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Fish Story

Jonah  1

No other story of the Old Testament has been ridiculed as often as that of Jonah. It comes as a surprise, then, when we read it: the writer was quite serious about this. It is no weaving of legends; the man Jonah had a father and a village – in those days quite sufficient to make him human. Things haven’t really changed. Let us examine, then, the great fish story of the Old Testament.

1The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

3But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.

4Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”

7Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.

8So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

9He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

10This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.)

11The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

13Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14Then they cried to the LORD, “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.” 15Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.

17But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.


There is some debate as to the destination Jonah has chosen. Some consider it to be Tarsus, which would be in modern Turkey. Others point out a similar name in the south of what is now Spain. In either case, Jonah’s voyage would be a dangerous one.

But not – perhaps – as dangerous as Nineveh. Nineveh was a famous city of the Old Testament, said to have been build originally by Nimrod. At this time it was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire – the enemies of the Jews. Its destruction, prophesied in Zephaniah[1] and Nahum[2], took place about a hundred years later.

Jonah simply doesn’t want to go there. In this he echoes Moses and Elijah, two men who both thought they were not suited to the job. Indeed, making excuses to God as to why you can’t do it seems to be a part of the job. But there is a lesson in this – especially for those who have been called to a task:

16At the end of seven days the word of the LORD came to me: 17“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. 18When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for£ his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. 19But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself.

20“Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before him, he will die. Since you did not warn him, he will die for his sin. The righteous things he did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. 21But if you do warn the righteous man not to sin and he does not sin, he will surely live because he took warning, and you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:16)

We often forget that those who are called to preach the word are given a heavy load. Our Lord himself makes it clear that we must not look back, once the work is given:

62Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

That being said, we can now examine this little incident by its characters. We will begin with Jonah.

The character of Jonah

Though it is not specifically stated here, Jonah was a prophet of the Old Testament.[3] One of the most fascinating of coincidences appears with Jonah. He is a contemporary of Amos, the prophet. Amos was to preach to the Israelites; Jonah to the Ninevites. What a reproach to those ancient Jews – that the preaching of God to their enemies brought repentance, while preaching to them brought only more disobedience.

We should learn from this. When God allows trouble in someone’s life, and they repent because of it, we should be quick to learn by example. Otherwise we may learn by repetition.

Jonah, it is clear, does not have a very rational relationship with God. He fears God – both as creator and Lord, the one who controls the very reality in which he lives. More than that, God has spoken to him. He has directly commanded him to go to Nineveh. Consider it: what would you do if God spoke directly to you and commanded you to go to, say, North Korea? Would this increase your faith, or would it increase your sense of panic?

Jonah’s faith, on the other hand, permits him the fancy that he can ignore God when it is convenient. Or at the very least, he can leave the area, head in the opposite direction – because there is nothing God can do about it. It is not wise to think of this as an ancient failing.

I give you Granoff’s law: “I want to sleep with my girlfriend, therefore there is no God.”[4] When it is inconvenient – especially when it is repugnant – we want nothing to do with God’s commands. We presume upon his character by simply refusing either to do or discuss it. After all, He’s the forgiving sort, isn’t he? This view fails to take into account the slight possibility that God might have an opinion on that subject.

Here’s Jonah’s problem in step by step fashion:

  1. Nineveh is one wicked city – San Francisco comes to mind today.
  2. Not only that, Nineveh is the city of our enemies. (Dodger fans will understand that one).
  3. BUT – I know God. He is the kind that is slow to anger and quick to forgive. If I go there, they’d probably repent. He’d forgive them. That makes me look like a fool, and worse yet keeps my enemy from getting what he deserves.
  4. Therefore, I will frustrate God’s intentions and make him find another fool. I’ll head in exactly the opposite direction. He’ll have to forgive me and find someone else.

This, as we see, reckons without the living God.

