Wonderful Revelations About God in Jonah
By Paul Robison

There was a British scientist who proposed that the earth and its inhabitants could form a self-regulating eco-system if the balance between plants, animals, and man could be carefully monitored.  So a rich Texas oil man thought the idea was worth giving a try, and maybe the research could also benefit those who might form extraterrestrial colonies out in space in the future.  So an immense glassed-in miniature world was constructed in Arizona in 1984, containing a sea, a savanna, a mangrove swamp, a rain forest, a desert, and a farm, and it covered just a little over three acres of land.

Despite an investment of about $200,000 from 1984-1991, a multi-million dollar operating budget, and almost unlimited technological support and heroic effort, the Biosphere 2 was an experiment that failed miserably.  It could not sustain 8 human beings with adequate food, water, and air for two years.  Just 15 months after the unit was enclosed, oxygen had to be added from the outside.  Of the 25 vertebrate species placed in the unit, 19 of them became extinct.  All the species that could pollinate plants became extinct, as did most insects.  Water and air pollution became acute, and temperature control was a problem.  Two scientists wrote this conclusion:  “No one yet knows how to engineer systems that provide humans with the life-supporting services that natural ecosystems produce for free” (Cohen and Tilman).  Now isn't that amazing?  Bioshpere 2 didn't work after the efforts of all its planners and designers, yet the wonderfully integrated natural ecosystems that sustain us each day supposedly just happened and then developed over billions of years without any intelligent design whatsoever (Larson-Elshof)!

What experiments men often conduct to try to prove that God is no longer needed in our world!

Now here's another story from the Old Testament that you may have heard since you were a child.  It's about a prophet who God wanted to be a missionary.  This prophet was not sent to Israel or Judah, but he was sent to the capital city of Assyria.  Now if you'll recall from our previous lessons, the Assyrians were enemies to the Israelites.  God sent this prophet to Nineveh around 775 BC to warn the people that God's punishment was about to fall upon them for their wickedness.  This prophet's name was Jonah (and his name that means “dove”), and his book is a most unusual book among the prophets.

His book tells a story and is not a collection of his messages.  His book contains many miracles and takes place on foreign soil.  His book is affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 12:40-41.  So as unusual as the story is, we see that Jesus gives it His stamp of approval.  Here's a brief recap to refresh your memory.

God sees the wickedness of the people of Nineveh and is ready to punish them, but he calls Jonah to go and deliver a message to them to repent.

Jonah did not like this assignment of traveling 500 miles to the west, so he decides to run from God and takes the first ship out of Joppa going in the opposite direction to Tarshish of Spain.  So, God sends a storm, and the sailors become fearful and start calling on their gods.  The captain awakens Jonah, and it is determined by lot that Jonah is the source of the storm.  Jonah tells them he is a Hebrew and is running from God's presence.  They ask what they must do in order to have safety, and Jonah then tells them to throw him overboard.  The sailors really don't want to do this, so they try harder to return to land.  After seeing that they are fighting a losing battle, they ask God to forgive them, and then threw Jonah overboard.  Immediately, the stormed stopped, and those sailors worshiped the true God!  Now you probably know that this is where a great fish enters the story and swallows up Jonah to save him from drowning.  Jonah has a three day prayer meeting in that fish, and God commands the fish to help him escape.  God then tells Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, and this time he starts the 500 mile journey going in the right direction.  Jonah's message is very brief, but it immediately had a great effect; the people believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth to show their repentance.  They were commanded by the king to call on God and to turn from their evil ways and violent practices.  Then the text tells us that God relents and does not bring about the punishment that He had originally intended to give them.  This action on God's part makes Jonah upset, and he confesses that this is why he went in the opposite direction earlier because he had feared that God would change His mind, and Israel's enemies wouldn't be punished.  He asked God just to take his life, and God then asks Jonah a question.  Then God decides to teach him something using an object lesson.  The lesson consists of a plant which grows and provides a shade for Jonah.  Then God causes the plant to be destroyed and a hot east wind to blow upon Jonah.  Jonah is upset again, and pleads with God to take his life.  Then the book concludes with God asking Jonah some more questions.

Two pretty good outlines sum up the story: one  says we find:
Jonah's parting (chapter 1)
His praying (chapter 2)
His preaching (chapter 3)
His pouting (chapter 4).

Another says:
Jonah runs from God (chapter 1)
Jonah runs toward God (chapter 2)
Jonah runs with God (chapter 3)
Jonah runs ahead of God (chapter 4) (Pryor).

The emphasis in these outlines is on Jonah, but let's look also from the text itself for many wonderful revelations about God that we can see.  Grab a Bible and follow along!

First of all, God sees wickedness.  In 1:2, we see that God tells Jonah to preach against those of Nineveh “for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  The prophet Nahum also informs us of these people's sins: their pride, greed, brutality, and adultery (2:11-12; 3:1-4).  The idea that God is a distant, mild, unconcerned Being Who loves everybody no matter what they do and will really never punish anybody is shown clearly to be false in this passage!

