Jonah: Prayers and AnswersJonah, rather than being a book of prophecy, is more of a book of history. The only real prophecy in this book is the prophecy that in ‘forty days the city of Nineveh shall be overthrown’. As it happened, this prophecy didn’t actually come to pass, because God changed his mind and chose to spare the city of Nineveh.
The book of Jonah, though placed fifth among the Minor Prophets, is mainly an account of the life of Jonah, the son of Amittai. He originated from Gath-hepher in Galilee, a city which belonged to the tribe of Zebulun.
Jonah, means ‘dove’ and his father’s name, Amittai means ‘the truth of Yah’, and no-where in the Old Testament do we find these names, except in 2 Kings 14:25, where they appear together. It would be extremely unlikely for there to be two prophets of the same name, and to also have fathers of the same name, when the names themselves were so rare as not to occur anywhere else in the Old Testament. So I think we can safely assume that the Jonah referred to here in Kings is the same that we read of in the book of Jonah.
This would mean that the life of Jonah is placed around the time of the early reign of Jeroboam II, which was somewhere around 800 BC and roughly coincided with the work of Hosea and Amos. This makes him one of the oldest prophets that we have writings for. In Kings we read of his prophecy of the victories won by Jeroboam which extended the boundaries of Israel once more, and Jonah probably became very popular in Israel as these victories came to pass.
We do not know if the events which are well documented in the book of Jonah happened before or after the reference in Kings... but we will now look at those events and in particular the prayers within the book.
We have little introduction to the man Jonah himself, only his father’s name, and then we are straight into the account of Jonah’s work. The Lord’s command was to go to the great city of Nineveh and forewarn the inhabitants of its destruction, brought about by the great evil in the place. Jonah, as many prophets did, rose up at the Lord’s command, but Jonah instead of hurrying to do the Lord’s work in Nineveh as you might expect, instead hurried away to Tarshish - in the opposite direction, away from the presence of the Lord.
You might be wondering, how Jonah, who would have known the character of God could flee from the presence of the Lord. Surely he would have known what David said, Ps 139: 7, 9 - 10.
Jonah was not fleeing from God’s presence, as that would not be possible, but he was actually fleeing from the service of God.
Other prophets have disputed with God. When God told Moses to speak to Pharaoh, Moses told the Lord that he couldn't because of his poor speaking ability (Exodus 4:10). Ezekiel objected to the manner in which God wanted him to cook his food (Ezekiel 4:9-15). When God told Jeremiah to present the Lord's message, Jeremiah told God that he couldn't because of his young age (Jeremiah 1:6). But Jonah didn't argue. He didn't try to talk God out of it. He didn't even attempt a compromise. He just fled.
And yet Jonah was not the only one who tried to flee from the presence of God. Adam, also tried to hide from the presence of God (Genesis 3:8), but without success.
We are not told the reason of Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh until near the end of the account. His desertion of duties was not because he wanted the Ninevites spared (as one could easily assume), but in fact the opposite, that he did not want to see them spared. He knew that if the Ninevites repented, God would spare them. Nineveh was the Assyrian capital and Assyria had been a great threat to Israel over the years. He hoped they would be destroyed, and receive, in his eyes, what they had coming to them.
So, Jonah headed down to Joppa and then got on a boat destined for Tarshish, perhaps the furthest point away from Nineveh that he could think of.
But had he escaped from the Lord? Jonah might have thought so, but while on the ship, God sent a storm. Not just any storm, for these would have been seasoned sailors, who would not care much for a storm, usually. But this one made them fear for their lives, they threw out the cargo, they prayed to their own gods for deliverance, and yet while this was happening, Jonah lay asleep in the inner cabins perhaps still thinking he had shaken off the Lord.
The ship’s captain, presumably in disbelief that Jonah is fast asleep during all the panic, wakes him and urges him to call on his God to for deliverance.
It is interesting that even though these people did not know the True God, they were aware that this was a judgement of God. They felt this sudden storm was a punishment from God on someone aboard the ship and they cast lots to find out who it was. God revealed to them that it was Jonah.
