Jonah's Feet and God's Compassion (Jonah 1:1-16)
Topic: Jonah Passage: Jonah 1:1–1:16
Jonah: Fleeing or Following the Heart of God
Jonah's Feet and God's Compassion
(One Mission: I am Not Ashamed)
January 10th, 2016
I. The Big Idea
Jonah. What comes to your mind when you think about the book of Jonah? Would I be right to guess there's something 'fishy' about your answer?
Well, this month, we will be listening to the voice of God through the book of Jonah. Jonah is a very well-known story, but that familiarity doesn't always mean we understand the main point of the book; and even more important, it doesn't necessarily mean we know how to apply the book of Jonah to our lives. So turn to Jonah 1 if you have not already.
II. The Passage: “Arise, Go to Nineveh” (1:1-16)
This morning, we are going to tackle chapter 1. So let's get right to it by looking at verses 1 and 2 of Jonah 1.
A. God Commissions Jonah (1:1, 2)
This is what God's word tells us:
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,  “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
So some obvious question present themselves right away. The first is, “Who is Jonah, the son of Amittai?” Do we know anything else about Jonah beyond what we will discover in this book? Well, Jonah is mentioned in one other passage in the OT: II Kings 14:23-27.
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years.  And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin.  He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.  For the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel.  But the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.
So how is this helpful? It's helpful because it tells us how Jonah preached God's blessings of expanded or restored borders for the northern kingdom of Israel.
This prosperity was a feather in the cap of Jeroboam II, even though he was a wicked king over the northern tribes. As we learn from that passage, God acted for the sake of the people, not their king. Interestingly, in contrast to Jonah's message, other prophets during this time, prophets like Amos, spoke messages of judgment against Israel.
But what does it mean that the “affliction of Israel was very bitter”? That is a probably a reference to the fact that the northern kingdom of Israel had been oppressed by many of its neighbors to the east and north. This included the kingdom of Assyria. Remember the city mentioned in these opening verses of Jonah, the city of Nineveh? Well, that IS Assyria. Nineveh was simply one of their most important cities.
So it's helpful to understand that Nineveh is used in this book to represent the Assyrian Empire. Assyria had long been a bully in the region. Outside of the Bible, key inscriptions tell us how more than once, Israel had to pay tribute to the Assyrians. But during the time of Jonah, in the first half of the 8th century, Assyria entered a time of internal weakness. This was a one factor that allowed Israel to prosper under Jeroboam II.
But as we see from verse 2 of Jonah 1, the evil of Assyria “has come up before God”. From every indication, the “evil” of Assyria was manifest in the same transgressions against which the prophet Nahum spoke 100 years later. He said this about Nineveh:
Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder—no end to the prey!  The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot!  Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies!  And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms. (Nahum 3:1-4)
What is so interesting about Jonah is that while Hebrew prophets were often commanded to prophesy against foreign nations, few if any were ever called to go and preach TO and IN those foreign nations. But it's this backdrop information that helps us make a bit more sense of what we read in verse 3.
B. Jonah Responds to God's Commission (1:3)
This is what we read in verse 3 about Jonah's response to God's commission. God spoke to Jonah about Nineveh...
But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
Jonah's response to Almighty God's call...is to run. Now, we are nowhere told in this passage why Jonah fled, but we are told how. His strategy was simple: head to a non-Israelite seaport, which Joppa was at the time, and find some non-Israelite sailors, and take off for a—you guessed it—a non-Israelite destination. It is unclear where Tarshish actually was, or if at this point, it actually referred to one specific place. It is probably best to translate it as “the distant coastlands” or to “the open sea”.
The point here is not that Jonah thinks he can go where God is not, but that he can go where, in his mind, God doesn't typically operate. So “presence of the Lord” here probably has more to do with the land of Israel and anywhere God's people were. Jonah may have thought, “There are plenty of other prophets in Israel. I just need to get to some distant shore and God will surely call someone back home to go instead.”
C. God Responds to Jonah's Response to God's Commission (1:4-16)
But Jonah was mistaken, wasn't he? We know that from the very next verse, and from the verses that make up the majority of this chapter. We read, beginning in verse 4...
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.  Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.  So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”  And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.  Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”  And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”  Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.  Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous.  He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”  Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.  Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”  So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and [probably when they returned to Joppa] they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
What this passage tells us about Jonah and the sailors is very important. But even more important is what these verses tell us about God. Not only does God know exactly what Jonah is up to, not only does He have power over the very ocean Jonah is trying to escape across, not only does he have power over the cast lots, but He also demonstrates that His plan will be accomplished. Nineveh will be warned, and Jonah will be the one who issues that warning.
To be clear, Yahweh is not some spoiled brat who throws a fit when someone doesn't want to play by His rules. He's not some ticked off deity looking to punish Jonah. He knows exactly what Nineveh needs, and he knows exactly what Jonah needs.
In His infinite wisdom, grace, and love, God knows running away is not in Jonah's best interest. And so He sends a storm.
What's interesting here is the contrast between Jonah the Israelite prophets and and these idol-worshiping sailors. The sailors know right away something spiritual is happening. These are, in all likelihood, experienced sailors. They know what a normal storm looks like, and this is not one of those. So they are pulling out all the religious stops to figure out what is going on and please whatever deity has them in the cross-hairs.