God is not an eternal Santa Claus who just winks off evil.  Psalm 7:11 states: “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.”  Nineveh's wickedness has reached a point that the just Judge is ready to bring punishment.  God sees our wickedness as well.  Revelation 1 depicts Jesus as walking among the lampstands or the churches, and when He speaks to each church, He names particular sins and evils of which they are guilty.  The chorus of the old hymn has it right: “Watching you, watching you!  Every day mind the course you pursue.  Watching you, watching you!  There's an all seeing Eye watching you!”  God sees wickedness.

Next, God gives commissions.  God gives Jonah a commission: “Go to Nineveh and warn the people.”  God wanted an earthly messenger to serve as His ambassador and deliver a message to a foreign people.  Jonah didn't like God's commission, but he soon discovered that he couldn't change it, and God repeated the exact same commission once again.  We too have been given a commission: “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Our task is be God's ambassadors to others and give them His message.  Now we can try to ignore that commission or forget about it, but it still remains.  Let's do our best to fulfill this great commission!  God gives commissions.

Next, God controls nature.  This is something taught very clearly in Jonah.  The first manifestation is seen in 1:4: “But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea ...”  Then notice in 1:9 that Jonah calls the Lord, “the God of heaven, who made sea and the dry land.”  And then notice how 1:17 that it was God who “prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah.”  Now that's just the first half of the book, and we'll notice some more of God's power in the second half later on.  What a powerful God is our Creator!  Isn't it amazing that the book of Jonah shows how God utilizes nature in order to help Jonah along in changing his own mind, in order to get him to do God's will!  If Jesus changed water to wine, stilled raging storms on the lake, multiplied loaves and fishes, healed the deformed, and brought the dead back to life, why do feel that He can't help us?  God's power over nature is still awesome!  God controls nature.

Next, God hears our prayers.  We see in Jonah that God answered at least five prayers, some positively and some negatively.  The first prayer that He answered was the sailors not to hold them guilty, the second was Jonah's request to escape from the fish, and the third answered prayer was when the people of Nineveh prayed that God would spare them.  These had positive answers.  We see that Jonah asked God twice to take his life, but these received negative answers because He had an important lesson that he wanted Jonah to understand before he was to meet his death.  God continues to hear our prayers as well or why would Jesus have taught us to pray?  James tells us: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.  The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (5:16).  Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

God may not give us the answer we desire, but He continues to hear our prayers!

Next, God shows great patience.  God shows patience with the sailors, and doesn't punish them for shedding innocent blood!  God shows great patience with Jonah since He spares his life and gives him another chance to carry our His commission!  “In spite of his earlier refusal, he has a fresh opportunity to fulfill the divine commission” (Baker).  And did you also notice this: There is no lecture about past actions and no mention of Jonah's former failure?  “The Lord passes this over in gracious silence; the prophet had learned his lesson, and with that, God is satisfied” (Hailey).  How wonderful it is that we serve a God who overlooks our failures and continues to give us additional chances as well.  Someone says it like this: “I was regretting the past . . . suddenly my Lord was speaking: 'My name is I am.'  He paused.  I waited.  He continued: 'When you live in the past, with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard.  I am not there.  My name is not I was” (Hansel).  God shows great patience.

Next, God provides a message.  God tells Jonah in 3:2: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.”  God had a message that He wanted proclaimed, and we know what that message was: “Yet, 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Now, in our minds, we'd probably think, “What good would an eight word message do?”  Well, we know that it did much good because all the people of Nineveh repented!  God has given us a message to proclaim as well which can be summarized in three passages.  The first is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  It's a simple message, but one that very profound as well.  The next passage is in Ephesians 4:4: There is one body [the church], and one Spirit [God's indwelling Holy Spirit], just as you were called in one hope of your calling [called by the Gospel to the hope of eternal life], one Lord [the Servant-Messiah who is the only Mediator between God and man and laid down His life to take it up again], one faith [the teachings of Jesus and His apostles], one baptism [immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit that we saw earlier], one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

The last passage is Revelation 2:10: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  God has provides us with the wonderful message of righteousness, forgiveness, the church, faithfulness, and eternal life in heaven.  People need to hear that message, to believe in Jesus as God's Son, to repent of their past sins, to confession that Jesus will be their Lord, to be immersed to wash away their sins and become a new creature, and to live faithful lives each day until they die.  We never really know how much good the Gospel will do until we share it!  God provides us a message.

Next, God wants righteousness to prevail.  Notice what is said in the king's decree in 3:8: “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hand.”  These pagans recognized that God had a moral order that needed to be put into practice.  They must turn from wickedness and seek to live peaceably.  They saw that God wanted righteousness to prevail in their culture, and they repented, they turned from practicing wickedness to living in righteousness.  God wants righteousness to prevail among Christians as well.  1 John 3:7 is very clear: “Little children, let no one deceive you.  He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He [Jesus] is righteous.”  Let's do that we can to help righteousness prevail, just as God wants.

