Sermon preached on Jonah 1:1-3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/22/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Word of the LORD Came to Jonah”
This morning we begin a short sermon series through Jonah. Today’s message will be a little different than normal. I read through the first few verses as a way to introduce us to this book. And that’s what we’ll do this morning. Today’s message will serve as an introduction into this book. This is one of those books where the whole story together has a point to tell, and I’m hoping we can capture some of that day. That we don’t miss the forest for the trees as we dig into the details in the next few weeks. So, today we’ll consider the introductory aspects of this book. We’ll think through some of the basics: the genre, the main characters, the mission of Jonah, the main themes of the book, and the audience.
Let’s begin then with briefly noting the genre of the book. For the most part, it would fall under the category of historical narrative. The exception would be most of chapter 2, which contains a psalm that Jonah sang, and so that would fall under the genre of Hebrew poetry. But notice that I said, this is historical narrative; emphasis on the “historical.” Scholars agree that this book is narrative. It clearly is telling a story of a prophet named Jonah. Sadly, however, there are a some today who acknowledge that it is narrative, but want to throw out the historical part. Some for example, have said that the book of Jonah is just a parable. Like how Jesus told parables. Life stories that people can relate to in order to understand a spiritual point. Well, that might sound nice to say about the book of Jonah, but the question becomes why would you come to that conclusion? What evidence inside the text or even outside of the text would lead you to come to that conclusion? Usually, what seems to lead people to that conclusion is unbelief. They just think the story of Jonah sounds too outrageous to them. Well, the fact that there is miraculous material in a historical narrative of Scripture should not be surprising to a believer. We shouldn’t take something to be a parable that otherwise presents itself as historical narrative. For example, in the gospels, people can tell when Jesus is speaking in a parable. There’s not a question if he’s telling them a historical fact or not. For that matter, parables don’t tend to be filled with stories of miracles. They tend to be filled with stories of everyday normal occurrences. They explain a spiritual truth by making points with natural truths. Jonah as a parable doesn’t seem to make sense as a parable because there is nothing ordinary about it. It’s all about supernatural, miraculous interactions with God.
Rather, instead, the book of Jonah itself claims historicity. It’s not just any random made-up person named Jonah, it is as verse 1 says, Jonah the son of Amittai – a historical person. And Jesus himself stamps it with historicity when he refers to Jonah in the New Testament. For example, Matthew 12 sees Jesus refer to Jonah. In the same breadth, he refers to Solomon and the Queen of the South. Those who want to deny Jonah’s historicity try to explain that verse away – it’s just Jesus’ referring to the truth of what they would call the Jonah parable. But that’s not the best way to take the evidence. No, everyone would agree that Solomon is a historical figure and that the Bible paints the Queen of the South as a historical figure. Jesus talks about all these characters in the same way in Matthew 12, as real historical people. And so at the end of the day, Jonah is a historical narrative, and the only real reason to take it otherwise would be someone’s unwillingness to believe in miracles. Otherwise, both the internal and external evidence of Jonah supports seeing it as real history.
So that’s about the genre, let’s turn to the main characters briefly. The primary characters are God, Jonah, and the Ninevites. There are a few minor characters too such as the sailors in chapter 1, and the Ninevite King specifically in chapter 3. But otherwise those are the three main characters. God is the one most chiefly at work in this book. He’s the one chiefly responsible for everything here – he’s the one that ultimately saves Nineveh from the looming destruction. As for Jonah, we know very little about him outside of this book. And yet what we do know, is helpful. The Bible references this Jonah son of Amitaii in 2 Kings 14:25. There in 2 Kings we see him referenced as a prophet during the time of King Jereboam II, which would have put him in the 8th Century BC. That doesn’t tell us a lot, but it does tell us something. This places Jonah in the midst of the historical situation where the nation of Israel had been under affliction from the nation of Assyria. For example, archeological evidence has uncovered Assyrian records that record the Israelite King Jehu had paid Assyria tribute – that is on display today in the British Museum. Assyria would later go on to eventually destroy the nation of Israel and haul its citizens off to captivity. Jonah’s timeframe according to 2 Kings then puts him in the midst of Israel having troubles with Assyria. About 50 some years after King Jehu had paid tribute to them, and approximately 50 years before Assyria would finally capture and destroy Israel.
