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Jonah -- Not a Great Prophet (an introduction to Jonah, focus on Jonah 1:15-2:10)

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Why would we think we could hide from God?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jonah 1:15-2:10

In this first of two lessons on Jonah, we learn that Jonah the prophet was a selfish, heartless, faithless jerk who would rather run from God than obey Him (we learn why next week). In chapter 1, the pagan sailors prove to be self-giving, compassionate, and faith-seeking. In every way, Jonah is not to be our model of evangelism and service!

10 Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Skipping Ahead to Jonah

For my FBC readers -- I am moving ahead with the October 2 lesson. If you want to cover the lesson we skipped last week (because of our join evangelism training), you'll just want to read this post next week.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Your Favorite Chase Games

You probably don't have room to play one of these games with your whole group (although I'd love for you to prove me wrong!). Here are two of my favorites -- what are yours?

Sharks and Minnows. Line everyone up on opposite ends of a field (or pool!); they're the minnows. Put 2 or 3 kids in the middle; they're the sharks. On your signal, all of the minnows try to get to the other side, and all of the sharks try to tag them. Any minnow who was tagged becomes a shark. The game is to see who can stay a minnow the longest.

Hide and Seek. There are lots of ways to play Hide and Seek. My favorite is the one where one kids counts to [pick a number; they're not going to count to it anyway] while everyone else hides. Then, as the kid finds the other kids, they have to help him/her find the rest of the kids. (That affects your hiding strategy -- who has seen you hide?) The last person to be found wins. Or forfeits because they've gotten bored and hungry.

The point? My friends and I, at least, really liked to play games where we tried to hide from someone else. There's something exciting and challenging about it. I think that this sometimes plays out literally -- both of our kids have been caught hiding from us (and I think both times involved eating something they weren't supposed to be eating).

Eventually, we get to an age where "hiding" becomes a viable strategy for getting away with something. My friends and I would hide things like dirty magazines or cigarettes or music our parents didn't want us listening to or whatever. And I think that some people stay in that "hide what I don't want people to find" mode all the way through life.

Here's your transition question: Do you remember when you started trying to hide things from your parents (or friends or whomever)? What were they are why did you do it?

And the meat: Did your experiences with hiding things make you decide that it was a foolish cause, or did it embolden you into thinking you could get away with it?

Why Santa Claus Is Actually Terrifying

How do parents leverage Santa Claus with their kids? "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good." Right? Even if you think you're hiding something from your parents, Santa Claus is watching you.

Does anybody else who appreciates the depth of human sin (even in children) see how messed up that is?

Eastern Europe leaned into this nightmare thought police with Krampus, the devilish counterpart to the angelic Santa Claus. Krampus wouldn't give coal in the stockings of bad boys and girls -- he would take the bad children to a cave and eat them. Merry Christmas!

As horrifying as that is, it's the only thing that remotely attempts to appreciate the wages of sin. (And because no children are ever actually eaten by demon Santa at Christmas, the deterrent eventually wears off.)

Anyway, back to the point: if you used Santa Claus with your children, why did you? My guess is that you wanted your kids to think that there was always someone watching them, evaluating them. Did it work? Did it affect their behavior?

If you're long past the Santa Claus phase, replace Santa with any number of other surveillance options we have to remind our kids (or ourselves!) that someone is watching them. We have internet trackers, phone location trackers, car location trackers, television trackers, home security cameras, and whatever else. Those are devices to give us instant accountability for when we don't believe that God is watching us.

One of the ideas behind Jonah is "how silly it is to think we can run from God". And yet, we build all kinds of physical safeguards to cover for the fact that perhaps we, too, think we can run from God.

The Serious Option: When Have You Tried to Run from God?

You could use this as your transition topic: "Running from God" means something different to everyone (because really, how can you run from God?), but we have all "run from God" at some point in our lives. And so, let your group talk their way into Jonah:

  • Have you ever tried to run from God?

  • What did that look like for you?

  • How did it go? How did it end?

  • What did God do after you stopped running?

As we will learn, the book of Jonah is a story about a prophet who tried to run from God.

This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the Book of Jonah

Let's start with the very well-structured video by The Bible Project.

Their treatment of the book is brilliant and effective.

But the fun way to tell the story of Jonah is Veggietales-style.

  1. Jonah is a nice prophet who delivers messages from God

  2. Jonah gets a message he doesn't want to deliver

  3. Jonah hides on a ship sailed by the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything

  4. Jonah is responsible for a giant storm sent by God

  5. There's a talking caterpillar

  6. Jonah sits in the belly of a monstrous whale

  7. Jonah is encouraged by an angel choir [Bonus: the angel choir sings a real banger with the lyric "Mr. Grumpypants".]

  8. Jonah is spit onto the beach by the whale

  9. Jonah travels to Nineveh to give his message

Fantastic. Love it. Very memorable. Just remember that it's a fictional interpretation of the biblical text... No, really!