The sailors demand to know who he was, and why this tempest had been brought on them. V 9, Jonah, with no shame, tells them he is a Hebrew but then states the exact opposite of what his actions show. He says that he fears the Lord, but if he feared the Lord he would have obeyed God and not have run away in the first place, and at the very least he would have prayed to God concerning the storm.
Jonah was by now well aware that God had brought this storm because of his disobedience. He also realizes that if he stays on board, they will all perish and he offers to give his life to save the sailors. He will not take his own life, but will take the rightful punishment for disobeying God and asks them to throw him into the sea.
The sailors tried as hard as they could to save Jonah, but they could not. They rowed as hard as they could, but the wind God had sent was stronger, and they could do nothing.
And so we come to our first prayer, given by the sailors rather than Jonah. Jonah has had plenty of opportunity to pray, but simply chooses not to.
The sailors really did not want to kill Jonah. They had to do something to save their own lives, however. They did not want to be guilty of murder either. They begged to the True God to not hold them responsible for his death.
They no longer referred to Jonah's God with the general title of elohiym but now referred to Him as Yahweh, His covenant name with Israel. For these gentiles to call upon Yahweh and fear Him indicated that the Lord had truly revealed Himself to them.
So, having made their petitions to God, they took Jonah and threw him into the sea. God hears the prayer of the sailors and answers with the calming of the storm.
The meaning of ‘fear’ has changed for the sailors. At first they were afraid for their lives because of the storm (1:5). Then their fear turned to terror when they discovered that not only was Jonah the source of the storm but that God had also pursued Jonah to their ship (1:7). And finally they attained a fear of Yahweh in the sense of worshiping Him with great awe and respect (1:16).
The sailors did not just go on with their journey after they dumped Jonah into the sea and the storm had ceased. They very likely had to go out of their way to sacrifice and make vows to God. If there was nothing left on the ship to sacrifice (because they had previously thrown everything overboard) then they would had to have gone to great lengths conduct these sacrifices.
Back to Jonah. God is not through with Jonah and doesn’t abandon him to the sea. A great fish comes along and swallows him. If you remember, Jonah went down and down in the first few verses, down to Joppa, down to Tarshish and now God is sending Jonah down to the depths of Sheol (2:2). At least that is what it felt like to Jonah as we shall see in a moment.
Jonah, has plenty of time to reflect from the inside of the fish, whale or whatever else you would like to think of it as, and finally offers his prayer to God. His prayer is very similar to writings we find in the Psalms and I’m sure you will notice many other similarities to the time that Jesus was in the tomb.
(v. 1) It seems such a shame that Jonah waited until now to pray. But yet, he is no different from many of us, waiting until the situation is so dire, that there is no way out, but to pray to God. God would have helped him I’m sure if he had admitted his mistakes and asked for forgiveness at any time, but he has waited until the very last moment before doing so, but notice that God is still there for Him and ready to listen....
(v.2) The word hell is sheol, and just means the place or world of the dead. The belly of the fish must have seemed like hell to Jonah, perhaps wondering whether he was about to die, or wondering why he was in this predicament in the first place and if he would live to see land again, but God had to push him this far to get him to see sense, and repent and obey God’s command. The word ‘cried’ here, implies a pleading with God to forgive him and remove him from the fish.
(v.3) Jonah is describing what happened to him as he was thrown overboard. There would be no way that he could have survived the sea without divine help and recognises that even the waves that passed over him belonged to God.
(v.4) Here is the turning point of Jonah, he once again looks towards God and is renewed in hope and spirit. He had been cut off from God because he chose to turn away, but like so many examples in the Bible, those who come back will be accepted by God.
(v.5) The waters surrounded Jonah, even unto the point of his last breath, and the seaweeds were tangled round his head, either from the bottom of the ocean, or weeds which the fish took in with Jonah. There was no other way out of his entanglement, except through the help of God, and again we can see many parallels throughout the Bible.
(v.6) Jonah was carried around the sea in the fish all the way to the bottom of the ocean, among the depths containing the rocks that lined the sea floor, and barred in by the land all around which held the sea. There was no escape from his watery grave and he was resigned to his death for his corruption was so bad, but after much thought he realises the true power of God, in that the Lord could reach down and bring him up from his corruption as only the Lord can.
