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Jonah 1:1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai

Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BC (2 Kings 14:25). The book does not identify its author, but it may have been written by Jonah himself, around 750 BC. It is the story of God’s concern for the Assyrians, and Jonah’s reluctance to preach to them. God wanted Israel to know about his love for other nations, so they would become a greater witness to the world. 

Jonah 1:2 Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me

Nineveh was an important city in Assyria, with a population of over a hundred twenty thousand (Jonah 4:11). Jonah mentioned violence as one of her sins (Jonah 3:8), and the prophet Amos identified others including witchcraft (Nahum 3:4) and cruelty (Nahum 3:19). Assyria’s military acts included ripping open pregnant women and skinning captives alive. They were a wicked, ruthless and terrifying people.

A monument from the ninth century BC has an inscription from an Assyrian king. I built a pillar over against his gate, and I flayed all the chief men . . . and I covered the pillar with their skins . . . Many captives . . . I burned with fire . . . From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses [and] ears . . . of many I put out the eyes

Assyria was a major threat to Israel, so it was likely the last place on earth that Jonah wanted to go. But that is where God was sending him.

Jonah 1:3 Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord

The prophet should have known that he could not get away from God, but he was desperate. He may have enjoyed serving God, most of the time, but now God was asking too much. So Jonah left family, friends and country, in order to flee from the Lord.

Obeying God is usually easy, but not always. Jesus said, my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:30). But he also said, whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27). Sometimes following Christ is an easy yoke, other times it is a heavy cross. When Christianity becomes difficult, some people run from God, by closing their Bibles and avoiding church. But the long arm of God’s grace is always able to reach us.

Jonah 1:4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up

Running away from God is neither wise nor safe. Though they hide from my eyes at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent to bite them (Amos 9:3), wrote Amos. Since we cannot hide from God, it is best to be found doing his will, not fleeing from it. Serving God may be difficult, but not as difficult as running away. 

Jonah 1:5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship

The cargo was thrown overboard to keep the ship from being submerged. It was easily worth a fortune, but due to Jonah’s sin, it was completely lost. If Jonah had not run from God, God would not have sent the storm, and the cargo would not have been wasted.

Sin is more expensive than we commonly think. How many careers have been lost to sin? How many families have been lost to sin? How many fortunes have been lost to sin? Sin will take us further than we want to go, keep us longer than we want to stay, and cost us more than we want to pay. And tragically, the price of our sin is often paid by those around us.

Jonah 1:5b-6 But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish

Everyone on the boat was praying except for the one person who really knew God. Prayer is awkward when you are living in sin, because God only wants to talk about one thing. You might want to talk about your problems, hopes or fears, but God only wants to talk about your sin. If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18), wrote David.

Jonah 1:7 Then the sailors said to each other, Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity. 

Providentially, the lot fell to Jonah. Jonah knew he was guilty, of course, but now his guilt was revealed to others. The sea was growing more violent, and the sailers asked Jonah what they should do. Pick me up and throw me into the sea, he replied, and it will become calm (Jonah 1:12). 

The sailors did not want to kill Jonah, so they tried rowing to shore. But the sea grew even worse, so they threw Jonah overboard, and then the sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him (Jonah 1:16). Jonah should have been a good example, but he became a terrible warning.

Reflection and Review
Why did Jonah run away from God?
Have you ever run away from God?
Why does sin make it difficult to pray?