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Jonah: A Virtual Tour

Tom Pennington • Selected Scriptures

  • 2006-06-04 AM
  • Sermons


We spend most Sunday mornings buried in the details of a text of Scripture and that's good. But this morning and tonight, I want us to rise above the trees a bit so we can see the forest. I want us to look at two Old Testament books not under a microscope as we normally do, but instead from thirty thousand feet. In one brief flyover, I want us to try to really gain an understanding of the big picture of two Old Testament books. In today's terminology, I want to take you this morning and tonight on a virtual tour. Tonight, we'll look at the prophet Isaiah. Now I know some of you are thinking, "That's impossible. He can't possibly cover the book of Isaiah in one message." And if that happens, you'll be tempted to say, "Who are you and what did you do with our pastor?" But we're going to do it tonight. Trust me. I've done it before, and we'll do it again this evening.

But this morning, I want us to turn to the book of Jonah. Jonah is a fascinating book. In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah is grouped with eleven other prophets called Minor Prophets. Now you've probably heard that designation before. It's not that some of the prophets are important and therefore they're called Major Prophets and others of them are not as important and they're called Minor. Instead, those designations have to do with the length of the books. Those that were long enough to require their own scroll – Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah – are called the Major Prophets. And the twelve (small enough to be included together on one scroll) are the Minor Prophets, and Jonah is one of those prophets, not less important because there's less room given to his words.

Jonah's prophecy is particularly unusual because there are only five words of proclamation in his entire book, and the rest of the book is all biographical. Most unusual book because of the miracles that are recorded here as well; in fact, this book has from the very beginning had its critics. Augustine wrote that in the fifth century when he read the account of the great fish swallowing Jonah, there was a stir of laughter that trickled across his congregation. The critics don't restrain their laughter quite as much. Theirs is a whole-hearted ridicule of this great book. They say, "It must not be true, it cannot be true. The events described there are too fantastic."

But in fact, this book is real history. It was written as history. It has been accepted in the history of both the Jewish faith as well as in Christianity as history. But the key for us is that our Lord Jesus Christ regards both Jonah as a historical person and this event that's recorded for us in these pages as an historical event. He mentions it in just that frame of reference in Matthew 12:39 and following. So, if you believe the Lord Jesus Christ, if you believe His integrity, then you must accept Jonah as a historical figure and the events described here as the historical record of what God in fact did through this man.

The author of the book is almost certainly Jonah himself. It's not uncommon for Old Testament writers to refer to themselves in the third person. In fact, even in the New Testament, when you come to John's gospel, John throughout refers to himself as the apostle whom Jesus loved. So, this was a common way for writers of that time to refer to themselves and here, Jonah does in the third person.

Now when you think of the book of Jonah and the flow of the story, think of it as a single story told for a single purpose, but an account that moves in four separate scenes. Like all great storytellers, and make no mistake, Jonah is a great storyteller and this book has been appreciated even for its literary quality. He moves us along through the account and driving to his point through four separate scenes. The first scene is essentially chapter 1. We'll call that scene "Fleeing from God". Scene two is chapter 2, "Repenting toward God", scene three, "Preaching for God" and scene four, "Learning about God" in chapter 4.

So, let's take it scene by scene. The book opens with scene one, "Fleeing from God". Verse 1 of Jonah 1, "The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying...." Jonah's name simply means "dove". It doesn't seem to have any great significance to the meaning of the book. Jonah was a citizen of the northern kingdom, the northern ten tribes. He was from the little town of Gath-hepher, just north of Nazareth where our Lord grew up in Galilee. That makes Jonah, by the way, the only prophet from Galilee until our Lord. Jonah was a prophet to Israel according to 2 Kings 14:25. He prophesied to the people of God. In fact, he ministered at the same time as several other Old Testament prophets. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah all shared his lifespan.

