Stubborn prophet, gracious God

Chatswood Baptist Church

Jonah 1-4

1. Stubborn

How stubborn are you? Are you the sort of person that digs your heels in even when you know you’re in the wrong? Do you find it easier to make excuses rather than admit your mistakes? Do you always insist on things being done your way, even when someone points out a better way that it can be done? Are you the sort of person that it finds it hard to ask for help even though you need it?

I think all of us at times can be stubborn. I think it comes quite naturally. Even little children are stubborn. I remember one of our own children who could be really stubborn when it came to eating his dinner. He would dig in his heels and refuse to eat. Even if he opened up his mouth and took a mouthful, he wouldn’t actually swallow it. He knew he couldn’t spit it out, but he would sit there for what sometimes seemed like hours with the same mouthful in his mouth. He would sometimes even fall asleep at the table with it still in his mouth. We didn’t have to teach him to be stubborn and ignore what we told him to do. It came naturally.

2. A stubborn prophet

The story of Jonah that we are looking at today is in part the story of how God dealt with a very stubborn Israelite prophet. The Israelites were the descendants of Abraham who God had made into a great nation[1]. Jonah lived in the first half of the 8th century BC. This was about 750 years before the birth of Jesus. As a prophet of God Jonah’s job was simply to tell others what God had told him to say to them. God would speak and Jonah was meant to deliver the message. In the case of Jonah, the message that “the Lord” (this is how our English Bible translates the name of God) had given Jonah was for the city of Nineveh. But Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh and he disobeyed the Lord. Listen again to the first few sentences of chapter 1 of the book of Jonah.

Jonah 1:1-3

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.[2]

  • Jonah refused to go to Nineveh

Jonah refused to go to Nineveh. Jonah probably thought he had some very good reason for not wanting to go to Nineveh.

In Jonah’s day Nineveh was one of the principal cities of the Assyrian empire and at times had been its capital. At the time Assyria was the dominate world superpower in the Middle East having used its military might to take control of much of the region. It was a constant threat to Israel’s existence. It was a wicked nation. The Assyrians were brutal and ruthless.

While recently on holidays in the UK I had the opportunity to visit the British museum where they have on display the bronze bands of the Balawat gate. This was a gate that hung on the walls of Nineveh at the time of Jonah. If you examine one of the bronze bands that held together the gate you see grisly images of how the Assyrian used to kill their enemies putting them on spikes and cutting off their hands and feet and eventually their heads. The people of the middle east hated the Assyrians for their extreme violence and cruelty to the people they oppressed. These were people who ignored God and worshipped false gods rather than the true God.

No doubt Jonah probably had good reasons for not liking the Ninevites. They were enemies. They were wicked. They were brutal, ruthless and violent. So when the word of God came to Jonah to go the great city of Nineveh and preach against he refused to do as he was told. He knew if God was sending him to the Ninevites to tell them of the calamity that the Lord was about to bring upon them then it was so that they might have chance to repent and be spared (see Jer. 18:7-8). Jonah didn’t want God to spare them. He did want God to give chance to repent and turn from their wickedness and be forgiven.  Later in the story Jonah explains that he knew this right from the start.

Jonah 4:1-3

1But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.

Jonah was angry because he wanted the Ninevites to get what they deserved. He didn’t want God to show them compassion and so he refused to do what God had told him to do.

How stubborn was Jonah?

  • Jonah ran away

He not only refused to go but he took off and ran and headed in the opposite direction. From Israel Nineveh was an easterly journey by land. Instead of getting on the road for Nineveh he went to Joppa on the coast and got on a boat and headed west by sea to Tarshish.

Now Tarshish for an Israelite was what they thought of as the end of the known world. You couldn’t get any further away. It is thought to have been at other end of the Mediterranean Sea somewhere in Spain. Jonah was getting as far away from Nineveh as he could possibly get. It would be like me being told to go to New Zealand and then getting on a plane and flying to the UK on other side of the world.

How stubborn was that? He not only ignored God and didn’t do what God had told him to do, but he did exactly the opposite. He tried to get as far away from Nineveh as he possibly could. He was trying to make sure that he wouldn’t be the one to take God’s message to the Ninevites.

  • Jonah ignored the storm

But that isn’t all. He not only ran away, but he then ignored the storm that God had sent to get his attention. The storm was a like a warning shot over the bow of the ship telling Jonah to turn around and stop running. But Jonah even ignored the warning shot. He didn’t stop.

