Are You Running From God's Will?

| Jonah 1:1-3,17; 3:1-5,10; 4:5-11

Lesson Focus: This lesson is about those who claim they want to know God’s will but resist carrying out clear, divine instructions when they learn God’s will differs from their desires.

When Wills Clash: Jonah 1:1-3,17.

[1]  Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, [2]  "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." [3]  But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. [17]  And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. [ESV]

[1-3]  The brief introduction gives evidence of the overall movement of the book. It is to be a story about Yahweh and Jonah. Though other characters as well as places and events will figure in the story, the focus will remain upon Yahweh and Jonah: what one wants the other does not always do. The structure of the introduction may be described by a simple two-part outline: Yahweh’s command [1-2]; Jonah’s response: flight [3]. The story begins with the mention of two essential facts: (1) Yahweh’s word was given; (2) it was given to a particular prophet, Jonah, son of Amittai. The wording the word of the Lord came or a variation of it is used in connection with a prophet’s receipt of a divine command 112 times in the Old Testament. It is a standard way to describe a revelation. The prophet Jonah appears in 2 Kings 14:25 as the prophet whom God used to proclaim His decision to bless Israel (the Northern Kingdom) under the reign of Jeroboam the second by allowing it to expand its borders substantially. The days of Jeroboam became days of great prosperity and national pride even though Jeroboam did what was evil in the sight of the Lord [2 Kings 14:24]. The oppression of Israel by foreign military conquest is given as the reason for Yahweh’s intervention [26-27] in a summation the wording of which is patently similar to language used to summarize interventions of deliverance in the book of Judges. The content of the message from Yahweh in Jonah 1:2 is an imperative (Arise, go … call out against it) followed by an explanation (for their evil has come up before me). Jonah knows exactly what he has to do. He is to serve in the great city of Nineveh, hundreds of miles away to the northeast. Jonah is told not only that his assignment involved going to Nineveh and speaking against it, but is given two bits of information about the reason for his commission: Nineveh is a great city, and Yahweh has taken notice of some calamity that occurred there. A special aspect of this message is the distance Jonah must go to deliver it. Implied in such a command is the concept that God’s sovereignty is a world-wide one, and that violation of His will by any nation can bring His wrath. It is unclear what their evil refers to. The word translated evil by the ESV can also be translated as disaster or calamity. Was Jonah being asked to preach against Nineveh because Yahweh intended to judge the city for its evil; or was he to preach against it in the sense of providing an explanation of why Yahweh had allowed some sort of evil or disaster to befall it? While Nineveh’s trouble is left unspecified, the reason for it is clear. Nineveh was an evil city and stood as a symbol of the brutally oppressive Assyrian empire itself. The clause has come up before me means that a situation is extreme enough to gain the special attention of God. Yahweh thus announces to Jonah that His interest in the situation has been aroused to the point that He has chosen to do something about it. Jonah is told to call out against it which meant that he was to warn that God was about to punish them. But Jonah would also recognize that to give advance warning of the imposition of judgment was to open the door to the possibility of repentance. Jonah went, all right, but not to Nineveh. Instead he made his plan to flee by sea away from Yahweh. Nineveh was to the east. Tarshish was somewhere in the western Mediterranean. It is repeated three times in verse 3 to emphasize the enormity of Jonah’s rebellion. If Yahweh, Lord of all the earth, could superintend matters as distant to the east as was Nineveh, how could Jonah expect to get away merely by traveling an equal distance west? Jonah’s attempt to flee is not entirely illogical, no matter how ultimately unsuccessful it may have been. His reasoning was probably to flee to a location where there were no fellow believers and God was not worshipped, hoping that this would help insure that God’s word would not come to him again. But, as he later found out, there is no escape from the presence of the Lord.

[17]  Again only the bare details of the story are told, and much that might satisfy curiosity is omitted. That God should have planned to rescue Jonah in this extraordinary, utterly surprising way comes as sudden news to the reader after we see Jonah being cast into the sea in verse 15. The wording of the sentence is precise. Yahweh is in control; the fish simply does what it is told [see 2:10]. The story does not specify what kind of fish it was, how Jonah could have lived inside it, or the answers to any other such queries. Yahweh can easily toss the wind around to make a storm when He wants to and He can miraculously rescue someone from drowning via a fish. But it cannot necessarily be explained since a miracle is a divine act beyond human replication or explanation. The numerous attempts made in the past to identify the sort of fish that could have kept Jonah alive in it are misguided. Such efforts take the focus off of the main intent of the passage that Yahweh is sovereign over all things and there is no escape from His presence.

Concerning Grace and Second Chances: Jonah 3:1-5,10.

