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Jonah's Problem

Who Was Jonah?

"The word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai" (Jonah 1:1)

Jonah (which means "dove" in Hebrew) is identified as the son of Amittai. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah was from Gath Hepher, a village about 2 miles northeast of Nazareth. Second Kings 14 also helps us to date Jonah's life sometime during Jeroboam's reign from 793—753 B.C.. Some believe that Jonah began to speak on behalf of God about the time the prophet Elisha was concluding his work.

Two keys will prove useful in understanding the real issues in this book. First, the book records Jonah's mission to Nineveh, but it is written to Israel, who hated Nineveh. Second, Jonah is not the principal character of his own book—God is! God has the first word and the last. He orchestrates the entire drama to show His love for Israel's enemies.

Jonah's Mission

"Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city" (Jonah 1:2).

Nineveh, founded by Nimrod, was on the east bank of the Tigris River, about 550 miles from Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It was large, and was protected by an outer wall and an inner wall. The inner wall was 50 feet wide and 100 feet high. This was the time of Nineveh's greatest glory.

"Cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me" (Jonah 1:2). Notice carefully that this is a message of judgment, not mercy. God was going to judge the people of Nineveh for their wickedness. He is "Judge of all the earth" (Genesis 18:25). And He must be recognized as such because, even though He is Saviour, He is also Sovereign.

God as Judge sent a messenger with a message of judgment, but Jonah declined. Instead of accepting his assignment to speak on behalf of God, the prophet decided to make a run for it.

Jonah's Flight

"But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord" (Jonah 1:3).

Jonah's response to God's mission was the opposite of Isaiah's, who said to the Lord, "Here am I; send me" (Isaiah 6:8). Jonah was told to arise and go, and he did—but in the opposite direction! He headed for Tarshish, which was 2,500 miles west of Joppa on the west coast of Spain.

Jonah thought he was going to be able to "flee … from the presence of the Lord," but Psalm 139 makes it clear that it is impossible. Still, Jonah attempted what Adam and Cain had tried before him—running from God's presence. And he did this rather than obey the Lord's command.

Jonah's Problem

Why did Jonah flee? He understood God's judgment, but he also understood God's mercy. And, as we will see, Jonah did not want Nineveh, the capital of an enemy nation, to be forgiven. Because Jonah knew the willingness of God to forgive sin when there is true change of heart, he fled rather than tell the Ninevites of the coming judgment. He didn't want them to escape God's wrath.

The evil of Nineveh was legendary in ancient times, and it was often experienced firsthand by the Jewish people (see Nahum 3:1-5). Still, at the root of Jonah's unwillingness to go to the citizens of Nineveh was a great hatred for them. They had proven themselves again and again to be the enemies of Israel. They were seen as cruel torturers who descended on rival nations like a plague of locusts—destroying and consuming all.

For Jonah to go to Nineveh would have been the moral equivalent of asking a Jewish resident of New York City in the 1940s to go to Berlin and give the Nazis a chance to be forgiven. The racial tension was so intense that, rather than obey, Jonah fled.

Our Lesson

It is easier to hate than to love—and some of us may often find ourselves dangerously close to creating our own Nineveh. Perhaps the people that inhabit our "Nineveh" are abortionists, homosexuals, political enemies, cultists, or an ethnic group we are uncomfortable with. The question we must honestly consider is this: will our prejudice cause us, like Jonah, to be guilty of silence, or will we intentionally express the heart of our God? Jonah chose silence and hate rather than obedience and love.

We learn many lessons in the book of Jonah, but the thread that connects them all together is the mercy of God. We see it in His pursuit and restoration of Jonah, His sparing of the sailors, and His miraculous salvation of Nineveh. Also in full view is the spiritual failure of Jonah …

  • who experienced mercy but gave none;
  • who received love but returned none;
  • who benefited from the patience of God but resented God for showing that same patience to Nineveh.

It's easy to forget that the one who is forgiven much should love much, and the one who has received mercy should be merciful.

There's an old hymn that says, "There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea." But even that's not wide enough. The ultimate expression of the wideness of God's mercy is that of the outstretched arms of Christ nailed to a cross and dying for our sins. How each of us responds to that mercy is the issue on which our eternity hangs.

Jonah received God's mercy and even steered others to it, but his great failure was in not wanting others to be allowed to experience that mercy for themselves. God grant that we would succeed in gratefully and obediently taking His mercy to those who need it as much as we do.

—Condensed from "The Failure of Success: The Story of Jonah" by David Sper. Copyright 2004 by RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, MI.

Men have been looking so long at the great fish they have failed to see the great God! —G. Campbell Morgan