Responding to God’s Call

 

Sunday School Lesson for December 7, 2003

 

Background Passage: Jonah 1:1-2:9

 

Focal Teaching Passage:  Jonah 1:1-17

 

The Rebellion of Jonah (1:1-3)

 

Verses 1-2

The book of Jonah commences with the announcement that the “Word of the Lord” (v. 1) came to the prophet calling him to “Arise, and go to Nineveh” (v. 2). This language is the kind typically used to introduce the ministry of Old Testament prophets (see Joel 1:1, Micah 1:1, Malachi 1:1 for example).  Jonah, whose name means “dove,” was the “son of Amittai,” and was most likely the same prophet referenced in 2 Kings 14:25. He was directly ordered by the Lord to proceed to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the “great city,” which was located near the Tigris River (about 250 miles north of modern Baghdad). It would be a journey of some 500 miles from the prophet’s home in Gath-hepher to the capital city of the Assyrian empire.

 

Once there, Jonah was to “cry out,” or preach against the city’s inhabitants whose “wickedness” had “come up before” the very face of God. The word translated “wickedness” may be used indicate moral evil as well as calamity or disaster in general.  However, Jonah’s words to the people of the city in 3:8-10 suggest that moral evil is in view (cf. Zeph. 2:13-15; Nahum 3:1-7).  

 

Verse 3

Having received orders from the Lord, Jonah rebelled and attempted to run from the very “presence of the Lord.” Instead of making his way to Nineveh, the prophet traveled to the coastal city of “Joppa” where he found a ship preparing to depart to “Tarshish,” a city also known by scholars as Tartessos located on the coast of Spain [T. Desmond Alexander, Jonah, TOTC, 100; James Limburg, Jonah, TOTL, 43].  This would be about as far from Nineveh as one could possibly go and, as far as Jonah was concerned, far from the Lord Himself (note the repetition of the phrase “from the presence of the Lord”). 

 

Many interpreters point out the fact that the author paints a dramatic picture of Jonah’s fall as a prophet and man of God.  Four times he is said to have gone “down.”  He “went down to Joppa” (1:3), he “went down” into the ship (1:3), he “went below into the hold of the ship” (1:5), and finally down to “the roots of the mountains” (2:6). At any rate, Jonah’s actions made it clear that he had no intention of serving the Lord as His divinely appointed messenger.  His action, therefore, is “nothing less than open rebellion against God’s sovereignty” [Alexander, 101].

 

 

The Discipline of God (1:4-17)

 

Verse 4

In view of Jonah’s adamant refusal to obey the voice and God, “the Lord” responded immediately.  He “hurled a great wind on the sea” and caused a “great storm” to come upon the ship and its occupants. The author notes that the ferocity of the storm was such that the ship itself was “about to break up.” What is clear from the language and structure of this verse is that this storm was no coincidence. It was sent by God Himself—the one true God who, unlike the many tribal deities worshipped in the ancient world, exercises His sovereign Lordship over all things, including the weather.

 

Verses 5

The unusual magnitude of the storm is also reflected in the fact its seasoned crew—“the sailors”—immediately “became afraid” and began appealing to their respective deities for help. Limburg notes that sailing vessels of the time period were typically constructed of fir planks, a cedar mast, a pine deck, and were propelled by oak oars and linen sails [49].  It was also typical for these ships to carry “such cargo as precious metals, horses and mules, ivory, and various other products” [Limburg, 49].  Yet, while the ship was being torn apart by the wind and waves and its crew was frantically jettisoning its cargo, Jonah was “sound asleep” in the cargo-hold of the ship. The word for “sleep” emphasizes a particularly deep sleep—so deep that Jonah was not disturbed in the least by the frantic action on the deck above.

 

Verses 6-9

Not seeing Jonah on deck, the vessel’s “captain” confronted the sleepy prophet—“How is it that you are sleeping?  Get up, call on your god” (v. 6).  Note that the words of the captain closely resemble those spoken earlier by the Lord (1:1—“Arise, go . . . and cry out”).  The captain ordered Jonah to do as the other men by praying for the deliverance of the ship and crew—“perhaps your god will be concerned about us” (v. 6).

