What Have You Done?
Key Verse 1:16
“At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.”
This is a short book, four chapters in all that probably contain more wisdom and insight than we can possibly hope to learn in the lessons we will cover. Clearly the book of Jonah is more than a story about the man who survived in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights. Like every other book of the Bible, it carries a message from God for his chosen people. And the message almost always has something to do with God’s comprehensive plan for world salvation. And God’s message almost always seems to relate to his chosen people the urgency in fulfilling it. Generations later, our Lord Jesus himself brought the message of Jonah to light when he said these words to the people of his own generation: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!” Jesus said! “But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus then continued saying: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:39-41) Jesus’ words seem to tell us that “Jonah” is a sign to every generation— a sign that God is ready to go to any length to rescue a people from his fierce judgment if they would only repent and believe. Jesus’ words seem to tell us that Jonah’s ordeal was a prelude to the gospel of our Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection and God’s saving grace— not only for Jews but for Gentiles as well— in fact for all who repent and turn their hearts to God in faith. This is the foremost message of the book of Jonah.
To summarize what I just said: If a people would only humble themselves and repent, and put their faith in the Son of God, regardless of who they are, regardless of what they had done, or how wicked their sins may be, God would forgive them and avert his judgment from them. That is the message. God’s judgment is inevitable. (John 3:16-18) But his compassion is also immeasurable, and he longs to rescue those who would otherwise perish in their sins.
While the book of Jonah has a clear overall message, it also offers many spiritual lessons we can learn from. Every chapter is a wealth of wisdom and insight into God’s heart and mind— the scope of his love and compassion even for the most wretched and unworthy people in this world. It shows us how God works— even when his servants fail. It shows God’s relentless faithfulness in helping one person grow up in his understanding of God’s purpose in this world. The book also offers insight into this man Jonah’s spiritual journey in life— his character— his weaknesses and strengths. We cannot begin to imagine how much there is to see and to learn from this small book.
Without any introductions, it begins abruptly with these words: “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.’” (1) The prophet Jonah is mentioned in the Book of 2 Kings 14:25. He served God during the reign of king Jeroboam II, king of Israel from 793 to 753 B.C. Nineveh, located some 500 miles northeast of Israel, was a famous city. It would soon— 50 years at the most— become the capital of the great Assyrian empire. When the Lord spoke to Jonah about the city, he said it was wicked. What did he mean? Jonah doesn’t tell us about its wickedness. But other prophets at the time did. The prophet Nahum tells us several things about these people. They were guilty of evil plots against God (Nahum 1:9). They exploited the helpless (2:12). They were cruel, even brutal in war (2:12). They were idol worshipers. They practiced open prostitution and witchcraft was common (3:4). These were just some of the things that made them wicked before God. Needless to say God declared a message of judgment against them. And he called Jonah to deliver it. Which is where our story takes a very interesting turn.
This is where Jonah short of says “no”. Read verse 3. “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.” Many questions come to our mind when we think about this man who heard the voice of the Lord say to him: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it”, but who “ran away from the Lord and headed” in the opposite direction. Is this the way for a prophet of the Lord to behave? What is wrong with him? How could he so blatantly run away from the Lord? Doesn’t he know better? A more serious question would be, why didn’t God just choose another prophet to take his place? And this— is what’s at the heart of this chapter. It shows us what lies at the heart of the servant of God! And what lies at the heart of God! In other words, it shows us what Jonah was really like at heart! Actually what we are all like at heart— because in a sense we are all like Jonah— rebellious, willful and defiant to the will of God. And this is what God is like at heart— for God doesn’t cast us aside for someone else. He helps us until we can say “yes”.
Verse 3 tells us that no sooner did Jonah get the call to go to Nineveh to preach God’s message of judgment to this wicked city, than he headed to the port city of Joppa on the coast of Israel, bought a ticket on a ship bound for Tarshish, and sailed for it. But why did he do that? There are several reasons why Jonah ran away from the Lord. We should know that what God asked of Jonah— the mission he gave him— was extremely difficult, almost impossible— and on many levels. It would have been much easier for Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh from where he was— that is, from within Israel— like most prophets were asked to do— to prophesy against the nations. But God had asked him to go to Nineveh to prophesy against the city there in the heart of that city. On another level, what God asked Jonah to do must have also seemed very strange. God had never before asked prophets to go out as missionaries to other nations to deliver his message. God’s method in the Old Testament was opposite to his method in the New Testament. The nation of Israel was central to the world back then— a meeting place for all continents. God had his people build a temple to worship him in the heart of the nation as a witness to God whom they worshiped and served. Their witness was to a world that was looking in on them. The invitation was invariably: “Come let us go up to the house of the Lord and worship him.” Even the queen of Sheba heard of the God of Israel and came to learn the wisdom and knowledge of God from Solomon. We know that on the day of Pentecost, when the believers were baptized by the Holy Spirit, there were countless nations who had come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord God at his temple. Israel was called to be a light to the Gentiles— but not as missionaries to the nations. This was the first time the Lord God had asked a prophet to go out as a messenger to a godless nation to proclaim the word of the Lord to them. Jonah must have been baffled by God’s command. It must have unhinged him. It must have frightened him. Had Jonah prayed, God’s peace and assurance could have settled his heart— for God never ever gives a mission to his servant without equipping him with what it takes to fulfill it. But there is no evidence that Jonah prayed when he received his call to go and preach to the Ninevites.
