The story of Jonah takes off quickly. We meet the main character. We overhear God giving him an assignment. We watch him reject his calling and head in the opposite direction. From this point everything goes wrong. We know the end of the story. Jonah endured a terrifying storm. He was cast overboard and swallowed by a giant fish. He eventually obeyed God, but reluctantly. The story ends with Jonah fuming over God’s mercy to Nineveh.
Before we get whisked along by the fast pace of the narrative we should pause and reflect, right at the critical point of the story where Jonah first went wrong. Jonah had a choice. But he failed to reflect God in his decision making. The first three verses of Jonahprovide the backstory to the downward spiral which degraded Jonah’s conscience and nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion.1 The text screams the questions: What’s wrong with Jonah? Why does he run from God? What happened between verses 2 and 3? If we can answer these questions we will learn important principles for Christian living; after all, Jonah is us. The Bible helps us ask, “What’s wrong with me?” so that we can be remade in God’s image.
The first principle requires carefully analyzing why we disobey God.
Understand Your Disobedience
We are quick to dismiss our sin. But Jonah can help us see through our excuses.
When we find ourselves in trouble we might instinctively plead ignorance: I didn’t know! But it doesn’t usually work. God gave Jonah three clear commands that were impossible to misunderstand: Arise! Go! Cry out against Nineveh! Like Jonah, we usually do know. In fact, compared with Jonah we have a “more sure word of prophesy” (2 Peter 1:19, King James Version). God’s will is “either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”2 He has shown us what he requires of us (Mic. 6:8). Yes, we need to grow in knowledge (Prov. 4:5; 2 Peter 3:18). But what we presently know is usually better than what we do. Our disobedience is rarely due to misunderstanding. Usually we just find God’s commands hard to obey.
How often have you reflexively responded to situations in ways you later regretted? Perhaps with more time you would have decided better. Of course, feeling pinched for time doesn’t excuse bad decisions. And we are seldom as rushed to decide as we think we are. But Jonah’s problem wasn’t a lack of time. We can’t excuse Jonah on the ground that he panicked over a split-second decision and chose the wrong option. We learn later in the story that Jonah had time to deliberate. He fills us in on how he processed God’s commands. “O Lord, was this not what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God” (4:2, English Standard Version, used hereafter). Jonah calculated this decision: If I preach God’s message to Nineveh it is entirely possible, if not probable, that foreigners will repent and be saved. Not on my watch!
Sometimes we feel pressure to disobey. We are easily affected by bad influences (1 Cor. 15:33) though we know we should obey God rather than people (Acts 5:29). But no one forced Jonah’s hand. No one pressured him to disobey. He couldn’t blame his past, his friends, his culture, or his genes. He made this decision free and clear of outside influence. Jonah illustrates something all of us do. We make reasoned (though not reasonable) decisions to disobey God. John Calvin reminds us that even faced with a difficult choice Jonah was “not a log of wood”3 but a rational creature. Jonah disobeyed for the same basic reason that people always deliberately disobey: our wills are out of step with God’s. Instead of obeying, Jonah second-guessed the wisdom of God’s directives; he speculated on the results of the action to which God had called him. Rather than complying, Jonah studied the crystal ball in his mind. “I thought about your command and I didn’t like where it would take me. So, no!”
In this instance a massive calcification in Jonah’s heart explains his disobedience to God’s call. Jonah disobeyed God because he was out of touch with God’s plan for the salvation of the Gentiles. Jonah refused to love those he disagreed with. He denied kindness to those morally disqualified to receive it. God met the Ninevites’ sin with mercy; Jonah met it with judgment. Perhaps Jonah wasn’t incurably vindictive; he just didn’t want outsiders joining his church. Jonah “had no wish to co-operate in this” mission because he “grudged salvation to the Gentiles, and feared lest their conversion to the living God should infringe upon the privileges of Israel.”4
Do you know that feeling? Do you believe in outreach as long as it doesn’t infringe on your privilege as a member of the covenant? But if church outreach is viewed as a zero sum game—for outsiders to gain insiders must lose5—it will never be our passion. Jonah couldn’t see that God’s grace is vast enough to rescue outsiders and insiders. Outsiders aren’t a threat; they are the very people God is bringing into his family to show his work in making two people one (Eph. 2:14–18). Hugh Martin noted that when we resolve in our hearts not to obey God in one area of our life we open the door to other sins.6 Jonah refused to love his neighbor as himself. That’s why he disobeyed God’s call to warn Nineveh of God’s judgment.
Great opportunity for repentance, right? Instead Jonah dug in his heels. This reveals a second principle.
Beware of Silencing God’s Word
Because God’s prophet failed to share God’s heart for the lost he would not answer God’s call to preach to Nineveh. How would Jonah avoid obeying? The texttells us that Jonah sought to flee from God (1:3, twice; 1:10; 4:2).
Absurd, right? But be careful of superficial conclusions.
Jonah would have agreed with the words of the children’s catechism: “I cannot see God, but he always sees me.”7 Jonah knew that no one can flee from God’s presence (Ps. 139:7). “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me” (vv. 9–10). So what was Jonah thinking? In asking this question we are not trying to rationalize Jonah’s actions. Sin is always irrational. After Jonah purposed to disobey God he was “not only in a disturbed state of mind . . . but was utterly confused.”8 Still, if we understand what Jonah was trying to do we will better understand ourselves.
Jonah tried to silence God’s word. In order to understand this, we need to grasp the relationship between the land of Israel, the presence of God, and God’s revelatory voice. Based on his own experiences, Jonah may not have known if God spoke in other lands, but he knew that God spoke in Israel. Besides Jonah’s own experiences of hearing God speak directly to him, God’s word would have been visible or audible almost everywhere Jonah turned in the land of promise. Jonah didn’t care about Tarshish; he wanted to be where God didn’t seem to be staring him in the face.