Did you notice in the story that Jonah is the only one on the boat who doesn’t seem to pray to God. Everyone else prayed to his god but not Jonah. When everyone was down on their knees Jonah was down below sleeping. He was woken up by the captain, but we are not told that Jonah prayed to the Lord on board the ship. It’s clear that Jonah knew exactly why there was a storm and why it was getting rougher. He also knew that he couldn’t really run away from God the God who created everything, but even though Jonah knew all this he refused to do as he was told believing that he knew better than God.

  • Jonah told the crew to throw him into the sea

On the boat, instead of praying to God he told the crew to throw him overboard. How stubborn was that?

Now you might think that this was very noble gesture on the part of the prophet. But I think it is probably the height of his stubbornness. Jonah for a little while thought that he would have preferred to be thrown into the sea and die rather than repent and do what he had been told to do. He knew what God was like, but instead of turning back to God, Jonah’s solution was for the crew to throw him overboard.

I don’t think Jonah thought he had any chance in the water. I think he knew that he was going to sink like a rock to the bottom. But he was so stubborn that he chose to be thrown into the sea and drown rather than do as he was told. Later in chapter 4 when he is complaining to God for sparing the Ninevites he actually says, “O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

How stubborn was that?

  • Jonah didn’t cry out until his life was slipping away.

It wasn’t until he was drowning that he changed his mind and called out to God for help. We see this from the prayer that he prayed inside the fish.

The prayer in chapter 2 is prayer where he is thanking God for saving him. From the pray it become obvious that that the prophet held out to the very last possible moment before calling out to God. He says that it was from the depths of the grave that he had called out for help to the Lord (2). The waves and breakers had swept over him (3) and the waters had engulfed him and the deep surrounded him (5). He sank down to the roots of the mountains. In other words, he had had gone under and sunk to the bottom. He says that it wasn’t until his life was ebbing away that he remembered the Lord and prayed to him (7) promising to make good his vow and admitting that God can save whoever he wants to save (9).

How stubborn is that?

This is a guy who ignored God until the very last possible moment. It wasn’t until his life was slipping away that he remembered the Lord and cried to God for help. He’d run away. He had done the opposite of what he’d been told. He ignored the warnings. He waited until his dying breath. Jonah was a disobedient and stubborn man who believed that he could ignore God and rebel against him.

  • We can all be like Jonah

But I don’t think we are to see the prophet as an exception to the rule. I think Jonah is typical of what we all can be like. As I said at the beginning of the talk, we have all got it in us to be stubborn. In fact, the Bible says that all of us have turned away from God and ignored him[3]. We have all sinned and fallen short of his glory[4]. We have done what we have wanted to do and have believed what we have want to believe rather than listen to the God who has made us. We even ignore his warnings that he gives us refusing to turn back to him. Jonah had this problem and he wasn’t unique in his attempt to run away from the Lord. For some of us today the story of Jonah is another opportunity that God is giving us to stop ignoring him and turn around and come back to him. You are here today not by chance, but because God wants you to stop running and turn back to him.

3. God’s graciousness

Fortunately for us the story of Jonah is more than just a story of how stubborn people can be. It’s also a story of how gracious God is toward those who stop ignoring him and turn back. This story doesn’t just highlight the stubbornness of the prophet but also it shines the light on the graciousness of God. God is willing to forgive people who don’t deserve it when they turn back to him.

  • God rescued Jonah

We see this with Jonah. God rescued him even though he had been disobedient and stubborn and even though Jonah waited until what must have been the last possible moment to cry out to God. God rescued him from the bottom of the sea by sending a great big fish to swallow him.

Jonah 1:17

17But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three night.

The great fish that God sent at just the right to keep the prophet alive. And at the right time the Lord got it to spit him out again.

Jonah 2:10

10And the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

God rescued his disobedient and stubborn prophet. How gracious is our God? He saves people like Jonah who don’t deserve it and gives them a second chance. What Jonah experienced was the glorious truth of God’s grace. God doesn’t treat us as we deserve to be treated. He shows mercy to those who turn back to him. As Jonah says in chapter 4 the Lord is slow to anger and he is abounding in love. His love overflows to people who don’t deserve it like Jonah. Jonah knew this intellectually but out on the sea he got to experience it firsthand. The story of Jonah isn’t just the story of an incredibly stubborn prophet, but it is really the story of an incredibly gracious and generous God.