This is significant because we said the people of Nineveh were the other main characters in this story. And the city of Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. Israel’s number one political enemy at that time, was Assyria. That’s where God was sending Jonah in this story – verse 2. Of course at that time, Assyria wasn’t just Israel’s enemy. They were a growing threat to many nations at that time. They were the superpower and they were an imperialistic superpower. For example, that same record that is in the British Museum that lists King Jehu as paying tribute, actually lists 5 different nations paying them tribute. So this was a imperialistic nation that was quickly taking over the known world. But understand this about them as well. They were Gentiles, not Israelites. They were not God’s chosen nation of Israel, nor were they interested in following the God of the Bible. The Assyrians were a pagan nation with their own false gods, not the one true God of the Bible. So, God is sending Jonah not just to Israel’s enemy, but to really the capital of the heathen world. This hopefully helps you get a sense for Jonah’s reluctance to go at first.
And so those are the main characters. Jonah’s mission then is simple. Verse 2. He is to go to this pagan capital and speak out against it. Why? Because their evil had come up before God. Jonah’s message would be simple to them, when he finally went. In chapter 3, we see him telling the city that they would be overturned in 40 days. Interestingly, Jonah’s recorded words give no offer of repentance or forgiveness. This is despite Jonah later acknowledging to God that he knew God was a compassionate God. And yet the Ninevites hope that might be the case. They repent and turn from their evil, and God spares them at that time from destruction. Jonah’s mission thus proved fruitful, despite the fact that Jonah is upset afterwards, not happy that God forgave them.
There are several main themes in the book of Jonah. The first is that you can’t run from God. That’s of course the most memorable part of this book. Jonah is swallowed by the whale as he is running away from God. In the process God works repentance in Jonah’s own heart. Along the way, God brings faith and worship to some pagan sailors as well. But the point is clear. When God calls you to act, you ought to obey!
A second major them in the book is that God does brings judgment upon wickedness, but at the same time he is also a very compassionate and forgiving God. We see God’s hand of judgment start to fall upon Jonah when he’s on the run. It’s God’s hand of judgment that the Ninevites are threatened with. And yet in this book the response commended is one of repentance. Jonah is seen exercising some repentance in this book, in light of God’s hand of judgment. And the Ninevites are seen repenting in this book, in light of God’s hand of judgment. Both find mercy and pardon from judgment in calling upon God for salvation. As Jonah says in his song in 2:9, “Salvation is of the LORD!”
A third theme is God’s compassion is not only for the chosen nation of Israel, but also for Gentiles as well! In Jonah 4:2, Jonah acknowledges this as the reason why he was hesitant to go to Nineveh. Jonah then makes a confession of God’s great compassion. Jonah draws from Biblical language of God’s mercy, language which in the past had been specifically directed toward Israel. Here Jonah recognizes that it has bearing on these Ninevites as well. Of course, this should not be surprising. God had promised long ago to the father of the Israelites that this would happen. God had told Father Abraham, that through his offspring, all the nations on the earth would be blessed. Was Jonah to be that offspring of Abraham to bring that blessing? Well, in reluctance, he brings a foreshadowing of that fulfillment. Its greater fulfillment would be through Jesus Christ. Jesus would later come with great joy to bring salvation to the world. Salvation that he would offer to the world, through a call of repentance.
Now so far we’ve covered a number of basic aspects of this book. Let’s turn now to consider the audience. And keep those themes in mind as you do. You see, often when people think about the main point of Jonah, there’s a lot of focus given to that last main theme I mentioned. There’s a lot of focus placed on the fact that here we have Gentiles finding salvation through God’s compassion. That is certainly an important topic. It’s such good news because it reminds us that God had never forgotten about the Gentiles, even with all his interactions with Israel. He always had a plan to reach out to them with mercy and salvation. This is part of it here in Jonah. And yet we would do well to think about this in light of the audience of the book of Jonah. Who is the original audience of this book? Who was its intended reader? It seems very unlikely that its original reader was the Ninevites. That would seem unlikely since it ended up in the Hebrew canon of Scripture. Don’t get me wrong, Jonah’s preaching in chapter 3 to Nineveh – that was obviously directed toward the Ninevites. The audience of his preaching was certainly these pagan peoples. The pagan sailors in chapter 1 also were the audience of his words there. But in terms of why God had this entire story of Jonah’s work written down, it seems it was for God’s people. It was something recorded for the nation of Israel, and placed in their canon of Scripture. And so the real audience here for this book is none other than Israel.
