The Running Prophet and the Pursuing God
On Friday we had some of our neighbours over for a BBQ and towards the end of the evening I could see the crescent moon shining brightly in the clear sky. So I quickly set up our telescope and invited our guests to take a look before they left for the evening.
And I just loved standing there watching them all be amazed as they took in the majesty of the moon. It’s one thing to just see the moon in the sky; it’s another to be able to make out the individual craters and see it in such detail that you feel as if you could just reach up and touch it.
And the whole experience made me think about preaching. God’s word is kind of like the moon, shining away there, full of glory. But it’s easy to miss. It’s easy to get used to it.
And so preaching is like a telescope. Preaching fixes our attention on a part of God’s word and zooms us in to be able to see it’s details and structure in a clearer way. It helps us see what was always there but which might have been easy to miss.
And the goal of preaching is not to give us a few little tips on how to live our life better. The goal of preaching is that we would behold the glory of God in the word of God. And as we behold God’s glory in God’s word, we respond to Him with the awe-struck worship that He is worthy of, and we are changed to be like Him.
Today we have the privilege of turning our telescope to a part of God’s word that’s very familiar to many of us: the story of Jonah. Maybe this story feels too familiar to you. Maybe you think you’ve learned all of the lessons that there are to learn.
Perhaps. But we’re not here mainly to learn lessons. We’re here to behold God. And I’m convinced that there is glory to be seen here—enough glory to go around, even if you’ve been familiar with this story for a lot of years.
Why Jonah? Why are we here? The main reason is that we’re on this plan to preach through the Bible in a balanced way, spending time in all of the different sections every two years or so. Jonah is one of the prophets and we haven’t spent any time in any of the prophets in the last four years.
Jonah is an interesting book, because although it’s included in the prophets, it’s written as a story—as a narrative. In that sense it’s very much like the stories of Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings. They were prophets but we read far more about their life than about their actual prophecies.
But Jonah isn’t just a random story. With Jonah, his story itself has a point. The story of Jonah carried a prophetic message to God’s people then, and still has much to say to God’s people today.
God, the Main Character
So as we begin to look at the book of Jonah, it might be helpful to begin by surveying the main characters. Maybe you’ve seen a book or a play that begins with a list of the characters in the story so you know what to expect.
And the first three verses of Jonah actually do much the same for us. They introduce us to the characters in this story.
Look at verse 1: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1). Notice who the very first person mentioned in this passage is. The Lord. See the all-caps? That means this is God’s personal name, Yahweh. Yahweh is the very first person mentioned in this story.
And what we’ll discover is that Yahweh is the main character of this story. Even though the book is called “Jonah,” Yahweh’s name is mentioned 26 times compared to only 18 times for Jonah throughout the book. God is the hero of this story, and Jonah is really just a supporting character.
Jonah, Son of Ammitai
But Jonah is an important character nonetheless. Verse 1 introduces us to him as “Jonah the Son of Ammitai.”
This is not the first time in the Bible that we meet Jonah. 2 Kings 14:25 tells us that Jeroboam II, king of Israel, “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” (2 Kings 14:25).
This tells us that Jonah was a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel during this time when Israel was restoring it’s borders to where they had been. And in fact, God had used Jonah to preach a message that this restoration would happen.
Now things get really interesting here. Because why did Israel’s borders need to be restored? Why had they shrunk in the first place?
And the answer is Assyria. Assyria was the major empire in the world around this time, and for years had been threatening Israel and breathing down their neck. But during the time of Jeroboam II, Assyria was in a period of decline, and their territory and influence was really small compared to what it had been.
And this allowed Israel to take back territory that they hadn’t occupied since Solomon was king. Israel was able to grow and assert themselves precisely because Assyria had shrunk wasn’t too big of a threat.
But readers of Scripture know that this isn’t the end of the story between Israel and Assyria. 30 years after Jeroboam II’s death, Assyria would have grown again and completely wiped Israel off of the map. And Jonah himself may have known this was coming, because God had foretold it through other prophets like Hosea (Hosea 10:5-6, 11:5).
And so all of that adds to the surprise that Jonah must have felt to hear the call of verse 2: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria.
And so the Ninevites are our third set of characters in this story. These were the top dogs of the Assyrian empire. Just think about how shocking this would have been to Jonah.
After years of being public enemy number 1, the Assyrians were finally leaving Israel alone. The people could finally say things like “Remember when Assyria used to bother us?”
Jonah was maybe even a popular guy. Unlike many prophets, he had a good news message that came true within their own lifetime. People may have clapped him on the back and said “Israel is growing again Jonah, just like you said! So glad we don’t have to think about those Assyrians any more.”
