Jonah Flees From the Lord (1:1–17)
1–2 Jonah received clear instructions from the Lord that he was to go to Nineveh and preach against it because of its wickedness. Jonah does not describe Nineveh’s wickedness; however, we are given a full picture of Nineveh’s sins by the prophet Nahum (see the book of Nahum).
3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD. Jonah ran away because he knew that God intended to show mercy to Nineveh, and Jonah didn’t want that to happen (Jonah 4:2). Jonah didn’t want to take part in any activity that would end up benefiting Israel’s worst enemy.
Though Jonah was a prophet, he was not thinking clearly. First of all, he was disobeying God. Second, he evidently thought he could “get away” from God, or at least get away from His authority and influence. In Old Testament times, it was commonly thought that gods had authority only in the area where they were worshiped. Jonah thought that if he could get to Tarshish (a city on the western coast of the Mediterranean), perhaps God wouldn’t trouble him about Nineveh any more. Jonah should have known that it was futile to run away from God; His power and authority extend everywhere in the universe (see Psalm 139:7–10).
4–6 The Lord caused a violent storm to arise, and the ship Jonah was sailing on was in danger of sinking. The captain was distressed that Jonah was sleeping and not praying to his God (verse 6); the captain didn’t know which god had caused the storm, so he wanted to make sure that all possible gods were being prayed to!
7–10 Since the prayers were not working, the sailors rightly concluded that someone on board had done something to displease one of the gods; and so, according to the usual custom, they cast lots to find out who the guilty person was (see 1 Samuel 14:38–44). The lot fell on Jonah (verse 7). The Lord controls every lot cast (Proverbs 16:33)—even the lots cast by pagans. Jonah was exposed as the guilty party—which the sailors already suspected because Jonah had told them he was running away from his God (verse 10).
11–16 Jonah surely realized at this point that God had “followed” him. So he told the sailors to throw him overboard; then the sea would become calm (verse 12). Jonah must have sensed he was going to die anyway, but at least he could spare the sailors’ lives.
First, however, the sailors made an effort to row the ship to shore. But when they were unable to do so they threw Jonah overboard, praying to Jonah’s God that He not hold them accountable for Jonah’s death (verses 13–14).
As soon as Jonah was thrown overboard, the sea grew calm (verse 15). Naturally the sailors greatly feared Jonah’s God and made vows to Him (verse 16). This doesn’t mean they had true FAITH in God; it only means they recognized that the God of Israel controlled the sea—at least that part of the Mediterranean!
17 God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. God caused that fish to be in the right place at the right time. Most of God’s so-called “miracles” are not supernatural; they don’t contravene the laws of nature. Rather, they are accomplished by God’s control over nature. Such was the case with this “great fish,” inside of which Jonah remained three days and three nights.2
Looking back, we can see that Jonah was out of God’s will. And yet Jonah realized it, and agreed to accept the consequences—death by drowning. But God chose to use Jonah in spite of his disobedience; He used Jonah to save those sailors and to cause them to fear Jonah’s God. God used the disobedient Jonah to bring a blessing to others, but Jonah did not receive a blessing himself; he ended up in the belly of a fish!
The disobedient Jonah saved a ship; later on, we shall see how an obedient Jonah saved a city. Yes, God can use us even when we are out of His will, but He can use us much more when we are in it. Plus, we too will be able to enjoy the blessing!