Varying lessons permeate the brief Old Testament book of Jonah. In fact, the topics of man’s sin, his need of repentance, and God’s grace are all addressed in the first chapter.
In chapter one, God extends a special call to missions to the prophet Jonah. The people of Nineveh faced certain judgment unless they repented of their sins and turned to God. God chose Jonah to deliver a message to call the people to repentance. Jonah heard God’s instruction, but due to his distaste for the people of Nineveh, the prophet disobeyed and fled from God and His directive. Jumping on a ship to Tarshish, Jonah sailed in the opposite direction of the will of God.
At sea, God orchestrated a violent storm to display his displeasure at Jonah’s disobedience. The sailors feared for their lives. Distressful cries to their gods yielded no response. The ship threatened to break a part in the storm’s wrath. To lighten the load, the sailors tossed precious cargo overboard. Finally, the sailors resorted to casting lots to discover the individual responsible for the raging tempest. Jonah drew the shortest straw.
The text informs us that Jonah had explained he needed a boat ride to flee from His God, but verses 9 and 10 lead the reader to believe that he failed to mention his God’s name. In that day, many cultures practice polytheism. Worshiping many gods was the norm. When Jonah expressed his desire to flee his god to Tarshish, the sailors expressed no reservations in setting sail. However, when Jonah announced his defiance was to the God of the Hebrews, the sailors feared for their very lives. God’s reputation struck apprehension in these seasoned sailors, prompting the question, what has to be done to appease the God of the Hebrews?
In this opening chapter, Jonah refuses to express remorse or to confess his unfaithfulness. With seeming little emotion, Jonah explains that the only way to save the ship is to toss him overboard. Initially, the sailors ignored the answer. The text shares that the sailors struggled at the oars straining to guide the ship back to land. Even with all of their brawn and experience at sea, the sailor’s efforts were no match for God’s wrath. Realizing that they were out of options, the sailors begged God’s forgiveness for what was about to be done. Hesitantly, the sailors threw Jonah into the roiling waters. The account reveals that as soon as Jonah plunged into the waves, the sea calmed, becoming still as glass. In gratitude, the sailors offered sacrifices to the God of Jonah. Additionally, the sailors made vows to the Hebrew God. Some theologians teach these vows signified the sailors’ desire to commit their lives to God, the Creator of the land and sea.
Chapter one concludes with a statement brimming with God’s grace. Verse 17 states, “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.”
So what are the lessons from this first chapter of Jonah?
Man’s sin results in God’s discipline
The Bible reminds us in the book of Hebrews that “For those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines…” Jonah’s failure to follow God’s call could not go unpunished. The storm and the great fish both served as a means of reminding Jonah that ignoring God’s will results in consequences. Unfortunately, Jonah’s sin put the lives of others in jeopardy. If children of God choose to walk in disobedience to their Father’s will, they can expect God’s discipline. Sadly, sometimes our family and friends bear the brunt of our sinful choices.
When the sailors made vows, this possibly involved repentance of sin. They admitted their ignorance in following other gods and committed their lives to worshiping the God of the Hebrews. Repentance involves more than saying “I’m sorry, God.” Repentance entails making a 180 degree turn from the lifestyle being forsaken. The Bible states in I John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Repentance requires confession of sin but also a change of direction. In making vows to the God of the Hebrews, the sailors showed evidence of true repentance.
We see God’s undeserved grace extended to both the sailors and to the prophet Jonah. Grace involves unmerited forgiveness and second chances. The sailors merited God’s wrath for following phony gods, but God spared their lives, and in so doing these men turned to Him. Jonah’s disobedience deserved a watery grave, but instead, God provided a fish of grace. God gave Jonah another opportunity to reconsider God’s call for his life. This exceptional means of preservation convinced Jonah to go preach to the people of Nineveh.
The Bible reminds us “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Thankfully, God continues to forgive those who confess sin and extends second (and third and fourth) chances to those turning a deaf ear to His initial call. Grace truly is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.”