chastisement. His heart longs that we turn to Him, confess our sins, and submit ourselves to His will. Second, eventually--only He knows when--He sees fit to bring something into our lives that will bring us back to Him. All suffering and adversity is certainly not for this purpose, but some certainly may be. Third, you can count on this: When it comes it will be grievous. But thank God for it. It's because of His love.
Proverbs 3:11-12. "My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe His reproof, for whom the Lord loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights."
You have a choice. You can submit to the Lord, or you can wait for Him to bring you into submission, in His way.
Continue to JON-2: Jonah in the Fish - Restoration