(v.7) when Jonah was at his last, and his flesh had given up all hope, he remembered the Lord, and instinctively prayer came to Jonah, and the Lord in all his mercy heard that prayer.
(v.8) This is no time for pride of the flesh. They who trust in idols and follow hopeless paths do so at their peril. Those who abandon God, abandon the mercy that God has stored up for them.
(v.9) Jonah’s repentant heart is now fully evident, he praises the Lord and vows to give over his life once more and in particular complete the task that was assigned to him. Acts 4:12; Eph 2:8. Jonah knows his only hope is in God.
But when exactly did Jonah make his vow to go to Nineveh? Did he make it only after God had, in a manner of speaking, twisted his arm while in the fish? With a little thought we can deduce that Jonah actually made this vow before the beginning of the book. When Jonah initially became a prophet he vowed to be a representative of God and speak on His behalf. His running away had broken the sacred vow he had sworn to. Remember Deut 23:21-23
The act of becoming a Christian involves a vow not much different from that of a prophet, for when we are baptised we are essentially vowing to give our lives to God and perhaps we should be thinking about this a little more during our daily lives.
But going back to Jonah’s prayer. There is no petition in the prayer. Jonah asks for nothing; he simply cries out in acknowledgement to God. Sometimes it is good for us just to thank God, and praise Him, without asking for anything.
Some writers wonder how genuine his prayer was. How much of it did he really mean it? Or was he just saying what he had been taught? Had the rebellious Jonah really changed? Or is he just saying all the right things? From my studies I see a man, at his end, his body is just a shell and the flesh has given way to the spirit within him - I see little of the former Jonah left in this prayer, But, however sincere the prayer was, God obviously found some good in it (for all prayer is transparent to God) and chose to answer.
(v.10) God hears Jonah’s prayer and answers. He saves his life and in the process teaches him the valuable lesson of obedience.
And now we essentially go all the way back to where we started. Jonah has wasted time and is re-ordered to get on with his ministry, and this time he rose and went to Nineveh as commanded. He has learnt his lesson well.
His message for the inhabitants of Nineveh was a simple one and we are not told about anything else he may have said. ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown’. He preached the same message throughout the great city which was three days journey across.
The Ninevites had no trouble understanding the message or accepting the message. They had a short time to sort out their wicked ways or the power of God would come upon them and destroy them and the city, and repent they did. All the city believed in the judgement being put forward by God; from the rich to the poor they all set about correcting their ways.
And he we read of the prayers and petitions of Nineveh.
(v 5 - 9) The king realised, just as the sailors did in their storm, that the situation was beyond human control and they needed to cry out for help. For those who still slept unconcerned with the fate that awaited them, the king wanted to wake them so they too could assist in preventing the destruction.
The leaders of Nineveh decided that everyone should show their repentance by fasting and wearing sackcloth. Even the animals were included in this demonstration of mass repentance. The king completed the decree with a hope that echoed the ship captain's in chapter one. The ship captain said, "Perhaps the gods will consider us and not let us perish" (1:6). And here the king said, "Who knows? God may turn away from His furious anger so that we will not perish" (3:9).
God saw into their hearts and saw the sincerity of their repentance and answered their prayers. God’s mercy prevailed and he spared the city of Nineveh.
Jonah’s reaction to this? (v1)
Anger. His prophecy had not been fulfilled. He had wanted the Ninevites destroyed, he had judged the Ninevites unworthy of salvation and travelled a large distance to tell them of their impending doom, and for what... to find out that God wasn’t going to destroy them after all, making him look, well, stupid I suppose.
Jonah had totally lost sight of what was happening here, for he placed more value on his own honour and personal wishes than the goodness and mercy of God.
And in his anger he prayed to God once again, revealing some of his more true feelings in the process. (v2,3)
"Lord, I knew from the very beginning that you wouldn't destroy Nineveh. That's why I ran away. You are a kind and merciful God, and you are very patient. You always show love, and you don't like to punish anyone, not even foreigners. Now let me die! I'd be better off dead."
