The book of Jonah is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books of the Bible. In its to-the-point, fast-paced, yet deeply intriguing four-chapter structure, it manages to provide us not only with a relatable story starring a not-so-godly man of God, but also a humorous tale of face-slapping irony that is contrasted by deep, philosophical tones that will shake you to the core. On top of this, it manages to establish itself as a story for both children and adults alike, and even paints a basic picture of Jesus throughout the unfolding of the story, despite being written nearly 800 years before His birth. There’s sailors and sea monsters and the threat of city-wide destruction, written like an epic mixed with both fantasy and adventure. It’s essentially “the Princess Bride” of the Bible.
So yeah, I’ll be fangirling a lot in this post, so I apologize ahead of time.
The book starts out by introducing us to Jonah, a prophet of God and the son of a man named Amittai who, as we learned back in 2 Kings 14:25 (the only other mention of Jonah in the Bible), is from Gath Hepher, a town near Nazareth, the small town in which Jesus would one day be raised. In the opening verse of the book, we see that the word of the Lord comes to Jonah, instructing him to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before [God]” (v.2).
So, Jonah being the righteous man of God, what does he do?
He goes to Tarshish, of course!
Now before I move on, it’s important to clarify something: Jonah has a very ironic feel to it, so throughout the entirety of the story, we will constantly see a role reversal—the man of God will continually work against the Lord’s will, and those who we would consider “unsaved” will often be the first ones to see the Light. So whenever God, in these first verses of the book, instructs Jonah to “arise and go,” we instead read that Jonah “arose and fled.” It’s a very ironic situation that would have left those reading it in its original Hebrew language laughing hysterically, no doubt.
If you look at a map, you will more clearly see the irony: Nineveh was in modern-day Iraq—in the East—whereas the place Jonah fled to, Tarshish, was in modern-day Spain—much further and in the West. So, instead of travelling the 500 miles—across dry land—to Nineveh as the Lord instructed, Jonah travelled down to Joppa, hopped on a boat, and planned on travelling nearly five times as far—across the water, a much less secure mode of transportation—just to avoid the Lord’s calling. Not only did he not obey the Lord, but he went nearly five times further in the opposite direction, even if it meant putting his life in peril in order to do so. And this man is considered a man of God!
So why does Jonah run? Why don’t we see his moral dilemma? Immediately after God instructs him to go to Nineveh, the very next thing we read is, “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (v.3). There’s no in-between—no moment where he thinks, Golly gee, Jonah, maybe you should actually listen to God! Why is this? Why is the prophet of God so rebellious?
We won’t see Jonah’s true intentions until the end of the book, but at this point in the story, there are still plenty of reasons that we can deduce: Nineveh was the capital of Assyria at the time, and Assyria was largely an idolatrous group of people known for being both brutal and violent. Essentially—to give things a modern-day application—God was asking Jonah to go preach to ISIS. If Jonah complied, he would be putting himself in harm’s way, enduring a struggle that he had no control over.
So what does he do? He puts himself in harm’s way, enduring a struggle that he has no control over.
Jonah goes down to Joppa, pays the fare for the boat, hops on, and gets ready to cruise. For a while, we can assume that the boat ride goes pretty swiftly, but after some time has passed, a huge storm hits, the result of God’s sovereign power. As a means of describing the severity of the storm in the story, the author of the book personifies the ship in which Jonah and the men sail by saying that the ship itself “threatened to break up” (v.4). The storm is so bad that not only do the sailors and seamen freak out, but the ship itself considers breaking! The sailors call to their gods and begin to toss cargo into the sea, trying to lighten the load and possibly save themselves. The entire ship is in chaos.
But how does Jonah respond?
…we don’t get to see Jonah’s response because he’s downstairs sleeping.
Yeah, here we are in a situation where the sailors are freaking out and becoming all religious and even the boat itself is freaking out, yet the man who is literally running away from God is downstairs sleeping like it’s no big deal! How can this be?!
I think it’s safe to say that Jonah is depressed. You have to realize that this book is written as a Hebrew poem, so it has plenty of poetic devices to emphasize the general mood of the story, and what do we continually see going on? Jonah went down to Joppa, then he went down into the hold, then he lay down to sleep. Later, he’ll go down into the depths of the sea. As Jonah runs away from God, his life goes spiraling down, down, down…further and further into his own misery and depression. So, as everybody else and their boat is totally freaking out, the man of God—the man who should be promising security through faith in the Lord—is too lost in his own misery to do his one job, which is to provide hope for others. Overcome with grief, he tries to escape his problems by sleeping it off. All the nonbelievers are up on top of the ship running around looking for answers, while the one guy with the answers is so wrapped up in his own problems that he doesn’t bother to help.
At last, Jonah is called out. The captain of the ship comes and wakes him up, asking him how he can possibly sleep in a situation such as this (v.6). He tells Jonah to get up and pray to his God.
…yeah, just process that. The nonbeliever has to go up to the prophet of God and tell him to pray to God.
