Jonah, a Whale of a Tale

The story of Jonah and the whale is popular in children’s Bible study classes. It may seem like a whale of a tale but it actually has bigger implications than being swallowed up by a whale. Let’s unpack this whale of a tale…

Scripture: Slowly read and color-code Jonah 1.

Observation: In the opening paragraph we see God’s command to Jonah:

  1. Go to Nineveh
  2. Call out the evilness in the pagan city
  3. Make them aware of their sin against God

During the time of Jonah (793-753 BC) Nineveh was the largest city in the world and capital of Assyria. It was this pagan city east of Israel Jonah was specifically told to “Arise, go…”. Now, we don’t know yet why Jonah instead chose to disobey God and board a ship sailing to Tarishish. But, we know Tarishish was on the coast of Spain, past the Straight of Gibraltar—the complete opposite direction of Nineveh. We can assume he really wanted to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.

Once he boarded the ship, God didn’t waste time setting up a huge life lesson starring Jonah. Jonah, a prophet, was well aware of how this whole God-calling thing worked. When God calls, you go. It’s that simple. But he chose not to pick up the call.

As we read later in 4:1-4, Jonah didn’t agree with God’s mercy and grace for the people in Nineveh. He knew good and well if he went there and warned the people of their sin, the Nineveh people would repent. Jonah didn’t think this was fair. God is a God of second chances with repentance.

So, the storm takes revenge on the ship with howling winds and rough seas. The ship might break apart. The crewmen on the ship start praying to their gods and trying to figure out who on the ship had angered their god to cause such a storm. The crew start throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load.

Meanwhile, Jonah is getting much-needed zzz’s in the inner part of the ship. He was being a “sleepy Christian”. When the non-believers on the ship needed to hear about God, Jonah was asleep, escaping his situation and ignoring what was happening around him.

The captain was like, “Yo, Jonah, what the heck are you doing? Are you the reason for this storm? What God did you make mad?” Well, Jonah confessed that he was the reason for the mess they were in. He told them about his God.

They went from fearing the raging sea to fearing God. Fearing doesn’t mean they were afraid, although I am sure they were, it means they knew Jonah’s God could cause the storm. They really knew Him at that moment. They knew His strength. They felt it.

Jonah instructed them to throw him overboard—give him up to the sea and God. When they did, the storm stopped. Just like that.

“And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jonah 1:17

Notice how this passage foreshadows Jesus being in the tomb for three days and three nights. This is not a coincidence.

Scripture: Read and color-code Chapter 2.

Observation: In chapter 2, Jonah quotes many verses from Psalms. He certainly didn’t have a Bible with him in the belly of the fish. He knew these verses by heart. This is why we should strive to spend time in the Word every day for when we need them in times of distress. Hopefully, never while in the belly of a whale!

At the end of Jonah’s prayer, probably ‘praying without ceasing’, the whale vomited him up. Gross!

Scripture: Read chapter 3 and color-code.

Observation: Jonah goes to Nineveh, which he should have done in the first place!

So, he goes to Nineveh proclaiming the city will be destroyed (overthrown) in 40 days. How did the people respond? They fasted and repented. Even the king proclaimed a fast for man and animals. Jonah must have been a great prophet for a whole pagan city to stop, repent, and fast!

God stopped the disaster from happening because they turned to him and the pagans experienced His mercy…this time. Yay!

Side note: In Nahum 1 we read the prophecy of Nineveh’s fall (around 612 BC) and it will be hidden. It wasn’t excavated until the 1800s by archaeologists.

Scripture: Read Chapter 4 and color-code.

Observation: Jonah was mad. He was mad about the mercy and grace God showed Nineveh. Now we find out why he fled on the ship to Tarshish. He confesses to God. He kind of throws a tantrum saying, “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3)

He would rather die than have God show mercy to Nineveh! “And the Lord said, “Do you feel well to be angry?”‘

Here comes another life lesson for poor Jonah. He leaves the city to sit under a tree. I imagine he is stomping out of the city just looking for a tree to sit under, wishing God would destroy the city and he would have a great view.

God grew a plant to shade him. God showed him mercy and gave him shade! “So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.” (4:6) So, now Jonah is happy. Can he see the mercy God has shown him even though he chose to disobey God as ironic? His happiness and anger were all about his comfort. It wasn’t about what was right or just or merciful.

The Hebrew word for angry is “to be hot”. Now God will bring the heat to Jonah! God had worm eat the plant so Jonah would have no more shade. Jonah was mad at the plant because he was faint and hot, and still mad. He only wanted the plant for what it could provide, not for who it was in God’s eyes. The people of Nineveh were someone in God’s eyes, even though they worshipped other gods and were sinners.

“Jonah made three errors that angry people often make. Each of these things put Jonah in a worse place, not a better place. Jonah quit. Jonah separated himself from others. Jonah became a spectator.” ~Enduring Word

Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the death of people than a plant? God cares for all people, not just Israel.

“…who cannot discern between their right hand and their left…” means those who can’t see what is right from wrong. Jonah couldn’t see past his hatred for Nineveh to see what was right and wrong.

Application: Have you ever done something that you knew the moment you were doing it that it was all wrong? Yeah, you were “pulling a Jonah”.

God spent a lot of time preparing Jonah. He prepared him for his work as a compassionate man and a prophet. God didn’t make it easy on him either. Just as Jonah, we can easily become “a sleepy Christian” too. We can let our hatred of someone or some people blind us to what is right or wrong.

In a time of distress, a man cries out to their god, but if you don’t know the One True God before distress, how can he come to your rescue? Why would he?

Sometimes the journey to where God wants us is paved with hard lessons. Knowing the lessons are for our good, we learn more about ourselves, and God’s character makes us awake as Christians.

Prayer: Dear Lord, when you call I want to have the courage and compassion to listen. I pray that I don’t have a Jonah moment. I pray I hear your voice. Help me see where I am going and trust your guidance. In God’s name, I pray. Amen.

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