Jonah 1:1-4, 4:10-11

Jonah, Reluctant Messenger

Richard Niell Donovan

Many years ago, the Manhattan USO phoned the Army Chaplains’ School (which then was in New York City) to let us know about free tickets to a new play entitled “Jonah.” I gathered several friends, and drove into Manhattan to see the play. One of my more striking recollections of the evening was paying as much for a parking space as I would have paid elsewhere for a theater ticket. It seemed as if New York had its own way of exacting a toll, even if the tickets were free.

We went to the little theater, which was quite some distance off-Broadway. The car-load of us pretty well filled up the row in the little room, and we seemed to be the only customers in suit and tie. I wondered what I had gotten myself in for.

The lights dimmed, and the curtain opened. There, on the stage, stood an old man holding a lantern, standing inside a huge rib cage, talking to himself about the wondrous things that had happened to him.

That is my clearest memory of that play—the old man standing inside the rib cage. I find it significant that that should be my clearest memory, because that is what most of us remember about Jonah—a man being swallowed by a whale. If someone were to ask us why the Bible—God’s holy word—should include a story about a man being swallowed by a while, we would be hard pressed to answer. Like many Old Testament stories, it has lost meaning for us. We teach it to our children in Sunday school, but aren’t sure why.

That is unfortunate, because the story of Jonah is, to some extent, our story too.

The story of the whale (or great fish, as it was actually called in the Bible) was included to get our attention. Unfortunately, the story is so striking that we have remembered it and have forgotten the message. Grown men have run about with rulers in hand, trying to find a species of whale with throat large enough to swallow a man. They have studied the whale’s digestive juices to determine if Jonah could have survived there three days. Being so distracted by the drama, while missing the point of the story is about as profitable as a quarterback who watches the cheerleaders instead of the pass receivers. It might be fun, but it doesn’t make touchdowns.


“This material is great. A wonderful help when the season is busy and the unexpected happens.”

1. The first element of this story is a CALL TO DUTY.

Now the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the son of Amittai,
saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it,
for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:1-2).

The call was clear and definite. It demanded immediate action, but Jonah didn’t like it. He was a Jew, and the Ninevites were Gentiles. Jonah had no use for Gentiles. As far as he was concerned, the only good Gentile was a dead Gentile. Now God was telling him to go save the Gentiles. That made as much sense as sending Ronald Reagan to save the Russians. An errand of mercy to Gentiles was a strange idea to Jonah.

It would have been strange to the original readers of this book, too. The Jews were God’s chosen people, and they could see nothing

but evil distraction in Gentiles. Jewish men daily recited the prayer:

“Thank God I was not born a Gentile,
a leper, or a woman.”

This book was written as a call to share God’s love with all people. God’s people have always been slow to learn this lesson. Peter wanted to limit Christianity to Jews. In other times and places, Christians have erected barriers against people of other races, languages or creeds.

We are different; I believe genuinely different. We wouldn’t erect barriers to keep people out, but I am not sure that we have heard this message to share God’s love any clearer than did Jonah. If Jonah’s sin was to believe that some people didn’t deserve to hear about God, our sin has been that we have believed that some people didn’t need to hear about God. The story of Jonah suggests that God’s people have a responsibility to take the initiative to share God’s word. Without that initiative, people will continue in errant ways.

The call to duty was the first element of Jonah’s story, and it is the first element of ours.

II. The second element of the story is a REFUSAL OF DUTY.

Jonah had a mind of his own. He decided to book passage on a ship bound in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Far from his country and far from his God, Jonah could escape the odious call to duty.

But Jonah was not to escape so easily. In a few bold strokes of the pen, we have the scene vividly portrayed: the terrible storm, the angry waves, the vessel threatened with destruction, the sailors at wit’s end. Jonah was asleep, but was awakened by the commotion. He realized that the storm was an expression of God’s displeasure with him.

Jonah had not escaped. In a fleeting moment of manhood, he told the sailors that he was responsible for the storm, and invited them to throw him overboard. The sailors tried to save their ship, but finally gave up and threw Jonah overboard.

III. And so we have the third phase of this story, THE FULFILLMENT OF DUTY.

When Jonah was thrown from the ship, he was swallowed by a great fish and began his three day sojourn in his strange reformatory. He thought; he prayed; he promised God his obedience. Finally, at the end of three days, God caused the fish to vomit him onto dry ground.

This time Jonah did obey, but with reluctant feet. He preached, but I am sure it was with little enthusiasm. Imagine his faint voice and feeble gesture as he said: “Repent!”

But God had not left the whole job to Jonah. God was working within the hearts of the Ninevites to prepare them for Jonah. When Jonah said “Repent!” the people repented, and the city was saved.

Jonah was miserable; his worst fears were realized. He, Jonah, was responsible for saving these scum Ninevites. What an evil trick God had played on him. He prayed:

“Therefore now, Yahweh, take, I beg you, my life from me;
for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3).

But Jonah didn’t die, so he left Nineveh to sulk in the countryside. A large plant quickly grew to shade Jonah—evidence of God’s love. Then, just as quickly, the plant died, exposing Jonah to the sun again. Jonah cried out again that he might die, but this time God put him in his place. God said:

“You have been concerned for the vine,
for which you have not labored, neither made it grow;
which came up in a night, and perished in a night.

Shouldn’t I be concerned for Nineveh, that great city,
in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons
who can’t discern between their right hand and their left hand;
and also much livestock?” (4:10-11).

Poor Jonah! But how different is he from us. God’s word cuts as roughly across the grain of our theology as of Jonah’s. To study the scriptures carefully is to become as uncomfortable with our own place in the world as Jonah was with his. God never calls us to be what we are—but what we can be—and the growth is always painful.

So the story of Jonah is the story of God’s all-embracing love; it is the story of our responsibility to share the news of God’s love; and it is the story of God’s persistence in leading us to those Ninevehs where we thought we would never set foot—but by God’s grace come firmly to stand.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan