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Online Text Sermon - Survey of Jonah, Jonah ch.1 v.1-ch.4 v.11

Date23/08/2001
Time19:30
PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleSurvey of Jonah
TextJonah ch.1 v.1-ch.4 v.11
Sermon ID340

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I would like to point out some initial lessons that come to us from this book, even from the very surface of the book without profound study. The first lesson that I would draw your attention to is how very different Jonah is to all the other characters of scripture. I don't think there is anyone, really, who quite fits the same mould as this man, and that's very important for us to see and to know and to recognise. The gospel ought not to make us into identical characters. It is possible to be in some fellowships where you have to speak in a certain way and you have to use a certain tone of voice and you have to use a certain vocabulary, and you have to do everything according to the set pattern. That's not a virtue; the Bible and true religion do not clone us into postage stamps all looking alike. The effect of true religion should be to bring out the individuality which every particular Christian has.

Another thing you notice here is, how extraordinary that this book of Jonah was ever written. Perhaps you never thought of it like that. But let me point out to you that the book of Jonah was surely written by Jonah himself. He tells us these things, and yet what terrible things he tells us about himself: he rebels against God at one point; he is flagrantly disobedient; and then at the end of the book, it's not as though he shines with glowing virtue, is it? He is angry with God, very angry with God. Both of these things were most sinful and wrong. Many of us, if we had been guilty of these things, we would certainly not be telling the whole world. If we were to write up our autobiographies based upon our own mistakes, the tendency of human nature is, surely, that we leave unsaid those things which do not really reflect well upon us; but how honest this man is. It reminds us that we are told in the Bible to confess our faults one to another. We should not be above admitting our own sins.

Here is another lesson too. There was such an individuality about this man Jonah. There are not two men like him anywhere. Some Christians, you know, are absolutely unique. Most of us are pretty similar to the rest, aren't we? But some Christians are absolutely unique, they're individuals; and we should remark upon that fact; and we should be grateful that occasionally God raises up a Christian who is entirely different from everybody else. A good example of these in modern times would be Billy Bray - that extraordinary Christian in Cornwall in the nineteenth century - Billy Bray was a remarkable man. There weren't two men like him, surely, in the history of the church. He would shout like this, "Hallelujah! Glory be to God." In all the circumstances of life he was praising God. When he put one foot down he said "Hallelujah!" when he put the other one down, "Amen!" He would roll about the floor in an ecstasy of joy, praising God for his unspeakable mercy. You know his famous phrase, he said, "If you put me in a barrel, I would shout glory through the bung hole." Well that's the sort of man we have with Jonah, altogether unique. From time to time God raises up these unique people. That's something in the way of an introductory observation about the book as a whole.

Let me come now to some particulars: the name 'Jonah'; in the Hebrew language it means 'a dove'. I don't think that is particularly significant, but it might be of interest to you to know. It's a pure coincidence that one of the greatest missionaries of Scotland was also called a dove, Columba, which is the Latin for a dove. There is no connection whatsoever, but it must have been a name which was felt to be appropriate to this man. When did he live? The answer is he lived in the eighth century before Christ, and his prophecy was done in the northern kingdom of Israel not in Judah in the south. I won't go into much history, but it's enough for us to know and to understand for the purposes of this book that within fifty years of Jonah's prophecy Nineveh, which was the capital city of Assyria, sent a great army against Israel and wiped out the whole country. So the country from which this man Jonah came was going to be completely wiped out by this nation of Assyrians of which Nineveh was the capital, within fifty years, perhaps a little bit less. That is of importance to us to understand, and I will come back to that point by and by.

A brief outline of the book would go something like this - it is very much a book with a narrative story in it. Jonah is commanded by God to leave Israel and to travel eastward, some hundreds of miles, to this huge city called Nineveh, very close to Babylon, way out in the east, hundreds and hundreds of miles east. There he has to denounce the sins of the city of Nineveh. What does Jonah do however? Instead of going east he goes west to Joppa, which was a seaport like Liverpool, and there he finds a berth or a cabin on board a ship, and he travels across the Mediterranean some distance, on his way to Tarshish, which was probably a city in Spain. On the way God sends this tremendous storm, and the men - the seamen - are afraid, they do not know what to do and eventually appealed to Jonah, who was found to be sleeping. They rebuke him that he is sleeping and not praying. Isn't that strange: worldly people rebuking a man of God and a prophet that they were praying whilst he was sleeping? They inform him that they are afraid of what was happening and wanted to know why God was sending this judgment upon them. He explained that he was a prophet and a Hebrew, and he was running away from God and being disobedient to his calling. They were at that point the more afraid. "What are we to do?" said they. "Throw me overboard," said Jonah, which, in the fear of God and with much trembling, they do. As soon as Jonah was out of the ship a supernatural calm descends upon the wind and the waves and these shipmen knew very well that this was an act of God.