[1]  Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, [2]  "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you." [3]  So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. [4]  Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" [5]  And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. [10]  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

[1-3]  God had accomplished His will in Jonah’s life even after Jonah’s attempted rebellion. He had taught Jonah both that God’s will cannot be ignored and, as well, that He was a God of compassion whose will included forgiveness and rescue. Now begins a new segment of the Jonah story. Yahweh’s command came to him again. It demanded faithful obedience. Jonah had to do as he was told. And he did. Jonah may have been hoping that although Yahweh rescued him from sure death, he would not so rescue the Assyrians. He may, on the other hand, have been quite pessimistic, afraid that his enemies, the Ninevites, would get off lightly. We are not told what he thought, however, because what he thought is not important yet. That he was required to obey is what is important. Nineveh, the hated city, was to hear Yahweh’s word of warning, delivered by an authentic prophet, and thereby be given at least a theoretical chance to repent. Whether Jonah liked it or not, he went. And there is nothing here to suggest that Jonah liked it any more this time than the first. There can be no doubt that the story is, as it were, starting over. Once again Jonah has heard the word of Yahweh. Jonah is back where it all started. His attempted flight had no effect. Nothing essential has changed in the divine command except that the mention of Nineveh’s trouble in 1:2 is no longer necessary, and more attention is paid to the fact that Jonah must obediently preach exactly what he is given to say. If anything, this new injunction (the message that I tell you) reminds Jonah that he has no option but to obey. Jonah has already learned that he cannot escape Yahweh’s call to Nineveh. Now he is reminded that he cannot hope to influence or adjust the message Yahweh will give him. He must resign himself to the fact that Yahweh is concerned for Nineveh. This time Jonah obeyed. We know nothing of how soon he left, how the trip went, when he arrived in Nineveh, or any such detail. We know only that he had learned his lesson about trying to avoid the call of Yahweh. That his "change of heart" was only partial we learn in retrospect from chapter 4. At present we can assume only that he recognized the futility of further disobedience to his God and would attempt no further rebellion, at least in terms of his actions.

A new scene begins with the second half of verse 3. Jonah has arrived at Nineveh and is no longer in Palestine or on the sea. The focus now shifts to Jonah’s message and the response of the people in Nineveh. Nineveh is described as an exceedingly great city. The phrase three days’ journey in breadth (or a visit was a three days’ journey) is difficult to interpret. It could simply imply that Nineveh’s population and importance made it necessary for Jonah to preach there for at least three days, to be sure that God’s message had been really heard by the bulk of the populace. A prophet might reach the populace of a small town with a word from God in a very short time. But in a major city, a prophet would have to travel to various sections, speaking to different crowds, over a period of time.

[4-5]  Jonah began to preach his message as soon as it was feasible to do so. Of course, if the great size of Nineveh were in view, the narrator might be making the point that Jonah did not begin to preach immediately, but went far enough into the city to be somewhere in the center of town before he preached. That is, he did not merely deliver his warning at the city limits. Jonah preached the words Yahweh had given him, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. The forty days must have seemed to many Ninevites to be an invitation to repentance, giving hope that they and their city or land might not be destroyed. There is no mention of Jonah preaching on more than the first day because the people repented before he could even get into the full task of preaching to them. According to the usual expectation, Jonah would have preached widely throughout the city on the second and third day to all who would listen. But all this was short-circuited by the eager response of the Ninevites. Jonah was just beginning to warm up, just starting the process, and they were already believing God. The Ninevites needed only the initial word, so ready were they to turn from their evil practices. Jonah’s words reached eager ears right away. And the Ninevites themselves repeated the message all over the city until it touched even the king [6]. The people from the greatest of them to the least of them responded to the message by calling for a fast and changing into sackcloth, the mourning garb of the ancient Near East. Fasting and uncomfortable dress represented self-denial to the ancient Semites.

[10]  We are now told that God was everything Jonah feared [4:2] and the sinful city hoped. As a result of the genuine repentance of the people (they turned from their evil way), God relented, simply and fully, of His original plan to punish them. What God did was to change His mind in accordance with what He revealed of Himself elsewhere in Scripture. Jonah’s words of warning to Nineveh had never been certain predictions of doom. They had contained an implicit contingency on the order of that described in Jeremiah 18:8: if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do. And when Nineveh repented, God relented. That God should choose to make His own actions contingent, at least in part, upon human actions is no limitation of His sovereignty. Having first decided to place the option of obedience and disobedience before nations, His holding them responsible for their actions automatically involves a sort of contingency. He promises blessing if they repent, punishment if not. But this hardly makes God dependent on the nations; it rather makes them dependent on Him as is the point of the mourning decree in 3:5-9. God holds all the right, all the power, and all the authority. He alone decides if He will show mercy or not: Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger [3:9]. A message of the book of Jonah is that God does not exercise His power arbitrarily and discriminatorily. Jonah, the nationalist, wants God to bless Israel and harm all its enemies. But God is patient. He manifests His sovereignty not in stubbornness but in grace; not in narrow particularism but in a willingness to forgive any people. There is, however, a contingency. God’s threat is not to be taken lightly. His warning is as severe as the Ninevites took it to be.

What God Cares About Most: Jonah 4:5-11.