We are Jonah. I don’t want to hear God when I’ve chosen to disobey. Do you? Like Jonah, we run from God when his voice threatens to kill our sin-buzz. We might literally try to put some miles between us and the place where our responsibilities rise up before us. We might flee from God by pursuing social distractions. We flip through our phones to sidetrack our troubled consciences. We find friends whose chatter will drown out God’s voice. We might drop friends whose commitment to the Lord bothers our convicted hearts. We might stop coming to church so we don’t have to listen to preaching, and fellowship with those who have heard our vows to continue steadfastly in our profession of faith, and to serve the Lord according to his word.9 Most Lord’s Day mornings a council member of the church I pastor prays for those who have refused to gather with God’s people. That’s an important prayer; we truly try to silence God’s word by avoiding church. We might try to find holes in the sermons we do hear so that we don’t have to come to terms with what was said.
When we have decided to disobey God we become less interested in his word. Ask yourself, “Do I turn to prayer when I am disobeying God? Do I open up his Word when I know I am trying to silence his voice? Do I seek godly counsel when I am in a state of unbelief?”
Even worse, we often flee from God into the arms of other sins. When we have a mindset of disobedience we “are doomed for the time being . . . to feel the sore restlessness . . . of the ungodly” (Isa. 42:22; 57:21).10 When our conscience is beset by guilt we lose the will to fight the good fight. A man who fights against lust while he walks with the Lord might begin to lose the battle as he flees from God. A mother who normally loves her children may be hard on them when she has decided to flee responsibility in favor of social media. In times of disobedience, we can become like the Pharisees who could not bear to hear God speaking through Stephen. They stopped up their ears to silence God’s word and rushed headlong into far greater sin. Sin has a snowball effect. It tends to grow and multiply until we turn to Christ and pray for him to restore our hearts.
Find Your Obedience in Christ
Jonah is a pattern of our wandering hearts. We see in him our tendencies to resist God’s hard but clear commands, and our futile attempts to soothe our consciences by smothering God’s word. His story can warn us of the destructive folly of running from God.
But Jonah also points to the second man, Jesus Christ, the firstfruits of resurrection life (1 Cor. 15:20). Christ is a greater than Jonah (Matt. 12:41). When Jonah heard God’s call, like the call to Isaiah—“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”—Jonah said, “Not me.” Christ said, “Here am I! Send me” (Isa. 6:8). “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7). He has come. He took up God’s mission to rescue sinners. He willingly died and was gloriously raised.
Everyone who trusts in Jesus is united to him in his death and resurrection. Christ died for our sins to cancel their power. Because of Christ’s death sin no longer has dominion over us (Rom. 6:14). Christians are no longer programmed to make sinful decisions (though it feels like there are still glitches in our system). Believers are more alive in Christ than we might realize. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is in us (Rom. 8:11). The power of Christian living is Christ in us.11 Our disobedience to God’s word and our attempts to flee from him should drive us to seek refuge in the crucified and resurrected Christ.
Jonah was faced with a test. Imagine how things might have been if Jonah had responded in true faith to God’s difficult commands (1:2). He might have cried out to God, “Lord, these commands are very difficult for me. I don’t want to go to Nineveh. I’m judgmental, self-centered, and scared. But if you tell me to go, I will. Please help me. I can do all things through your strength” (Phil. 4:13).
Like Jonah, we are faced with difficult decisions. God’s word sometimes commands us to serve him beyond our limited understandings and natural abilities. God’s word challenges our baser inclinations. What does that mean for you right now? It is right at that place that you must rest in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Believers have access to the power to obey, but too often we imitate Jonah by relying on our own wisdom and our own wills. When Jonah depended on his own will he inevitably dreaded God’s presence. The more self-consciously we are in Christ the more God’s presence ceases to be our dread and instead becomes our delight.
1. What benefit could there be in understanding why Jonah chose to disobey God as he did?
2. How does Leviticus 5:17 confront our excuse of ignorance in our moral shortcomings?
3. In hindsight, lack of time to make a good decision is often revealed to be lack of patience. How can this revelation help us?
4. Do you see outreach as a zero sum game? How does Scripture address this fear?
5. What does it mean that Jonah sought to flee from God’s presence?
6. How do you do the same thing?
7. How can you find comfort in Christ’s resolve to obey God’s will?
1 James Boice notes how the repetition of the word “down” in the narrative denotes the downward spiral of Jonah’s life after his disobedient choice. Can You Run Away from God? (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1977), 20.
2 Westminster Confession of Faith,1.6.
3 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 3(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989), 27.
4 Carl Friedrich Keil, The Twelve Major Prophets, vol. 1, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 392.
5 Jonah “grudged that heathen should share Israel’s privileges, and probably thought that gain to Nineveh would be loss to Israel. It was exactly the spirit of the prodigal’s elder brother.” James Hastings, The Greater Men and Women of the Bible, vol. 4, Hezekiah–Malachi (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1938), 426.
6 Hugh Martin, The Prophet Jonah: His Character and Mission to Nineveh (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 55.
7 First Catechism,Q/A 11.
8 Calvin, Commentaries, 26.
9 See “Public Profession of Faith, Form 1,” in Liturgical Forms and Prayers of the United Reformed Churches in North America (Wellandport, ON: The United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018), 16.
10 Martin, Jonah, 55.
11 For an extended practical explanation of the death and resurrection of Christ, see John Murray’s chapter, “The Dynamic of Biblical Ethic,”in Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957),202–28.
Rev. William Boekestein
is the pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.