But most of all, Jonah fled from the Lord because he didn’t think in his heart that these people deserved to live. He didn’t think that they deserved God’s mercy. He didn’t think that they were worth saving. He fled from the Lord because he thought that they deserved to die. He fled from the Lord because in his heart he had judged and condemned them to death. They deserved destruction. These were people who had no right to live in this world. These people were the cruelest people on earth, ravaging the innocent, raping, pillaging, carousing, maiming, conquering one nation after another. They were inhuman. They did not deserve God’s salvation. They belonged in the deepest darkest dungeons, to be forever tormented in the fires of hell. But wait a minute, you say— isn’t this exactly what Jonah was supposed to go and preach to them— God’s judgment and their destruction? Shouldn’t Jonah be happy about that? He should rush there and deliver the message with glee. Why then is he running away from the Lord? Jonah himself tells us why later on in — Jonah 4:2. Because Jonah knows the Lord’s heart, that the Lord is compassionate and full of grace. Jonah knew that if these people hear the message of God’s judgment, it might lead them to repentance. And if they but repent, God would avert his judgment, and save them instead. Simply, then, Jonah fled from the Lord because he did not want these people saved. It’s incredible!
Jonah fled from the Lord because God asked him to do something he really did not want to do. I believe that in Jonah we are not dealing with a man opposed to mission. I believe that he would do anything for the Lord. But not this! This is a man not opposed to mission but to a specific mission he didn’t agree with. He loved God and feared God, but he was too proud and self righteous, not understanding the grace of God that covers his own sinfulness. What Jonah needed was a lesson in God’s grace. He needed to learn that although he was born an Israelite, that is, a member of God’s family, and privileged to know God, and to live by the word of God, it was no less the marvelous grace of God to him and to his people. Jonah needed to understand that if God’s grace had not been upon him and his people, he and his people would be in better place than where the Ninevites were at at the time— wicked and under God’s terrible judgment. In fact, within 50 years, God would deliver this same message of judgment to Jonah’s people themselves, but they would not listen.
Moreover, Jonah needed to also learn that when God calls us with a special purpose, it is not a matter of whether we want to do it or not do it. What we want is irrelevant. It becomes a responsibility. It is a responsibility because we are specially chosen for a special purpose. For example God told Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer.1:5) He was a special person chosen for a special mission— This was God’s grace of calling for a special purpose. When God called Paul he said of him: “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16) He too was specially chosen for a special purpose from God. This was God’s grace. When we are specially chosen, it is not a matter of whether we want to or not. It is a responsibility. Jonah had a responsibility by the grace given him to which he must be faithful. But his own fears and prejudices became his own hindrance in going to Nineveh. So he ended up on a boat going in the opposite direction to Tarshish. But he never made it.
Read verses 4-5. “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 the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.” This is a remarkable turn of events. God would not let the runaway Jonah reach the vacation spot he was hoping to get to. It’s truly amazing to imagine that a man who knows God and God’s character so well as Jonah would think that God would let him get away with this. Maybe he was hoping to frustrate God enough for God to choose another prophet to fulfill this mission. Or maybe he was hoping that by the time he returned from his vacation it would have been too late for the people of Nineveh. We are not sure what he was thinking. But he went below deck and fell asleep. Meanwhile, the sovereign God who created the heavens and the earth spoke a word from his throne in heaven and a violent storm began to rage on the ocean which Jonah knew nothing of. Sailors are usually used to storms on the high seas. But this storm must have been unusually violent, it scared the sailors. It scared them so much that they cried out to their own gods. We notice that each one of them had his own false god to whom they prayed, but of course nothing happened. Finally they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten up the ship. Then in desperation look at what the captain does. Look at verse 6. “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.’” The captain was a godless man but his concern for the crew is admirable. He did not know who Jonah’s God was. But he wanted to make sure that no god had been overlooked in their efforts to avoid a disaster. This too must have been the work of God to stir up Jonah’s heart to repentance.
