The Book of Jonah
Encountering God Series
“The Character of God”
This morning we will begin a new series entitled “Jonah – Encountering God.” The book of Jonah is a small book in the Old Testament with only four short chapters. The book of Jonah has the total of forty-eight verses. The story of Jonah is clear and simple enough for a child to grasp, which explains its popularity in Sunday School curriculum and vacation Bible schools throughout the world. But below the surface of its simplicity the book of Jonah drives the reader to face many realities about themselves that could go undetected for decades. The great American novel, Moby Dick, describes the book of Jonah like this: “Shipmates, this book containing only four chapters – four yarns – is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of Scripture. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
Even though the supporting cast such as the king of Nineveh, the sailors, and the whale have a major role in the drama, the main characters are God Himself and Jonah, which is clearly indicated in first two verses, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.’” (Jonah 1.1-2)By the way Jonah is introduced in our verse one seems that he was a known and established figure to the audience. Even though the only other place Jonah is mentioned in the pages of Scripture is his prophesy to King Jeroboam II in the book of Second Kings (2Kings 14.23-27), it seems that he was a popular prophet in his day. In Second Kings Jonah is referred to as “God’s servant,” which indicates his privileged status. Of course, the chief test of whether a prophet was sent by God was that their prophecies were fulfilled. And in the case of Jonah, history unfolded just as he said it would. This would have given Jonah high poll numbers as a prophet.
Prophets were expected to be brave, full of faith, and able to leap large buildings in a single bound. No doubt that Jonah fit that description in the minds of the people. Remember that Jonah’s immediate predecessors in the prophetic ministry were Elijah and Elisha who set a high standard of faith and fortitude. Prophets were not to be moody disobedient runaways. But this is what we see in Jonah. Showing this side of Jonah would have been a shock to the readers of his day. It would be like seeing Rambo pouting like a spoiled baby below the deck of the ship. The reader in Jonah’s day would be forced to ask, “What is wrong with our hero, Jonah?” And that’s the question the Lord wants us to answer about ourselves. “What is wrong with me?” “Why am I acting like this?” Another quote from the American novel Moby Dick, “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and pagans alike – for we are all sometimes dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick) The fact is that we all need mending.
While most people are familiar with the book of Jonah because of Jonah’s encounter with a whale, the story of Jonah is really about Jonah’s encounter with God. Most of what Jonah will learn about God will come through him making bad decisions and having a bad attitude. Does that sound familiar? Jonah wants a God of his own making not the God of the Bible. Jonah wants a God who will smite the wicked with an iron fist while at the same time Jonah wants God to be dismissive and forgiving towards the sins and disobedience of his countrymen. Does that sound familiar? And when the real God of grace and mercy keeps showing up Jonah gets upset and sinks into despair.
Jonah provides an example of the need for an attitude adjustment for a wayward prophet. But regardless of Jonah’s runaway heart the Lord will be faithful to expose to Jonah who He is and His true character. The book of Jonah is about how a man who through painful experiences discovers the true character of the true God. It is my hope that during this series that each of us will have a fresh encounter with God as we consider the story of Jonah.Again, this morning we will look at the first two verses of Jonah chapter one as we consider “The Character of God.” Hear now the Word of God: The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” (Jonah 1.1-2)
The Character of God
These two verses share a wealth of information about the character of God. In verse one we see that the word of the Lord came to Jonah . . . saying this tells us that our God speaks. In the first part of verse two the Lord tells Jonah to arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it which shows us that our God sends. And then the last part of verse two tells us the reason why the Lord is calling Jonah to the great city of Nineveh is because their wickedness has come up before Him which tells us that our God sees. And all of this is wrapped in the context that our God shows grace. Our God speaks. Our God sends. Our God sees. Our God shows grace. This is our God!
Our God Speaks
First, we see that our God speaks in verse one by telling us that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah . . . saying.”Jonah was God’s prophet – God’s mouthpiece and the Bible tells us that the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets. (Amos 3.7) The prophetic process worked like this. The Lord would reveal His Word to His prophet and then prophet would proclaim God’s Word to the designated audience. In this case the Lord revealed His word to Jonah for the people of Nineveh. So, when we begin reading the book of Jonah, we are struck with the fact that our God speaks. This truth should not surprise us because God has been faithful to reveal this characteristic about Himself from the opening pages of Scripture. Fourteen times in the first chapter of Genesis we read “then God said,” or “God called,” or “God blessed.” A person can’t get pass the first chapter of the Bible without being struck with the fact that our God speaks.
But of course, the grandest demonstration that God speaks is seen in the fulfillment of redemptive history when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – in the person of Jesus Christ – the incarnate Word of God. (Jn.1.14) Truly Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s Word to humanity. The writer of the book of Hebrews says it best, God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. (Heb.1.1-2)
And for the better preserving and propagating of God speaking to humanity, our God was faithful to commit His Word into writing in the Holy Scripture (WCF I.I), the Bible. The Bible is the record of God’s word, and a living testament of God’s will so that every generation will know that our God speaks. Brothers and sisters, our God has never been silent, so it comes of no surprise that the opening verse of Jonah begins by telling us that the word of the Lord came to Jonah. Yes, our God speaks!
