Jonah Chapter 1 Bible Study Lesson: Running from the Lord

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Jonah Chapter 1 Lesson: Running from the Lord

by I Gordon


The book of Jonah is great! It is a well known story for obvious reasons, not least of which are a disobedient prophet, an obedient fish and a wicked nation that starts out bad, yet ends up good. Well, for a while anyway. To the non-believer, who doesn't take the power and work of God into account, the book of Jonah is just one rather large fishing yarn that cannot possibly be true. To the believer it is not only true, but it displays the heart, mercy and power of God. The book of Jonah is listed among the prophetic books of the Bible for that is what Jonah was - a prophet. Interestingly though, the book itself contains no specific prophecies. But don't let that make you think it isn't prophetic! Hopefully by the end of this study series you will see that it sheds great prophetic light in its illustrations and types concerning not only the nation of Israel as a whole, but, and more importantly, the promised Messiah as well. This bible study lesson focuses on chapter 1. Let's dive on in and see what's on, and below, the surface.  [1] 

So who was this Jonah then aye?

Jonah 1:1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying...

So what do we know about Jonah and his times? Do you know if the Bible records much about him elsewhere outside of this book that bears his name? And what about the times in which he lived? It is fair to say that the name 'Jonah' was not overly popular. It didn't make the 793BC top ten lists of popular boy's names, or any other year for that matter. A simple concordance search will tell you that there isn't anyone else in the Bible who was called Jonah. The name itself means 'dove'. The only other reference to Jonah comes in 2nd Kings where it says:

2 Kings 14:23-25 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. (24) He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. (25) He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

So Jonah lived in Gath-hepher which is part of the tribe of Zebulon in the northern kingdom of Israel. The date for the setting of this book is during the reign of Jeroboam between 793-753 BC.  [2] 

What every prophet wants to hear... Arise and go to Nineveh! 

Jonah 1:2 "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me."

Now this wee command of the Lord is not for the faint hearted - then or now! And we will soon see why! Do you know much about Nineveh? Do you know where it was located or who built it? For it had a very infamous builder indeed! Let's start with the location. Nineveh was located 550 miles north east of Israel just east of the Tigris River. Nineveh became the capital of the Assyrian empire and it is fair to say that its inhabitants were not the friendliest people you'll meet. And that's being kind. The Assyrian empire had a vicious reputation that intimidated most. This footnote adds some detail but it isn't overly nice - so a little warning here.  [3]  What is interesting in all of this is that the location of Nineveh is closest to the modern day city of Mosul in Iraq! Yes, that Mosul that has been currently, at the time of writing, taken over by the Islamic State (IS). The Islamic state is currently killing and butchering thousands in northern Iraq and eastern Syria and at the top of their goals is Jerusalem!  [4] 

The Origins of Nineveh

Now as to the origins and founder of Nineveh, that has an interesting story as well. Genesis 10:8-11 tells us that it was the infamous Nimrod  [5]  that built both Babel and Nineveh! One became the capital of the Babylonian empire and the other the capital of the Assyrian empire. And, I'm sure you will remember, it was these two empires that came against Israel and took the Jewish people into captivity! And both Babel (Babylon) and Nineveh are located in modern day Iraq! As there was trouble in that region then, so it is today. As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun! People may change but the spirits over regions don't.

Go east young man... So Jonah goes west!

Jonah 1:3 But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

This, for Jonah, was a task from the Lord that he didn't want to do! So he sets off to try and do the impossible and escape from the presence of the Lord! As mentioned, God wanted him to go to Nineveh, 500 odd miles northeast of Palestine. But instead of going east, Jonah sets off on a 2000 miles journey west down to Tarshish (which was in southern Spain.) Why you ask? Well, we have spoken about the cruelty of the Assyrian empire and certainly that doesn't make the trip sound like a Sunday picnic in the park now does it? But that isn't the main reason Jonah did a runner. Taking a sneaky peek in the latter part of the book of Jonah in chapter 4:1-2 exposes the real reason for Jonah's disobedience. You see, Jonah didn't want the people of Nineveh to be forgiven! He didn't want them to repent! He wanted them to be judged by God.