Jonah was sleeping. Indeed as the captain had said to him, “how can you sleep” at a time like this? The fact that Jonah disobeyed God, and thus sinned greatly against the Lord through his disobedience is apparent. But Jonah was not concerned about his sin. He thought little of it. He boarded the ship thinking only of trying to flee from the Lord. And he went to sleep as if nothing had happened. But from God’s point of view, what he did was a great sin that needed to be dealt with. The city of Nineveh sinned without knowing they were sinning against the Lord. But Jonah’s sin was obvious and willful. He should not be sleeping soundly. He needed to get up and face what he had brought upon this whole crew of innocent people. From God’s point of view, the storm was a consequence of his own sin. We may think that our sin is private and doesn’t affect anyone but ourselves. But in reality, sin is never private. And this picture here is a perfect example. The ship was in danger of capsizing. The life of the whole crew was on the line. They had done all they could within their human capacity and had failed. Finally here is what they decided to do. And this too was done by the hand of God— as God continued to help Jonah realize his sin.
Verse 7-10: “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. 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.)” God Almighty has ways of bringing to light that which is hidden. Jonah had no intention of revealing to these idol worshipers who he was at all. All that he was willing to tell them when he came aboard was that he was running away from the Lord. Perhaps, he despised them as well because they were unbelievers, godless people who may not have been as wicked at the Ninevites, but nonetheless people who were not privileged in knowing the Lord God. When he came aboard, he told them he’s running away from God. But to these people, there were as many gods as there were people alive. So they did not make much of it. But now that they were holding on to dear life, look at the questions they ask him! Better yet, look at the answers he gives them. He does not lie anymore. He does not hide his identity any longer. “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
At this moment between life and death, when no one knew if they would live or die, Jonah wasn’t terrified. He didn’t break down in fear and trembling. He stood on his faith. He confessed his faith in God. He revealed his faith in the Sovereign God who created the seas and the land— the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. He testified to the God of heaven and earth. This truly reveals the greatness of this rebellious prophet. Yes, he was defiant in fulfilling his mission. But his faith in the Sovereign God never waivered. When his faith was solid in the sovereign God, look what happened. Verse 10 tells us that this terrified them. In a sense his words planted some faith and some fear of God in their hearts. But what they said to him after was what Jonah needed to hear. “What have you done”? What have you done, are words that must ignite the conscience of any man or woman regarding what they had done. Indeed, what has he done? If Jonah could think about what he had done, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, in putting the lives of these innocent sailors at risk, in causing so much grief to the Holy Spirit who followed him out to sea, he would be conscience stricken. What have you done? God would ask this same question of us as well. “What have you done?” In this story we see that our obedience or disobedience to God really affect events and even the lives of others around us. What Jonah did wasn’t right before God. It was sin.
Read verses 11-13: “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.” Jonah confessed his sin before God and these men. Their words, “What have you done” had indeed cut to his heart and had stirred him to confession. But instead of repentance, he suggested that they throw him overboard. In other words, he suggested that they end his life. Jonah was not choosing suicide. He was rather mindful of their lives. He was the cause of their distress and their lives were in danger because of him. If they die, their blood would be on his head, because he would be the cause of their death. They were godless, but since they showed evidence of fear of God in their hearts, Jonah’s heart went out to them as a shepherd’s heart goes out for his sheep. Throw me overboard, he said.
What God would have done had Jonah repented, we do not know. But that would have been the proper thing to do after confession. But Jonah didn’t do that. He simply suggested they throw him overboard. Read verses 14-15. “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.’ Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.” These people were not willing to end Jonah’s life. We can see that they had deep respect for his life. They also had begun to have the fear of God in their heart. They prayed to the Lord of heaven to spare their lives for what they were about to do— for throwing Jonah overboard. They considered Jonah to be an innocent man since this was the Lord’s doing rather than Jonah’s. Remarkable things had happened to them since Jonah had witnessed his faith to them. They had begun to believe in the Sovereign God and Creator of all things in heaven and on heart. It is indeed amazing to witness these men’s change of heart from idol worshipers who had cried out to their own gods earlier to those who now prayed to the One True God of heaven. More than that, look at verse 16. “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.”
Jonah’s sin had brought disaster to these sailors, causing them to teeter between life and death. His rebellion against God affected the events in his life, and the people around him to their harm, even if he didn’t intend it to happen. Remarkably, God who loved him, didn’t abandon him and didn’t let him go his own way. Rather he followed him and caused the storm at sea in order to discipline him and to bring him back to his senses. Jonah didn’t repent yet of his disobedience. But his willingness to confess his sin brought about a change in the events, as well as caused a whole crew of godless people to turn their hearts to God in faith. They feared God and made sacrifices to him— no longer fearing the wrath of the false gods they once sacrificed to and served. They also made vows to the Lord God— vows to love, honor, worship and to serve only him. They had become believers. Jonah had inadvertently fulfilled his purpose in serving God. We must know that God’s purpose in our lives cannot be thwarted. We must also know that when we are endowed with special grace, we have a responsibility to follow and obey his will.
Read verse 17: “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” Finally, when Jonah was thrown overboard, God provided a way for his salvation. He sent a large fish to swallow him and to transport him to where he needed to be. In the belly of the fish, Jonah experienced a kind of death and resurrection.