Jonah stands alone among the prophets of the Old Testament. Certainly he was the only one (that we know of) to spend three days in the digestive tract of a fish. In the bigger picture, though, he was the only one (that we know of) to flatly refuse an assignment from God.
The Lord instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach. Specifically, he told Jonah to preach against the people of Nineveh because their wickedness offended him. Instead, Jonah booked passage on a boat heading to Tarshish-that is, away from Nineveh. Some part of him must have believed-or at least desperately hoped-that he could escape his prophetic assignment.
The reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh is as unexpected as it is perverse. It doesn’t appear he was afraid of being rejected of humiliated. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The message God had given him was a dire warning to the people of Nineveh: If you don’t repent of your wicked ways, you will be destroyed. And Jonah had a pretty good inkling of what would happen when the Ninevites heard the message. Their eyes would be opened. Their consciences would be touched. Their hearts would be moved. They would repent, exactly as God told them to do. Thus, they would receives his mercy, instead of his judgment.
In other words, the bad guys would be pardoned.
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s bitter enemy. The Assyrians had plagued the Israelites for centuries. The prospect of an entire Assyrian city being destroyed by God’s judgment must have been tantalizing to a loyal son of Israel like Jonah. Likewise, the prospect of the entire city being spared by God because of something he (Jonah) did must have seemed absolutely intolerable to him.
That would explain why he ran.
He didn’t get far. The boat to Tarshish encountered foul weather as soon as it hit the open sea. The boat’s crewmen recognized that what they were facing was no ordinary storm. They sensed a divine judgment in the squall that threatened to sink their vessel. They cast lots (a common practice in those days) to determine which of their passengers was the focus of wrath. The results pointed to Jonah.
Jonah resigned himself to his fate. Throw me overboard, he advised the crew, and the storm well cease. The sailors resisted at first, but they finally had no choice. They threw Jonah over the side.
When Jonah plunged into the sea, two things happened; the waters immediately grew clam, and Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah 1:17 says he spent three days inside the creature. That’s a lot of time for a man to assess his life and rethink some of the choices he has made.
Jonah prayed to God from his rancid surroundings. He was through with running. If the Lord wanted him to go to Nineveh, that’s where he would go-though it should be noted that his attitude toward the Ninevites seems to have remained unchanged. The fish vomited Jonah back on shore, and Jonah headed for Nineveh, where he watched his worst-case scenario unfold before his eyes.
Jonah delivered God’s warning, according to his instructions. He walked through the city proclaiming God’s judgment, which would come in 40 days unless the Ninevites repented.
The Ninevites rightly responded as if their lives depended on it. According to Jonah 3:5, “The men of Nineveh believed in God. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth-from the greatest of them to the least.” Fasting and wearing sackcloth demonstrated extreme humility and repentance.
The king of Nineveh removed his royal robes, wore sackcloth, and sat in the dust of the ground. He urged the people of Nineveh to call on God to withhold his judgment and to spare Nineveh.
Much to Jonah’s displeasure, God honored their prayers. Jonah 3:10 says. “God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.” The people of Nineveh lived to see another day, thanks to God’s great forgiveness and mercy-and, to a much lesser degree, thanks to Jonah’s effective proclamations.
Jonah 2:9 – “But as for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the LORD.”