Almost inevitably the book of Jonah makes us think first of a big fish, but it is really about the big God – bigger than we think and kinder than we might want. The fish is a red herring, as they say, the hero is God. The prophet Jonah is mentioned elsewhere in 2 Kings 14:25, where his God-given message concerned the blessing of God’s People: that perhaps is a message we love to hear and might readily preach. Here though God’s Word is to be directed to a wicked godless city to bring them to repentance that they might know God’s grace. We are shown God’s heart, and challenged to think about our own.
The word of the LORD comes to Jonah (v.1), and his response is to run away (v.3). The writer doesn’t reveal the reason for his flight until ch.4. We might be tempted to want to guess the reason – eg. is it fear? I mean, we might be pretty scared if told to go to modern day Iran and preach against it publicly; but actually we will discover that’s not Jonah’s reason. For now though that question has to be put on hold. The focus in this opening chapter is simply on Jonah trying to resist the will of God, and discovering the futility of doing so.
Ninevah was a key city in the Assyrian empire, the superpower of the day. A “great city” certainly, but ruthless and wicked and an enemy to God’s people. Other prophets delivered oracles against other nations (see eg Isaiah 13-21 or Obadiah or Nahum), but such messages were as much for the encouragement of God’s people as anything else; Jonah seems unique in being told to go to the city and preach his message there. In sending Jonah, God shows himself to be the God of the whole world, who rules over all and to whom all are accountable. That being so, Jonah’s attempt to run in the opposite direction seems foolish. Did he think he get away from God? Surely he had sung and knew Psalm 139:7-10, and so knew that was impossible. More likely he was simply trying to get as far away from Ninevah as possible so as to avoid a task he didn’t want to do, thinking maybe that God would be forced to send someone else. But God has plans not only for Ninevah but also for Jonah.
The one who is Lord over all the nations shows that he is Lord too over creation. He sends this terrifying storm, he determines the outcome of the casting of lots, and when Jonah first speaks it is to declare that this God is Lord of heaven and earth (v.9). That’s what we see about God. But notice what we see about Jonah. The captain’s question is one we might well ask too – how could Jonah sleep?! It’s as though he doesn’t care – he doesn’t care for his own life nor for the lives of these pagan sailors (though wonderfully God will show he cares for both). It’s as though he knows he can’t escape God presence, but he tries to shut God out as best he can. He does acknowledge God to the sailors, when pressed, but he won’t acknowledge God personally – strikingly as the sailors cry out to their own gods (and in verse 14 will cry out to the LORD), Jonah will not. He knows the truth and knows it to be true, but his heart is hard towards God.
Jonah would rather die than fulfil his commission (v.12) – the sea presumably might have become calm if he had said “Take me back to Joppa. I must do what God has told me to do”. He knows his sin, but he will not repent and cry for mercy. The sailors in contrast do just that: they do not wish to take a man’s life, but when there seems no alternative they cry to the LORD for mercy, and God is merciful. God saves them – for that is what he loves to do (and what Jonah resents about God). Strikingly God shows he can work through even a prophet’s sin and rebellion. God’s grace will shine more and more brightly in this book as first Jonah himself, then the people of Ninevah experience his saving grace, but in this opening chapter we especially see how this gracious God is the sovereign God.