But Jonah, on the other hand, is sleeping. And then, even when he is awakened and finds out what is going on, he says nothing. It is only when the lots are cast that Jonah knows he must come clean about what he's done. As one commentator puts it:
“The contrast is evident in the way the story is told. The sailors are willing to do whatever Yahweh wants, as soon as they can find it out. Jonah already knows exactly what Yahweh wants, but tries to escape it.” (Douglas Stuart)
III. “I Knew that You are a Gracious God”
For many, the lesson of Jonah is simply, “You can't run from God”; or, “It's always better to obey God the first time.” And those are both solid biblical truths, truths definitely connected to the main point of Jonah. But there's more we can say about Jonah. How do I know that? Because the book actually does answer the question, “Why?” Why? Why did Jonah run away? Why was Jonah so unwilling to carry out Yahweh's mission?
The answer is not found in the first chapter, but in the last chapter. Turn and look at the first two verses of Jonah 4. Spoiler alert regarding Nineveh! We read...
But it [that is, Nineveh repenting and God relenting...it] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.  And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (4:1-2)
Do you see what Jonah is saying? When God told Jonah to “call out against” Nineveh in 1:2, Jonah knew full well that his words would be a warning, AND, that such a warning might...might be heeded. It was that possibility, in light of the “gracious” and “merciful” character of God, the possibility that God might spare the Assyrians, it was that thought that sent Jonah running. He wanted nothing to do with anything that might benefit the Assyrians.
Remember, in Israelite minds, a weak Assyria, a cursed Assyria, translated to blessing for them. No one wanted to live under the shadow of the Assyrian threat. And Jonah was probably well liked because he was able to prophesy a message of expansion for Israel; of victory, and not defeat; of glory, and not humiliation. For so many reasons, Jonah would have been thrilled to declare the downfall of Assyria. But he hated the idea that God was offering Nineveh a chance.
If we boil it down, I think it's fair to say that Jonah was unwilling to embrace God's heart for ALL people. Compassion was fine for a chosen few, but not everyone. Some really, really deserve condemnation, not compassion...right? Right? Think about it.
We would much rather see the Islamic State destroyed than saved by the grace of God, right?
We would much rather see that arrogant, vulgar rapper fail to sell albums and publicly humiliated, [we would rather see that] than see him humbled and confessing his failures before God, right?
We would much rather find our political enemies losing influence and losing votes, than finding life as they lose their lives for Jesus and His gospel, right?
We would rather see that annoying, disrespectful, self-obsessed neighbor or co-worker move to another state, than move into the kingdom of God, by the grace of God, right?
At first, Jonah seems unfamiliar. His response to God is strange, maybe even silly to us. But when we look a little closer, I think God wants us to see ourselves. Like Jonah, we often flee from the heart of God. God's mercy, God's compassion, God's grace is SO deep and SO wide. That doesn't mean He doesn't hate evil. God is prepared to judge the Assyrians. But His heart seeks their repentance. His heart wants them to live, not die.
He is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. And that's fine if we are on the other end of God's favor. But oftentimes, we're scared; we're stubborn. We will not allow our hearts to beat along with His...for all people; for everyone.
It is much more comfortable to zero in on people like us, or people we like, and hope and pray for God's compassion to be poured out into their lives. But, if we are honest with ourselves, there are always others, others we love to hate; we love to mock; we love to judge; we love to demean; we love to gossip about; others we love to put in a box; others we love to tear down to lift ourselves up; others we love to avoid or accuse. Like Jonah, we run from the heart of God...and run TO things like indifference, unforgiveness, busyness, and pride.
But what does it look like to run to the heart of God? Isn't this what Jesus described for us:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:43-45)
And prayer is exactly how the Apostle Paul explains one expression of this heart:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior,  who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,  who gave himself as a ransom for all... (I Timothy 2:1-6a)
Brothers and sisters, are you fleeing or following the heart of God?
If we are fleeing, in whatever way we are, then this book reminds us that God loves us enough to hem us in; to block our path; to use storms, if necessary, to bring us back around.
What does God want for His people? First, He wants us to confess our 'escape routes'. What are the ways you run? But then, He wants us to pray, and keep praying this prayer: “God, please give me your heart for all people.” Are you ready to pray that prayer? Have you been praying that prayer? It can be a scary prayer to pray. But God loves to answer that prayer through his Holy Spirit. He is at work to form that heart in us.
In the coming weeks, God will help us, through this book, to understand more about following His heart. This morning, we can rejoice in the fact that Jesus did not run from God's mission. And His work was not simply to cry out against sinners. His mission was to cry out for sinners, to cry out, in agony, as the judgment of God against sinners fell on Him. With certainty we can say that the wide-open heart of God from Jonah ran, was on perfect display at the cross of Jesus.
Is it your desire to be like Jesus? To be molded, to be conformed by God into His image? If it is, then let your feet run to, not from, God's incomparable compassion.
More in Jonah: Fleeing or Following the Heart of God
January 31, 2016Jonah's Heart and God's Compassion (Jonah 4)
January 24, 2016Jonah's Voice and God's Compassion (Jonah 3:1-10)
January 17, 2016Jonah's Breath and God's Compassion (Jonah 1:17-2:10)