But Jonah's only recorded message was not to his own people. The only message that we have recorded from the pen of the prophet Jonah was to Nineveh, to Assyria. And you see why in verse 2: "The word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it.'" Nineveh the great – the city of Nineveh was about five hundred miles from Gath-hepher where Jonah grew up. It was built by Nimrod. It was one of the largest ancient cities; in fact, it was probably the largest of its day. Classical writers tell us that it was built in the shape of a trapezoid. It had massive double walls that reached between fifty and a hundred feet high. And across those walls, three chariots could ride abreast. The circumference of the walls that encompassed the city, the circumference was eight miles around. And the entire city was surrounded by a moat that was a hundred and fifty feet wide and sixty feet deep.

It was always a major city in Assyria's history. It was the site of the royal palace which has been unearthed and there discovered seventy-one rooms in that royal palace. And it later became the capital of Assyria. A conservative estimate given by reputable sources is that the city of Nineveh had a population of around six hundred thousand at this time. And if you take in the surrounding area (it was really comprised of an area of four additional cities) if you take in that entire area, historians have estimated that there were up to a million people in and around Nineveh.

That great city, God says. "Arise, go to Nineveh … and cry against it (verse 2), for their wickedness has come up before Me." In words reminiscent of that preincarnate appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ in Genesis 18 when He speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah, that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah had risen up into the presence of God, the same language is used here. "Their wickedness has come up before Me." It's as if the wickedness of the city rose as a stench in the nose of God.

What were the sins of Nineveh? Well, they're recorded for us both by Jonah as well as by Nahum. Nahum was a prophet that prophesied against Nineveh some one hundred years after Jonah. Listen to the sins of this great city. First of all, there was violence. In Jonah 3:8, when the people are calling on each other to repent, they say: "may we turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands." This was a particularly cruel culture. In fact, in Nahum 3:1 it's described as bloodthirsty. The Assyrians, the historical records tell us, made pyramids of human heads. They sacrificed the sons and daughters of their enemies. They burned cities to the ground. They impaled living human beings by the thousands on stakes. They cut off the hands of the kings they captured, and they nailed their bodies to the wall leaving them to rot. They flayed their skin and put it on pillars at the entrances to their cities.

Listen to the historical record of one Assyrian king and how he dealt with his enemies: "The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city. I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes around the pillar." This was a violent, cruel, bloodthirsty culture.

They also, in their leadership, plotted against God, so says Nahum 1:11. They were antagonistic to God. They were full of lies, Nahum 3:1 says. They used falsehood and treachery to subdue their enemies. And as a culture, they were absolutely given over to dishonesty. There was pillage, Nahum 3:1 says. Nineveh filled her cities with the goods of other nations. And Nahum 3:4 says that this great city and this culture was filled with both spiritual and moral adultery, given over to sexual sin. That was the culture into which God called the prophet to go.

Their wickedness has come up unto Me. Verse 3, Jonah's response, "But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So, he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord." This Tarshish is probably a city in southwest Spain near Gibraltar according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. It was a Phoenician mining colony known for its wealth, but that wasn't the reason Jonah was going there. The reason Jonah was going there is that it was the opposite direction from Nineveh, and it was as far in the Mediterranean world as you could get from where God wanted him to be. He goes to Joppa, a port city near modern Tel Aviv, to catch a ship.

The question that comes to my mind and should come to yours is why. Why did Jonah run? Well, there have been many suggestions proposed, some of them helpful, some of them not. But you don't need to speculate because Jonah tells us exactly why. Turn to 4:2. He says, middle of the verse: "Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish (what is it he wanted to forestall?), I knew that You are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity." Listen, Jonah tells us exactly why he ran. He did not want God to forgive the Ninevites.

It's unthinkable really when you think about a prophet of God not wanting God to show mercy and grace to these people. Why? Well, there are several possible reasons for not wanting God to forgive the Ninevites. One may have been that he was just inherently prejudiced against Gentiles. Some later Jewish people were. It may be that he was disgusted by the revulsive and repulsive character of the Assyrians. It may have been that he knew, through Hosea's prophecy, that this would be God's tool to destroy his homeland, the northern ten tribes. In fact, just fifty years after Jonah ends up preaching in Nineveh, the Assyrians come down and destroy, in 722 they destroy Jonah's homeland, and it's never the same. They carry off the people captive.