Why? Why would God want Israel to have this book? Well, you could think it’s so that they know they should reach out to other nations. Certainly, something of that could be said. But it seems more than that. You see, it seems that this book should stand as a sort of challenge to Israel. Maybe even as a rebuke to them. This story essentially is raising a question. Will these wicked pagans outdo God’s people? Will these pagans outdo God’s people in how they respond to God? In terms of repentance? Will they out-repent, so to speak, God’s people? You wouldn’t think so, would you? Wouldn’t it be surprising if they did? But that’s what happened. Those Ninevites repented. And they repented big time. The most amazing example of wholesale, complete, and immediate repentance. When the prophet came knocking on their door, they responded in the most textbook way. But you see, this amazing response by them is directed to Israel. Israel has had prophet after prophet come. Have they responded with this kind of repentance? Or have they been outdone by these pagans? Ninevite pagans, for that matter!
Of course, this is how Jesus applied the book to a later generation of Israelites. When Jesus later came to Israel and preached a message of repentance, how did Israel respond? In many ways, not very well. In response to that unbelief and lacking repentance, remember what Jesus told the people in Matthew 12:41. Jesus told them, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Nineveh’s repentance serves as a model for Israel’s repentance. That was true in general. It was especially true when Jesus came!
Let me say all this in another way. The book of Jonah is not really historically directed toward Nineveh. Jonah’s preaching in chapter 3 was, but the book was directed toward Israel. It was placed in the Hebrew Canon for them to consider. And so what goes on here with Nineveh, and even the pagan sailors of chapter 1, serves as a foil to Israel. A foil in literature is when one character contrasts with another character, usually a more primary character, in order to reveal something about that primary character. And so, here, Nineveh is like a foil to Israel. The pagan sailors of chapter 1 are like a foil to Israel. Now of course, Israel is not a character here in this story. But Jonah, the Israelite prophet, is. In the story, the Ninevites and the pagan sailors both serve as a foil first to Jonah. By implication, this brings the contrast back to Israel. Israel is going to identify in this story with Jonah as they read it. And so the way Jonah is contrasted with the pagans here, provides then that same contrast to the Israelites who read this story.
Well, with that in mind, think of what happens here with Jonah. In chapter 1, it’s the pagan sailors who seem so much more concerned with the storm and divine judgment than he does. They want to call out for divine help while he is just sleeping away. Jonah’s repentance seems so slow to come, while the pagans look so quick to find help from the divine. In chapter 3 and 4, Nineveh is so quick and complete in their repentance, but Jonah is seen to be upset at God’s ways. Upset at God’s compassion, when it’s that same compassion that saved Jonah himself. When the book ends, it leaves no question about the repentance of the Ninevites, but you are left with uncertainty about Jonah. The last chapter has a sort of argument between God and Jonah. God has the last word and Jonah’s silence in response makes us wonder. Did Jonah turn from his anger? Did he end up in a state of repentance after God’s words? We’re not told. The story begs us to ask the question. But you see, by not telling us Jonah’s answer it actually shifts the question back to the reader. We don’t know how Jonah responded. But how will the reader respond? How would Israel respond? Would they listen to the prophets sent to them? Would the Ninevites outdo them in repentance? Or would Israel, who knows how compassionate God is, repent and return to him? This is the question that the book of Jonah puts upon its reader.
And so this book had significance for Israel. What would their future hold? How would they respond when the prophets came to them? For those who know their fate, it is ironic and sad. A future generation of Ninevites would destroy them. God would have the Assyrians destroy the northern kingdom of God’s people — Israel. Turn with me in your bibles to 2 Kings 17. Let’s read together what happened. We’ll begin in verse 5.
