The Message | Jonah 1:1-3

This sermon was originally preached in 2015.


These first three verses may seem small and inconsequential at first glance, but within them is the entire premise of the book of Jonah. While opening in the traditional style of Old Testament prophetic literature, Jonah quickly diverges away from the typical path because of Jonah’s disobedience.

Through this three-verse setup, we meet our cast of characters. First, we meet the LORD, the God of heaven, who created the land and seas (v. 9). Next, we are introduced to a prophet of the LORD, who chooses to blatantly disobey his God. The violent and brutal city of Nineveh is also mentioned as being the city that Jonah is supposed to prophesy against. Finally, verse 3 mentions the ship that Jonah boards while running from the LORD. This vessel contains sailors who will have a very interesting encounter with Jonah in verses 4-16 of chapter one.

THE WORD OF THE LORD TO JONAH // VERSE 1

“Now” Interestingly, the first word in the book of Jonah is a conjunction. This has caused many scholars to wonder whether Jonah was meant to follow a preceding work. Whether Jonah was originally part of a larger work makes little difference to me since that revelation would not cause Jonah to be any less inspired by God. However, I do think that we can draw one interesting application from this strange beginning. Jonah is not stand-alone literature. Yes, a different author wrote it at a different time than any other book in the Bible, but still it is not meant to be isolated from the other books in Scripture. All sixty-six volumes that compose the Word of God are crucial for understanding God’s message to us. No piece of Scripture can be taken out and examined without using the rest of Scripture to guide that examination. Therefore, Jonah’s opening conjunction is quite fitting because the story of Jonah is a continuation of the grand biblical narrative that ultimately leads to Christ.

“the LORD” Within these opening words, we are introduced to the first character of the book: the LORD.[1] Therefore, the first question that we must ask coming into the book of Jonah is who is the LORD? The LORD is not only a reoccurring character within the Bible; He is the main character of the Bible. The LORD (referred to in all capital letters in most English translations) is the English form of representing the name YHWH. If you are unfamiliar with that particular four-letter combination, it is often called the tetragrammaton (the four letters) and is sometimes pronounced “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we find that Yahweh is the personal and holy name of God, the name that definitively distinguishes God from any other false gods. It likely comes from Exodus 3:14, where God states His name as being “I AM WHO I AM.” Thus, Yahweh may mean, “I AM”, which is a phrase that only the God and Creator of everything could use for His personal name. This name of God so greatly reflects His majestic nature that we do not even know its actual pronunciation. Jewish scholars once considered it too holy to speak aloud and completely stopped saying it. When reading, they substituted the Name with Adonai, which means Lord, so today we use LORD to denote the holy and personal name of God.

“the word of the LORD came to Jonah” This phrase is very typical of Old Testament prophets. In fact, it is used over 100 times throughout the Old Testament. Though we are not told how Jonah heard from God, it is significant for us to understand that God spoke to Jonah and to many other prophets throughout Bible (the very writing of the Bible is an example of this). One common argument for religious pluralism is the story of four blind men and an elephant. The story goes that the blind men eat stumble upon the elephant and upon feeling it, try to describe it. The first touches the tail and states that an elephant is like a piece of rope. The second feels the leg and concludes that an elephant is like a tree. The third pats on the elephant’s side and believes it to be rather like a wall. Finally, the fourth finds the trunk and posits that elephants are similar to snakes. These men are all partially correct but are not yet capable of understanding the whole elephant. The elephant is metaphorical for God and the men are religions. The argument is that all religions are partially correct because we cannot understand God fully. It sounds like a solid point of reasoning; however, one massive detail is overlooked.  The elephant speaks. God is not mute like an elephant that stands idly by while blind men feel it; God speaks. We must never take for granted that the word of the LORD came to the men of old because it is only through them that we have the Scriptures today. Neither should we take those same Scriptures for granted, for they are the very words of God. So long as we have a Bible within our possession (or even simply the ability to have a Bible), we will be accountable for knowing and hearing the message that the God of the universe gave to us. No one needs to wish for God to speak to them. He already has spoken. We must now simply listen and obey.

“Jonah the son of Amittai” We now meet the second character of our story: the prophet Jonah. Throughout the Bible, names are given special symbolism. Parents often sought to name their children in a way that would be prophetic of their lives. For example, Jacob’s name means “deceiver”, and his life certainly reflected that name. Later, God symbolically changed his name to Israel (meaning “wrestles with God”) after a particularly impactful encounter with the LORD. Likewise, Abram (meaning “father”) had his name changed to Abraham (“father of many”) by God after God promised him many descendants. Therefore, the meaning of Jonah’s name is worth our consideration. Being the son of Amittai (“truth”), I would envision Jonah to mean something astounding like “grace” or “compassion”, but instead Jonah means “dove.”

Traditionally, we think of doves as symbols of peace and purity, and perhaps this is fitting for the book of Jonah. After all, through His message of impending destruction, God is quick to make peace with Nineveh, regardless of how sincere the repentance was. However, I am more likely to agree with Dr. Constable that the dove here represents silliness.[2] In Hosea 7:11, we read, “Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria.” Hosea wrote this several decades after Jonah’s time as prophet. God used Hosea to condemn Israel’s desire to turn to Egypt and Assyria for security instead of Himself, particularly since Israel would be annihilated by Assyria during Hosea’s day. God calls Israel’s decision as dumb as a bird that has notoriously bad survival instincts. Since the book of Jonah is quite satirical towards Jonah’s actions and motivations, I believe that dove is here meant to symbolize foolishness. Jonah is an embittered, careless, and pitiful prophet, but God used him. God took a man with nothing but hatred for the Ninevites and used him to preach to Nineveh. No one is too far removed from being God’s instrument of grace. To quote the poet and rapper Propaganda: “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.”