[Important note: we have two weeks in Jonah, so I'm just focusing on chapters 1 and 2 this week. We'll cover chapters 3 and 4 next week.]

The Structure of Jonah

  1. Chapter 1: Jonah's selfishness and the pagan sailor's faithfulness

  2. Chapter 2: Jonah's gratitude for God's mercy and grace

  3. Chapter 3: Jonah's selfishness and the pagan city's repentance

  4. Chapter 4: Jonah's anger about God's mercy and grace

What a brilliant, brilliant book. Here are a few of my favorite wordplays (some of which we lose in translation):

  • In 1:2, God tells Jonah to "get up and go to Nineveh", but in 1:3 we read that Jonah "got up and fled". From the beginning, we see that this book will be filled with ironies and unexpected outcomes.

  • Once it is established that Jonah is running away from the Lord, the verbs take on a clear connotation: 1:3 Jonah goes "down" to Joppa; 1:5 Jonah goes "down" into the ship; 2:6 Jonah goes "down" to the very depths of the sea. It's only after he repents that his movement turns "up" again.

  • While the pagan sailors are doing everything they can to save the lives of the people on the ship, including sacrificing their cargo, Jonah the prophet is sleeping.

  • And the Bible Project video focused on this one: Jonah prophesied that the city of Nineveh would be "overturned", and indeed they were "turned over" (but that's for next week's lesson).

Jonah: Who and When

We don't have a lot of details in here, which is one reason why many skeptics dismiss this book as a parable. "Jonah son of Amittai" is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25:

23 In the fifteenth year of Judah’s King Amaziah son of Joash, Jeroboam son of Jehoash became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. He did not turn away from all the sins Jeroboam son of Nebat had caused Israel to commit. 25 He restored Israel’s border from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word the Lord, the God of Israel, had spoken through his servant, the prophet Jonah son of Amittai from Gath-hepher. 26 For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter for both slaves and free people. There was no one to help Israel. 27 The Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel under heaven, so he delivered them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash.

Assuming this is the same prophet, this tells us that he was active during the reign of wicked King Jeroboam II. And if you remember all of this historical stuff I said when we covered 1/2 Kings, you know that this was when Israel was at its strongest and when Assyria was relatively weak. This will be a little before Amos started hammering his accusations into Israel.

You saw that the Bible Project believes Jonah was one of the "yes men" prophets that Jeroboam employed to make him feel good about himself and his awful policies. If that's true, that implies two things:

  1. God is willing to use even charlatans to serve His purposes

  2. Jonah eventually had a change of heart

Why a change of heart? Because the Book of Jonah makes Jonah look bad, and yet it includes some intimate details that only Jonah would know. If he remained a charlatan, he would not have condoned such an unflattering account. But if he finally realized the great mercy of God, then he would have leaned into his former sinfulness (think -- Peter or Paul) and wrote a book in such a way to clarify how much he had gotten wrong about God.

The Meaning and Purpose of Jonah

At its core, Jonah is a message of mercy and repentance. But the twist is that it emphasizes how God's people have misunderstood God's mercy.

  • God has mercy for all people -- not just His "chosen people"

  • In Jonah, God's enemies demonstrate repentance while God's prophet does not

Yes, I believe that the author of the book uses some careful editing to maximize just how stark that contrast is, but we will talk about that more next week.

But there are more purposes!

  • We are to put ourselves into the story: are we more like the repentant Ninevites or the unrepentant Jonah? (In this way, it operates a lot like the Old Testament version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.)

  • We are to realize that God's judgment can be conditional. Jonah spoke a prophecy unconditionally, but the people repented and so God relented. I think this was important to what Amos was about to prophesy -- judgment is coming, but there's still time to repent.

  • Don't stereotype! Jonah is filled with stereotypes -- stereotypical pagan sailors, stereotypical Assyrian pagans (stereotypical religious prophet). And yet, who are the people who show compassion and repentance? The stereotypical pagans! God loves all people; don't get bogged down with stereotypes.

  • God cares about people more than anything. Jonah cared about his own comfort and "comfort zone", but God cared about the people. (Even if the people choose to reject God's mercy, He respects them as free agents made in His image.)

The author chose to put all of these elements into this book, and did so carefully and intricately. It's an incredible literary accomplishment.

This Week's Big Controversy: Is Jonah Real?

People tend to get hung up on two things:

  • Jonah in the belly of a fish for 3 days. Really?

