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The Prodigal Prophet

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A young boy from down south attended Sunday school for the first with his grandparents who lived up north. He was so excited he couldn’t wait to tell grandma about the lesson. "My teacher taught us all about the whales," he announced. "You mean Jonah and the whale?" grandma asked. "No," he said, "Jacob and the whales." "I think it was Jonah," the grandmother gently corrected. "He was swallowed by a whale in the ocean." But this young man knew his lesson. "No, it was Jacob. He moved out into the desert and when he got thirsty, he dug some whales."[i]

     The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the most well-known in the Bible among kids of all ages. It’s said when Walt Disney adapted the story of Pinocchio for the silver screen, he was inspired more by the story of Jonah than the original author’s tale.

            But the story of Jonah is meant to be far more than just a children’s fairy tale. With all of the remarkable events in the story, for all of its twists and turns, there is still more here than meets the eye. In this brief book, God reveals Himself to us, and speaks to us, if we are willing to hear what He has to say. Tonight I want to get an overview of this unique prophecy, beginning with Jonah 1:1.


            Let’s begin with some background and context.

            This book opens with the name of a prophet Jonah, son of Ammitai. It may surprise you to know this is not the first time the Bible mentions him. He first shows up in

2 Ki 14:25 He [King Jereboam II, king of Israel] restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher.

            This gives us some important information about Jonah.

            It tells us where he was from. Gath Hepher is believed to have been about 2 ½ miles NE of Nazareth, in the regions of Galilee, home to many Gentiles as well as Jews. Jonah was no stranger to the non-Jewish world of people.

            It also gives us some idea of a timeframe for his ministry. The connection with the reign of King Jerboam II places Jonah’s ministry somewhere around 750-730 BC, making him a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Amos. Early in Jonah’s ministry the Lord gives him a positive message which probably made Jonah a hero to his people. You can be sure Jonah’s first message is much easier to deliver than the one he later gives to the city of Nineveh.

            Which brings up another important item of background information: the relationship between the nation of Israel and the nation of Assyria, whose capital happens to be Nineveh.

     More than any other nation Assyria was responsible for the harassment and exploitation Israel and Judah suffered [for] more than a century. Assyria [kidnapped] much of Israel’s population into exile, in order to bring…people in to colonize its territories. [ii]

            The Israelites see Assyria not only as their enemy, but God’s enemy. You can’t understand the book of Jonah without appreciating how the people of Israel hate the Assyrians.

            You might also notice a few things we’re not told. We don’t know who wrote the book, or when they wrote it. Tradition says the author was probably Jonah, but if not, whoever wrote it had to hear many details from the lips of Jonah himself. For instance, nobody but Jonah and God knew about the prayer prayed in Jonah 2.

            You need to know these background facts before you can really hear the message of the book. As we read the story of Jonah, I want to also give you 3 themes to keep a lookout for.  

1.    God’s calling.

            The book of Jonah deals with the call of God on one man’s life.

     Two families were very close friends who always attend church together, usually spend Sunday afternoon together. One day, one parent called the home of the other family , and Alicia, the 4 year old daughter answered the telephone. She asks politely who was calling. To tease her, the grown-up replied, "Alicia, you come to my house almost every Sunday and you don't know who I am?" In a reverent voice, she replied breathlessly, "Is that You, Jesus?"[iii]

            You don’t expect personal phone calls from God, but I do believe God has a call on each of our lives. You can see this theme at the very beginning of the book of Jonah.

            V. 1 begins with God calling Jonah to make a mission trip to the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh. He is to call the people of Nineveh to repent of their sin and turn to God.

            This is not a call Jonah really wants to hear. Jonah doesn’t want these people to repent; he’d prefer they die as soon and as painfully as possible. God’s prophet has a real problem with God’s call on his life.

            And yet the people of Nineveh—pagan, idol worshipping, evil people—hear God’s call then repent. They are willing to hear and heed the call of God.

            Jonah tries to escape God’s call while the Ninevites hear and heed God’s call. Jonah ends up taking a detour through a storm and a whale to get where God calls him, while wicked Nineveh repents and escapes judgment. Any Israelite who read this book would be struck by the incredible irony of the story.

            One of the main themes of this book is: God has a call on your life, and you are responsible for doing something about His call.  

            What kinds of things does God call us to do? Some calls are general, to all people everywhere; some calls are specifically to Christian.

            There is the call to come to Christ.

