God’s Word for You
Jonah 1:1 The word of the LORD
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, June 9, 2018
1 And the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
Jonah’s book of prophecy is unlike most of the other Minor Prophets. In it, he spends much more time on his travels and his own conversations with God than on his proclamation of God’s word. Notice that the first word of the translation is “And.” This is how the Hebrew text actually begins. This is the way many historical books of the Bible begin (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Ezra, to name a dozen). Often, this shows a chronological connection to whatever book precedes, but not always. In Ruth, for example, and here in Jonah, it shows that the author of the book “simply attaches [the book] by the conjunction ‘and’ to a completed action, which has either men mentioned before, or is supposed to be well-known” (Keil & Delitzsch, Joshua p. 27). So in this case, it’s most likely that Jonah is a kind of footnote or appendix either to the place in the Old Testament where he is mentioned (2 Kings 14, especially 14:25), or that Jonah intended his book to be read alongside the other prophetic books, especially Joel. Joel was probably the earliest of the writing prophets since he is quoted by so many others who came later. I am of the opinion that this second possibility is the more probable.
The modern reader probably knows something about the book. We Lutherans teach it to our Sunday School children and study it in our Lutheran Elementary Schools. We take the book at face value, as a true history of what happened to a prophet in the days of King Jeroboam II of Israel. We take it to be true because we take all of the Bible to be true; Jonah was an historical figure just as Adam, Eve, Job, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Peter, and Paul were real, historical people. Jonah had faults like David and Jacob and the Sons of Thunder. He had a mission, no less dangerous and difficult than those given to Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:18-19) and Elisha when Naaman demanded to have his leprosy cured (2 Kings 5:8). He faced a deadly storm at sea—so did Jesus’ apostles (Luke 8:23). He faced a deadly animal—so did Daniel (Daniel 6:16). An animal saved his life through a miracle—just as the prophet Balaam was saved through a miracle by an animal (Numbers 22:33). He turned a city and its king to repentance despite his sinful attitude—just as Abraham had done with Abimelech King of Gerar despite Abraham’s sins and sinful attitude (Genesis 20:8-9). So what makes Jonah the target for attacks?
“The remarkable experiences and difficulties accompanying the flight of Jonah and his stay at Nineveh have always been welcome to unbelievers and blasphemers. They have centered their attacks on these events in Jonah’s life, hoping to raise doubts concerning the truth of the entire story and arouse venomous ridicule. Their arguments cannot affect those who believe that all things are possible to God, whom it pleased to corroborate the message of his prophets and apostles by miracles of many kinds.
“In the case of Jonah we derive additional assurance from the words of our Lord, who quotes Jonah by name and title, refers to his story as to actual history, uses it for important instruction, and even designates the prophet as a type of himself (Matthew 12:30, 16:4). This divine testimony also disposes of the laborious arguments of critics, who try to show at least that Jonah was not the author of the book which bears his name.” (Prof. John Schaller, Book of Books, p 85,87).
In this opening verse, we are told that the word of the LORD came to Jonah. How did it come? Was it through another prophet? A dream? A vision? Did God speak with Jonah directly? We know from the immediate result that Jonah did not think this message up by himself. It certainly came to him from the outside.
Trained as a prophet, probably in the school of the prophets overseen by Elisha, and perhaps taught by Elisha personally, Jonah took this message from God seriously. He knew how important it was. He understood how effective the word of God is to change hearts and to change lives. Jonah will confess later on that it was precisely because he believed all these things—and didn’t want any of it to happen to Nineveh, Israel’s enemy—that he ran away in the first place. But we must begin in this frame of mind: Jonah believed God and believed that God could and would do precisely what he promised. Stepping away from Jonah’s sinful attitude for a moment and focusing our attention just on these important points, we have in Jonah an excellent example of how to understand God’s word. We take it as Jonah himself took it: As the true and powerful word that will accomplish whatever God intends. This is the word of God that made us believe in Jesus Christ, in the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
King Jeroboam II of Israel reigned forty-one years, from 793-752 BC. He brought the northern kingdom to the very peak of its power and prosperity. Taking advantage of a temporary cessation of hostilities from the Assyrian Empire, Jeroboam “recovered for Israel Damascus and Hamath, which had belonged to Judah” (2 Kings 14:28) and “from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah” (2 Kings 14:25). Through the Prophet Amos, the Lord would use those same boundaries as a description of the full or ideal dimensions of the land, albeit in a prophecy about judgment (Amos 6:14).
It is in Jeroboam’s reign that we meet the Prophet Jonah in his historical context. Jonah was the prophet who proclaimed the news beforehand that Jeroboam’s success would be so blessed by God. “The LORD,” 2 Kings says, “saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, slave or free, and there was none to help Israel” (2 Kings 14:26). So the prophecy came “according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant, the prophet Jonah the son of Amittai, from Gath Hepher” (2 Kings 14:25).
We don’t know whether Jonah was a young prophet or an old one when the prophecy mentioned in 2 Kings 14 was spoken; whether he had been to Nineveh yet or not. But the “temporary cessation of hostilities” might perhaps have been the result of the events described in the third and fourth chapters of Jonah’s book. Following a prophecy of impending destruction coming to Nineveh, the king of the land repented of his sins, and he ordered that everyone else in Nineveh “from the greatest of them to the least…man or beast, herd or fleck” repent in the same way (Jonah 3:5,7). Was it then that Assyria eased tensions in Galilee and Samaria, and allowed the northern kingdom to prosper under the leadership of Jeroboam II? Whether this was the case or not, the book proclaims a message for us that needs to be read carefully and to be taken at its word, which is the word of God.
Accepting Jonah as an historical figure has become one litmus test for discovering orthodoxy among Christian teachers. Those who reject Jonah tend to reject miracles, angels, demons, the resurrection, and speak of such things in terms of metaphor and allegory rather than as Biblical fact. But anyone who talks about resurrection without the definite article—“The Resurrection”—has wandered away from God’s truth, and has no place in preaching to God’s people. For “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
THE RELUCTANT READER
Although Jonah is rightly described as “the reluctant prophet,” recent years have seen the rise of more and more reluctant readers of Jonah as scholars and commentators have scrambled to find meaning in the book without accepting it as an historical narrative. Unwilling to believe that a whale might swallow Jonah and spit him out whole, they have spat out the whole book because they themselves are unwilling to swallow the whale.
We should point out that the whale (more about my use of “whale” rather than fish with comments on 1:17) is only one in a whole string of miracles, which makes the book dovetail beautifully with the New Testament and the unbroken string of miracles that sweeps us from the prophecies of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 right to the Apostle Paul sitting in prison in Rome in Acts 28. At least twelve separate but connected miracles take place within the book:
1, The first divine call
2, The divine windstorm
3, The fall of the lots to Jonah
4, The quieting of the storm
5, The whale
6, Jonah vomited out within traveling distance of Nineveh
7, The second divine call
8, The journey into Assyria unscathed
9, The success of Jonah’s preaching: the repentance of Nineveh
10, The plant which grew overnight
11, The worm which destroyed the plant overnight
12, God’s final conversation with the prophet
The main point of style within Jonah is irony. The author focuses our attention on a remarkable set of reversals, each of which highlights God’s grace despite man’s designs and even despite the work of a prophet who seems to struggle against God at almost every turn:
Chapter 1: The prophet disobeys God and runs away.
Chapter 2: The prophet praises God in the whale for his mercy.
Chapter 3: The prophet obeys God and preaches to Nineveh.
Chapter 4: The prophet complains to God that he is merciful.
(Introduction to be continued)
Pastor Timothy Smith
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