When I was younger I had an understanding that the Bible was ancient. For some reason I had come to believe that it was a book written for ages past and the stories in it dated back so far that they were really irrelevant for me today. This understanding probably came from the fact that I grew up in schools and a society that taught the millions of years ago stories of the dinosaurs and the stars and the mountains and so on. Jonah was one of those stories in the Bible that really seemed to be ancient history, after all, a man gets swallowed by a fish and lives to tell about it. Is that even possible?
When I finally began to read and study the Bible for myself I came to a completely different understanding. I began to realize that the Bible was not archaic and was actually very relevant to my every day life right now. The book of Jonah included. This book is filled with four chapters of jaw dropping truth that we desperately need to grasp hold of in the American/Western church of this twenty-first century. Let me bring Jonah up out of the ages for you, hopefully allowing it to come a little closer to home.
I grew up with the Bible being completely separated from my other history books. I never thought to consider the Bible to be able to be lined up with what was going on in the rest of the world. As I shared earlier, in my mind the Bible was pre-history. It was a world before my world. However, the truth is that at the very time that Jonah was hopping a boat for Tarshish and having his come to Jesus meeting in the belly of a great fish Homer was writing the Iliad and the Odyssey. Ice skating had become a popular sport in northern Europe. The first Olympic Games were held. Rome became a city and false teeth were being invented in Italy.
In the book of Jonah we learn in the first verse that Jonah was the son of Amittai. Jonah is mentioned again in the Old Testament in 2 Kings 14:25 and we learn that he was from Gath-hepher. We are able to use this verse to confirm the time that Jonah was a prophet as this verse teaches us that the Lord prophesied through him that He would restore the border of Northern Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah during the reign of Jeroboam son of Joash. What we do not know is if the account of Jonah’s life recorded in the book of Jonah occurred before or after 2 Kings 14:25, but that is neither here nor there, for the point is that the Lord has recorded for us a definitive time frame for the life of Jonah.
In Jonah 1:1 we see that the word of the Lord comes to Jonah. The Lord has commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and cry against the city because their wickedness is great and He is about to deal with them. Jonah hears the instruction of the Lord and chooses to flee. He actually heads in the opposite direction of where the Lord has instructed him to go and boards a ship that is sailing even further away in the opposite direction from where he has been instructed to go. Twice in Jonah 1:3 we read that Jonah was trying to flee from the presence of the Lord.
During Jonah’s lifetime Israel had fallen into idolatry. The kingdom split after the death of Solomon and the first king of Northern Israel introduced idolatry at the beginning of his reign. When we look at the story of the gods worshiped by the surrounding nations we see that the people believed that their gods were territorial. It seems they believed that their gods remained within the borders of their own nations and therefore when nations went to war it was a battle of and for the gods to expand their territory. So it is possible that Jonah might have not realized exactly who his God really was and actually thought he could flee from His presence by fleeing from the land. It’s possible that Jonah had bought into the lie of his present culture and had diminished and rationalized away the sovereignty of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s possible that he knew his God was mighty, powerful, and able… but some how still needed him to accomplish His will on the earth as if he could in some way control and limit the hand of God.
We could laugh and shake our head at Jonah, but is that really any different than many of us who profess Christ today? How often do we walk out of the church doors and then live as if we left Jesus inside the building? How often do we leave our Bibles closed and neatly put away on a shelf and believe that not reading them excuses us from living out the truth the Word of God contains and explains. How often do we go to our own homes, our places of employment, our schools, etc and live as if we are free from His presence?
This is the beginning of our journey into the book of Jonah. Jonah thought he could flee from the presence of the Lord. In Genesis 3:1-18 after the serpent had deceived Eve and she gave to Adam and he also ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they also thought they could flee from the presence of the Lord. The saddest part of their story, of both their’s and Jonah’s story, and of our stories… is that we even wanted or felt the need to flee in the first place.