But I think there's another reason as well. Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented and Israel didn't, it would provide a terrible indictment against the nation of Israel. If a bunch of pagan idol worshippers responded to the prophet and yet God's people did not, what an indictment that would be. And by the way, that's exactly how Christ used Jonah. Listen to what He says in Matthew 12:41, "The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." So Jonah, filled with anger that God would use these people to destroy his own people, that He would use them as an indictment against his own people and yet show them mercy, runs, and he gets on a ship.

Verse 4, the Lord, and I love the picturesque nature of the Hebrew language, "The Lord hurled a great wind across the Mediterranean." So great was this storm that the Hebrew, again in very picturesque language, says literally "the ship supposed it was about to break up." It personifies the ship itself and the ship is realizing that it can't bear much more. This is no ordinary storm. Verse 5 says that even the seasoned sailors were afraid. They prayed to their gods and they lightened the ship to keep the waves from inundating it.

Jonah, on the other hand, is asleep. How could the prophet sleep in such an environment? Well, remember that Jonah is angry with his God and he's depressed about the circumstances in which he finds himself. And so, like many of us when we find ourselves discouraged, we want nothing but sleep, and that's the only thing that seems to help. He finds himself asleep. Verse 6, the captain awakens him and urges him to join them in prayer.

In verse 7 the sailors come to a very interesting conclusion. They conclude that somebody onboard must have done something awfully offensive to one of the gods. And so, they cast lots, a common procedure in the Old Testament and the ancient Near East, one that, before the completion of Revelation, God sometimes used, and He does here because we're told by His providence the lot falls on Jonah. So, verse 8, they begin to ask questions to determine exactly what this man has done to put them all in such terrible jeopardy. "They said to him (verse 8), 'Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?'" In verse 9, Jonah responds. "He said to them, 'I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord'" - that is, I believe in or I worship Yahweh.

Notice the word "LORD" in all caps. This is the most common reference for the name of God in the Old Testament. Whenever you see that word in English in all caps in your Bible, understand that that's the translator's way of telling you that that is God's personal name. That is a translation or really more it simply stands in the place of God's personal name. You remember in Exodus 3 when Moses says, "Who are you and who shall I say has sent me?" God says, "Tell them 'I am.'" That's God's personal name. But when we speak of God, we don't say "I am". That's only correct for God to say. We say "He is". That's the word Yahweh, four Hebrew consonants - Y, H, W, H. The best we know the vowels it's something like Yahweh, and it means "He is". So, Jonah here says, "I fear Yahweh", the eternal "He is", the eternally existent One.

And then he finishes by saying He's "the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land." Now when he mentions that Yahweh made the sea, undoubtedly the sailors now think they're getting somewhere because obviously this storm on the sea has some connection to this man who has somehow upset the God who made the sea. In verse 10, in their mind as sailors, the deity who controls the sea is the greatest one, and so they're terrified that someone has offended the most powerful deity and the one who controls their future prosperity as sailors and, at that very moment, their lives.

Now don't miss the irony in verse 10 that these pagan men are shocked that Jonah would be fleeing from the God who made the land and the sea. Where can you go from His presence in the words of the psalm? Or where can you flee from Him? But their only question is what can we do. Verse 11, "How can we appease Him?" - because it says, "the sea was becoming increasingly stormy."

Notice Jonah's solution in verse 12, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea." Now think about that response for a moment. Jonah undoubtedly knew that his repentance would accomplish exactly the same thing, but he would rather die than see Nineveh saved. He would rather lose his life. "I've tried to run from Him," he says. "I can't run from Him and so if I have to choose between going to Nineveh and doing what He told me to do and dying, just throw me over and let me die."