 

In a further effort to end the storm, the ship’s crew determined to “cast lots” in order to discern who might be responsible—“that we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us” (v. 7). They obviously (and correctly!) believed that the storm represented an act of divine judgment upon a member of the crew.  When the “lot fell to Jonah,” everyone aboard the ship knew the real purpose for the storm (v. 7). 

 

In response to this revelation, the crewmembers began to interrogate the rebellious prophet by hurling a number of questions at him (v. 8).  In reply, Jonah admitted that he was a “Hebrew” who worshipped the “Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”  This statement, however, reveals the absurdity of Jonah’s attempt to run away from God. The One who created all that is by means of His powerful Word could not be escaped or avoided by any man. 

 

Verses 10-14

Having learned that Jonah was a worshipper of Yahweh who was using the ship as a means to escape “from the presence of the Lord” (v. 10), the sailors became “extremely frightened,” or literally terrified. They had come to realize that Jonah’s God was behind their travails. Their earlier suspicion that there was a theological aspect to the storm was confirmed.  In verse 11, the author notes that the members of the crew appealed to Jonah for advice as to how the sea and wind might “become calm” again. With the situation worsening by the minute—“the sea was becoming increasingly stormy”—Jonah instructed the men to cast him overboard since his disobedience of Yahweh’s command was the direct cause (v. 12).

 

Initially the crew rejected Jonah’s appeal to be thrown into the sea and desperately attempted to land the ship on shore. However, with the storm continuing to build their only option was to do what Jonah himself had not done up to this point: “they called on the Lord” for deliverance.  As they prayed to Jonah’s God, they acknowledged His hand in the storm—“Thou, O Lord, hast done as Thou hast pleased”—and requested that their lives not be taken on account of Jonah’s sins.

 

The interesting feature of the story up to this point is how the pagan captain and his crew are repeatedly cast in a favorable light.  They are the ones who reach out to God in prayer and, motivated by fear, eventually worship, offer sacrifices, and make vows (v. 16).  The author has cleverly focused attention on God’s initial command to the prophet (v. 2) to “cry” out against Nineveh. Limburg observes that 

 

The Lord had told Jonah to preach/call out against Nineveh (1:2); Jonah elected not to.  The captain asked Jonah to call upon his god in prayer (1:6); again Jonah does not do so. If Jonah, the insider who has experienced a direct word from the Lord, will not cry out to his God, then the sailors, the outsiders, will, and they do [55-56].  

 

Verses 15-17

Finally, the exhausted crew did what Jonah had suggested. They “they threw him into the sea” and immediately “the sea stopped its raging” (v. 15).  With the full awareness that Jonah’s God had orchestrated the whole episode in response to the prophet’s willful disregard to His direct orders, the crewmembers were essentially converted to the worship of Yahweh. Amazingly, they acknowledged Jonah’s God as their own [Alexander, 106].

 

The chapter ends in verse 17 with the incredible record of how the Lord personally “appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.”  Once more, the language makes it unmistakably clear that the Lord was not only directly responsible for the storm, but also for Jonah’s miraculous rescue from death. The Hebrew word translated as “appointed,” also used in 4:6, 7, 8, “refers in each instance to God’s ability to control nature as he desires” [Alexander, 110]. This great “fish”—an unspecified species—swallowed Jonah alive, yet the Lord preserved the prophet “in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.”

 

 

Questions to Consider as You Prepare to Teach

 

 

  1. Why do you think Jonah ran from the Lord in the first place?  What made him refuse to go to Nineveh?

 

  1. What does this passage have to say to those who would attempt to escape from God’s presence?

 

  1. How does this passage address the consequences of disobedience?

 

  1. How would you evaluate the ‘conversion’ of the sailors?  Was it for real?

 

  1. How does the story of Jonah’s three-day experience inside the fish relate to the ministry of Christ?