  • Even the cattle repented. Really?

And so they dismiss the book as a parable, thinking of it as the actual Old Testament equivalent of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

But here's something that I can't get past:

Matt 12:38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 He answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching; and look—something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the south will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and look—something greater than Solomon is here.

If Jonah was just a parable, would that make Jesus' death and resurrection a parable? If the people of Nineveh didn't really repent, then does that mean that the judgment itself is just a parable?

This is Jesus speaking. Does it sound like He's treating the events of Jonah like a parable? Are you going to accuse Jesus of getting His historical accounts mixed up?

No -- and neither will I. Jesus treated the events of Jonah as historical, and I suggest that we do as well.

So, do we really believe that Jonah survived for three days in a fish? I look at it this way: do you believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead? So, do you believe that it would be a challenge for God to preserve Jonah in a fish for a few days?

What about the cattle? We'll cover this next week. The cattle thing actually tells us more about the people of Nineveh than the cattle themselves, something that God will lean into with a divine wink in the final verse. But again, more on that next week.


Part 1: God Calms (Jonah 1:15-17)

15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men were seized by great fear of the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 17 The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Obviously, your first task is to set the stage. I would think that most people in our groups are fairly familiar with the overall storyline, so probably focus on the background stuff:

  • Who was Jonah?

  • What was Jonah's problem with Nineveh?

  • Why was the Book of Jonah written?

It's such a short book -- you may as well read the whole chapter. Point out that when Jonah runs from God, he's literally travelling "down".

There are lots of Jonah maps available online. We don't know exactly where Tarshish was, but we know that Jonah's purpose was to try to go as far away from Nineveh as he possibly could.

In verse 7, the lot falling on Jonah didn't immediately tell the men that Jonah was the cause of the storm. Their reaction was that Jonah would be able to tell them the reason. It's only after he started talking that they realized he was the cause.

In verse 12, we see just how selfish Jonah was. He was willing to put his own blood on the innocent sailors' hands just so he wouldn't have to obey God.

In verses 13 and 16, we see just how noble the sailors were -- they didn't want to kill anyone. And, when the storm literally passed by, they expressed devotion to God.

All of those things are critical to explain before jumping into verse 15! The sailors did everything they could not to throw Jonah into the sea! They are the heroes of the chapter; Jonah is the faithless coward.

Where Veggietales probably got it right is the suddenness of the storm's passing. It was very, very clear to be under divine control. Where Veggietales probably got it wrong is the size of the fish. Yes, God could have sent a massive whale to the Mediterranean, but He didn't have to. It was a "great big fish" that was where God wanted it. (If you Google the topic, you'll find all kinds of interesting takes on what kind of sea creature could swallow a man whole. This site says a sperm whale. This site says a great white shark.) I recommend not spending a lot of time on this topic; it's a near-endless rabbit hole. It also doesn't change the meaning of the book in any way.

Could a man survive for three days in the stomach of a fish? No! That's the whole point! It was a miracle of God that Jonah survived and that the fish put Jonah exactly where God wanted him. Miraculous intervention is the operative concept.

That's the end of chapter 1. Jonah -- the prophet of God -- is just the worst. The stereotypical pagan sailors are heroic, selfless, and responsive to God. This book turns expectations and stereotypes on their heads.

Going back to the earlier topic, when you tried to run from God, what happened to you? Was God's intervention in your life as soon and sudden as in Jonah's? Why do you think your experience with running from God might have been different than Jonah's?


Part 2: God Hears (Jonah 2:1-4)

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish:
2 I called to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me. I cried out for help from deep inside Sheol; you heard my voice. 3 When you threw me into the depths, into the heart of the seas, the current overcame me. All your breakers and your billows swept over me. 4 And I said, “I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look once more toward your holy temple.”

In verse 7, Jonah tells us that he didn't start praying until he was on the brink of death (the Leader Guide suggests that the body starts shutting down after three days without water). This paints Jonah as a man very, very angry with God and unwilling to talk to Him.

Note: we don't learn why Jonah was running from God until chapter 4, but what we see in this prayer sets up that irony.

The Bible Project rightly points out that Jonah isn't exactly "repentant" in this prayer. It is a prayer of thanksgiving -- Jonah didn't really want to die (which makes his previous actions even more cowardly) -- and it sounds amazing. Filled with biblical imagery and precedent.

Verse 2 summarizes the whole prayer:

  • I was in distress

  • I called to God for help

  • God rescued me

  • I will thank God

Consider these verses in the Psalms:

  • 18:6 I called to the Lord in my distress, / and I cried to my God for help. / From his temple he heard my voice, / and my cry to him reached his ears.