Verse 13, "However, the men rowed desperately (literally, the Hebrew says they dug their oars) to return to land but they could not." You know, here is an interesting contrast. Jonah is willing, listen carefully. Jonah is willing to risk his life to ensure that Nineveh be destroyed, and these pagan sailors are willing to risk their lives in order to save the sinning prophet.

In verse 14, we read these fascinating words: "Then they (that is, the pagan sailors) called on Yahweh (on 'He is') and they said, 'We earnestly pray, O Yahweh, do not let us perish on account of this man's life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Yahweh, have done as You have pleased.'" This is fascinating. They pray to Yahweh, and they recognize His sovereignty – "You have done as You pleased." Their request is simply don't hold us guilty for taking his life. Listen, God always spares the penitent sinner who prays and cries out to Him. And the sailors provide us with the first glimpse of that truth, but it won't be the last in this great book.

Verse 15, they toss him into the Mediterranean, and the storm stops, and the sea becomes calm. Verse 16, "Then the men feared Yahweh greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and they made vows." Now we can't be absolutely certain that these men renounced their other gods. It was common in that day to just add deities to your collection. But I think it's likely, and in fact I believe the evidence here is persuasive, that they did genuinely repent. You see, most false conversions are vows made during the storm, and when the storm passes, they're quickly forgotten. But these men make their vows after the storm has passed. I believe we'll meet these men in heaven, and they serve as a sort of foretaste, a precursor of what's coming with the Ninevites. That's the end of the first scene, and the curtain drops.

The second scene in Jonah's plot occurs completely within the stomach of a huge fish. Scene two let's call "Repenting toward God". It begins in verse 17 of chapter 1, God's answer to the prayer of those sailors God appointed. This doesn't mean, by the way, that God specially created at that moment. It simply means God gave one fish in the Mediterranean a special message and a special mission. Perhaps that fish was floating around the Mediterranean wondering philosophically about its life: "Why am I here in this great ocean? What's the point of my existence?" God said, "Here's your mission."

He appointed a large fish. By the way, it doesn't say it was a whale. We really don't know what kind of fish it was. There are large fish that are capable of doing this, but it simply says a large fish. Now immediately, some choke over this account. They say that Jonah survived, that really what's being said here is that Jonah survived not by being carried inside the belly of a live breathing fish, mammal, in the case of a whale. But rather, what happened was when he was dumped overboard, he found himself floating on and clinging to a dead fish's carcass, and that's what got him to land. And when he arrived at dry land, then he was safe. Or others say, "No, Jonah was rescued by a boat with a whale painted on the side of it or with a large fish carved on the bow." Still others want to make this account a dream or an allegory. Listen, you know it's amazing how the stories that those who are against the Scripture concoct require much more faith than simply believing that God did what's recorded here.

There are fish large enough to swallow a man, and there have been a few occurrences in history of that very thing. But the bottom line is, listen carefully. This is intended to be a miracle, God intervening. God specially appointed a great fish to be there when the men threw Jonah overboard. And if you believe that there is a sovereign, all-powerful God who is involved in His creation, then this is no problem for God.

We're told in verse 17 that Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. In Hebrew reckoning, a part of a day was counted as a day. So, probably what's being said here is he spent a part of the first day in the belly of the fish, a night, a full day, another night, and then a part of a third day. In that way, it would be very much a type as it's used in Matthew's gospel of Christ's burial, three days and three nights.

When we come to 2:1-9, we come face to face with Jonah's prayer. Jonah is alive and conscious though he may not realize the full extent of his situation. But in his prayer, we see an illustration of his knowledge of Scripture. It is literally permeated with little fragments from the Psalms. And by the way, that's the purpose of the Psalms, to serve as a pattern and a help in expressing ourselves to God. But if you happen to find yourself like Jonah in the belly of a fish without your Bible, it's important that you've committed the Word of God to memory. And that's true in the events we likely encounter as well. It's intended, the Psalms are, as a way for us to express ourselves to God, and that's exactly what Jonah does.

