Lessons from Jonah

Of all the prophetic works recorded for us in the Old Testament, Jonah is unique. This writing does not focus on Jonah’s message; in fact, only one sentence is given to his message—“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). Rather than focusing on this, emphasis is placed on Jonah himself. As we read through this great story, there are a number of lessons for us to learn.

Before delving into these lessons, we must take careful note: This is a true story. Skeptics are quick to dismiss the story of Jonah as fiction, and unfortunately, it seems their influence has affected some who claim to believe the Bible. While the evidence offered may not sway the hardened skeptic, we who believe the message of Scripture must not be taken in by error and stand up for what the Scriptures teach!

The Scriptures teach that Jonah was a real man and that his story was a real event. 2 Kings 14:25 (a book of history) refers to Jonah as a real man who really was a prophet of God. Jesus referred to the events of Jonah as evidence of the sign that would be given to the people: “For just 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). Just as Jesus was really dead, buried, and raised—the foundational view of Christianity (Romans 6:1-11; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20)—Jonah was really in the belly of the fish and vomited out on the land (Jonah 1:17; 2:10). With that aside, let us consider some of the things Jonah teaches us.

First, we learn that we cannot run from God or the work he has given us to do. Jonah quickly learned this when the word of the Lord came to him, he “rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord,” and discovered that attempting to do so was utterly foolish (1:1-17). David conveyed this very thought in Psalm 139:7-12, in which he says: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

We can, undoubtedly, hide ourselves from doing the work of our Lord, just as Jonah attempted to do. There are many “ships” we seek to hide ourselves in: kinships, friendships, relationships, scholarships, etc. We’re so busy living our lives that we fail to realize we’re running away from God, and are surprised when the seas of our inner self are tempestuous. If we want rest, we must take on Christ’s yoke (Matthew 11:28-30). If we want peace, we must pray with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6-7). God must be first in our lives (Matthew 6:33; 10:34-39), and he knows when he isn’t despite how things may look to us (consider the “reputation” vs. the “reality” in Revelation 3:1).

Second, we learn of God’s great love for all of his creation. We are very familiar with the fact that Israel was God’s chosen people whom he raised up and cared for (cf. Ezekiel 16:1-14; Hosea 11:1-4). However, we sometimes overlook the fact that the other nations were God’s creation, too—unless we are pointing out his righteous judgment against them (e.g. Isaiah 13-27).

Nineveh was not a Jewish city, though; they were Assyrian, and when their evil had come up before God (1:2), his first instinct was not to strike them all dead. Instead, he looked down on the ignorant city in pity (4:11) and ensured that they would hear the message of truth by which they might have life (3:1-5, 10).

Do we see how this looks forward to God’s eternal plan? There was nothing special about Israel that made God choose them as his people; certainly, they were God’s people and he raised them, but they were not an end unto themselves. Their purpose was that the Christ might come into the world (Romans 9:4-5), and by him, all might be saved (John 3:16). God’s desire has always been for his creation (of whatever nation) to be saved (see Jeremiah 18:7-10). Israel was chosen to ultimately bring this about in the Christ, but in the meantime, God did not leave the Gentiles guideless and without any hope.

Third, we learn of God’s great mercy and how it must be reflected in us. In chapter four, we learn why Jonah ran away instead of preaching to the people at first: he knew that if he preached and the people repented, God would not destroy them (4:2). He then went out of the city, made a booth, sat and watched it “till he should see what would become of the city” (4:5)—perhaps he was watching for their slip up and subsequent destruction? As he sat and waited, God taught him a lesson in pity. He caused a plant to grow and give Jonah shade; the next day, God caused this plant to wither. When Jonah grew angry about this, God 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. 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?” (4:10-11).

Jonah understood pity and mercy when it affected him: God had mercy to save him from the sea; God should have been merciful to the plant which gave him shade. But he missed the mercy in which over 120,000 ignorant people were saved. He knew God had this mercy (4:2), but he missed that he, too, should have had this mercy. The book ends rather abruptly, and we do not know if Jonah ever learned the lesson God was teaching him. Whether he did or not, it is recorded for us to learn from.

We have been blessed with great mercy from God, and we must show great mercy to others (Matthew 18:21-35), even those who are our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). As our God is holy, we must be holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). His light must shine in us who are his (Matthew 5:14-16).