Our God Sends
We continue to understand God’s character when the Lord tells Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it.” Here we see that our God not only speaks but our God sends. This too has been a consistent characteristic of God. From the Lord sending Abraham to warn Lot about the coming destruction of Sodom – to the commissioning of Moses to tell Pharaoh to “Let My people go!” – to the cry of the prophet Isaiah, “Here am I, send me!” (Is.6.8), our God has always sent His messengers to proclaim His Word. O, how lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Is.52.7)
But what is shocking about the story of Jonah is where the Lord is sending His prophet. Up until this time the Lord had only sent His prophets to Israel but here, we see the Lord is sending His Hebrew prophet out to a Gentile city. And not to just any Gentile city but to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh is first mentioned in Genesis chapter ten where we find Noah’s great grandson, Nimrod, rebelling against God’s command to go and fill the earth by persuading people to stay and build great cities. One of those great cities of rebellion was Nineveh. (Gen.10.11) Nineveh was located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in modern day Iraq and became one of the largest cities in the world.
By the time of Jonah, centuries later, Nineveh was still known as a great city with its great wealth, power, and prestige. By this time, Nineveh had become the capital city of Assyrian Empire and the Assyrians were known for their brutality, cruelty, immorality, worship of false gods, superstitions, sorcery, and being a longtime enemy of Israel. (Nahum 3) Jonah had to wondered why the Lord would send one of His best prophets to a people who were such enemies.
But isn’t that the gospel? We who were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, God sent His Son to call us to Himself. (Col.1.21-22) For while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son. (Rom.5.10) God so loved the world that He sentHis only begotten Son that whosoever would believe on Him would not perish but have eternal life. (Jn. 3.16) And as the Father sent His Son so now Christ is sending us in the power of the Holy Spirit into all the world to make disciples. (Jn.20.21-22; Mt.28.19)
Our God Sees
The Lord summaries Nineveh’s evil tendencies telling Jonah that their wickedness has come up before Me. This leads us to the third characteristic our God sees. The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; from His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth.” (Ps.33.13-14) Job told us that the Lord looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. (Job.28.24) The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to give an account. (Heb.4.13) We see this in real time in the days of Noah when the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen.6.5) And again, in the days of Abraham when the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah was exceedingly great. (Gen.18.20)
Brothers and sisters, it is impossible for us to hide our sinful motives and actions in the dark corners of our heart and to think that the Lord does not see them. Remember the story of Achan who hid things that were forbidden by the Lord in his tent thinking that no one would know. (Josh.7.21) Well, Achan had successfully hidden his sin from others, but he couldn’t hide his sin from the Lord.
The Lord sees everything, even the darkness is light to Him. (Ps.139.12) The Lord asked the prophet Jeremiah, “Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?” declares the Lord. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the Lord. (Jer.23.24) You see, a person can hide secret sins from others, but it is impossible to hide secret sins from the Lord. The Lord had seen the wickedness of Nineveh so what did He do? The Lord would maintain the consistency of His character and show grace to Nineveh.
Our God Shows Grace
Brothers and sisters, our God shows grace, and was this element of God’s character that was too much for the prophet to handle. Don’t get me wrong. Jonah didn’t have a problem with God showing grace to people who looked like him, talked like him, and had the same persuasions as him. But God showing grace to these undeserving Assyrians was too much for a prophet. As a matter of fact, Jonah would later confess to the Lord that the reason he fled to Tarshish was because he knew that God was gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and One who relents concerning calamity.” (Jonah 4.2b)
Maybe we are more like Jonah than we would like to admit. It is easy to love those who love us, look like us, talk like us, and share our persuasions. But it becomes more and more difficult to show grace to those who are different than us. The Apostle taught us “we too all formerly lived in the lust of our flesh, indulging in the desire of our flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgression, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). (Eph.2.3-5) Maybe we have forgotten who we were.
As we begin this new series this morning, I want you to see that our God has been faithful to expose to us who He is and His true character. Our God speaks. Our God sends. Our God sees. Our God shows grace. This is our God!
Brothers and sisters, our God still speaks today by His word and Spirit but maybe we have chosen to close our ears. Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mt.11.15) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev.3.22)
Brothers and sisters, our God still sends today by sending His pastors, His teachers, and brothers and sisters in Christ but maybe we have chosen to turn away.
Brother and sisters, our God still sees today but maybe we think we can hide from His presence.
Brothers and sisters, our God still shows grace today regardless of where you have been, regardless of who you are, and regardless of what you have done.
It is my hope that during this series that each of us will have a fresh encounter with God and come to the realization that even though we are undeserving, God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and has sent the full demonstration of who He is in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ – the incarnate Word, so that we would encounter the grace of God.1