Jonah: Introduction and Setting

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This morning we move to the Old Testament for our next study. I want you to forget everything you think you know about Jonah. I want to approach his story with an open mind, with a fresh perspective free from our preconceived ideas about this prophet. Jonah was a runner. Most people know he ran from God, but do we know why? We would never run from anything God told us to do would we? This is much more than a fish story.

I hope you’ll take your Bible and read Jonah 1:1-3.

Does God really speak to us like He did to Jonah? This short book starts off in an exciting way. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” We don’t know a great deal about Jonah. We know he was a man because he was the, “Son of Amittai.” 2 Ki. 14:25 tells us that Jonah was from Gath-hepher which means he was of the tribe of Zebulun. All we know about Jonah’s father is found in this verse and in Jonah 1:1. Very limited information. This we do know: Jonah was a prophet because the word of the Lord came to him and that was the system back then. The Lord spoke in dreams, in visions, in the Urim and Thummin, and audibly to His prophets and they were able to speak with the authority of God. Today though, we have the written Word of God. There were people back in the prophet’s day that refused to listen to the Word of the Lord just as there are today that refuse to listen to what the Lord says. That doesn’t change the truth of what God says. The Word of God is as accurate as if the Lord were speaking audibly to us right now.

So, “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” This was a clear command. There was no misinterpreting what God told Jonah to do. It was crystal clear. We spend a lot of time searching for God’s will. We wonder is this thing really from God. We spend days searching our souls, searching Scripture, getting counsel from our friends, we post our questions on Facebook, we solicit input from our Twitter followers. We do all this to find out if God really is speaking to us. The Lord told Jonah what to do. We don’t know exactly how the word came to Jonah. The word of the Lord had previously come to Jonah. He prophesied to Jeroboam II that God would restore the borders of Israel. So that puts Jonah in the time frame of 784-772 B.C. For Jonah, this prophet gig was pretty sweet. All we have prior to this book of Jonah was good news. Life was good for Jonah, but not so much for other prophets. Speaking the Word of God can bring persecution, suffering, pain, sorrow, and sometimes death. In Lu. 11:47 Jesus told the people that their fathers had killed prophets. The only recorded prophesy we have for Jonah was good news and now the Lord speaks again. I wonder if Jonah was eager to hear from God.

I wonder if he had been sitting around waiting for the Lord to speak or was he just going about life as if God didn’t exist? But he was a prophet. When God spoke, he listened. That was his job and there wasn’t anybody else. In the northern kingdom of Israel it had been at least 12 years since Elisha; Amos doesn’t come on the scene until five years after Jonah. In the southern kingdom of Judah, there is a silence of about 71 years between the prophets Joel and Isaiah. So the word of the Lord coming to Jonah is a pretty big deal. God was able to speak to Jonah because Jonah had a relationship with God. If we have a relationship with God through Jesus, He speaks to us too. Can you hear Him? When there is noise all around us, how can we hear God? What are the potential consequences of missing what God has told us?

The word came to Jonah and it was a three part command. Arise, go, cry. Get up and get moving. Jonah was to go to Nineveh. It was a great city, but great here doesn’t refer to anything more than its size. Nineveh was located on the eastern shore of the Tigris River in what is now modern Iraq near the city of Mosul. According to Gen. 10:11, it was built by the great hunter Nimrod. During the reign of Sennacherib, the city was fortified and became the capital of Assyria. God tells Jonah, when you get to Nineveh, cry against it. The phrase means to give an appeal for, or an announcement of the Lord’s judgment against someone or something. Jonah was to proclaim the message of God, the judgment of God. We don’t know the specifics of the message Jonah was to give. But we do know that prophets declare the truth of God. Why Nineveh? Why not some other city like Kish, or Ur, or Sidon, or Tarsus? God is very clear as to why Jonah is to go. God tells Jonah it’s because Nineveh’s, “Wickedness has come up before Me.” Other times God has passed judgment on cities – Sodom and Gomorrah for example. What about Nineveh is so bad? They were well known in the ancient world for their cruelty and inhumanity. The grandson of Sennacherib was known to rip the lips and hands off of his victims. The king of Assyria was known to strip the skin off of people while they were still alive. He’d make giant piles of their skulls. Nineveh was ruled by the most evil people in the world and was likely the worst place on earth and God knew it. So He sends Jonah to tell the people of the Messiah so they could repent and turn from the wicked ways. There are people that think God created the world, set it in motion, then stepped away. This account clearly tells us that God is involved in the daily activities of the world, that He cares, that He hates sin, and that He still wants to do something about it.

The parallel for us is quite clear. Is there a group of people who we despise, that we would run from God’s call to tell them about Jesus who is the Christ? The people God told Jonah to go and preach to are now found in cities like: Bagdad, Mosul, Fallujah, Kandahar, Kabul. These people are Muslims worshiping a false god. Before you get all judgmental on Jonah, think about receiving a command from God to preach the message of salvation to a people you despise.

So how does Jonah responds? Even with the crystal clear command from God, Jonah does something we would never do, right? The opening phrase of v. 3 literally reads, “So Jonah rose.” And that’s good. When God told Abraham to go to a place He would tell him, he went. When God told Elijah to go to Sidon, he went. When God told David’s seer to go, he went. We’re accustomed to prophets doing what God tells them to do. Verse 3 says, “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 seems incomprehensible. Jonah was told exactly what to do by God Himself and Jonah chooses to be openly disobedient. At this point we have absolutely no clue as to why Jonah did what he did. Did he think about the consequences for his actions? Did he wonder, “If I don’t do what God told me to do, Nineveh is doomed.” Jonah fled, “from the presence of the Lord.” We see that phrase repeated twice in this verse. Does this reveal Jonah’s ignorance of God’s omnipresence? Jer. 23:25 tells us that God fills the heavens and the earth. Pro. 15:3 says the eyes of the Lord are everywhere. There’s a great passage in Ps. 139:7-10 that says, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me.” So you can’t hide from God so what is Jonah trying to do? From the presence of the Lord is the same phrase used in Gen. 4:16 to describe Cain’s broken relationship with God. It’s safe to say that Jonah and God weren’t seeing eye to eye.

Jonah goes to Joppa and buys a ticket to the farthest place from Nineveh he can. Joppa is now called Jaffa, part of modern Tel-Aviv. Tarshish is the farthest west he can go – about 2000 miles. Nineveh is about 500 miles away from where Jonah is. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the direction. Tarshish is in the opposite direction of Nineveh. Jonah buys a ticket on a boat. The level of Jonah’s disobedience is starting to get pretty clear. He pays money for a ticket – on a boat. Some experts suggest he hired the entire ship. Either way, because of the distance, this was not a cheap ticket. What’s really interesting is that Hebrew people were known as a people of the land, so willingly getting on a boat would be considered crazy back in that day. This was a merchant ship, and Jonah chose to place his life in the hands of the sailors.

So we have begun our journey and we’re going to leave Jonah on the boat until next time. Most of the time we focus on Jonah in these beginning verses – his disobedience. But what do these three verses say about God? First, God calls people into service. Jonah is called to preach to Nineveh. Second, God cares enough about people, no matter how good or bad they seem to be, to send people He calls to tell them about the hope, love, grace, and forgiveness available to them through Jesus Christ. Finally, although less obvious (it will become very clear later) no one can run from God.

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