Discovering God through the Book of Jonah (Part 1)

A WORD FROM GOD

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:” (Jonah 1:1 NIV)

Take some time to read the first chapter of the book of Jonah in you Bible.

I recently told my congregation, there are two things to know about me, right off the bat. Number one, I am a really smart guy. Now, I know I do not always do things that make it seem like I am smart, but I do work really hard. I also had to tell them, I promise I am safety conscious. This was really important because the weekend before, I had gotten the church’s zero-turn lawnmower stuck in a ditch. It would have been funny if this had been a one-time incident, but alas, it was not. 

See, the parsonage has a few inclines that would make mowing them challenging. If you did not go at the right angle, I learned, the mower will slip back down the hill. And that is what got me caught in the ditch, the first time. Don’t worry, we were able to get the mower out easily and I was able to finish what I needed to for the day.

This might be a good point to say this is my first time using a zero-turn lawnmower. Over the course of three mowings, I was able to get more confident and do more of the yard safely.

The next day, I decided I needed to finish an area of the yard that had not been able to be mowed because it had been real marshy and I needed that to dry up. The time had come. I put on my rain boots, walked through knee-high grass, and found the ground was dry enough for me to finish this patch of grass. I was excited!

I got the mower out, put in my headphones and turned on Pandora Radio on the Contemporary Christian station. I was getting more and more of the yard mowed, and it was looking good! At this point, I felt myself getting prideful and decided to go up a hill, close to the driveway, so I could easily go back and make another pass. This worked great, until…there was a little culvert ditch I did not see until it was too late. This time, the lawnmower had been backed up into the ditch.

Most of the time I am not easily embarrassed. When people drove by and saw the mower, and then the vehicle pulling a rope (that kept breaking), I felt I just needed to laugh at this situation. Then, a friend came by, called his son, and they were able to get me unstuck.

The other thing I told the congregation they needed to know about me was that I do not like to be told something is too much of a challenge, or it is impossible. I have had this character trait verified on multiple occasions. My wife says this is one of the reasons we are married. J

I do not believe there are impossible situations. There is always a way out and people who can and will be there when needed. Because of this, I was able to get the yard mowed before rain started the next morning. Every time I drive up to the house, I am thrilled to see the yard mowed! Mission accomplished, this time.

Now many people, including me at times, when faced with a seemingly impossible situation, will try to run and hide until the problem goes away. We see this all the time. People will run to drugs, alcohol, the arms of someone who is not their spouse, and more, just to try and run away from the situation for the moment and not think about it. 

It really is amazing what people will do to get out of doing something or face a situation or issue without really dealing with it. Most of the time, when the situation is faced and worked on, it turns out better.

As I study the scriptures and get older, I am understanding more and more how important it is to know who God is and what God’s nature is like. If we do not understand this, we do not clearly or fully understand who we really are. (I’m not talking about who we think we are. I am talking about who God created us to be.)

Now we get to the biblical book of Jonah.

There was something my Old Testament professor, in seminary, said. Think about this. “If you only had the book (or passage) of __________ from the Bible, what could you tell people about God from the text?” This is essentially what we get to do and experience from the Bible. We get to learn more about the nature of God. Yes, we learn about human nature, but as we learn about human nature, we also learn about who God is and how God interacts in this world and with flawed humanity. The book of Jonah is no different. 

As we take this time to study this short book in the minor prophets, take time to go to a new level of looking at the Biblical text. Take the time to see what the text is saying about who God is and what God’s nature is. This is something important for us to do because we can miss out on knowing God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit if we’re only looking for what peaks our interest or what makes us feel good.

Enter Jonah.

The prophet. The whale. The story many have heard from childhood. This is a book that has captured the minds and hearts of many throughout the centuries. So much so that many stories and movies have used something from this short book of the prophets. In 48 verses, Jonah gives us a good picture of what happens when we try to run from God and how persistent God is to get us to do what he wants.

The story, we know, goes like this: Jonah hears from God to go to Nineveh to get them to repent. Jonah says no and decides to get on a boat to try and run from God. A storm hits the sea and the sailors are scared. When they figure out Jonah is the cause of the storm, they throw him overboard and he gets swallowed by a whale (though the text just says big fish we tend to still think whale). He spends three days in the belly of the fish and then gets spewed out on the land. Jonah hears God again and this time he goes to Nineveh. While he is walking through the city, Jonah proclaims the message of the Lord and the people are scared so everyone, including the animals, put on sackcloth as a sign of repentance. God does not destroy the city. Jonah throws a fit. The end.

That pretty much sums it up, right? But, since this is one of the books in the Bible, we have to understand there is always something beneath the surface. There is something God wants us to know through this inspired story, this inspired word. 

