Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and call out against it, “for their evil has come up before me.

But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So, he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship to lighten it. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So, the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper! Arise, call out to your god!
Perhaps your god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish!”

And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.’ So, they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. And then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us…” And he said, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done?” for they knew he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, for he told them.

“What shall we do to you, that the sea might quiet down for us?’

“Pick me up and hurl me into the sea, then the sea will quiet down for you! I know that it is for me that this great tempest has come upon you.”

Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not for the sea grew more tempestuous. Therefore, they called out to the Lord, O Lord let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you O Lord have done as it pleased you. So, they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me,
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me;
All the waves and your billows passed over me,
Then I said, I am driven away from your sight; yet shall I look again upon your holy temple; The waters closed over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me;
Weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
Yet you brought me up from the pit.
O Lord my God, when my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you.
Into your holy temple…
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you,
What I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!


And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.


Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So, Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’ And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them.”

As I have sat and looked out at the window at the great mass of snow covering the ground – and periodically offering prayers that the electrical service provided by First Electric Co-op would not be interrupted – and that we will make it through this season of bitterly cold weather – I have wondered what this short excerpt from a very short book of the Old Testament really means or says to us.

And in trying to answer that question I have read the commentary on Jonah in the “Interpretation” commentary series by James Limburg. He was Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. And I also confess that in these recent days when about all I could do otherwise was look out the window at the snow covering the ground I listened to quite a few discussions about Jonah on You Tube. Of them the discussion of Jonah by an English pastor David Rebettes was particularly helpful. So, with that acknowledgement and thanks let’s jump in.

When and where did all this happen?

If we think of the time of David and his son Solomon – and the building of the first temple in Jerusalem as roughly 1000 years before the time of Christ then Jonah followed that period by roughly 250 years. Now those were years of great conflict, wars. A very brutal time. A major power during those years was Assyria. And the capital of Assyria was Nineveh, an ancient city located in the vicinity of Mosul in today’s Iraq. Another one of those small, obscure Old Testament books – Nahum – describes Nineveh thusly: “Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder… For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil.” [Nahum 3:1,19]

Not a nice place

From James Limburg’s commentary, “Jonah the son of Amittai is also mentioned in II Kings 14:25 which locates the prophet during the time of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC)…Nineveh, with its reputation for violence and  terrorism, was a symbol of all that opposed the Lord and the Lord’s people.”

So, the story of Jonah begins with God’s command to him to go to Nineveh – “for their evil has come up before me.”

But rather than follow God’s command he chooses to as far as he can the other way. To go to Nineveh present day Mosul, Iraq – would be to go East. He chooses to go West – far West – probably some place in modern day Spain. He then boards a ship to get away from God.

So, God causes a great storm. The mariners mightily struggle to keep the ship afloat – throwing off cargo – and offering prayers. Where is Jonah? He has gone down into the ship and is now, fast asleep. The captain finds him asleep and asks him why he has not offered prayers for their safety?

The crew then say to one another, let us cast lots and identify the one on whose account we are in this mess. The lot falls on Jonah and he acknowledges that he is fleeing God. He tells them to throw him into the sea.

Even so the mariners try to row the ship to shore. Only failing this do they throw him into the sea.

At this point the story tells us that God appoints a great fish to swallow up Jonah.

Where he spends three days and three nights.

As I read and listen to words of the prayer – psalm – that Jonah offers – and the English pastor’s comments on it –

“…out of the belly of Sheol – death – the flood surrounded me -the waters closed over me to take my life – weeds were wrapped around my head – I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever…yet you brought me up from the pit – he is describing his own death – his own drowning – swallowed then by the great fish – then the Lord spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land”

Now the word of God comes to him a second time: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” And so, he goes once again. He is a marked man. It is still some distance from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to Nineveh. He approaches the great city. He is noticed. This is not an ordinary person. He has something to tell us.

He enters one of the great gates. And only after a day’s walk, he stops and proclaims the message – which is, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And it works. The people of Nineveh believe God; they proclaim a fast, and everyone, great and small, puts on sackcloth.

What is this story telling us?

It is an Old Testament story – yet it speaks of God’s great love. It tells us that God loves all of his Creation – all of us men and women and children and babies – all of his animals – the horses, the cows, the dogs, the cats, even the beauty and majesty of the lands and trees, and mountains and rivers and the vast oceans…

He loves even the nameless mariners on the ship, he loves even the people of Nineveh that place of violence and terror. He loves the animals, the cows. He loves even Jonah.

And I think one of the proofs that God loves us, loves his Creation – is his patience. He loves even the old grouches. Maybe that is why I like this story so much. If ever there was a grouch it was Jonah. Even when his words bring success, the winning of the people of Nineveh to God, he is still unhappy – still a grouch. But God still loves him.

And God loves us.

And in these unhappy and uncertain times – which so needs God’s assurance and God’s love – God is calling on us as well to bring that message of love.



Richard Robertson

Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Hosea-Micah (Hosea- Joel-Amos-Obadiah-Jonah-Micah) James Limburg, John Knox Press
From YouTube: “The Misunderstood Jonah” Dave Rebbettes (Pastor – King’s Church, Basingstoke, England, U.K.)