Tit 2:11-12 11For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age,

            There are other things God calls all of His people to do:

            1 Co 10:31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

            Mk 16:15 Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.

            Jn 15:12 This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

            But then there are personal calls of God on our lives—specific task(s) God specifically calls you to do.

             Here’s the key principle you find in Jonah’s life: you must listen to God’s call and then do something about it.

            Sometimes God calls us to do what’s easy. But then sometimes like Jonah, God asks us to do hard things.  

            God calls us to speak to a friend about Jesus, or forgive that person who hurt you deeply, or come to church when you don’t feel like it, or volunteer to help in a ministry, and you may react like Jonah- nope. Not gonna happen, Lord. That’s not me. Find somebody else.

            The story of Jonah teaches us that if you choose to disregard God’s call, don’t be surprised when God captures your attention through some whale-sized difficulty to get you back on the right track. On the other hand, you can learn from Jonah’s folly: when God calls you to do something, just do it. Without complaining, without resentment, without running away- just do it. I am discovering the path of obedience is a lot smoother than the detour of disobedience.           

            Chuck Swindoll writes: Do you remember the last time you got a spanking? I remember…As a matter of fact, the spanking was on my thirteenth birthday…In our home…when you had a birthday you were sort of “king for a day.” I remember lying around in the bed and on the sofa, barking orders…. And so my father, from the flower bed outside, sensing the need for some correction, called me, “Charles.” And I said, “Yeah,” which was mistake #1, because in our home you didn’t say “Yeah” you said, “Yes sir.” And then he called…again and said, “Come out and help me weed the flower bed.” And I said, “No,” which was mistake #2. He graciously continued…, “Now don’t lie there and act like a three-year-old. Come out and help me weed this flower bed.” I said, “Daddy, I’m not three, I’m thirteen.”

     …that’s the last thing I remember on that day, because with both hands and both feet he landed on my body. And he did not let go until I was very vigorously weeding the flower bed….[iv]

     The book of Jonah reminds us: you better be careful how your respond to God’s call. What is He calling you to do? Are you listening? Are you obeying?

            God’s calling is one important theme of this book. Another important theme is

2.    God’s control.

            Two little old ladies are riding together in one of those huge cars, when the one driving runs a red light. Her friend in the passenger seat is a little alarmed, but she tells herself she just didn’t see the light turn.

     They come up to the next red light and the same thing happens---she runs the red light. The other lady thinks if this keeps up, we’re going to get in a wreck!

     Finally they run the 3rd red light, and the passenger speaks up, “Lucy, did you know you’ve run 3 red lights! You’re going to get us killed!” To which Lucy replies, “Oh my goodness—am I driving?”

            Life can often seem like that big old car with nobody driving. But as Christians we believe God is in the driver’s seat. We call this the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and it’s is a major theme in the book of Jonah. Just a glance at several verses reminds us Who is in control in this story. (Jonah 1:4,17; 2:10;3:1,10;4:6-8)

            God sends the storm that buffets that ship. God sends the big fish to swallow Jonah. God orders the fish to spit Jonah out at Nineveh. God chooses not to destroy Nineveh. God makes the plant grow over Jonah’s head. God orders the worm to eat that plant. God sends that wind to blow on Jonah’s hard head. Over and over Jonah reminds us God is in control. You and I need to remember that when life gets crazy, God is still in control.

            Yet even though God is sovereignly in control, there are still choices made. Jonah chooses to run, and then chooses to come back to God. The sailors on the ship decide to throw Jonah overboard. The Ninevehites choose to repent. God weaves all of these choices to work within His sovereignty to accomplish His will. 

Ps 135:6 Whatever the Lord pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.

            God is always in control. You have a free will to make real choices, but God has the ultimate say in the universe. Aren’t you glad He does? Aren’t you glad that it’s not up to politicians, or generals, or government officials how the world is run? Aren’t you glad God can even overrule our mistakes, and bring us back to where we need to be? God is sovereign over our world.

            At the same time, it’s important to remember we need to make good choices. God gives you and I a free will to choose. There is no way you or I will ever thwart the ultimate plans of God.

            But if you deliberately make wrong choices, you can expect God to chastise you, just as He did Jonah. Many a child of God has ended up in a much darker place than a whale’s belly because of foolish, sinful choices.