Next, God shows mercy.  Look at 3:10: “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”  Jonah further states about God in 4:2: “... for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm.”  This passage shows that God also sees goodness as well as wickedness.

We see that God shows His great compassion on “even the greatest and most cruel of the heathen” (Hailey).  When they turned from their wickedness to Him, He was merciful.  “In light of his earlier experiences, it is ironic that Jonah now desires to die on account of God's gracious and compassionate nature.  Had he himself not benefited from these very attributes when confronted by death [himself]?  And had he not rejoiced that salvation comes from the Lord [when he was spared]?”  How often have we been shown God's mercy, and how often do we act like Jonah and think that nobody else deserves it?  Jesus also admonishes us in Luke 6:36: “Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  God shows mercy.

Next, God challenges us.  Notice the question that God puts to Jonah in 4:4: “Then the Lord said, 'Is it right for you to be angry?'” Jonah was upset that God hadn't shown His anger and punished the enemy, yet now Jonah begins to show his anger!  Notice again, that God doesn't retaliate in kind.  No, God is like a concerned father who is trying to help his child think through a matter.

His brief questioning words were trying to provoke some self-reflection on the prophet's own emotions and attitudes.  Jonah should have been overjoyed at the successful response that was made to his message, but instead he wants to just go off and pout and hopes that God will reverse His decision once more.

Isn't is amazing to watch God at work as He challenges His servant?  And you know what, God will do the same for you if you will become a disciple of Jesus.  God wants His children to grow spiritually, and there will be challenges in your Christian life that will come through the reading and preaching of God's word, through the insights of other members, and through situations that only God can orchestrate.  God's challenges will be like a spiritual sword that will cut our hearts and pierce our souls.  God indeed challenges us!

Next, God gets our attention.  Now notice how God provides an object lesson for Jonah.  The text says that God prepared a plant (v. 6), God prepared a worm (v. 7), and God prepared a scorching east wind (v. 8).  Here again, you see, is the God who controls nature and uses His creation to get His will made known and understood.  And God got Jonah's attention, for when his shade was taken away, Jonah took notice!  Note what verse 8 says: “Then he wished death for himself and said, 'It is better for me to die than to live.''”  God indeed had Jonah's attention.  God has always operated in this manner.  He got Pharaoh's attention when the time was ripe for the exodus.  He got Elijah's attention through a still small voice at Mt. Carmel.  He got the church's attention with the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.  He got a jailer's attention with an earthquake.  Have you been praying that God might get the attention of someone who needs to be come a Christian or someone who needs to return to the church?  God has His mysterious ways that can get our attention.

Next, God patiently teaches.  It is interesting that God didn't answer Jonah's wish, but He does challenge Jonah again with just about the same question that He had asked earlier: “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”Here is a masterful Teacher using repetition, an object, and a question to help His student see the point that He is just about ready to drive home.  Jesus was a masterful Teacher as well, and He challenges us to learn from Him: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Are you willing to become His disciple and humbly sit as His feet daily to learn from Him?  God and Jesus want to teach us and will teach us if we will have open ears and seek to understand their words.  God patiently teaches.

Lastly, God loves all people.  Now listen as God drives home the point of His object lesson.  By the way, you'll notice it ends in a question as well.  Look at verse 10: “But the Lord said, 'You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than 120,000 persons who cannot discern their right hand from their left—and much livestock?'”  “Jonah, you can get so worked up about the death of one small plant, but how can you be so hard-hearted towards 120,000 souls? Jonah, aren't you the one being a little inconsistent?  “Jonah's unreasonable-ness is fully unmasked” (Coffman)!  What an extraordinary ending that challenges our prejudices as well.  How can we write off any ethnic group of people after hearing God's question to Jonah and seeing His example with the pagan Ninevites, for it certainly shows that God loves all people and works patiently with them as well?

Jonah came to know God in a unique way.  God sees wickedness, gives commissions, and controls nature.  He hears our prayers, shows great patience, and provides a message.  He wants righteousness to prevail, shows mercy, and challenges us to the depths of our hearts.  He gets our attention, patiently teaches us, and loves all people.  Someone has said, “We count on God's mercy for our past mistakes, on God's love for our present needs, and on God's sovereignty for our future” (Augustine).  We close with these words of praise found in a modern hymn: “I stand, I stand in awe of You, I stand, I stand in awe of You.  Holy God to whom all praise is due, I stand in awe of You!”

Won't you let the God of Jonah be your God?  Won't you let Him sustain both your physical and spiritual life?  Biosphere 2 failed; He won't!  Wont' you let Jesus be your Teacher and Guide?  Become His disciple today through repentance, confession, and baptism!