Jonah’s struggle

If this story were to be sung, it could be described as a lament. Much of what drives and motivates people today is expressed in this lament: what is your attitude towards your contemporaries; how conscious are you of your responsibilities?

Jonah was a prophet in ancient Israel. God Himself made him His mouthpiece. His mission was to go to Nineveh and convince the inhabitants to repent and change their ways. But Jonah refused. He knew exactly what was going to happen: the people would eventually see the error of their ways and change; but he would have a lot of work trying to convince them. So, what was the point of it all? The best thing was not to do anything at all. That was much easier.

Jonah refused to carry out his mission and ran away. Not to the East to Nineveh, but in the opposite direction. As if it were possible to run away from God … His journey took him across the sea. There he literally lost the ground from under his feet. The inevitable happened: a big storm moved in. The ship’s crew needed a scapegoat. It could only have been Jonah. In their distress they threw him overboard.

His fate was sealed: he would die in the raging waters. But then a huge fish swallowed him. He spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. Finally, the fish vomited Jonah on to dry land. Jonah was alive, although he had some scratches.

Only a good story? Or is it also instructive?

Every child knows this story. The story sounds totally unrealistic, but when compared with today’s video games the story of Jonah seems almost normal. But why shrug everything off as a nice story if one can obviously draw some lessons from it?

So what does this story teach us? What are we supposed to do with it in the twenty-first century? Here are a few facts to help us get an overall picture.

  • Nineveh is synonymous with wickedness. It is a God-forsaken city, full of immorality and debauchery.
  • Jonah certainly does not feel up to this long journey, because he knows that, in the end, everything will turn out good any way. He refuses to follow God’s call.
  • In the end, Jonah has to go in any case. He does so reluctantly. He feels: God is stronger than he is.
  • And the inevitable happens: the people of Nineveh repent and give up their wicked behaviour. Jonah is very unhappy about this and becomes angry. He throws himself to the ground and sulks, wishing only one thing: to die.

This is typically human: don’t overdo it, don’t risk anything. And even less without self-determination.

Christians draw additional lessons from this

  • Jonah is a substitute for Jesus Christ, who also came from God. He also spent three days between life and death. He also returned to the light of day after people had believed Him to be dead. He also preached repentance and for the people to change their ways. He also managed to win the people around Him for God—at least those who were willing to believe.
  • And, finally, this is perhaps the most important insight: no matter how great our sins are, God is there! He will never abandon human beings because they have sinned. This is only something that humans do to other humans. God sends deliverance. And even if this comes in the form of weak and clumsy human beings, it means deliverance and salvation for the soul all the same. You think you can hide from God as a human being, but you don’t need to. He loves you!

Photo: Paul Fleet -

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Peter Johanning
Divine service, Doctrinal instruction