More than a fish story

Everybody knows about Jonah and the whale.  But what happens next?

Full Text: 

More than a fish story

Jonah 3:1-10 – November 11, 2012


            If you have spent any time in Sunday School, you probably know the story of Jonah and the whale.  Any story with a large animal is captivating for kids.  And a large animal coupled with a bodily function (vomiting) makes an indelible impression on a child’s imagination.

            But the book of Jonah is more than a fish story.  So this morning I would like to fill you in on the rest:


            The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai (which means ‘son of faithfulness’).  “Go to Nineveh.  It’s a huge city.  They are hugely wicked and I can’t ignore it any longer.”

            But Jonah did not act like a ‘son of faithfulness.’  He did not go to Nineveh.  We are not told why, but we can guess.  Nineveh is the capital of Assyria.  Assyria is the greatest threat to the northern kingdom, because is the nation that destroys the northern kingdom of Israel.  We can’t really blame Jonah.  Who would want to go there?

            Instead Jonah went down to Joppa and bought a ticket on a ship bound for Tarshish (which is like boarding a space ship for the dark side of the moon!)  But no sooner had the ship set sail that God sent a storm down upon the sea.

            The storm kept dashing the ship upon the waves.  The sailors were terrified.  They prayed in desperation to their gods.  They threw everything they had overboard to lighten the ship.  Meanwhile, Jonah went down below and took a nap.

            That’s where the captain of the ship found him.  “Wake up!  We’re in deep trouble!  Pray to your god and maybe your god will rescue us!”  Of course, Jonah has no intention of praying to his God.  God is the one he’s trying to avoid.

            At last, the sailors say, “Let’s draw straws and get to the bottom of this.”  And Jonah drew the short straw.

            So, the sailors said, “What’s up with you that your god is bringing this disaster upon us?”

            Jonah said, “I am a Hebrew.  I worship the LORD, the God who made heaven and earth.”

            At this, the sailors became even more frightened, because they knew how powerful the LORD was and that Jonah was trying to run away from him.

            They said to Jonah, “What should we do?” because the storm had gotten completely out of control.

            Jonah said, “Throw me overboard into the sea.  This is my fault and once you get rid of me, you will be safe.”

            But the sailors did not give up.  They began to pray to the LORD, even though Jonah wouldn’t.

            At last they begged forgiveness from the LORD, and they made Jonah walk the plank.  At once the seas became calm and peaceful.  And these pagans began to worship the LORD.

            Jonah sank into the sea like a stone.  He was immediately swallowed up by a huge fish.  He stayed in the belly of the fish for three days.  That gave Jonah a lot of time to think.  Finally he turned to God in prayer.  “I have really messed up, LORD!  Help me!”

            God heard his prayer and sent the whale toward the shore, where the whale…deposited him on the beach.


            The word of the LORD again came to Jonah a second time.  “Go to Nineveh, that great city!  Their sin is great and I can’t ignore it any longer!”  And this time the son of faithfulness went.

            The city of Nineveh was so huge that it took a man three days to walk across it.  When Jonah finally reached the center, he preached the shortest sermon ever.  He said, “In forty days, Nineveh will be toast!” 

            But then, an amazing thing happened – the people of Nineveh listened and they trusted God.  Everyone began to fast and to wear burlap as a sign of their repentance.  Everyone did it – rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.

            When the news reached the king of the city, he too threw off his royal robes and put on sackcloth and sat down on an ash heap.  “Everyone – no exceptions! – must repent – men, women, children, and even animals.  We must turn from our evil and violent ways!  Who knows?  Maybe God will turn as well.  Maybe God will change his mind about us and let us live!”

            When God saw what they had done, God did change his mind about them.  What he said he would do to them, he didn’t do.


            Jonah was furious.  “I knew this was going to happen!  That’s why I didn’t come here in the first place!  That’s why I ran off!  I knew you were all mercy and grace, not easily angered, ready at the slightest turn to drop your plans for punishment and offer forgiveness!  So, do me a favor!  Kill me!  If you won’t kill them, kill me!”

            God said, “What do you have to be so angry about?”

            But Jonah just stomped off.  He went east out of the city.  He climbed a hill to watch what would happen to Nineveh.  He put up his tent and sat down.

            Then God sent a leafy plant to grow up beside Jonah to him shade from the hot sun.  Jonah was pleased.  He liked the plant.  He enjoyed the shade.  He began to cool off.  Life was looking up.

            But then God sent a worm.  The worm bore into the roots of the plant.  The next day it was dead.  Jonah was angrier than ever.

            “Please, LORD!” he cried.  “My life couldn’t get any worse.  Just kill me!”

            God said, “Do you have any right to get so angry about the plant?”

            Jonah answered, “You bet your life!  I’m so angry I could die!”

            Then God said, “How is it that you care so much for this plant?  You did not plant it.  You did not water it.  It grew up one day and died the next.  If you care so much about this plant, can’t I also care for the people of Nineveh – more than a hundred thousand of them – men, women and children – to say nothing of all the animals?”


            This is where the story ends.  We don’t know what Jonah does next. 

            It would be nice to say that Jonah finally gets it, since he hasn’t been getting it all along the way.  On the ship, the faithful one was avoiding God while the pagans were praying.  The faithful one was willing to play the martyr, while the sailors did everything they could to save him.  In the end, it was the pagan sailors who worshiped the God of Israel, and not Jonah, son of the faithful.

            And even though Jonah finally follows God’s command and goes to Nineveh to preach, the story is repeated at Nineveh.  It is the faithless ones who act in faith.  The faithful one is full of self-pity, so he cannot act with compassion for others.

            Of course, Jonah’s faithlessness and self-pity do not stand in God’s way.  Through Jonah’s unfaithfulness, a ship-load of pagan sailors and a huge city full of godless and violent people are converted.  Even Jonah’s faithlessness cannot stand in the way of God’s mercy.

            This is where the story ends.  We don’t know what Jonah does next.  The question is – what do we do next?  How are we to treat our neighbors?  How are we to view our enemies? How are we to see ourselves in relation to God?  Is God only for us and not for them?

            Mostly, how can we be faithful?  What does it mean for us to be sons and daughters of faithfulness?  How can we not merely say the right words, but do the right things?  How can we not only talk the talk of faith?  How can we walk the walk of faith?

            Who knows?  Maybe Jonah, son of faithfulness, is still sitting on the hill, still fuming, still pondering those questions.  Maybe we can ponder them as well.