We all know the story of the man who found himself in the belly of a great fish. I’ve always found this book of the Bible interesting, and it always makes me smile (will tell you why later). That said, the story carries some important lessons that can help us tremendously.
The prophet of God made decisions that we would typically not expect of someone in his position, and yet those decisions can now be a source of insight into God’s perspective of life. If Jonah could tell us what he learned from his experience I think it would go something like this.
We have freewill and God will let us exercise it
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. (Jonah 1:1-3)
God gave Jonah clear instructions to go Nineveh and ask them to repent so that their city would not be destroyed. The prophet knew what he was told but did not feel like obeying and why? The reason being his obedience in past times had not yielded much (more on that ahead). However he exercised his freewill to say no to God. He went to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare and was soon on a cruise away from the ‘difficult’ demands of his God.
I know all of us can relate to this, there are times when doing what God says seems difficult and unfruitful so we pay our fare and head to our very own “Tarshish”. In the meantime God looks on and lets us have our way.
We really cannot get away from God
I hope someone said Amen because it is a good thing God will never leave us, more especially when we disobey him. Jonah was really enjoying his cruise, so much so that he was fast asleep during a great storm that had suddenly hit the sea.
The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. (Jonah 1:4-5)
So we see that some storms in life can actually come from God! They are meant to restore us to the safe and good path. We are allowed to make mistakes but because God is our loving Father, it is his responsibility to get us back on track.
The delight of the cruise won’t last that long
Jonah was rudely awaken from his holiday cruise!
So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps he will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
The man calls Jonah a “sleeper” (there’s one smile) and I think it’s because he made a habit of it. But more importantly Jonah was shaken out of his self-allocated holiday and thrown directly into a perilous situation. Not a nice way to wake up.
The lesson here is that the wrong path is the wrong path, and ultimately leads to trouble. The trouble may come as a way of God’s correction or a consequence of the actions that we took in our disobedience. Not all our mistakes will lead to terrible situations (God’s grace is available) but continually saying no to God will result in unwanted situations.
God directs the life of a believer—even when you think otherwise
And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. (Jonah 1:7)
Remember that time at school when a member of the class said something funny and the teacher heard? “Who said that?” The teacher asked, and the person happened to be you! So as they did investigations to find out, you braced yourself for the inevitable outcome. That was Jonah, as they cast lots. He knew he was going to be found out, and begun to realize that he couldn’t run from God.
Now here’s something you might find strange: God’s purpose for our lives can sometimes only be fulfilled by our mistakes. Not because He wants us to go astray (and all choices remain ours) but because in his wisdom he decides that it will be more beneficial for others to see his strength through our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Ignoring God’s counsel can get us into some uncomfortable places
After the lot fell to Jonah they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he told them “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:8-9)
Jonah further explained that he had tried to flee from his God and that was the reason for the storm. He curiously was not embarrassed to say the God “who made the sea” (another smile). You knew that before you run from him Jonah!
On a serious note though, the men were fearful when he told them about his God. They asked him why he had to disobey Him and put their lives in danger. Meanwhile the sea got more violent and the men asked Jonah what they could do so that his God would stop the storm.
Jonah had been watching as they threw heavy sacks overboard to lighten the load.
So he said, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:12).
Let us pause there for a moment. What was Jonah thinking? Did he have so much faith in God’s deliverance, or was he just fed up with his life that he did not care if he drowned? My guess is he realized that God was putting him in a corner and decided to yield to whatever He had in mind. Maybe this is where it would all end for him, he must have thought.
The men nevertheless tried to guide the ship, they did not want to have the guilt of taking a life on their conscience. They soon discovered it was pointless and after stating their innocence threw Jonah into the raging sea. And it became calm.
Meanwhile Jonah was sinking into the depths of the sea.
“You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3).
Down he went taking in a good amount of water and losing his ability to breathe. Now he was sure this was it for him, his life was slipping away. At that moment the great fish swallowed him up and he spent three days in its slimy insides. God supernaturally kept him alive even though he should have been digested by the fish. So he lived there for three days. This was not punishment per se; God used it to demonstrate his power for future generations and make sure the stubborn prophet would be more inclined to listen once he was out.
God can deliver us from consequences of wrong decisions
“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you.” (Jonah 2:7)
As he lay in the soggy interior of the great fish, Jonah remembered that his God was merciful and he prayed in his spirit for deliverance. He repented of his disobedience and God heard him. The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Just like that, Jonah’s ordeal had ended. He didn’t look or smell too good but he was at the shores of the sea and on land once again. I believe the great fish deposited him as close to his home as possible. Once he was at home he must have sacrificed to God in thanksgiving and joy. Likewise, when we stray from God, he is always willing to receive us with open arms, remember the prodigal son?
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”(Jonah 3:1-2) I smiled again. Yes Jonah, you’re back where you started. There is a message for us there but I know you’ve already seen it.
God has a greater, more informed perspective than we do
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. (Jonah 3:3)
We can already see one of the reasons Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. It was a physically demanding task to walk three days through the city, stopping at every corner and repeating God’s message. But this time the prophet listens to God, same circumstances, same city, same instruction and only a different attitude. Sometimes we just need a change in the way we approach things. We should remember that when God instructs us, it is not to make us suffer but for reasons that are only good.
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). So the man of God delivered the message. And it reached the king who called for a fast among all his people and asked them all to repent. He was so serious he even made the animals go on a fast (smile), and you can check the Text. The people were sorry for their sin and God saw it and relented from the overthrow he was about to bring upon them.
Isn’t it a wonderful thing to see people show remorse and change their ways for the better? But someone was not happy! And the Nineveh times headline would have read: Evangelist Triggers Great Revival, Says He Is Not Happy! Yes, when God let Jonah know that he had relented, the man was displeased. And here’s the reason: Jonah was tired of being the prophet who warns of disasters that never come to pass. Somehow people always listened to him and turned from their ways. He obviously missed the whole point. God wanted to preserve those people not make a celebrity out of him. How many times do we get angry at God when he doesn’t give us what we want? Instead we should thoroughly examine our motives first. If they are good then we keep waiting on him. If not, then adjust our mindset to what God approves.
God then demonstrates with a plant (Jonah 4:7-10) which he makes provide shelter for Jonah then destroys within a night. Jonah complains in his heart, feeling sad (and angry) for the one-day-old plant. God then says,
“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. 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 much cattle?”
So we see that God’s wisdom in sending Jonah is justified. He turned so many away from sin (including the sailors) and in light of eternity that was a great thing to do. Jesus (after many years) gives Jonah a very honorable place when he compares himself to the prophet. And we see that he foreshadowed Christ. “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”(Matthew 12:40)