            It is our business to see that we do right; God will see that we come out right. - Donald Gray Barnhouse[v]

     Don’t ever forget that God is in control; your job is to choose to do right, and He will make sure that you come out all right. God’s control is another important theme in the story of Jonah. One final theme you find is

3.    God’s compassion.

            A banker just turned a man down for a loan, then made an unusual offer. He said to the man, "I have one good eye and one glass eye. If you can tell me which is which, I'll approve your loan." The man looked for a moment, and then said, "Your left eye is your good eye." The banker was surprised. "That's correct! How could you tell?" The man said, "I detected a hint of compassion in the right eye."

     One of the great themes of the book of Jonah is God’s compassion. You see it first in God’s choice to send a prophet to Nineveh. God could have simply wiped these wicked people off the face of the earth. The Israelites would have no problem with that. But vs. 11 tells us God really does care about these pagans. He even has compassion on their animals!

            But you also see God’s compassion on Jonah. God could have let Jonah keep running all the way to the gates of hell. Instead God intervenes, and saves Jonah from himself. Then God’s compassion even goes farther: He gives Jonah another chance.

Jonah 3:1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time,…

            God could have wiped His hands of Jonah and chosen someone else. But God does not give up on Jonah. Even though Jonah is unfaithful to God, God is never unfaithful to Jonah.

            Yet Jonah’s a little slow in learning another important lesson: God’s compassion ought to make us more compassionate. God is merciful to Jonah, but in chapter 4, Jonah gets angry when God is merciful to Nineveh.  Jonah’s motto seems to be mercy for me, death to them!

God’s compassion didn’t seem to soften Jonah’s heart much.

            But God expects His compassion to soften our hearts. Jesus said in  

Luke 6:35-36 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. 36Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

            Jonah was one of those …unthankful and evil people…and so were you and I, at some point. But God had compassion on us. Now God expects you and I to be channels of His compassion to this lost world. It is compassion that most often softens the hearts of the lost to come to Christ and be saved.

            Maybe you sometimes wonder if God really cares about your life- your pain and problems. The Bible says you can be sure He does:

            Psalm 103:13 As a father pities [has compassion on] his children, so the Lord pities [has compassion on] those who fear Him.

            God always cares about what’s going on in your life. Because He cares about you, He wants you and I to care about others. His compassion is meant to be passed on- even to those who don’t deserve it.

Eph 4:32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

     A Civil War chaplain approached a wounded soldier on the battlefield and asked if he'd like to hear a few verses from the Bible.  The wounded man said, “No, I'm so thirsty, I'd rather have some water.”  The chaplain gave him a drink, and then repeated his question.  “No sir, not now – but could you put something under my head?”  The chaplain did so, and again repeated his question.  “No,” said the soldier, “I'm cold.  Could you cover me up?”  The chaplain took off his inside coat and wrapped the soldier.  Afraid to ask, he did not repeat his question.  He began to walk away but the soldier called him back.  “Look, Chaplain, if there's anything in that book of yours that makes a person do for another what you've done for me, then I want to hear it.”[vi]

            There’s plenty in the book of Jonah to remind us of how much God loves and cares for us, and how much we should love and care for each other. You can always depend on Him to care about you. Can He depend on you to care about others?  

            At Bayside Baptist, Sandra Alexander, the pastor’s wife, asked her Sunday school class, “What do we learn from the story of Jonah and the whale?” Ten-year-old Samantha volunteered: “People make whales sick.”[vii]

     There’s a lot more to learn from this little book. I want to encourage you tonight to read through the book of Jonah several times in the next few weeks, and let God speak to your heart, and encourage you to:

·         Hear God’s call on your life, and do something about it.

·         Remember God is in control but you must make good choices.

·         Be comforted by God’s compassion, and then be willing to be compassionate to others.

Eph 3:20-21 20Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 21to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


[i] Pat Apel, Hazlehurst, Mississippi.  Christian Reader, "Kids of the Kingdom."                          

[ii] Holman Bible Handbook, p. 478

[iii] Stacy Penalva, Indianapolis, IN. Today's Christian Woman, "Heart to Heart."

[iv]Swindoll, C. R. (2000, c1998). The tale of the tardy oxcart and 1501 other stories (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; Swindoll leadership

[v] in Revelation. Leadership, Vol. 1, no. 2.

[vi] Carlos Wilton, via PresbyNet, “Sermonshop 04 17 1994,” #5, 4/12/94

[vii]Streiker, L. D. (2000). Nelson's big book of laughter : Thousands of smiles from A to Z (electronic ed.) (Page 34). Nashville: Thomas Nelson

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