Well, at the start of Jonah's attempted escape from God everything seems to be going well. 'Made it safely to Joppa? Check. Got the tickets for the ship? Check. Packed my togs? Check. Boarded the ship and off to my Spanish resort? Check.' I mean, clearly, Jonah is home and hosed. He is free. Clearly, he has escaped the presence of the Lord by going somewhere that the Lord wouldn't notice or think of looking. What could possibly go wrong? Let me ask you - have you ever tried to run from that which the Lord is asking of you? Have you been living in disobedience or known rebellion and sin thinking that there isn't any consequence to your actions? I've had a few emails from people lately that have felt that... initially... before later seeing the effects of such rebellion and sin. The key word in this passage is 'down'. Jonah went 'down' to Joppa. He went 'down' into the ship to leave there. He is going down alright in this running from God and soon he will be going down into the sea before going down into the belly of the great fish. Don't underestimate the consequences of sin and rebellion for they only lead in one direction. And that is 'down'. Those that are in such a situation should bear this quote in mind:

'Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.' 

Release the Hound of Heaven!

Jonah 1:4-5 The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up. (5) Then the sailors became afraid and every man cried to his god, and they threw the cargo which was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep.

Jonah is starting to learn that it isn't as easy to run away from God as he may think!  [6]  In fact, it's starting to look like even the elements and nature itself is rebelling at his rebellion! That is a good thing about the Lord - He doesn't give up on His own. When we run to places where we shouldn't be (physically, mentally or spiritually) there is always the calling and drawing of the Lord back to His will and purposes. And He has people, nature, an inner witness and all circumstances at His disposal to do this job. For the Apostle Paul, God used a vision; for Balaam, a donkey. For Naomi, He used a famine but for David He used a story of a lamb. For Peter it was a look from the Lord while the cock crowed; for Elijah, a still small voice. Some means are subtle, some not so. Jonah was about to fall into the latter category!

Notice also that every sailor became afraid and cried out to his own god. They all cried out and were willing to throw everything aside to keep their life. I'll just add a few quick thoughts here and let you ponder them more fully:

Thoughts from Jonah's storm - The use of storms

1) Once they saw the danger they were in, 'things' didn't matter anymore. The predicament of their state was all that mattered. The same truth applies when a non-Christian starts to see the seriousness of their own situation before God and sees the state of their soul.

2) They all cried out to their 'god': There are few atheists when face to face with death. Sometimes it takes the fear of death before a person is willing to cry out to God.

3) Even for a believer, sometimes it takes a storm in our lives before we can see clearly enough about the things that truly matter and are willing to jettison the baggage of the world's attractions and delights that would hold us from the will of God.

4) Jonah was sound asleep: You know things are not right when those who don't know the true God are crying out for help and those that do know the true God are asleep!

A short digression concerning storms...

Sometimes there are great winds and storms in our lives. Whether it is from God or Satan cannot always be said. But we must trust the Lord. Storms don't always mean we are out of the will of the Lord as Jonah was. If we aren't knowingly rebelling against God's will, the storm often means we are in the very center of His purpose! God uses such times because He wants to show us more of Himself. For it is not during the calm that man cries out to God and sees His might work - It is during the great waters.

Psalms 107:23-31 Those who go down to the sea in ships, Who do business on great waters; (24)  They have seen the works of the LORD, And His wonders in the deep.  (25) For He spoke and raised up a stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. (26) They rose up to the heavens, they went down to the depths; Their soul melted away in their misery. (27) They reeled and staggered like a drunken man, and were at their wits' end. (28)  Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, And He brought them out of their distresses. (29) He caused the storm to be still  , So that the waves of the sea were hushed. (30) Then they were glad because they were quiet, So He guided them to their desired haven. (31  ) Let them give thanks to the LORD for His loving-kindness, And for His wonders to the sons of men! 

Jesus can calm the seas or cause the storms. Whichever, He must be trusted for both have a purpose.

Two key questions 

Jonah 1:6-10 So the captain approached him and said, "How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish." (7) Each man said to his mate, "Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us." So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. (8) Then they said to him, "Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?" (9) He said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land." (10) Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, "How could you do this?" for the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

The captain asks Jonah a very good question - 'How is it that you are sleeping?' Now, they are in a 'lives on the line', 'every hand on deck' type of storm... The boat is lurching left and right, up and down, creaking and groaning under the pressure about to break up... and Jonah is blissfully asleep dreaming of the coming white sands down in Tarshish! How was he able to sleep? Now Jesus was able to sleep in the storm, which makes sense for He had control over the storm. But what about Jonah? Was Jonah able to sleep for the same reason? Hardly...for he was the cause of the storm! Jesus slept for He had complete assurance and authority over the storm but Jonah, on the other hand, is out of the will of God and is sleeping when he shouldn't be. There was danger all around and yet he slept. People in the world are like that. They are asleep when they should be alert. Their very soul is in danger yet they sleep on in state of slumber, spiritually speaking. Like the captain they need someone to say to them 'How is it that you are sleeping?' Sleeping Christians are in need of the same question and what a rebuke it is for the heathen captain to have to wake Jonah up, and tell him to get up and pray!