We are told at that point that the Lord had prepared a great fish - not necessarily a whale but some great fish - in order to swallow Jonah and save him from drowning. Inside the belly of this great fish, Jonah utters this amazing prayer of Jonah 2. What a strange thing, praying consciously in the belly of this fish! I will come back to the point about the swallowing of the prophet later on. It has offended many people; many people have felt that this book can't be trusted and can't be relied upon to be historical, because they regard it as an impossibility for a man to be swallowed by a fish and to be praying within its belly. We will come back to that.

The climax of chapter 2 is, "But I will sacrifice unto thee [God] with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord" (Jonah 2, 9). "Salvation is of the Lord" - that was a great lesson which Jonah had to learn. His deliverance, just like our redemption by Christ, is entirely of the Lord.

In Jonah 3 the summary goes like this: the word of the Lord comes to Jonah the second time. God does not necessarily cast a man off for disobedience on one occasion. Many people have been called to the ministry but have resisted that call for a long time, and in many cases the word of the Lord has come a second time to them. So it was with this man. But on the second occasion Jonah obediently travels eastwards and comes to this huge city which is a three day journey across from one side to the other. It must have been a vast city even by modern standards. If you look at the last few verses of the entire prophecy in chapter 4 you will see what God says: There are "sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand", which very likely refers to children. There were all those large numbers of children, let alone grown people, within the city. So possibly the population was already about a million or more. Here in the city Jonah, in the open air, cries out to the people as he travels along, "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed!" or words to that effect. The report of this preaching reaches the ears of the king of Assyria, or the king of Nineveh, and he commands a universal fast. Even the beasts, as well as the people, have to put on sackcloth and ashes; neither man nor beast is allowed food or drink for so many days.

When God sees that the people have repented, he turns away from his fierce anger. You would have expected that Jonah would have been delighted to see the effect of his preaching to be so successful; after all, what is it that preachers long to see but men repenting? But strangely, Jonah was annoyed, greatly displeased, and angry with God, and he turns to God and he says words like this, "This is what I feared all along, O God. I knew thee to be gracious and merciful and forgiving; that is what I said when I was in my own country. I knew this would happen." A little bit more occurs in the book, but I think in the circumstances we will leave the summary like that.

Obviously we have a number of questions to be faced, a number of questions to answer. One of the greatest is: Why did Jonah run away in the first place? Why did he not do as the Lord commanded? A superficial answer to that question would be to say that Jonah was very afraid; after all it takes no small courage for a man who is a true prophet of God to travel all those hundreds of miles to a completely heathen country and a pagan city, and there to stand up in the name of God in the open air and proclaim a fast, and denounce the sins of that nation. There's not a mad rush even today in Inverness for people to rush into the open air and tell people about sin and Christ. It's not all Inverness who is longing to do so, not even all those who are evangelical Christians. So you can understand that a certain nervousness might have come into it, and maybe you could say he was fleeing away from his duty because of fear, the fear of man.

If you were to give that explanation for his disobedience at the beginning of the book you would be quite wrong. It was not fear; he longed to die, this man. "O Lord," he says, "I had better die; it's better for me to die than to live," he said. So a man with that attitude in mind is not afraid of death. No, no, it is entirely a different reason that made Jonah refuse at first to obey his calling. It was rather this: he did not want the Lord to show mercy to the Ninevites; he wanted God to destroy them. Being a prophet, he no doubt foresaw that in a few years' time these would be the very people who would come with their horses and their weaponry and would cover his land, kill the people, take multitudes into exile and bring the nation of Israel virtually to an end of its existence for their sins. So he wanted them to be wiped out. He did not want God to show them mercy and pity and forgiveness and grace as he did. And of course, we know he was wrong to think like that, and the Lord gently chides with him at the end of the book. "All these people," he says, "and they know not their right hand from their left. Is it not fitting," says God, "that I should show them compassion, and mercy, and pity, and kindness?"

So you see, his motive was for the glory of God, as he thought, in protecting the chosen nation of Israel. In so thinking we can understand his motive appeared to be very good, and I suppose that's why it is that the Lord was so patient with him. The trouble was, Jonah's zeal for the glory of God was without knowledge; and very often that can be the case. By the way, this teaches a number of important lessons. We must never try to 'read' the will of God from the things that happen in our lives at first. Here was Jonah, running away from God. He had found a place on a ship; he found a convenient cabin. Many Christians would say, "Well this must be a sign from the Lord. The Lord would never have given me a cabin on this ship if he did not intend me to go to Tarshish; so this must be the sign of confirmation of the will of the Lord." There are Christians that argue like that, but we must not argue from providence and circumstance to the will of God. The will of God is determined by what he says in his Word. We must never oppose what God says to what he does, and conclude that if he does something which appears to be at variance with what he says, therefore we are in the will of God - no! The will of God comes from a study of his Word, and Jonah received the word from God which commanded him to go that way. The fact that he found a berth on the ship going that way was no indication that he was in the path of duty or doing the will of God.