JUDGMENT FOR NINEVEH // VERSE 2

Herein we find the God’s words to Jonah. Since we now know that these words come directly from the LORD, there is infinite reason why we should observe carefully their meaning. Jonah, as a prophet of God, should be quick to do the same. God gives to Jonah a seemingly simple message: go to Nineveh and preach against them. By calling out against Nineveh, Jonah was meant to declare divine judgment upon this city. Of course, when the God of all things declares judgment against something, we must consider the reason. Nineveh was a significant city of the Assyrian Empire, and it was great in terms of size, power, and influence, not in morality. Assyria has the distinctive of being the first great empire upon the earth. They managed to capture and control a vast amount of land through primarily two means: a superior military and ruthless terror tactics. In regards to military, the Assyrians were the first world power to truly capitalize on the might of a strong cavalry. As far as terror is concerned, the Assyrians are held by some to be the fathers of terrorism.  Historian Simon Anglim describes the Assyrians as follows:

The Assyrians created the world’s first great army and the world’s first great empire. This was held together by two factors: their superior abilities in siege warfare and their reliance on sheer, unadulterated terror. It was Assyrian policy always to demand that examples be made of those who resisted them; this included deportations of entire peoples and horrific physical punishments. One inscription from a temple in the city of Nimrod records the fate of the leaders of the city of Suru on the Euphrates River, who rebelled from, and were reconquered by, King Ashurbanipal:

I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes.” Such punishments were not uncommon. Furthermore, inscriptions recording these vicious acts of retribution were displayed throughout the empire to serve as a warning. Yet this officially sanctioned cruelty seems to have had the opposite effect: though the Assyrians and their army were respected and feared, they were most of all hated and the subjects of their empire were in an almost constant state of rebellion (185-186).[3]

Indeed, the Assyrians are infamous as being one of the most vicious peoples ever to live. And God told Jonah to go to them and preach divine destruction. The degree of their depravity did not escape the sight of the LORD. God saw the atrocities that they committed. He knew the depth of their evil. So He sent Jonah, not as a missionary, but as a messenger of judgment.

THE DISOBEDIENT PROPHET // VERSE 3

Place yourself in the sandals of Jonah for a moment. You are an Israelite, a person from a moderately powerful but very tiny kingdom in along the Mediterranean Sea. The superpower Assyria eats kingdoms like Israel for breakfast every morning. Even though they were currently experiencing a season of internal political turmoil, this was threat number one for your people. But now your God, who is the only true God and the only reason that Israel is still existing, wants you to pronounce His judgment upon the people in Assyria’s great city. Sure, the work is scary, going directly to the most fearsome people on earth with a message of destruction, but would you not be mildly happy at least? The world would have honestly been a better place without the Ninevites in it, so this edict is good news right?

“But Jonah” These two simple words begin verse three’s description of Jonah doing the exact opposite of God’s word. Jonah lived in Israel, and Nineveh is in northern Iraq. Therefore, Jonah needed to travel northeast. Instead, Jonah boarded a ship for Tarshish, which was in southern Spain. This means that Jonah went southwest. Throughout the Old Testament, God had His prophets do some crazy things. Ezekiel was told to eat bread cooked over dung to prophesy the desolation of Judah by the Babylonians.  God had Hosea marry a prostitute who constantly deserted him to return to whoring so that God could show what His relationship with Israel was like. Yet all of the prophets have one thing in common: they did it. No matter how scary, humiliating, or difficult, the prophets obeyed God.

“But Jonah” did not. Many have speculated that Jonah ran because he was frightened of the Ninevites; however, that does not fit with Jonah’s mindset throughout the rest of the book. In fact, Jonah tells us precisely why he ran away in chapter four. In the second verse of chapter four, Jonah states that he ran away because he knew that God was gracious, loving, merciful, and slow to anger. Typically, those are the attributes of God that we sing praises about, instead of becoming so angry with them that we want to die. Too often people tend to think of the God as being angry and wrathful in the Old Testament but loving and gracious in the New Testament. Jonah’s theology shatters such a thought process. He knew the character of God. He knew that God loves to show grace, compassion, and mercy. Jonah hated that. Jonah wanted God to eliminate the Ninevites.

THE END OF THE MATTER

The word of the LORD has come to us, as it came to Jonah. Today, we have the Bible, the inspired Word of God, before us. And also, like Jonah, God has told us what we are to do: make disciples. Jesus’ Great Commission is very clear as to what our purpose and mission is. Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether we obey without question like the prophets, or do we run away like Jonah? And if indeed we are not making disciples, does our lack of obedience indicate an unloving heart?


[1] Please note that my use of the word “character” does not mean that this story is fiction; instead, the Bible and the books within are stories. Stories have characters, and even if the stories and characters really happened, they are still called such.

[2] Constable, Thomas. Dr. Constable’s Notes on Jonah. P.12

[3] Anglim, S. FIGHTING TECHNIQUES OF THE ANCIENT WORLD 3000 BCE-500CE. Amber Books, 2013.  

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