"Jonah was asleep amid all that confusion and noise; and, O Christian man, for you to be indifferent to all that is going on in such a world as this, for you to be negligent of God's work in such a time as this is just as strange. The devil alone is making noise enough to wake all the Jonahs if they only want to awake... All around us there is tumult and storm, yet some professing Christians are able, like Jonah, to go to sleep in the sides of the ship."
Charles Spurgeon 

It is also interesting that the sailors have no idea who Jonah is. They certainly don't know that he is a representative, a spokesperson and prophet, of the only true God! With Jonah running from God and outside of His will, there is little to distinguish Jonah from any other seaman or traveller. He is just one of the boys. He is a prophet without a message; a light that will not shine. Like the question from the captain, so the questions from the sailors should have gone deep into the heart of Jonah. 'Tell us, who actually are you Jonah?' This, I believe, was a question from the Lord for Jonah. 'Who are you and what are you doing here?' 'What is your true identity Jonah?' It is also a question, is it not, that the Lord asks us when we are not living in a way that brings glory to His name.

The sacrifice of the one would save the many

Jonah 1:11-15 So they said to him, "What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?" -- for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. (12) He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you." (13) However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. (14) Then they called on the LORD and said, "We earnestly pray, O LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man's life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O LORD, have done as You have pleased. (15) So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging."

Aware of their dire situation, the sailors desperately ask what they have to do to calm the sea. 'Throw me in' Jonah replies, 'and you will be saved.' But in a display of kindness that stands out in this desperate situation, the sailor's row even harder to reach the shore and save Jonah's life. Finally though, when there is no other way and knowing what they have to do, the sailors ask the Lord not to hold this innocent blood against them and Jonah is cast into the deep. Now there are similarities and contrasts in this passage with the Lord Jesus. Like Jonah, His death would calm the storms of God's wrath and judgement so that all those who look to Him could be saved. Unlike Jonah however, the Lord Jesus was innocent and was not the cause of God's judgement. Like Jonah, Jesus was willing to go into the place of death for the sake of others. Yet unlike the men on board with Jonah who were scared of killing innocent blood, the men in Israel at the time of the Passover didn't try to save Jesus but were willing to kill Him saying "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt 27:25)

Conclusion - When the Lord's hand is seen, the people will stand in awe 

Jonah 1:16-17 Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. (17) And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.

It is an interesting end to this chapter where the gentile sailors, who each previously had their own gods, stand in awe and fear of the God of Israel. They have seen their desperate situation in the face of the roaring seas. They have called on their gods and found them wanting. They have put forth their best human effort to rescue themselves and row to safety only to fail in their best endeavours. But now, through the sacrifice of Jonah into the deep, they have seen the storm abate and the seas be stilled. How great it is when the soul stops looking to its own strength or to false religion and rests in the one sacrifice that God honours! And so we read that the men feared the Lord greatly! They even offered a sacrifice to Him and committed themselves to Him through vows. God had a purpose in this storm for His disobedient prophet but, loving the gentiles as well, He had a plan and purpose for these sailors too! And having seen the calming of the storm one can only sit back in wonder and, like the disciples of Jesus, declare 'who is this, that even the winds and waves obey Him?' (Mark 4:41).

Now for Jonah, the ride was only just getting started! God has some, uh, exciting, well, 'unique' things planned for him over the next three days. That shall be the focus of our next study where we examine this miraculous sign in connection with the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus!

[1] ↩  Apologies for the poor swimming pun to start things off. It seemed appropriate given Jonah's upcoming episodes both on and below the surface of the deep... but given time to reflect, a public apology was warranted! But it did have a second meaning in that there are some great gems in the book of Jonah that lie just below the surface of the text. Hopefully they will come out!

[2] ↩  The Bible Knowledge commentary adds some thoughts here:
'Since 2Ki_14:25 relates Jonah to the reign of Jeroboam II, the events in the Book of Jonah took place somewhere in Jeroboam's reign (793-753 b.c.). Jonah's prophecy about Israel's boundaries being extended may indicate that he made that prophecy early in Jeroboam's reign. This makes Jonah a contemporary of both Hosea and Amos (cf. Hosea 1:1; Amos 1:1)...