In verse 2, it says, "I called out of my distress to the (to the) Lord, and He answered me." You know, that's such a common experience, isn't it? I thought as I read that of Psalm 107 where over and over again we're told that men find themselves in the midst of calamities, often of their own making. And when they recognize that and they cry out to God, He hears them, and He responds. I thought also of Manasseh, that terribly wicked king who finds himself brought low in Babylon and 2 Chronicles 33:12 and 13 tell us that then he cried out to God, he humbled himself. And even that grossly wicked man God heard.

Verse 2 says, "I cried from the depth of Sheol." That doesn't mean, by the way, that Jonah died. It was simply a near death experience. And in verses 3 - 6, you see why because you there have a description of his watery ordeal.

But in verse 8, you come to the powerful lesson. Here he gets to the moral. Here he gets to the point of his prayer. "Those who regard vain idols.…" - the word "vain idols", the Hebrew words literally mean "empty vanities", those who regard empty vanities). John Calvin said, "Empty vanities are all the inventions with which men deceive themselves." Empty vanities - all of the inventions which, with which men deceive themselves. Notice how Jonah puts it: "Those who cleave to empty vanities forsake their faithfulness" (or literally, forsake, and it uses the Hebrew word "chesed". It means unfailing love or steadfast love). It's a strange expression, but it refers to God Himself. Here God is described as our "chesed', our unfailing love - as the source, the only source of all the mercies and benefits that even the sinner receives. And the sinner turns from His unfailing love, from God Himself, to empty vanities.

Verse 9, "I will offer a thank offering (Jonah says) and I will pay my vows." Probably one of those vows was going to Nineveh. But what I don't want you to miss is how Jonah ends his prayer. Jonah's prayer from the belly of the fish concludes with this monumental confession: "Salvation is from Yahweh." In other words, all deliverance, whether physical or spiritual, comes only from our God who eternally is. There's no clearer expression of God's sovereignty in salvation or of God's love for all of mankind than those words. Deliverance is of Yahweh. We'll come back to that theme a little later. In verse 10 God gives the fish a dose of divine stomach flu, and he vomits Jonah out onto the dry land, probably near Joppa where Jonah had boarded the boat originally.

Now that brings us to the third scene in this great drama which occurs in Nineveh itself. The third scene let's call "Preaching for God", Preaching for God. It's 3:1, "Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time (here's his second commissioning), saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.' So, Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord (this time, of course, he obeys).

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk." That refers not to the walled city itself, but to greater Nineveh, to the metroplex if you will, which included four cities, Genesis 10 tells us, with a circumference of about sixty miles or three days' walk.

The Ninevites, by the way, worshipped primarily Dagon, the fish god – part man and part fish. They were idolaters of the highest order. And Jonah's message to them was simple. Verse 4, "Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk, and he cried out and said, 'Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.'" The word "overthrown" is the same Hebrew word that's used of Sodom and Gomorrah. It means to completely destroy. God was threatening to turn Nineveh upside down, to destroy it to its very foundations. That was the message. It was a message of a coming, impending judgment. How do the people respond? Verse 5,

Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast, and they put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes (an indication of his remorse and regret, of his humiliation). He issued a proclamation and it said, "In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish."

You see, the people of Nineveh understood that God was giving them a chance. That was the purpose of the warning. Otherwise, why give them forty days' notice? So, one day into Jonah's ministry, word begins to spread across that great metroplex, and the people believe God and repent. And by the way, they genuinely did repent. Jesus, our Lord, says in Matthew 12:41: "the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah."

Undoubtedly, what Jonah and our Lord want us to know is that the vast majority of the people that made up that great city were truly repentant. That means somewhere between six hundred thousand and a million Assyrians repented and embraced the true God. What a miracle! How could that happen? Well, perhaps reports of Jonah's fish experience preceded him. Or maybe as some have written, the acid from the fish's stomach may have bleached Jonah's face, further adding to the solemnity of his message. Or maybe the people responded was the fact that God, through a number of contemporary events, had prepared their hearts.

