God Orders the Starts and Stops! (Jonah 1-4)

Scripture reading Jonah 1-4

The Book of Jonah is today’s Scripture reading assignment. Though only four chapters in length, this historical drama is powerful and telling: Nineveh, a wicked, idolatrous city, unaware of the imminence of God’s judgment and the threat of annihilation. The LORD and Sovereign Creator is holy and just, but also merciful and loving toward sinners. Jonah, a reluctant, rebellious prophet, defied God’s command to warn Nineveh and call the people to repent of their sins.

Have you ever wanted to run?

You may remember a childhood tantrum that resulted in your threat to take your little red wagon and run away from home. To your chagrin, your mother pretended to take you up on your plan, and even offered to help you pack!  If you were strong willed, you might have even followed through with strong determination! Fortunately, for a child, minutes can seem like hours and a hundred yards like a mile. Upon returning home from your self-willed excursion, your mom probably greeted you, “Well, you’re back! Wash your hands and get ready for dinner!”

Two lessons come to the forefront of this scenario: The first, “What is best for you is not always what you think is best.”  The second, may not be realized until years later; although you could not see her, your mother never took her eyes off you!

Some 2800 years ago, a passionate, patriotic and popular preacher in Israel named Jonah received God’s command: “Arise, go to Nineveh…” (1:2). 

Nineveh was a great city with a population of 120,000 souls (Jonah 4:11). However, Nineveh was also a wicked city, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and a great adversary of Israel!

Possibly fearing his nation’s enemy or the rejection of His own people, Jonah refused to preach against Nineveh, later confessing he feared the LORD would spare that city from destruction!  Jonah resigned his calling as God’s prophet (Jonah 1:3), paid his fare, and took a ship for Tarshish, a city on the western most edge of the known world in his day (1:3).

In his flight from the LORD, Jonah soon found himself caught in a great storm and the sea threatening to take him and his fellow passengers to a watery grave (1:4-6).  Evidencing the callousness of a backslidden sinner, Jonah slept in the bottom of the ship until he was awakened by the sailors. Jonah confessed he was a prophet of the LORD and the storm was sent by God to chastise him. Fearing for their lives, the sailors reluctantly cast Jonah into the sea where he was swallowed by a great fish providentially provided by the LORD.

We read that Jonah confessed his sin and “prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly” (2:1) and “He heard me” (2:2). 

The prophet understood his miserable state was a watery grave unless the LORD delivered him (2:9-10).  The LORD mercifully answered Jonah’s prayer and “spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (2:10).

Jonah obeyed the LORD, went to Nineveh and began warning that great city, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). 

Amazingly, the people of Nineveh believed the word of that reluctant prophet and repented (3:5-9).  Hearing Nineveh’s penitent cry, the LORD was moved with compassion and set aside His judgment (3:10).

Jonah 3:10 – “And God saw [looked;; beheld; perceived] their works [behavior; deeds], that they turned [turned back] from their evil [sinful; wicked] way; and God repented [reckoned; moved with compassion] of the evil [destruction; bad—not sin], that he had said that he would do [make; wrought; perform; accomplish] unto them; and he did it not.”

We would number Jonah among the greatest preachers and prophets of all time, if he had also longed to see Nineveh repent. Jonah, however, did not rejoice in the LORD’s compassion, or the city being spared His judgment. We read:

Jonah 4:1-2 – “But it displeased [so angry he trembled] Jonah exceedingly [overcome with anger], and he was very angry [incensed; burned with anger]. 2 And he prayed unto the LORD [Jehovah; Eternal God], and said [charged], I pray thee [lit. “Ah, now!”], O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country [northern Israel]? Therefore I fled [ran away; bolted] before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious [showing favor] God, and merciful [full of compassion], slow [patient; longsuffering] to anger, and of great [many; abundant] kindness [mercy], and repentest [moved with compassion] thee of the evil [judgment].”

Jonah was angry that God had spared a city that was the enemy of Israel. Jonah then left Nineveh, built a temporary dwelling outside the city, and sat down and waited to see if God would destroy the city (Jonah 4:5).

Here we find a characteristic of men who abandon their calling…they are more interested in temporal comforts than they are in lost souls (4:6). 

Jonah 4:6 – “And the LORD God prepared [appointed; told] a gourd, and made it to come up [ascend; mount up]over Jonah, that it might be a shadow [shade] over his head, to deliver [preserve; recover; escape] him from his grief [lit. sin; evil; wickedness; distress; misery]. So Jonah was exceeding glad [rejoicing; joyful; cheered up] of the gourd.”

Jonah became angry and despaired of life when the LORD destroyed the gourd and its leafy vine. “God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry [incensed; burn with anger] for the gourd? And he said, I do well [good; please; better] to be angry, even unto death” (4:9).

God then challenged Jonah to consider his priorities, along with his foolish, self-centered attitude.

Jonah 4:10 – “Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity [to regard; have compassion] on the gourd, for the which thou hast not labored [ie. severe, hard work], neither madest it grow [to nourish; promote growth]; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:”

This brief biography of Jonah’s life ends with a question:

Jonah 4:11 “And should not I spare [show compassion; regard; pity] Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand [120,000] persons that cannot discern [know; understand] between their right hand and their left hand; and also much [plenty; great] cattle?”

There may be someone reading this devotion who has quit on God and taken a ship to your own Tarshish. 

I understand the temptation that comes with hard times, difficult people, harsh criticisms and little encouragement. To quit is appealing in the midst of disappointments, especially when a “gourd” promises you rest and comfort. However, such a path comes at the sacrifice of the best part…the will of the LORD.

Take a lesson from Jonah’s life: God orders the starts and stops, not man! 

Copyright 2020 – Travis D. Smith