Jonah was one of four Old Testament prophets whose ministries were referred to by Christ (cf. Matt 12:41; Luke 11:32). The others were Elijah (Matt 17:11-12), Elisha (Luke 4:27), and Isaiah (Matt 15:7). Jonah's ministry had some parallels to his immediate predecessors, Elijah (1 Kings 17-19; 1Kings 21:1-29; 2 Kings 1-2) and Elisha (2 Kings 2-9; 2Kings 13:1-25), who ministered to Israel and also were called to Gentile missions in Phoenicia and Aram.'

[3] ↩  The Bible Knowledge Commentary states concerning Nineveh:
'The city's ruins are still evident today. The city was easily overtaken when the Khosr River, which flowed through it, overflowed its banks (see Nah 1:8; Nah 2:6, Nah 2:8). Nineveh was the capital of one of the cruelest, vilest, most powerful, and most idolatrous empires in the world. For example, writing of one of his conquests, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) boasted, 'I stormed the mountain peaks and took them. In the midst of the mighty mountain I slaughtered them; with their blood I dyed the mountain red like wool.... The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city; their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire' (Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, 1:148). Regarding one captured leader, he wrote, 'I flayed [him], his skin I spread upon the wall of the city...' (ibid., 1:146). He also wrote of mutilating the bodies of live captives and stacking their corpses in piles. Shalmaneser II (859-824) boasted of his cruelties after one of his campaigns: 'A pyramid of heads I reared in front of his city. Their youths and their maidens I burnt up in the flames' (ibid., 1:213). Sennacherib (705-681) wrote of his enemies, 'I cut their throats like lambs. I cut off their precious lives [as one cuts] a string. Like the many waters of a storm I made [the contents of] their gullets and entrails run down upon the wide earth.... Their hands I cut off' (ibid 2:127).'

This is obviously all barbaric and demonically inspired. I add it for two reasons: 1) Because this is the type of people Jonah was being asked to go to and 2) because the very same region today is experiencing the same type of atrocities with the so called Islamic state (IS). Never forget that there are principalities and powers over regions and they stir up the same demonically inspired acts today as they did back then.

[4] ↩  Well, apart from an Islamic caliphate across the whole world that is! Here is a recent quote about the Islamic States goal to 'liberate' Jerusalem:
''This is not the first border we will break, Inshallah [God willing]" an English-speaking Chilean recruit to ISIS, (who goes by the name of Abu Saffiya), states in a video allegedly filmed at an abandoned army post on the Iraq-Syria border earlier this summer and originally highlighted by the Jerusalem Post. "Abu Bakhr al-Baghdadi [leader of ISIS] says, 'God will break all barriers... Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon...all of them until we reach Al Quds [Jerusalem].''

[5] ↩  Nimrod means 'rebel' or 'rebellion'. As mentioned he built Babel (Babylon) and Nineveh (capital of Assyrian empire). The Assyrians led the more wicked northern Kingdom of Israel (10 tribes) into captivity in approximately 740 BC and later in 586 BC the Babylonian Empire took the southern kingdom of Judah (2 tribes) into captivity.

Ray Stedman states the following interesting info on Nimrod - 'Nimrod evidently gained a great reputation as such a hunter, but he was more than a hunter of wild animals. The Jewish Talmud helps us here, for it says that he was "a hunter of the souls of men." By the founding of Babylon and Nineveh we have a hint given of the nature of this man. We are told that he was "the first mighty man on earth," i.e., after the Flood. That phrase, "mighty man," takes us back to Genesis 6 where, in that strange story of the invasion of the "sons of God" into the human race, there resulted a race of giants called Nephilim. We are told that, "these were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown." This was evidently a demonic invasion of the race, with sexual overtones, which brought into being a race of giants that were morally degraded. These also appear later on in the Canaanite tribes. We have found this suggestive line of thought running through the Scriptural account up to this point. It now suggests that Nimrod was one of these "mighty men," and therefore introduced a perverted, degraded form of religion into the world. It began at Babylon, spread to Nineveh, and can be traced in history as it subsequently spread throughout the whole of the earth. Thus, in this man Nimrod, we have the seed of idolatry and false religion coming in again after the Flood.'

[6] ↩  There was a famous poem written called the Hound of Heaven in 1893 which spoke about this relentless pursuing of God. There is no doubt that Jonah was experiencing the Hound of heaven here! The poem begins with the lines:

 'I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
 I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways, Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears...'

It has been said of this poem and its truth: "The name (Hound of heaven) is strange. It startles one at first. It is so bold, so new, and so fearless. It does not attract, rather the reverse. But when one reads the poem this strangeness disappears. The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and unperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. Whether in sin, or in human love, it seeks to hide itself away from God. Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit." The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988