Secular history tells us that before Jonah's preaching there, they had experienced a couple of plagues in the city and even a total eclipse of the sun. God could have used one or all of those means. But listen, don't miss the big point. Through a miraculous work of God's grace, the city of Nineveh repents. We don't know what means God used, but in the end, it was an expression of His great saving love.

In verse 10, God responds in mercy to their repentance: "When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it." We understand the nature of God. God doesn't change. But God does change His preannounced plans based on man's response to Him, and that's exactly what happens here.

Now that ends the third scene and brings us to the final scene, scene four, which occurs just outside the city of Nineveh between Jonah and his God, and this is key. Chapter 4 we could call "Learning about God" because this chapter brings us to the lesson of the story. Verse 1,

But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry [angry, why? Verse 2]. He prayed to the Lord [now to Jonah's credit, when he found himself angry with God, he didn't, he didn't hold himself away from God. He talks to God, and he prays to the Lord and he says], "Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this [that is, this massive repentance and forgiveness] I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity [I knew that]. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life."

Jonah here quotes God's self-revelation from Exodus 34:6 and 7. Jonah wanted God to judge Nineveh, not to forgive her. Although Jonah had repented and received God's mercy, he wasn't willing for Nineveh to have it. And so, in verse 3, his anger at God for his circumstances caused him to despair even of his life. And by the way, the same is true today of some who consider suicide. They are angry at God because of their circumstances. Life has not turned out, as they consider it, to be fair.

Notice God's patience as He sets out to teach Jonah a lesson. Verse 4, … "Do you have [Jonah] good reason to be angry?" In verse 5, Jonah builds this inadequate shelter, and he waits to see what's going to happen. You see, Jonah didn't know the depth or the reality of Nineveh's repentance nor did he know if God would relent what He had promised. And so, he seems ever hopeful that perhaps the city will still get what it deserves, and he sits and waits.

Verse 6, as Jonah waits, God provides an object lesson. "So the Lord God appointed [there's our word again just as He had appointed a great fish, He appointed] a plant" [a vine literally, probably a reference to the castor oil plant. It grows fast, has large leaves, grows to about twelve feet. And Jonah, we're told, was very happy about the plant.] "… it grew up over Jonah [verse 6] to be a shade over his head and to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about … [it]."

Verse 7, God sends a worm. "… [the Lord] appointed [again, the Lord appoints] a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered." [Once the plant had grown to full flower and full size where it was a help to Jonah, in a single day, God sends a worm and it's destroyed.]

And verse 8, "When the sun came up God appointed [there it is again] a scorching east wind [a sirocco off the Arabian Desert], and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, 'Death is better to me than life.'"

Now there are powerful lessons behind these verses about God. We learn from this short story in God appointing these things that God is behind our comforts just as He was behind that castor oil plant to relieve Jonah's discomfort. God is also behind our reversals. God appointed the worm that destroyed that plant. And God is even behind our most severe trials. He brought the sun and the sirocco.

Verse 9, God again questions Jonah about his anger, now about this dead castor oil plant. Now look at verse 10. "Then the Lord said [here comes the point], 'You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight.'"

This is God's point. "Jonah, think about it. You became attached to this plant because it served you and gratified your desires, a plant on which you expended no thought, no labor, no care, no watering, no planting, no pruning. It was a valueless, temporary plant. Shouldn't I [God says to Jonah] show love and mercy to My creatures, those I made, that I nurture, that I feed, I provide for, I preserve, those I made in My image and who are not temporary but are eternal?"

Verse 11, "Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand [or children], as well as many animals?" [You know, that's a fascinating line. It shows God's amazing love for all of His creatures, for children, for adults and even for animals. God expresses His compassion, His saving love. This book has been called the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.]

So, what's the point? What are the lessons God wants to teach us? Well, first of all, one lesson that's here is don't allow yourself to foster and promote prejudice toward other nations or races. All men are made in God's image and are loved by Him.

