There are basically two camps when it comes to Jonah. (1) Those who view it as literal truth. There is a prophet named Jonah, who gets swallowed by a whale, etc. (2) The Book of Jonah is more of a parable — a story written to demonstrate a truth about God.
So how should we approach the Book of Jonah? Remember, this is not about Jonah as much as it is about God. So if you find the lesson in what the book says about God, then option (1) and (2) will take you to exactly the same place.
So, let’s look at Jonah 1:1-3 again and, this time, we’ll concentrate on what this says to us about God. Here are those verses.
1 The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
3 So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.
So, here are some things that this might say to us about God.
God speaks. That’s where everything begins, the word of God comes to Jonah. It doesn’t say whether it’s God speaking directly, an angel speaking for God, something Jonah read in Scripture, or something Jonah hears in a dream. It might have been something completely different. Yet, it begins with God speaking to us.
And God still speaks to his people today. One of the surest ways to hear God speaking is by reading Scripture. Praying is another.
How is God speaking to you?
God gives us a ministry. Scripture gives us the image that all, and all means all, followers of Jesus are ministers. Some churches will even list the total number of members as the number of ministers in the church. When God gives us a ministry, it is not necessarily a call to pastoral ministry, but it can be for some. Jonah is given a mission and that mission is to go to a group of people and give them a message from God.
So, what ministry is God calling you to do? Where is the Nineveh that God is sending you to help?
God says “go.” A command from God to “go” is a command we should listen to. It’s a part of the Great Commission. You can say it says to “go and make” not “sit and wait.” Following God requires movement on behalf. It is not passively sitting back and waiting for others. We are commanded, prodded, nudged and ordered to go and take the message of God with us.
So where would “going” take you in your faith journey?
God will wait you out. Yes, God has a special mission for you. Yes, he gives you the chance to go and do it. But God is patient enough to wait you out if you choose to run in the opposite direction. These verses say that Jonah “ran away from” God. But did he really? Running away from God has a way of leading us right back to God.
Where in your life is God waiting you out? Where is God being patient with your running? Maybe God knows that eventually you are going to make it back to where you need to be.
As we continue throughout Jonah, we will keep coming back to the same question, “What does this tell us about God?”
Let that become the filter for the way you reread this passage. This is how Eugene Peterson described it in “The Message”:
One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God. He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish—as far away from God as he could get. (Message 1:1-3)