By Dr. Bill Patterson
After I preached on Jonah at a conference, a man named George approached me. “Pastor, that’s a good fish story, but I’ve got a good one too.”
“Tell me, George.”
“Some buddies of mine and I enjoyed bass fishing. We liked to fish in a certain lake, but it had little cover. We decided to sink some old cars so the fish would have a place to hide. A few years later when we fished that area, I hooked the biggest bass I had ever had on my line. I knew he was huge because he jumped in the air as I fought him and I saw him. Hoo-wee, that was some bass! However, he turned toward those old cars and got hung up about six feet down.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I wasn’t going to let one that big get away without doing everything I could to land him.”
“So what did you do?” again I asked, feeling by then that George had strung me along like that fish.
“I stripped off my shirt, I handed my billfold and my rod and reel to my friend, and I jumped in.”
“I found the line and followed it. Sure enough, it led down to one of the old cars we’d sunk years earlier.”
“Did you get him?” I asked.
“I would have,” George said, “but every time I stuck my hand toward the car, he rolled up the window!”
We recognize that some fish stories are not true. The biblical story of Jonah is true, however. Jesus even referred to it (Matthew 12:39-41).
Let’s trace Jonah’s story scene by scene.
Scene 1: God Calls
This short book of 48 verses begins with God calling Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Nineveh lay northeast of Israel in what is now Iraq. The capital of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh was Israel’s greatest enemy in Jonah’s day.
You may be thinking, That’s interesting. I’m glad God hasn’t called me to Nineveh. Perhaps he hasn’t, but he has called us all to make disciples locally and all over the world (Matthew 28:19, 20).
Scene 2: Jonah Runs
Jonah ran from God’s call. Rather than going northeast to Nineveh, he decided to go west to Tarshish (2,000 miles away on the southern coast of what is now Spain). Have you ever tried to run from God? But where can you go to escape his presence?
Notice how Jonah’s life began going down when he ran from God’s call. The Bible lists the word “down” several times as Jonah ran. He went down from Jerusalem to Joppa, a seacoast town located close to the present-day city of Tel Aviv. He went down to the sea, bought a ticket from the Mediterranean Transit Authority, went down into a ship, down into the hold of the ship, and laid down.
Jonah’s life wasn’t finished going down. A terrific storm blew in. The experienced seamen knew it surpassed any they had ever seen. They recognized the hand of God in that storm. When they cast lots to see whose fault it was, the lot fell on Jonah. He admitted he had run from the God who made both land and sea and offered to give his life for the seamen.
How ironic that the reluctant prophet Jonah indicated willingness to give his life for the sailors but not for the people of Nineveh. The sailors threw him into the rolling sea, and he sank down. A large fish swallowed him and he went down into its belly. When we run from God, life goes down.
Scene 3: God Answers
Inside the fish, Jonah prayed. A careful reading of the text shows he didn’t pray until he had been in the fish’s belly for three days. Jonah was one tough prophet. Imagine three days of rocking back and forth inside a swimming fish, three days of the first submarine ride in history! I would have prayed when that storm arose, when the lots were cast, when the sailors threw me overboard, and especially when I began to sink. Jonah didn’t pray until he had three days on a foam blubber mattress!
As soon as he prayed, however, God answered. If you are in a low place, God can still hear your prayer.
Chapter 3 opens with God giving Jonah essentially the same command as before: go to Nineveh and preach what I tell you. This time Jonah had a willing heart.
Aren’t you glad God gives us a second chance to do his work? Each of us has blown it. But God, in his great mercy, gives another opportunity. And another. The story of Jonah could be called “The God of Second Chances.”
Scene 4: Nineveh Repents
Scholars believe the Nineveh of Jonah’s day may have been the third largest city in the world. Jonah indicated that it took people three days to walk across the city. Would that have made it 50 or 60 miles across or more? The Bible said Jonah only got a third of the way across when the entire city repented.
The king proclaimed a fast, and the city turned to God. The greatest revival in the Old Testament took place at Nineveh. What caused the people to turn to God so rapidly? Part of the answer may be that Jonah looked and smelled like his testimony was true.
I imagine Jonah’s skin bleached white by the acid inside the whale. I think of him smelling like decayed shrimp and fish. While not pleasant to consider Jonah in that condition, it would have given great credibility to his story. Imagine one neighbor telling another, “You’ve gotta see this man who walked through town today. He’s preaching repentance and I think his story adds up.”
Scene 5: Jonah Sulks
The fourth chapter shows Jonah sitting on a hillside overlooking Nineveh, sulking. Since the people repented, God spared them. Jonah knew that God was gracious and compassionate. He knew God would spare them if they repented; nevertheless, he sulked.
Did Jonah feel anger because they repented when he wanted Israel’s enemies dead? Or was it that Jonah would be proven a false prophet because his word of God’s destruction of Nineveh didn’t come true? Perhaps both. If so, Jonah was more a patriot than a prophet and more concerned about his own reputation than Nineveh’s revival.
When a fast-growing plant covered his hut, Jonah grew happy; it’s the only time in the book he showed this emotion (Jonah 4:6). The plant provided a sort of primitive air-conditioning for Jonah to shield him from the extremely hot desert temperatures. But God sent a worm that killed the plant. Jonah again grew angry and wanted to die. Can you hear him whine?
God reminded Jonah that Nineveh had 120,000 people who, like children, needed God as their loving heavenly Father. If Jonah could care for a plant, shouldn’t God care for them?
I believe Jonah learned his lesson. After all, he was the only Israelite there to know what happened. So he must have been the one to tell his testimony to his people. Would Jonah have told the story if he hadn’t learned the lesson?
Compare Jonah and Jesus. Jesus looked over Jerusalem and lamented, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34). Jonah watched Nineveh and pouted because they repented. Jesus had such compassion for others that he gave his life for them. Jonah had passion—for his own comfort.
At times I ask myself: am I more like Jesus or more like Jonah? How about you?
Dr. Bill Patterson is a minister and freelance writer in Henderson, Kentucky.
Lessons from a Fish Story
Jonah holds some valuable lessons for Christians today:
1. We cannot (successfully) run from God.
2. God cares for all people and hurts when they sin.
3. God is compassionate. He gives second chances.
4. God answers prayer.
5. We should have more passion for people’s conversion than for our own personal comfort.
The next time you’re reading a Bible story you’ve heard many times, take a moment to jot down fresh lessons that it’s teaching you.