Secondly, don't limit the scope of God's mercy. Let me ask you a question. Is there anyone whom you secretly wish God would not show mercy? Maybe it's someone who harmed you, a criminal who hurt you or your family or a family member, perhaps an abusive parent, perhaps a rebellious child or a vindictive spouse or former spouse, somebody who cheated you. Is there somebody you really wish God would withhold His mercy from? Are there groups of people that you see as too despicable for God to reach out to? Maybe it's abortionists or homosexuals or terrorists, or you fill in the blank. Don't limit the reach of the mercy of our God.

There's a third lesson. Don't neglect your mission to share the gospel with others, to tell others that God forgives sins and sinners. Israel was called to be God's witness nation, and it failed miserably. They learned to despise the Gentiles, to desire God's wrath upon them. And because of that, they were forcibly spread across the world. In the same way, we as the church are called to be God's witness nation, God's witness people. That's why you're still here. Everything else that you do you can do better in heaven than here. The reason you and I are still here is the one thing we cannot do in heaven is spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Those, by the way, are all valid applications of this book. But the key lesson in this book is not about Jonah and it's not about the Ninevites and it's not about us. The lesson God most wants us to learn is about Him and His unchanging character, that God is sovereign in salvation. Remember 2:10? Jonah realized it in the belly of the fish, "Salvation is of Yahweh." God saves. The Ninevites were in a hopeless condition. They were idolatrous pagans headed for eternity with no one to warn them. But God forces, literally forces, a prophet to come against his will and to proclaim the name of Yahweh as God, as Creator and as Judge. And God uses that message to save an entire city.

Don't miss the point here. A hundred years later, God calls Nahum to declare the destruction of Nineveh. And instead of saving that generation, He destroys them all, wipes them from the face of the earth. You see, the message God is sending to all who read this book is that, like with Nineveh, He is our Creator and our Judge and someday our Executioner. He has set a day. It may be four days for you. It may be forty days, or it may be forty years when His just sentence will fall. Your only hope is to cry out like the Ninevites for God to relent and to withdraw His burning anger that your sins and mine deserve.

But there's great hope. There's great hope because in this great book, God declares Himself to be by nature a compassionate God and a Savior, a rescuer. And with the entire ancient city of Nineveh filled with evil, violent people, God proved beyond all doubt that no matter what your offenses are against Him as you sit here today, that if you will cry out to Him, if you will be willing to turn from your sins and to manifest repentance toward God and faith in His only Son, He will show compassion, and He will be to you a Savior. He will deliver you just as He delivered six hundred thousand Assyrians from their sins.

Christ cites the story of Jonah in Matthew 12, and He makes this interesting parallel. He says, "Jonah is a type of Me." He says, "Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth [speaking of course of His burial, His death and burial]." His point was this. The people of Nineveh listened to Jonah after his three days in the fish. "You had better listen to Me [Christ said] after My resurrection because I will, by My resurrection, prove who I am."

You're faced with a choice today. Are you going to repent, to turn from your wicked ways, and embrace Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the type of which Jonah was, or are you going to face God's burning wrath? That's the point of this great book. "Salvation is of Yahweh."

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for this magnificent story. We thank You that Jonah finally learned and that under the inspiration of Your Spirit, he wrote this for our instruction upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

Father, help us to learn as well. I pray, Lord, that You would burn within our hearts those of us who know You, that You are sovereign in salvation and that for reasons we will never know, You have set Your love upon us just as You set it upon those Ninevites, that generation, to send them a prophet even against his will to rescue them, to deliver them. Father, how can we ever thank You for doing the same for us? Father, I pray that You would help us to be messengers who are willing to take the good news of life in Jesus Christ for those who will repent and believe.

And Father, my heart goes out today to people who I know are here who maybe say they fear You, who maybe say they embrace You, and yet they are as much idol worshippers as the Ninevites were. Lord, they worship themselves. They worship pleasure and comfort and ease or sex or something besides You. God, I pray that You would be a Savior to them today, that You would do Your sovereign work in their hearts to produce genuine repentance and faith.

We pray it for the glory of Your great name and Your Son who makes Your salvation possible. Amen.