NKJ 2 Kings 17:5 Now the king of Assyria went throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria and besieged it for three years. 6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria, and placed them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. 7 ¶ For so it was that the children of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and they had feared other gods, 8 and had walked in the statutes of the nations whom the LORD had cast out from before the children of Israel, and of the kings of Israel, which they had made. 9 Also the children of Israel secretly did against the LORD their God things that were not right, and they built for themselves high places in all their cities, from watchtower to fortified city. 10 They set up for themselves sacred pillars and wooden images on every high hill and under every green tree. 11 There they burned incense on all the high places, like the nations whom the LORD had carried away before them; and they did wicked things to provoke the LORD to anger, 12 for they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this thing.” 13 Yet the LORD testified against Israel and against Judah, by all of His prophets, every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways, and keep My commandments and My statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by My servants the prophets.” 14 Nevertheless they would not hear, but stiffened their necks, like the necks of their fathers, who did not believe in the LORD their God. 15 And they rejected His statutes and His covenant that He had made with their fathers, and His testimonies which He had testified against them; they followed idols, became idolaters, and went after the nations who were all around them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them that they should not do like them. 16 So they left all the commandments of the LORD their God, made for themselves a molded image and two calves, made a wooden image and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. 17 And they caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and soothsaying, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger. 18 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them from His sight; there was none left but the tribe of Judah alone.
That’s a long passage but I thought fitting to read right now. Jonah had acted so arrogantly, thinking himself better than the Ninevite. But when the prophet came to them, they repented. What came of Jonah, we don’t know. But for Israel, we unfortunately know what happened to them. God raised up their most hated enemy to destroy them, because Israel had not repented. They had ignored prophet after prophet, and finally God brought disaster and destruction upon them.
Brothers and sisters, Israel needed to heed the message of Jonah. It was a book for them. And we too need the book of Jonah. I’ll leave us with two points of application then for us today. First. Yes, this book does challenge us with our attitude toward the unbelieving world. Yes, like Jonah and Israel, we must not think God has only compassion for people already inside his church. We must share the gospel to the unbelieving world around us. Now sure, most of us know we need to evangelize. But, realize that God calls us to share the gospel with the people we might be inclined to think don’t deserve the gospel. That’s of course crazy thinking, but look at Jonah. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. He didn’t want them to repent, and he didn’t want God to show compassion to them. Well, are there people in our hearts we don’t have a heart for? People that we don’t want to share the gospel to, because we think they should be punished. Who is that for us today? Maybe it’s the murderers and rapists in prison. Maybe it’s the Muslim terrorists. Maybe it’s the homosexuals? Maybe it’s the people on the other side of the political aisle to your views? We need to check our hearts. We need to make sure that we don’t think God’s grace in Christ is only for people like ourselves; that other people are too wicked and evil to get grace from God. As soon as we start thinking that we, we lessen the grace of Christ in your life. It becomes you saying that your deeds really aren’t that bad, that’s why God’s grace is enough for you, but not enough for someone else’s sins. Rather, what we should look to have is God’s compassion for the lost. The message of Jonah shows a compassionate God with great concern for those doing evil. He comes to them first patiently calling them to turn, lest they be overturned in judgment. Let us put on that same compassion toward those in this world that we’ve not wanted to show compassion.
And then the second application is that we must look inward. As Israel needed to take the book of Jonah and look inward, let us do the same. Have we allowed different evils to come up in our life and ignored them? Have we ignored the prophetic Word of God when it challenges us on those areas of sin? If anyone should be quick to repent in that case, it should be those in the church. How often it is not. Let us heed the call of the book of Jonah and seek anew repentance. Repent anew and afresh on those sins you’ve not wanted to deal with. Let us not take God’s grace for granted. Let us not be jaded to repentance and obedience because we have become so accustomed to God’s forgiveness and grace. Rather, be encouraged. Be encouraged because when we examine our lives and find sin, we know with certainty the solution. We repent and believe in the gospel. For one greater than Jonah has come to us – Gentiles. Jesus has come and been lifted up, so that we could be saved. Let us repent and believe in the gospel. And praise God for his compassion and grace and salvation! Amen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.