And God sends Jonah right to the capitol city of Assyria. It’s like God telling you to pack up and go to a part of the world that’s still in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak. You just threw your last mask in the garbage and God tells you to go back into a hotspot.
It was probably like that but worse. And what made this even harder was that God’s prophets didn’t usually go preach in foreign cities. Israel had a mission to the Gentiles, to be sure, but for most of the time it was a “come-and-see” kind of mission. People would pass through Israel as they followed the ancient trade routes and they were supposed to see Israel’s abundant land and their blessed life and be drawn to worship Israel’s God.
We know that all of this changed in the New Covenant. Instead of telling His people to clump all together and wait for people to come to us, Jesus tells us to go to all nations. Instead of “come and see” it’s now “go and tell.”
And you and I are used to that—or at least we should be. But Jonah wasn’t. He wasn’t used to going and telling, and certainly not in the capital city of Israel’s #1 enemy.
But as we’re going to discover, Jonah is a story just dripping with surprises. Nothing here is what we expect.
And we don’t have to look far to see our next twist. Verse 3: “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 1:3).
This verse is really surprising, because this is not how prophets act. Prophets are God’s messengers and they do what God wants. And yet when Jonah gets this commission, he runs.
He doesn’t even say anything. He doesn’t argue, he doesn’t wrestle. He just gets up and runs in the opposite direction from where God told him to go. He literally tries to get to the other side of the world.
But it’s not just that he’s trying to get away from Nineveh. He’s trying to get away from the God who sent him there. That’s what verse 3 tells us—he was fleeing “from the presence of the Lord.”
In other words, he’s trying to quit his job as a prophet. He’s trying to get away from God so that God can’t give him any more assignments.
So here’s one of the next twists in this story: God tells Jonah to go preach to wicked people, and instead Jonah becomes a wicked person himself. He rebels and runs.
Verse 3 also introduces us to the final set of characters in this story, which are the sailors on this boat. These are the people he would have paid his fare to as he sailed away from his land.
And so in these first three verses we’ve got the story fairly well set up for us. We’ve met our main characters: Yahweh, Jonah, the Ninevites, and the sailors. We’ve seen Jonah’s mission and we’ve seen him attempt to run away from the person who gave him that mission.
And the next stop in our story is the storm in verses 4 and following. And throughout this section there’s really two main themes that weave in and out of each other. The first theme is the power of God on display. The second theme is the irony that the pagan sailors act better than Jonah does.
And we’re going to see both of those themes as we walk through these verses together. Let’s start in verse 4, which says that “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.”
Most of us are land-lubbers who haven’t spent too much time on the ocean. But many of us have been in the middle of a crazy Saskatchewan storm—the kind that makes the windows shake and the lights go out and shingles blow off of roofs. The kind that makes you think “Wow, I’m glad I’m inside.”
Now imagine you’re not inside but instead are on a boat—probably not a very big one—in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. You’re clutching on to whatever you can to avoid being blown off and the rain is pelting your face and the waves keep washing over the deck and the wind makes it almost impossible for you to hear anybody and every few seconds you’re going dozens of feet up and then down as you ride the mountains and valleys of water up and down and up and down.
A storm is an awesome thing. And a storm is a display of God’s power. God hurled or threw this storm at them. What’s the biggest thing that you can throw? I bet you it’s not a storm.
Verse 4 also shows us just how silly Jonah was to try to get away from God. God knows exactly where He is and He rules over the forces of nature and He has the power to stop Jonah right in his tracks.
Don’t miss the fact that God used a storm. He could have been more gentle, sending Jonah a a dream or a vision. But instead God sent a violent storm that almost wrecked the boat, caused huge financial loss in the form of all of the cargo they threw overboard (v. 5), and ended up almost killing Jonah (2:5).
God knew what He was doing had had a purpose in all of this. But don’t miss that is willing to make things really hard to get a hold of his children.
So that’s the one theme we talked about. God’s power. This other theme—of the sailors acting better than Jonah—shows up in verse 5: “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” (Jonah 1:5).
They’re up there working and praying, and Jonah is just sleeping.
It’s interesting to note how many times Jonah “goes down.” In verse 3 “He went down to Joppa” and then “went down into” the boat. Now he’s gone “down into the inner part of the ship.” And we know that he’s about to go down even further.
But before then we see him go down in another way as he’s put to shame by these pagan sailors. In verse 6 the captain actually confronts him: “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god!” And you know what? There’s no record of Jonah doing that until chapter 2. These pagans are all praying and Jonah, apparently, still has God on ignore.
