Welcome to our study of Jonah! This short, familiar book about God’s reluctant missionary has a lot to teach us about the Lord’s power, His holy compassion for the lost, and our need to trust and obey His orders. Jonah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel during the middle of the 8th century BC, a period of relative peace and prosperity. But it was also a time and place of great spiritual apathy and idolatry. God’s people were not devoted to Him; their hearts were captured by idols and their lives full of sin and disobedience. Prophets like Jonah had continually preached a message of repentance and faith to Israel so that they might turn from evil, be forgiven, and experience healing and renewal. But they would not listen.
So, as we open this story, we see that God told Jonah to stop preaching to his own nation and instead bring a warning to the pagan, wicked Assyrian city of Nineveh. And Jonah flat out disobeyed. Why? Well, he might have been scared of persecution by the Assyrians, who were known for their brutality (they would put the heads of their defeated enemies on spikes along their city walls, for example). Nineveh was a huge, powerful city, perhaps as big as 60 miles in circumference when you include its surrounding villages and definitely having at least 120,000 people in its urban center. The thought of having to spend three days walking Nineveh’s streets and calling on its evil and dangerous inhabitants to repent would probably have terrified any of us. But the truth is that, as we will see in chapters 3 and 4, Jonah actually expected the city to turn from its wicked ways and God to respond by turning from the judgment He had threatened.
No, Jonah seems to have disobeyed God’s will for deeper, more spiritual reasons that our study will uncover. As you read today’s verses, take a moment to consider what God is doing in your life right now. Are you listening for His voice? Are you willing to do His will? Or are you playing the Jonah, running in the opposite direction from God’s call on your life? Your answers to these questions could have strong consequences for your immediate and long term future. It is a blessed thing to find the will of God and do it, but a painful thing to “kick against the goads” of His mighty hand and suffer His discipline.
The Text (Jonah 1:1-3)
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” 3 But Jonah arose 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 from the presence of the Lord.
Questions to Think About
- Have you ever studied the book of Jonah before? What are the main events in the story as you remember it?
- Are you listening for God’s voice right now? Do you want what He wants for your life? Are you trying to obey Him? How can you tell?
- Have you ever felt like Jonah before, running from God and resisting His will? What happened?
- Jonah’s name means “Dove,” which could be used as a symbol of peace and blessing as when the Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism or when the dove was sent out by Noah after the Flood. However, a dove could also represent a lack of sense (“silliness”) or a feeling of deep sorrow (“mourning”). The negative meanings seem more appropriate for this book, which is about the pains of foolishly disobeying the God of the Universe.
- The only other mention of Jonah in the Old Testament is found in 2 Kings 14:25, where he is mentioned as a prophet predicting success for Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to Jonah as a real historical person whose three days in the belly of the fish before being spit out on dry land foreshadowed Jesus’ own death and resurrection (Matthew 12:39-41).
- As with many of the other books about the prophets, Jonah is best understood as being autobiographical. Jonah honestly wrote his own story to teach us the lessons that God had taught Him the hard way. Hopefully, we can learn to obey God up front instead of having to suffer from His rod of correction before we are willing listen!
- Tarshish in verse 3 was probably Tartessus in southwest Spain. This was considered the end of the earth in the west, so that Jonah was running as far as possible in the opposite direction of where God wanted him to go. But God would bring him back!