This really is a fantastic story. It is easy to try and say this book is about how we should not try to run from God. It is easy to say this book is about God’s compassion for the people. It is easy to say this book teaches us about the human condition. But, if we take time to read and understand this story, we can see this book, like the rest of the Bible, is teaching us about the nature of God.

Our task, over the next four chapters is to see how, if we only had the book of Jonah, we could still teach about the incredible nature of the God who created the universe, including each individual person.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.

Before we go any further into this story, we have to pause and think about who Jonah is. The only other time we learn of a prophet named Jonah is in 2 Kings 14:25, which says, “[Jeroboam, king of Israel (Northern Kingdom)] was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea,[a] in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” (NIV) There really is not much about this guy. Even though we do not have much information, we do know who Jonah was supposed to be, a prophet of YHWH. 

Look at his name. Have you ever thought about Jonah’s name before? Jonah son of Amittai. “The proper name means ‘Dove son of Truth (or Faithfulness).’”[1] Can you sense the irony and humor right off the bat? Jonah is supposed to be a faithful prophet of God, yet he does something very unfaithful and runs away from his assignment. We are not told why he does this in the first chapter, but he tries to run from God and hide.

When else have you heard about people who tried to hide from God, in the Bible? There are numerous accounts, but the one that stands out is Adam and Eve. This is the account you can read about in Genesis chapter 3.

Right after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”[2]

The story of the fall and trying to hide ourselves from God has saturated and become part of just about every story we know. It seems to be human nature to try and hide from people and/or God when we are ashamed or feel guilty.

When we tell about the beginning of the fall, when the fruit was eaten, notice how we tend to focus on the people’s actions and their sense of separation from God. Have we noticed the great care and grace God offers by “searching” for the man and women in the garden? God knows where they are located but God is asking where their heart is. The man tells God they were afraid. Their hearts were in fear, instead of peace.

Through the fear in their hearts, God still comes to the man and woman and offers them a chance to live, even if it is not in perfect peace as they were used to. God does this because the state and condition of every heart is known by him. Remember what God told the prophet Samuel when he went to anoint the next king of Israel after Saul, “the Lord looks at the heart.”[3]

Back to Jonah. 

JONAH LEARNS HE CANNOT RUN OR HIDE FROM GOD

God knows what Jonah will do. God knows that Jonah will try to run and hide, but God still offers grace from the beginning by giving Jonah the chance to do what he is supposed to do.

Jonah does not surprise God when he flees. God knows everything about us.[4] Jonah thinks he can run away from God by running away from his assignment.

Notice how the text says Jonah “went down to Joppa,”[5] “gone below deck.”[6] Jonah kept going down. The author is showing how the condition of Jonah’s heart is going deeper and deeper away from the presence and calling of God.

What we learn from this is God is not a person we can run and hide from. God is omniscient, meaning God is everywhere. There is no place God is not. Here, we can remember the words of David from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.[7]

So now we have to ask if there is anything you are hiding from God? Do you wish God was with you and answering your pleas? Rest easy, God is always with you. God has never left you. There is nowhere you can go God is not. The presence of God is always seeking to give your heart peace and vanquish any fear within.

God is everywhere. That is good news for us. This is not all this first chapter of Jonah teaches us about God.

GOD CREATED EVERYTHING

This might seem like a no-brainer but this is a reality and truth we have to understand, or at least believe. Jonah seems to know this, yet he does not seem thrilled about it.

When he gets on the ship, Jonah goes below the deck to take a nap. Suddenly, a great storm comes upon the sea and is threatening the boat and the crew on board. The sailors are terrified and are trying to figure out why they are having this bad luck. They want to know who “cursed” the boat by coming aboard.

After casting lots, which is similar to drawing straws, the sailors find it was Jonah who caused the storm. They rush to get him and bring him to the deck to question him. Now, they already knew why he was on the boat because he told them he was running away from God. This never sunk in until the storm hit.

The sailors questioned Jonah about who he is. 

It’s interesting they did not want to know who he was before, they only wanted to know his reason for going to Tarshish. 

Jonah begins to tell them, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”[8] It is easy for us to hear Jonah with a confident, prophetic voice declaring who he is; but we have to keep in mind Jonah is running from God because he seems to be unhappy with the task he was called to do.

Instead of hearing a bold voice proclaim, “I am a Hebrew and worship the Lord…” Maybe we should instead hear Jonah speak with a snarky, disgusted tone because, yes he is a Hebrew, but he does not or has not shown he worships the Lord since he has run away. 