Now before we get to verse 7, we need to understand that there was a very common idea in the ancient world: if something bad happens, it’s because someone had done something bad.
This is what Job’s friends thought. “Job, you are suffering because you did something bad.” And in that case they were really wrong.
But this time, the sailors are right. “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” (Jonah 1:7).
“Lots” were like dice and this was a very common way of seeing direction in the ancient world. And this verse once again shows us the power of God. He is in charge of storms, and He is in charge of tiny little details like which way a dice rolls. Proverbs 16:33 says “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” And that even applies to dice which are rolled on a boat in the middle of a crazy storm.
The lot falls to Jonah, and so they immediately pepper him with questions about who he is and what’s going on. And Jonah answers in verse 9: “‘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” (Jonah 1:9–10).
Jonah knew better all along, didn’t he? He knew that Yahweh was not just a God but was the God. Jonah may have even sung the words from our call to worship passage: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:7–10).
Just like you and I have done so many times, Jonah tried to get away from a God whom you can’t get away from.
And don’t you see the irony in verse 10 that the sailors are the ones rebuking Jonah for this? “What is this that you have done!” “Your God made everything, and you tried to get away from Him?”
This was not a great moment for Jonah. But the moment doesn’t last long, because they need to figure out what to do next. And what what they do in verse 11: “Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?’ For the the sea grew more and more tempestuous.”
And Jonah 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” (Jonah 1:12).
It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in Jonah’s mind at this point. Is this an act of sacrifice? “Let me die so that you guys don’t have to!” Is it an act of stubbornness? “I’d rather die than go back!”
We don’t know. But the really amazing thing is what happened next: “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.”
Isn’t that incredible? These pagan sailors are working to save Jonah’s life even though he is clearly guilty and has already cost them so much. They are doing to Jonah what he was refusing to do to the Ninevites. At least they try.
But they can’t do it. The storm gets even worse yet. And so they pray in verse 14 that God would not hold them responsible for Jonah’s life, and they throw Jonah into the sea in verse 15.
And what does verse 15 say? “And the sea ceased from its raging.” The sovereign Lord who started that storm stopped it in its tracks.
And what’s the result? Verse 16: “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (Jonah 1:16).
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Almost eight hundred years later we read about Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who “arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’” (Matthew 8:27-27).
When you see God’s power on display like this, it makes you afraid. Because if He can stop a storm just like that, how much more powerful than the storm must he be?
And I just love this scene of these pagan sailors out there on this boat, in the middle of the calm sea, sacrificing to God and making promises to Him that they’re going to serve Him. That’s the sense of “making vows.”
And again, this is so ironic: Jonah was running because he didn’t want to see Gentiles turn to God. And yet the very guys that he was paying to help him escape end up hearing about God—from Jonah—and becoming God’s worshippers. God wins.
And finally the chapter ends by telling us that “The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).
We’re going to pick up on this verse next week, but all that we’ll point out here is that God is sovereign over storms and dice and over the movements of marine life. He has that fish or whale in the right spot at the right time to make sure that Jonah is kept alive to finish this mission God had given him.
What Do We Learn About God?
Now as we come to the end of this chapter, and step back to consider it as a whole, it would be awfully tempting to make it all about us. There’s no doubt that many of us identify with Jonah. We know what it’s like to run when we should obey. We know what it’s like to fall asleep when we should be praying.
We know what it’s like to sin and have our sin cause lots of pain for the people around us. We know what it’s like to have unbelievers around us act better than us even though we’re supposed to be the ones who should know God.
And it’s certainly appropriate to look at Jonah and consider what we need to learn from his negative example.
But at the same time, I think it’s really important we remember Whom this story is really about. Who is the main character? It’s not Jonah, and it’s certainly not us. It’s God. And so we’re going to end here by summing up and reflecting on what Jonah 1 has shown us about our God.
And there’s two big truths about God we’re going to reflect on here.
1. God is a Missionary God
The first truth is that God is a missionary God. Look at where the chapter started: God send Jonah to Nineveh. Look at where the chapter ends: with God securing the allegiance of the pagan sailors, and sending a fish or a whale to make sure that Jonah’s mission to the Ninevites will be accomplished.
That’s a big idea in this whole book and it’s why I’ve called this series “Our Missionary God.” From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible reveals to us a God who is on mission. A God who seeks and saves the lost long before they seek Him. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
And this God gives His people a role to play in His mission. But it’s His mission, not ours. Someone has said that it’s not that the church has a mission, but rather that the God of mission has a church.