  • 81:7 You called out in distress, and I rescued you; / I answered you from the thundercloud. / I tested you at the Waters of Meribah.

  • 116:3 The ropes of death were wrapped around me, / and the torments of Sheol overcame me; / I encountered trouble and sorrow. / 4 Then I called on the name of the Lord: “Lord, save me!”

[Sheol was what the ancient Hebrews called the place of the dead. From Jonah's perspective -- can't see, can't move, may as well be traveling to the bottom of the ocean -- he might really think he's dead and in Sheol.]

But now consider this: Jonah refers to himself 27 times in this prayer; he refers to God 15 times. Verse 4 could be translated two ways:

  • "I will look once more toward your holy temple.”

  • "Will I look ever again on your holy temple?"

The first is hopeful and a bit more God-centric. The second is pessimistic and completely self-centered. I've seen good arguments to accept the second reading.

Has he really learned his lesson? Or is he just saying the thing he knows he should say in this circumstance?

As you might guess, I think it's the latter. Jonah already thought he could hide from God. Here, he just thinks that he can manipulate God (with a well-worded prayer). It's pretty scummy. (And that's why I'm so glad God put this book in the Bible.)

Jonah was quite literally at rock-bottom. Think of a time when you've been at rock-bottom -- when you finally decided to pray to God for help, were your initial prayers heartfelt and desperate? or lip-service and perfunctory? If heartfelt, what does that say about your relationship with God at the time? If perfunctory, what does that say?

But let's finish off the prayer.


Part 3: God Saves (Jonah 2:5-10)

5 The water engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6 I sank to the foundations of the mountains, the earth’s gates shut behind me forever! Then you raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God! 7 As my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. 8 Those who cherish worthless idols abandon their faithful love, 9 but as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation belongs to the Lord.
10 Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

This is starting to sound more like a dramatic soliloquy than a prayer, isn't it? I think that's the point. Jonah seems to be in full "Pharisee-Public-Prayer" mode, even though he only has an audience of one. Doesn't he seem to be warming up with each verse, each verse slightly grander than the previous?

There are two ways we could think about this -- he's entirely drawing from his memories of the Psalms because he doesn't have anything of his own to say, or he really believes that a grandiose, dramatic prayer is just the ticket to getting out of that fish. Either way doesn't reflect too great on Jonah. This is a far cry from the simple, heartfelt prayer of the tax collector: "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Here are some more lines from the Psalms:

  • 61:1 Save me, God, / for the water has risen to my neck. / 2 I have sunk in deep mud, and there is no footing; / I have come into deep water, / and a flood sweeps over me.

  • 77:11 I will remember the Lord’s works; / yes, I will remember your ancient wonders. / 12 I will reflect on all you have done / and meditate on your actions.

  • 50:15 Call on me in a day of trouble; / I will rescue you, and you will honor me.

Like Jesus warns us in the New Testament, a well-worded prayer doesn't necessarily mean anything. If you have to choose between praying "impressively" or praying genuinely, always choose genuinely! (Note: putting thought and preparation into your prayer is always a good idea, though.)

This pretentious prayer reveals something very important about Jonah: he is glad to be alive. More to it, he is glad that God had mercy on him. Just keep that in mind for next week's study.

In verse 10, we see that God indeed answered Jonah's prayer for deliverance. Why? Was it because Jonah prayed such a great prayer? No -- God had His own purposes for Jonah, and Jonah was not going to be able to thwart them.

We will pick this up next week -- after all of the crazy events of chapters 1 and 2, we go right back to where we started, with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh with a message.


Closing Thoughts: The Extent of God's Mercy

Here are some things we all need to think about in the week ahead: do we truly want God to show mercy to all people, or are there some people we would just as soon God not show mercy on?

We want to remember that we are sinners deserving of punishment just as much as anyone else in the world, and there's no explanation why we are saved other than God's grace.

Last week, we heard a pair of presentations at FBC: "No Sweat Evangelism" and "Our Gospel Pulse". We learned that 90% of all Christians won't ever share their faith with another person, and we must overcome that trend. Here are four steps:

  1. Own your role as a missionary (all Christians are missionaries)

  2. Choose to be super-intentional to share your faith

  3. Develop an evangelistic curiosity about other people

  4. Show them what you are telling them

Jonah only shared his beliefs with the pagan sailors after they essentially begged him to. He had no interest in them or curiosity about them. Let's not be like that. Instead, we should be like Philip (Acts 8):

  1. His mission was to share the gospel

  2. His field of responsibility was wherever he went

  3. He wanted his message to bring life change

  4. He was sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit

  5. He was on-mission every day

I guess we could say that Jonah was sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, but he would only follow it kicking and screaming. Let's not be like that.


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