[5]  Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. [6]  Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.

[7]  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. [8]  When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, "It is better for me to die than to live." [9]  But God said to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" And he said, "Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die." [10]  And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. [11]  And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" [ESV]

[5-9]  The narrator commences a flashback to a point at which Jonah was still not certain of the outcome of his warning the city. Jonah remained both stubborn and inconsistent to the end: stubborn in his opposition to God’s evident concern for the enemy, but inconsistent in that he was perfectly happy to be the beneficiary of God’s concern himself. For teaching purposes, it is advantageous for the audience to be left at the end of the book with their freshest memory being that of the one incident which, more forcefully than any other, shows Jonah to be wrong and God to be right. Thus the narrator has selected the story of the gourd, placed it as the climax of the book and thus masterfully accomplished his inspired purpose. After finishing his preaching, Jonah left the city on the east side and found a spot to sit and see what would happen to the city. So he constructed a crude shelter and settled down to wait for the doom that Yahweh would bring upon Nineveh. The issue here is Jonah’s protection from the sun, a major concern to anyone in the ancient Near East living in the open during the daytime. The Lord God intervened to show concern for Jonah by designating a gourd to give him shade. The verb appointed is the same word used in 1:17 for God’s provision of the great fish to save Jonah from the depths of the sea. Jonah’s actions betrayed his inconsistency. The gourd suddenly appeared and grew very quickly [10]. Jonah could hardly miss the point that this, too, was a merciful gift to him from God. But such gifts were fine with him only as long as they were not also given to his enemies. A general rejoicing in Nineveh over deliverance from divine wrath would infuriate Jonah. But personally, his own special good fortune resulting from an act of pure divine grace was a great delight. God’s purpose in the gourd was to teach Jonah something about concern and compassion, so God appointed a worm to kill the gourd plant by eating away the root or stem. Again God specially appointed an element of nature to affect Jonah. This time it was an east wind so hot and debilitating that it robbed Jonah of all comfort. To this God added a cloudless sky so that the sun bore down on Jonah. Jonah then uttered a plea for death. He still did not comprehend how wrong he was. From his point of view, everything had gone wrong for him, and he simply couldn’t stand it anymore. God then intervened verbally, because the incident of the climbing gourd was planned not as a harassment, but as an object lesson to teach Jonah something about the inconsistency of his own position over against that of God. This question about the right to be angry is central to the whole book, and crucial to the narrator’s point in telling the story as he has. What right do we have to demand that God should favor us and not others? By reducing the question to the particular issue of the gourd, God focused the question in a way that would cause Jonah to condemn himself by his own words. Jonah did just that. His reply to God could not be more appropriate to the point God will make. Jonah insisted in the strongest terms possible that the gourd was important to him. It was significant in his eyes! It delighted him. Now that it is dead, he is furious. In the argument, God now has him where He wants him. Of his own free speech Jonah has declared a plant to be eminently worthy to life, a thing of great concern to himself.

[10-11]  So how can it be right that Nineveh should be struck down? If it was not right for the gourd how can it be right for Nineveh? Jonah could give no good answer to that question. The book ends with an explanation from Yahweh Himself, a clear and convincing argument against Jonah’s narrow particularism. Yahweh’s speech focuses on His concern for Nineveh. Jonah’s delight, anger, disappointment, frustration, and the other emotions he may have experienced in connection with the gourd are all aspects of his concern for himself. Likewise, the various emotions Yahweh may have felt toward Nineveh can be summarized by the statement that He had concern for it. In other words, Yahweh was only doing for Nineveh what Jonah had insisted he had the right to do for a plant. Additionally, the divine speech contrasts the worth of the gourd with that of Nineveh. The gourd was only a plant. Jonah invested no effort in it, and it lived only a day. Nineveh, however, was the important city of its day, a city of enormous population. Can there be any doubt which is the more important, the more deserving of concern?

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why did Jonah run from God? How did God respond? Think about a time when you "ran from God" by refusing to use your gifts and/or abilities in service to Him for a particular opportunity that He presented to you. How did God respond in your particular situation? God can respond in various ways to situations. What are the different ways He might respond to someone refusing to serve Him in the way and place that He has directed?

2.         Note the examples of God’s mercy to both Jonah and Nineveh in this story. Think about how God has shown you mercy in your times of disobedience. Praise and thank Him for His great mercy that He shows freely to His people.

3.         What do we learn about Jonah in this story? Think about the times you have acted like Jonah even when serving God. What do we learn about God in this story? (Note especially how God chooses to use humans in carrying out His purposes but is not dependent upon the proper motivation on the part of His servants in order to accomplish His will). Meditate on how wonderful God is in dealing with His children.

4.         What lesson did God teach Jonah through these events (see especially 4:5-11)? Do we need to be taught the same lesson concerning our sharing of the Gospel message with others?


Hosea-Jonah, Douglas Stuart, Thomas Nelson.

Jonah, Joyce Baldwin, Baker.