One of my earliest memories is sitting down for Sunday school story time in front of the nineties’ best storytelling medium—a flannelgraph board, obviously—waiting excitedly for the teacher to start. I don’t specifically remember any story from those days except Noah’s Ark, but I’d imagine that Jonah and the Big Fish was probably one of them. Nearly everybody seems to know this biblical story, but here are some things I learned when I re-read it.
- The non-Israelites are more in awe of God than Jonah!
This was almost comical to realize. The book starts off with Jonah receiving clear direction from God, and then Jonah directly disobeys by going literally the opposite direction. When God sends the storm and Jonah confesses the God he worships, the sailors are rightly terrified—despite beseeching their own gods, their fruitless pleas reveal the true God’s power. This realization later leads the sailors to fear the Lord, offering a sacrifice to him, and making vows (Jonah 1:16). The other major group of non-Israelites, the Ninevites, show immediate repentance in light of Jonah’s message.
I wonder how many of us can relate—we can know God’s characteristics and study his Word so much, but sometimes this causes us to lose our ability to marvel at who he is and what he does. This might be at the root of Jonah’s sin and ours. Do we recognize this God for who he is, or has our view of him grown smaller?
- Jonah recognizes God’s salvation before he’s delivered from the belly of the fish.
Something that stands out from the beautiful prayer in Chapter 2 is that Jonah speaks of God’s salvation before a physical rescue ever happens. Last week’s blog included some of this truth – that God may not always choose to heal physically, or rescue us right away from a season of trial or difficulty. This doesn’t mean we can’t thank God in the midst of the darkness, as Jonah did, because our biggest need has been met. Yet we can pray in faith and thanksgiving because through Jesus, there’s no trial or situation to fear.
(For more on this prayer, see this LHC Sermon from Summer 2019.)
- Repentance of the heart produces visible changes.
The Ninevites’ response to Jonah’s message is miraculous: in seemingly no time at all, Jonah’s message spreads all over the great city, reaching even the king, resulting in a massive cultural shift. Would that our country have the same response! Would that I have that same response!
The recorded response of the Ninevites reveals their action change, but we can see their hearts have changed from the way God responds. He “had compassion on them” and relented (Jonah 3:10). We cannot see into people’s hearts, but if there is true repentance, there will be a change of course. May the Holy Spirit show us if there needs to be repentance and action change when we are convicted of sin!
- Jonah’s response reveals God’s continued work in his heart.
Instead of being wildly excited about the Ninevites’ repentance and God’s name being magnified, Jonah becomes “greatly displeased and angry.” He then vents to God by saying “I knew you would forgive them because you’re so good!” (Strangely Jonah didn’t seem to mind God’s forgiveness so much when it was shown to himself.) The overriding takeaway is that Jonah is not perfect. He is still in need of grace and forgiveness, and yet God speaks with him, convicts him, and invites Jonah to be part of his plans.
These familiar stories are so easy to think we know, but for me re-reading this minor prophet is a good reminder that God and his Word are always worth studying over and over and over. God’s wisdom will never run out!