The character of God

Those who are frequent flyers know the problem well: you get to the airport and the plane is late, being maintained, lost its compass, is being cleaned, or something – and you’re late. But note that you can only be late when a schedule has been declared. In Jonah’s time, ships sailed when the wind and tide looked right. Isn’t it convenient that there was a ship waiting for Jonah?

How often we hear of God opening doors! We usually hear this when someone is praising God for his goodness; we need to remember that he will open the doors that lead to repentance, too. He works all things together for the good of those who love him – and some of those things seem very bad at the time.

But that’s God’s method. We see it here. He has called Jonah to service, and when Jonah refuses and runs away, we do not see the often-expected lightning strike. Nor do we see the other extreme of God doing nothing. Instead, God has made some travel arrangements for Jonah. This trip will put him in a position where he is obliged to do two things:

1.            He will acknowledge his sins.

2.            He will proclaim the greatness of God.

Why these two? These two are primary requirements for a relationship with God. If you want a personal relationship with someone, you must have a very good idea of who the other person is – and who you are. You are the sinner (aren’t we all?); He is God Almighty.

He is also the God who provides. When the moment comes, God provides Jonah with three things:

1.            He provides him with understanding - in particular, that the threat this storm poses is due to himself.

2.            He provides him with guidance. There is no sense saying, “It’s your fault,” if you don’t also provide guidance on what to do about it. (How many of us can say that we do that, too?)

3.            He then provides a test of faith. Jonah will pass the test – which will render him that much stronger for the task ahead.

Character of the sailors

The sailors might be modern men, for all their reaction. First, they are not particularly concerned with sound thinking or theology. When the boat’s in trouble, the rule is that everyone gets up and helps – and everyone prays to whatever god he thinks appropriate. Maybe one of these gods will be awake and help out here.

So naturally they wake up the Jew from the hill country and tell him to do likewise. Make a vow to him, or something. These gods can be bribed if your offering is big enough. So get with it, country cousin.

As the waters rise, the sailors indulge themselves in another human failing, the placement of blame. Obviously, this malevolent storm must be intended as a lesson to one of us. Let’s find out which of us it is. You see the idea: we’re not sure who it is, but we’re sure it’s somebody’s fault. The method of selection seems a bit arbitrary, but in this instance it works. Sometimes God humors us in that – which is no reason to think it sound theology.

The real trouble comes when they realize who they are dealing with – the God of creation, the one who made all things. This god cannot be bribed – and now where are we?

They do get one thing right: God is righteous. A minute earlier they had found out whose fault it was. But he belongs to God Almighty. If he can whip up a storm like this, we don’t want to anger him by murdering one of his own. So, we all pull for shore. Just like us – do whatever it takes to placate God.

And just like us, they eventually run out of options. When all other methods have failed, they follow instructions. They throw Jonah overboard. But just to make sure they are in good graces with this Jehovah, they offer sacrifices and make vows.

Who is our God?

We see in this some pictures of God – and they seem remarkably familiar to us; they haven’t changed that much.

One view is that God can be manipulated by bribery (call it an offering), ignored when convenient and finally will be quick to forgive when we decide to come home. This is a very convenient god; the only real problem is that there is no such god. But we do keep looking for him – even in the church.

Another view is that of the God who needs to be placated now and then. In those days it was sacrifices and vows; today it’s occasional church attendance and a sporadic check now and then. God? We have him covered, no problem. He may be the angry God, but I’m on his good side.

Then there is the Lord God Almighty. He has three characteristics shown here:

1.            He is perfectly willing to allow you to get yourself in deep trouble – especially when it will help you understand how you got there. Sometimes we need the fear to realize how serious life is.

2.            He is also the God who will turn evil into a greater good. We have seen it often; we should praise him for it.

3.            He is, ultimately, the God who Provides. In the voyages of life, in times of trouble, and ultimately at the Cross.

The only question left: just who is your God?

[1] Zephaniah 2:13-15

[2] Nahum 1:11-14

[3] See II Kings 14:25

[4] The Granoff in question is now a firm believer in Christ.

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