Eventually, the sailors determine that the storm is all Jonah’s fault—it’s complicated to explain, but they did a thing called “casting lots,” which is essentially like rolling dice, and in doing so figured out that the storm was the result of Jonah’s actions. They turn to him and ask him who he is, where he’s from, and what type of work he’s involved with.
Jonah fills them in on the situation: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9). We can assume that, at this point, he informs them of his profession and his drastic failure when it comes to doing his job right.
The sailors have the reaction you’d expect them to have. “What have you done?” (v. 10) they yell at him. “You’re running from the God OF THE SEA…ON MY BOAT?!” It’s safe to say that they’re pretty ticked. By following his own selfish motives, Jonah has put them all in danger. So, once again, we see the unbelievers being the one to put the man of God in his place. So what does Jonah logically conclude is the proper next course of action?
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea” (v. 12), Jonah tells them. It’s unclear whether Jonah received word from God that this would be the solution to their problems or if he simply had a death wish—still locked up in his own depression—but it’s the first suggestion that comes out of his mouth. “Throw me into the sea,” he suggests. “Cause…cause that makes sense, right?”
Once again, the nonbelievers prove that they are the real MVPs. Even though they know that Jonah is the source of all their misery, they do their very best to row back to shore, to return from where they came. They don’t want to send Jonah overboard to a certain death, so they do their best to save each and every one of them, no man left behind. But the problem is, they are, as Jonah said, facing the God of the sea, so the storm gets that much worse. If the ship was considering breaking before, it’s near implosion at this point.
At last, the sailors absolutely break down and cry out to the one true God. “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life” (v. 14). They realize that the only option they have is to throw Jonah overboard, and in doing so, they put their faith in the one true God, the God that Jonah himself hasn’t spoken to yet, despite his status as that very God’s servant.
…the nonbelievers come to God, yet the man of God had no part in converting them. Even whenever Jonah ran away from God, God had a way of twisting the events so that salvation would come. And, as we see, Jonah is still willing to be thrown into the water; perhaps humbled by these men’s act of service and sacrifice, he allows them to throw him into the waters, where he sinks and sinks and sinks. At last, Jonah has surrendered to God. I am Yours, God, we can imagine Jonah thinking. I’ve got no plan, no excuses, no control. I’m Yours and Yours alone. Do with me what You will. As Jonah hits the water, the storm clears and the sailors offer a sacrifice to the Lord. As the chapter concludes, we read that, as Jonah sinks, God miraculously “provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights” (v. 17). BOOM. End of chapter one.
Now if you ask me, this is a beautiful story, and now it’s time for the fangirling to begin. I don’t know about you, but I find this story relatable in every aspect whatsoever, from beginning to end! Jonah, the man of God, shows nothing but weakness, constantly making mistakes and proving himself less rational than even the unbelievers, who often, in Biblical text, are portrayed as the irrational ones when compared to the people of God. And isn’t that how it often works out? This actually goes fairly well with the whole “spiritual maturity” thing I wrote about previously. Often we deem ourselves so wise that we fail to see our own foolishness, and that’s Jonah’s fatal flaw! Despite being God’s chosen ambassador, Jonah chose to disobey Him, falling into the category of people who say, “Yeah, God, I understand what You want me to do, but I have my own plan in mind.” And we’ve all done that. We all have our own boats to Tarshish, our own boats to helps us run away. For every narrow, difficult path that God provides us with, there will be a dozen easily navigable paths that seem much more promising, that will ultimately land us in the midst of our own storm. Even men of God will stumble, and Jonah is a pristine example.
But what I love is that God provides Jonah with a sign, like a slap in the face as he shows Jonah the folly in his ways. He says, “I see you, my beloved. Come back to me,” and that’s precisely how God works! He provides us with storms, and while they can, as is the case with Jonah, be physical storms, often they take another form, such as withholding from us something that we want or, perhaps, giving us everything we want in order to show us that it’s not what we need. God helps us come back to Him by putting us through storms that we must endure. As Jonah said, God is the God of the sea and the land and everything else: we can run, but we can’t hide. It makes no sense to run from a God who can see everything, and as is the case with Jonah, sometimes unbelievers will be the ones to call us out on that fact.
Whenever we read this beautiful story, we have to come to one indisputable fact: we are Jonah. We’ve all run away from God and we’ve all endured our storms. We’ve all gotten cocky and let our ego get in the way. We’ve all heard the voice of God yet rebelled against it, had people blatantly tell us the truth yet been too caught up in our own lives to respond in the way we should. We’ve all been called to Nineveh yet fled to Tarshish. We’ve all ignored the storm and fled from our own problems.
And in the end, we’ve all had to come to the realization that the only way out is to surrender all. The only way out is to be tossed into the depths, to sink lower and lower and lower; to surrender ourselves into God’s hands, and, in the end, to just be held. We are Jonah, and it’s important to recognize that. His story is ironic and riddled with odd decisions as we look at it from an outside perspective, but really, it is utterly and even sickeningly relatable. We have all made his choices, we have all walked in his shoes. We have all sunk into the deep sea.
And the story is just beginning.