My friend, consider carefully, when you go forward sometimes doors open, but not to show us that that is right for us to go on. Sometimes doors open as a judgment upon us, and only later do we discover we have blundered and done the wrong thing. So did Jonah. Of course, you could say that he knew it in his conscience, and he said to the shipmen, "Throw me overboard, and you will have peace." He was quite prepared to die. This was not a man afraid of death - no, no, not he. He was a great man, but a man who misunderstood the will of God.

Are you puzzled by some of the things here? I mentioned earlier on that the liberals, that is to say the non-Bible-believing scholars of the past and present, have always objected to the book of Jonah, that it cannot be history, it must be legendary. That's the way they argue, "No people," they say, "are swallowed by big fish and survive, it's impossible." That's the argument. A lot of scholars in Germany said that, and a lot of scholars in Britain in the university Divinity departments are saying it still. It's the typical attitude of the non-evangelical and liberal scholar to say it can't be truth, it must be fiction, it must be fable or fairy stories, or like fairy stories. What is the answer to that? The answer is that in Matthew 12, and in the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus Christ himself shows he takes this for solid sober history. "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish," he says, "so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth." Christ accepts this as history. But how can a man live in the belly of a fish? The answer is, only by a miracle. By the way, there was a man some years ago, in the 1920's I think, who was swallowed by a big fish, I think in the North Sea, and he was taken out alive. He used to go round congregations and music halls, and his skin was yellow with the digestive juices of the fish in which he had been swallowed. He used to go round and he would be displayed to audiences as a proof that a man can survive being swallowed by a fish, and can come out alive and live for some time later. However, we don't need men from Newcastle to do that; the fact of the matter is, God can work miracles, and we must take this to be history because Jesus Christ our blessed Lord himself takes it as history.

We ask a further question: What are the lessons we are intended to learn from this book? Why did God put this remarkable book in the Bible at all? The first answer to that is, because God intended to give a sign concerning the death and burial of his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. I don't suppose Jonah understood this for a moment. These things happened to him without his understanding, we may very well believe. But God was working on a time scale far, far beyond anything that Jonah or you or I can understand. Roughly 800 years before it happened, this man must needs enter into the belly of this great fish and be vomited up again; just like a death, and just like a resurrection. It was a sign to the Jewish people, a sign of what would happen to their Saviour, their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, and it happened 750 or 800 years before Christ came to that experience of death and resurrection.

My dear friends, let us realise that God is always looking into the future; God's eyes are on tomorrow as well as today; and God is preparing today for things that are going to happen, not during our lifetime, but in the lifetime of our great, great, great grandchildren. Why do I say that? What's the practical value of that? This is the practical value: you and I must do our duty to God's Word now, and leave the consequences to God. We must not live according to our own wisdom, or according to the wisdom of the world. If we want our children's children, and their children after them, to receive a blessing then you and I had better walk with God in all his ways, not turning to the right hand or to the left, without the fear of man, without the fear of the world, without the fear of consequences - doing what is right because it is the will of God. At the end of the day, all that we do that is right will come right; and all that we do that is wrong... though it may be in a sense overruled, will not be to our credit.

Another lesson I want to bring to you, which comes to us very clearly from this book, is this: What are we to do when our society is corrupt, and when the nation becomes deeply sinful and evil, and disobedient to God and to his ways? What are we to do? The answer is found in chapter 3 at verse 6. Let's read it, "For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?" Now what's that? It is the call for fasting, and the call for prayer; and it is very obvious to spiritually minded people today that this is something that God is calling our society to, loudly. I say that, my dearest friends, for your encouragement. If there's any hope for Britain today, it's in that there are still people like yourselves who come to pray. When prayer meetings like this are stopped and finished and all these seats become empty, it will almost certainly be the sign that the heavens will open and the judgment descend upon us. You have no idea what it means, that you are coming to the house of God to, as it were, keep back the wrath and judgment of God. Look at verse 10 of chapter 3, "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not." We have a merciful, gracious, compassionate God, and when people turn from their wicked way in fasting and repenting and grieving, then he sees; he knows, he reads the hearts of men. The lesson must not be lost upon us: this is how Christian people are to be in our times. The times are evil, but the plan of God is not overthrown even by sin.

We close our meditation, I would ask you each one, as indeed I ask myself: Do we see the plan of God as something which men cannot interrupt and overthrow? Jonah's disobedience was a great sin, but it did not destroy the purpose and work and plan of God. God overruled and brought his purpose to pass; and no doubt he will do that always, in all circumstances. Your duty and mine is to have great thoughts of God, to fear him, to honour him, and to love him. May God help us so to do, according to his Word.


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