It seems that, in any of the studies that you see about this book of the Bible, the focus is always on the "big fish". In reality, the "big fish" is a small part of the account of the story and the fish was merely a tool that God used.
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The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 'Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.'
Many have tried to write this book of the Bible off as fiction but we are given a very real name in this first verse. He is also mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 where we are told that he was not just an ordinary man but a prophet. Nineveh was the capitol city of the Assyrian Empire at this time and the Ninevites were known to be brutal. Their reputation for brutality even caused entire towns to commit suicide rather than to fall into their hands. The site of Nineveh is Northern Iraq near the modern city of Mosul. We see in this passage that they were in fact so wicked that God took special notice of them and told Jonah to go and preach against them.
But 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.
We may think that he was scared to go to Nineveh and to speak against them. They were known for their cruelty and it would have been natural to be scared but that is not the reason that he chose to disobey God. The real reason is that he did not think they deserved salvation and was afraid that they would repent and God would forgive them. He hated them for their cruelty but another reason is that God had never sent a prophet to the nations that surrounded Israel. This was not something that was normal for a prophet to do because, until this point, the prophets were for the nation of Israel. The Ninevites were the first Gentiles (non-Jews) that God sent the message of repentance and forgiveness to and, even in the days that Jesus walked the earth, that was a hard thing for the Jews to accept. Instead of obeying the Lord, Jonah was fleeing to Tarshish. That was just about as far away from Nineveh as you could go as it was clear on the other side of the sea. We can see a very valuable lesson in that Jonah was called to go to his enemy and tell them how they could be saved from God's wrath. Jesus was sent here for us (His enemy) to tell us how we could be saved. Who do we consider to be our enemy and is God calling us to go to them and tell them of salvation? We also see a very good example of God allowing us to use our "free will" which was a gift from God. He could have stopped Jonah from paying the fare, getting the ticket, and boarding the ship but God let him go and learn the hard way.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
Jonah is happy and confident in his decision to disobey God and run away to Tarshish. While God sent a very bad storm to shake things up, he was below deck sleeping soundly. The rest of the ship was in a panic and even throwing away their cargo which would have meant they were not going to get much of a paycheck at the end of the journey. These were sailors used to storms on the seas and they knew that this was not your ordinary storm or they would not have been in a panic. There is a very good lesson for us today in this passage. We often judge whether we are "in the will of God" by how comfortable our current conditions are instead of by God's Word. The prophet was comfortable, in fact he was so comfortable that he could sleep through this massive storm but we know by the first three verses that he was definitely not in the "will of God".
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, and we will not perish.'
In the midst of his sleep, God sent the captain of the ship to get the reluctant prophet's attention. The captain and crew are trying everything to stay alive and yet the passenger is asleep. The captain asked Jonah to pray but it is hard to imagine that he felt like praying at this time. Although the prophet will pray later, at this time he does not as he already knows the will of God because he is running from it. You see, disobedience brings distance in that, when we are disobeying God, we tend to get further and further away from Him. Until we repent and choose to get back into His will, we probably do not want to pray and seek His face. The good news is that God is always there waiting for us to come back to Him! We can pray (even in our disobedience) but keep in mind that the first thing God wants to hear in that situation is repentance.
Then the sailors said to each other, 'Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity." They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
The sailors are still trying to find out what is going on and so resort to casting lots. This is a superstitious thing in this case even though God had provided for a similar way of making decisions for the Israelites (see Exodus 28:30). These sailors were not Israelites but even they knew that a god would control the lot (they just did not know the one true God). So, they cast the lot and it fell to Jonah. You see God is in control of everything and this can serve to remind us of that fact.
So they asked him, 'Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?' He answered, 'I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.' This terrified them and they asked, 'What have you done?' (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
Now that they know which man has caused the chaos to be on them, the sailors start to ask questions of Jonah. When he explained that he worshiped the Creator of everything including the sea, they were terrified as they were witnessing the power of God. They could see that God was not so happy with him so they asked him what he had done. God corrects His children and the sailors understood that this storm was because of his disobedience. God does not want us to sin (be out of His will) but he loves us enough to allow the storms to get our attention back to Him.
The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, 'What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?' 'Pick me up and throw me into the sea,' he replied, 'and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.' Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.
God turned up the heat by increasing the storm. Now that the sailors know the source of the problem, they ask for a solution. When they heard the answer, they did not like God's plan and so chose to try something else (rowing back to land). So, God had to turn up the heat and make it even worse for them. We may look at the sailors and say how foolish they were but don't we act in much the same way? God has revealed His plan to save men yet all too many choose to try and find their own way. So, God may turn up the heat. The same is true for those who have accepted His plan of salvation and are now called His children. We still may not like the plan He has for our lives in Christ and may not want to obey and do what He tells us. Once again, God may turn up the heat but we must remember that God does it for our own good and He sees the whole picture while most of the time we only see pieces.
Then they cried to the Lord, 'O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.'
An awesome thing came out of this storm and that is described in this verse. The sailors "cried out to the Lord" instead of crying out to their own god as in verse 4. They admit that there is only one God and that He is in control even of the storm.
Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
Even though the sailors did not understand everything about God, they obeyed and threw Jonah overboard. Then, God showed up and calmed the storm. We see that then the sailors grew in their faith and knowledge as they "greatly feared the Lord". Then, they served Him with a sacrifice and vows. This very same pattern is true for those who come to Christ today. We don't have to understand everything to begin our walk with the Lord we just have to agree that God's way is the right way. When we obey, God will take care of the rest and we will grow in our faith and knowledge. With that faith and knowledge will come a love that draws us to serve Him more and more.
But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
What a picture of faith and deliverance! You see, when Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, he did not know that God would provide the big fish. This is and was such a wonderful picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and can remind us that it was God's plan all along. Jesus himself told the people who were looking for a sign that they would not get any except for "the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matthew 12:38 - 40).