  • God was incredibly patient with Jonah

The other thing we see about God’s grace is just how willing the Lord is to be patient with people. My patience with Jonah would have run a long time ago. How easy would it have been for God to have sent another prophet? Jonah wouldn’t have been the only prophet in Israel. It wasn’t like he was the only one who God could use to get the job done. God could have used anyone he desired. He didn’t have to send Jonah. He didn’t have to go after him. He didn’t have to send the storm and he didn’t have to rescue him. But because God is a loving God, he not only rescued him, but he was incredibly patient with him and gave him another chance.

Jonah 3:1

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

How gracious is that?

  • God spared the Ninevites

But Jonah again is no exception here. We see this in chapter 3. God showed compassion to the Ninevites and spared them.

After Jonah was vomited out by the fish onto the dry land, he did as he was told. He went to Nineveh and he preached the message that God had given him and what he hoped would not happen happened. The people of Nineveh heard it and incredibly all of them repented from the greatest to the least. They all turned from their evil ways and they cried out to God hoping that he might have compassion on them. And God poured out his mercy on them even though they didn’t deserve it.  He didn’t bring the destruction on them that he had threatened. Instead he spared them. How gracious is that?

  • God is concerned for everyone

What God was trying to show this disobedient prophet is that he isn’t just concerned for a few people but for everyone. This is what God was trying to teach Jonah. God is concerned for everyone for the God of Israel is the God who created all people. He is concerned for everyone showing mercy to those who don’t deserve his love and compassion. God wants all people to turn back to him so that they might not perish. The Bible says that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

God didn’t send a big fish to rescue us, as he did for Jonah, but he sent his own Son to rescue us by dying on the cross so that those who have ignored him can be forgiven. It doesn’t matter how angry with God and stubborn we have been God wants all of us to turn back to him so that we might be forgiven and not perish. The Bible says that God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:3). That’s why God sends people out with a message today – the message of what Jesus has done for them. It’s so that people might believe and not perish but have everlasting life.

How gracious is that?

That’s what Jonah needed to understand about his God and that’s why his story is still told today. It’s so that we might understand this truth and turn back to the Lord before it is too late.

  • God wants his people to be concerned for everyone too

The other thing that this story teaches us is that our God wants his people to be concerned for everyone too. What the story of Jonah highlights is just how completely out of step with his God Jonah was. He was nothing like the God who he was supposed to be serving. We have an incredibly gracious God and he expects his people to be just like he is. It is unclear whether Jonah ever learnt the lesson that God was trying to teach him. You can discuss this later between yourselves, but the real question the book leaves us with is whether we have learnt the lesson that God wants us to learn? The story ends with the Lord telling Jonah that there were more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who could not tell their right hand from their left. In other words, these people were ignorant of the things of God and the Lord asked Jonah the question, “Should I not be concerned for that great city?

This is where the story ends. We don’t get to hear Jonah’s reply. I don’t think we hear Jonah’s answer because what now matter is how you are going to answer that question. If the answer is ‘yes’ then surely the next question is shouldn’t we (we who have been saved) be concerned for such people too? If the Lord is concerned for them surely his people are to be concerned for the lost as well.

Today/tonight, we need to ask ourselves, have we the same concern for the lost in this great city? Are we doing all that we can to share the good news of how people can be forgiven and rescued just as we have been? We might not be a prophet like Jonah was, but we still have a message to share and we are to be doing everything that we can to pass it on to those around us who need to hear it. I want to encourage all of us who know just how compassionate and gracious our God is to be sharing the good news of Jesus with others. We are to be concerned for them, praying for those around us, eating with them, blessing them where we can and telling them the good news so that others too might come to know our God who is gracious and compassionated, slow to anger and abounding in love.

[1] By the time of Jonah the nation had divided into two separate kingdoms, the northern kingdom which retained the name, “Israel” with the majority of the tribes and the southern kingdom was called “Judah”.

[2] Except with otherwise indicated all Scripture citation are taken from The Holy Bible: New International Version—Anglicised. (1984). (electronic edition). London: Hodder & Stoughton.

[3] Isaiah 53:6

[4] Romans 3:23