There are those who would try to make others feel guilty about running away, but pay attention to how Jonah is also showing us the human condition while teaching who God is. People run from God for many reasons. People will claim they worship God but live a life doing the opposite.

Jonah is telling the crew who he is supposed to be and what he is supposed to do. Maybe he has given up trying to pretend because at this point, Jonah is still trying to figure a way to get out of the assignment at hand, for unknown reasons at this point.

Yes, Jonah is a Hebrew. Yes, he is supposed to worship the Lord, but Jonah is unhappy with his lot in life. When the crew tries to decide what to do, Jonah steps in and says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”[9] Jonah has thought about ending his life. He gets in his head that if he were gone, the lives of those around him would be better, would be safer.

But Jonah underestimates the image of God within humanity. He forgets that God desires people to live and to live in community with others.

What is remarkable is how the sailors try to avoid throwing Jonah overboard. They come up with every other idea. They even tried to row back to the land, back to safety. But the storm was too strong for them to row and they finally relented to Jonah’s plea.

GOD CAN BE SEEN IN THE MOST UNLIKELY PEOPLE

The sailors throw Jonah overboard. But before they completed that task, they cried out to Jonah’s God. “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”[10] The sailors began to plea to the Lord. They cried out to the Lord. What this means is they worshipped the Lord, in that moment.

We never know how our lives are going to touch those around us. Even if we are not living up to the life God set out for us, there is still his Spirit within us to touch the Spirit of another person. Pay attention to how people begin to act when you are around. You or I may not be the most perfect example of living for God, but maybe there is something about us that helps bring people to him. 

I cannot remember where I heard this quote, but it sticks with me: “Your fingerprints never leave the lives you touch.” Because of the grace of God, the Holy Spirit within us reaches out to another person and offers the grace of knowing the God in heaven, the Creator of the universe.

As the sailors were worshipping God, they threw Jonah overboard. All of a sudden, the storm ceased.

They realized the Lord is the One who created the heavens, the earth, and they sea. The Lord created everything. So, they continued to worship the Lord by offering sacrifices to him and made vows to him.[11]

Jonah is in the sea. He thinks his life is over, but notice this: God shows great compassion by allowing Jonah to live. God provides a huge fish, speaks to it, and the fish swallows Jonah. Jonah is kept safe in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Even though it is in the belly of a fish, God still desires his people to live and to experience real life, life in God’s presence here and now not just in the life to come.

What an interesting way to end this chapter. But here we are, in the belly of the fish, learning about the nature of God. Remember this, the circumstance you might be in now could be something God is using to keep you alive and trust in God. You may not be in the best situation, in your mind, but you may just be exactly where God is wanting you to be. You never know who God has placed in your life that has the tools to get you out of the ditch. It is in these situations we are becoming more and more transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. Just look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And weboast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.[12]

So, if this were the only book of the Bible you had in your possession, how much could you teach about who God is and what his nature is?

So far, we have learned:

  1. Even though God knows our real heart, he still calls to us and speaks to us, giving us his mission.
  2. There is no place we can hide from God. This should give us great encouragement because God never leaves us.
  3. The Lord is the One who created everything.
  4. People come to see and know God by our lives.
  5. God offers grace and desires life for people

As we can see, this is who God is and what God is like. Fast forward to the New Testament, we can see all of this lived out in the person of Jesus Christ.

Bringing this chapter to a close, I am invited us to begin to memorize Hebrews 3:15, “today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your heart.” God’s word comes to us in many different ways. Do we have the ears and heart to hear?

Maybe someone needs to hear this word, as if it is from God:

“I know who you are and what you’re capable of, yet I still choose you for this life, for this calling, for this special mission I created you for. You can try to go as far from me as you want, but remember, I’m already there and I’m pursuing you with a love so great that I will do everything I can to keep you alive. I created this whole world. I created you! Because of you (whether it’s done perfectly or not) the most unlikely people will come to believe in me, know me, and worship me. You have a great role to play in expanding the Kingdom of Heaven.”


[1] Tribble, Phyllis. New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes Volume 7. (1994). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Page 493

[2] Genesis 3:8 NIV

[3] 1 Samuel 16:7c NIV

[4] Psalm 139:1-6

[5] Jonah 1:3 NIV

[6] Jonah 1:5 NIV

[7] Psalm 139:7-12 NIV

[8] Jonah 1:9 NIV

[9] Jonah 1:12 NIV

[10] Jonah 1:14 NIV

[11] Jonah 1:16

[12] Romans 5:1-5 NIV

Published by

Ryan Stratton

Ryan Stratton is a pastor in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He serves with his wife, Amanda, along with their children. He writes about life, faith, and leadership through his blog.

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