In these verses we see Jonah opposed to God in three areas. First, as God's anger decreased Jonah's displeasure and anger rose. Second, God speaking was enough to cause the fish to swallow Jonah and throw him up again. Jonah referred to himself as saying "isn't this what I said." It seems Jonah thought that his words had the same weight as God's own words. And thirdly, God had anticipated Jonah's actions from the very beginning and caused all of the circumstances that occurred to bring about the repentance of Nineveh. Here Jonah told God how he had anticipated God's intent and actions and thought he knew better than God.
This is a different Jonah from the Jonah who was praising God for saving his life. It was fine for God to save Jonah, it was nice of God to give him another chance, even when he really deserved to be punished, but not so good for God to give the people of Nineveh another chance. But why should the Ninevites be treated any different from Jonah?
Jonah had done what God had asked him, but his attitude towards the Ninevites remained unchanged since the beginning. He sat on the edge of the city waiting - hoping that God would not accept their repentance and would destroy them after all. Here we can see a similarity with Jonah and Abraham. When Abraham was faced with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah he bargained with the Lord - "If you find fifty righteous will you spare the city? Forty-five? Forty?... If you find only ten will you spare the city?" (Genesis 18:23-32). Abraham asked God if a few good men were left in the city, would he spare it? God tested Abraham to reveal whether he had the heart of God in him or not, and Abraham passed the test. Jonah failed the same test and was prepared to have them destroyed, no matter how many good men remained in the city.
In short, God didn’t answer this prayer of Jonah, for there was no good in it. However God still saw fit to treat him graciously. It was time for Jonah to learn another lesson.
Jonah was sat outside the city in the hot sun waiting to see what would become of the city. He was suffering in the heat and God, through his grace, made a tree to spring up to provide shade for him. Jonah first provided his own shade by building a make-shift shelter (4:5), but then God provided better shade for Jonah (4:6). We can see several parallels between the shelter that Jonah made for himself and the shade that God provided. Each time we see where men have attempted their own solution, only to have it fail, with God coming through with the only solution. The first contrast was the ship that Jonah provided for himself to escape, and the fish that God provided to bring Jonah back. The second was the attempt of the men to save themselves from the storm by tossing things overboard, and God calming the storm after they tossed Jonah overboard. The third was the effort of the sailors to reach dry ground by their own efforts by rowing, and them reaching the dry ground after they threw Jonah overboard. In each case God provided the only workable solution. Only these solutions work because God, will not allow any other to work. Jonah's shelter proved inadequate; but God came through and provided good protection for Jonah's head, making Jonah extremely happy (4:6). But unlike the previous parallel event, God here took his solution away. The plant and its shade were removed so that the sun and the hot east wind caused great discomfort to Jonah (4:7-8) and Jonah became angry, for the tree had been taken away. And this is the lesson that God is trying to teach Jonah. He is trying to show Jonah how unforgiving he is. God is shaming Jonah, that he had pity on a tree, and yet, did not have pity on the people of Nineveh. The Lord speaks to Jonah in summary.
"Jonah, you are concerned about a plant that you did not plant or take care of, a plant that grew up in one day and died the next. In that city of Nineveh there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell right from wrong, and many cattle are also there. Don't you think I should be concerned about that big city?"
The book of Jonah is filled with references to prayer. There is a reference to prayer in every chapter of the book.
In chapter 1, the sailors prayed from fear (1:5).
In chapter 2, Jonah prayed in faith (2:1-7).
In chapter 3, the Ninevites prayed with fasting (3:8).
In chapter 4, Jonah prayed in foolishness (4:23).
God answered every one of the prayers except Jonah's prayer recorded in chapter 4.
We have to recognise that God provides the only workable solution in our lives, and trying to live by the ways of man will fail. The only way is God’s way and if we ask God for help he will show it to us.
The blood of Jesus makes it possible to confidently come before the Lord and offer our prayers without fear. (Hebrews 10:19). Even the most shameful sinner can send a prayer into God's holy presence. Nothing is obscured when we pray to God; all of our prayers are completely transparent to Him and if He can see even a small amount of worth in the prayer He will take it out and delight in it. As we have seen throughout the book of Jonah, God will readily respond to even the barest of prayers containing true humility and thankfulness. He then gladly runs to aid of the one who sent the prayer.