So that means that you and I don’t have the option of following God but ignoring the mission. Because the God we follow is a missionary God. To follow Him is to be involved in His mission to make disciples from all nations.
And that’s all I’m going to say about this today, because this theme will come up again before we’re finished our time in Jonah.
2. God is a Sovereign God
A second aspect about God that we see in this passage is His absolute sovereignty. For God to be sovereign means that He powerfully rules over all things according to His pleasure.
Psalm 135:6–7 says “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.”
Behind all the forces of nature is a person who rules over storms and dice and fish. It’s like we sang earlier:
“The moon shines full at His command, and all the stars obey… and clouds arise and tempests blow by order from Thy throne.”
God is sovereign. What He wants to happen, happens. We’ve seen how this applies to storms and this applies to dice and this applies to fish.
And even more, we’ve seen how this applies to people. People like Jonah. God wanted Jonah in Nineveh. Jonah tried to run away, and God didn’t let him. God used the storm and the dice and the fish to get Jonah back to exactly where God wanted Him.
Now this might be a tough pill for some people to swallow. We live here in the West where we believe that everybody gets to decide everything for themselves. We don’t like being told what to do, and the more people tell us to do things, the less we want to do them.
And somehow we’ve got this idea that God plays by those rules. I’ve heard people teach that God must respect our free will. If we’ve chosen something, he has to let us go and he can’t stop us.
I don’t know where we got that idea from, because it’s not in the Bible. Instead, listen to how the Bible describes God: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:10–11).
Did you catch that? The nations and the peoples make their plans, and God wrecks their plans. And what happens instead is what God wants to happen.
And we see this right here in Jonah. Jonah runs, and God doesn’t let him. He frustrates those plans and comes for Jonah because the counsel of the Lord stands forever.
Now you might say, “Don’t I have free will?” And let’s just say that God’s will is freer than yours is. Jonah, in his “free will,” ran from God, and God, in His free will, came for Jonah. And guess who won?
What God wants to happen will happen.
And when you truly know God, you experience how comforting this is. Do we really want our will to be what happens? I think of the parable of the ninety-nine sheep, and how we’re all like the sheep that wandered away, and how thankful I am that Jesus didn’t say “Well, they ran off, so I’ll respect their decision.” Instead, Jesus says “that sheep is mine,” and He comes for us. (Matthew 18:10-14).
A couple of weeks ago I read from John 10:28 where Jesus said that “No one will snatch” His sheep out of His hand. When I’ve shared my testimony with people sometimes, I’ve summed it up in five words: “Jesus has a strong grip.” Because so many things—including me—have tried to get me away from Jesus. But He won’t let that happen.
The sovereign saviour chose me before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and died for me before I was even born (Romans 5:8) and caused me to believe in Him (Philippians 1:29) and has held on to me again and again and again through the storms of life, and often has held on to me by using the storms of life, just like with Jonah. If my salvation was up to me, I’d be long gone. It’s like the old hymn says, “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, but yet in love He sought me, and on His shoulder gently laid, And home rejoicing brought me.”
Parents, let this truth bring you comfort when you see your kids making decisions that grieve you. If they truly belong to God, He will come for them. It might take a storm, and they might need to end up in a pig sty eating pods for a while, but if they are His, He will bring them back to Himself.
And if there is anyone here today who is running from God, or thinking about it, please hear the warning: you really don’t want the storm. You don’t want the pig sty. Don’t make God chase you. Just stay.
Maybe you’re listening and you don’t don’t know God’s love this way this morning. You don’t know if you’re even His in the first place. If that’s so, I invite you to come to Jesus, the Jesus who said “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). “Whoever” includes you. If you genuinely come to Jesus, you’ll never be cast out.
And for all of us who do know the love of the Lord, we can take comfort from this story that our God is sovereign over all things, and He will move heaven and earth, literally, to keep His children.
As we close, let’s not forget how these two truths about God work together. This keeping, sovereign God is a missionary God. And so knowing that we are secure in His love is not just insurance so we can live a comfortable life. When we know we are secure in His love, we can get up and go to Nineveh. We can do hard things and take risks and lose our lives for the sake of the mission because we know we’ll never be left out there on our own.
We know that wherever we go, whatever tough decision or hard conversation or painful experience or risky venture you need to embark on, you’ll be able to look in the rearview mirror and see the goodness and mercy of the sovereign God following you all the days of your life.
So let’s stand and praise the God who loved us first and who chases us down.
And then let’s go spend our week following our sovereign, missionary God wherever He sends us, obeying all that He’s commanded us, and trusting everything He’s promised us.