Worst Prophet Ever? – Jonah 1

The first message in our Jonah Study.
(Find the other messages from this series here)

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How many of you have made a mistake? How many of you have ever tried to fix that mistake and just made things worse?

For those of you that didn’t raise your hands, I’d like for your help on my the next renovation project. If you’ve ever messed up, you can relate to Jonah.  Jonah didn’t just mess up, Jonah was a mess.


Jonah is in the minor prophets section of the Bible. These prophets aren’t considered minor in their influence or message, but they are smaller books in comparison with the major prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel. Jonah is probably the most famous of the minor prophets, and not because he was such a great prophet, but really because he was such a bad one. Jonah is probably more infamous than famous.

Let me point out a couple ways that Jonah is different than the other minor prophets…

  1. Most books carrying the name of a prophet make the prophet the protagonist or the good guy. None of the prophets were perfect, but for the most part they were on God’s side. Jonah finds himself repeatedly on the wrong side. He’s the antagonist or bad guy throughout the book.
  2. Most books of the prophets are about the fulfillment of it’s prophecy, or at the very least about prophecy that would be fulfilled. Jonah’s prophecy would be overturned before the end of his book.

Considering the shape of the book of Jonah, it would be fair to ask at face value, is Jonah the worst prophet ever?

You’ve probably had a moment where you feel that you are ill suited for your job, that you’re a failure as a parent or as a spouse, maybe you’d never say it out loud, but deep down you feel like you are the worst and you work really hard to keep that a secret and pretend that you know what you are doing and that everything is fine…Maybe you’ve accepted that you regularly make the wrong choices and you’ve learned to deal with it by being laid back and deciding that what will be will be. Maybe you’re in a mess right now, and you’re not even really worried about it, you’re a lot like Jonah in that regard too.

If you were to play a game of word association, to ask people what the first word that popped in their head was when they heard the name Jonah, most people would probably say “Whale” or “Fish.” While the big fish plays a major role in the story of Jonah, the main theme, the constant refrain that even the big fish helps demonstrate is GRACE.

The main theme of the book of Jonah is Grace.

G Campbell Morgan said,

“People are so fascinated by the big fish who is mentioned in 3 verses that they miss the great God on display in the whole book.”

Once we are finished with this book, I hope that your first thought when you hear the word Jonah is grace.

I should note that this is how most of the prophetic books begin, or at least begin their prophetic passages. At several places the author of Jonah makes it clear that this narrative has been framed to mirror the other prophetic books, but in true mirror fashion, everything is backwards or the reverse of what it should be. So by starting this book like the other prophetic books, we are setup for surprise and shock when Jonah does the opposite of what he’s supposed to do…

Let’s read what he was supposed to do and what he actually did in these next verses.

3But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish:

10Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

Jonah literally tried to run from God.

It seems that Jonah thought that Tarshish was either so out of God’s reach or that it would put him so far out of God’s plan that he would just find another prophet to do this job. He chose Tarshish because it was as far as he could get from Nineveh.  He had chosen to turn away from God’s plan and plunge head long into another path. Jonah was all in on avoiding God’s purpose. He wasn’t just all in, he was urgent.

3But Jonah rose up to flee

The idea is that he immediately stood up and ran to do the opposite. Jonah was looking to escape. He was looking to get away. Nowadays, we don’t try to run from God’s presence through location, but we often attempt to run from God’s presence through escape. We escape into media, into substances, into sex, into relationships, into work, into shopping, into food, into causes. God has set a clear call and command down before Jonah, and he was trying to escape it. God has set clear calls and commands in our lives, and we spend much our lives attempting to escape them, attempting to ignore them, acting as if and pretending that they do not exist. Jonah felt so good about his escape from God’s command, that he climbs down into the belly of the ship, get’s comfortable, and falls asleep.

I want to point out a couple of parallels that I believe the author is trying to emphasize here.

The repetition of running down:
In verse 3 and verse 5 we have a picture of Jonah climbing down.

When Jonah arose, he ran down to Joppa the sea port. He ran down to the sea where he could catch a boat. Once he was in the boat, he climbed down into the hull of the ship. When Jonah ran from God, he was always headed downward.

Oh man. The same is true for us…

Whenever we run from God, we run down to trouble and misery.

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and we get a fuller picture of why later on in the book, but what was Jonah’s plan here? What was he going to do in Tarshish? How long was he going to stay there? What was he going to do? What was his plan??? He didn’t have one. He wasn’t going to Tarshish because it was great, he was going there because it was away from what God wanted him to do…  Sin is insane.  Sin never makes sense.

God established his command not only because of His holy nature but because he knows what is best for us. God doesn’t want us to break his commands because he knows breaking the commands will break us. God knows how we can best live, enjoy life, have fulfilling relationships, and become the very best version of ourselves…

There’s not only a similarity between Jonah climbing down whenever he runs away from what God would have for him to do, but theres a repetition of the calls for him to rise up as well.When the Lord comes to him in verse 1, he’s called to arise and go up to Nineveh. When the ships captain find him asleep in the hull of the ship, he’s told to arise and go up.

God always calls us higher. Following God always improves our situation. Now, I’m not saying that following God necessarily improves our financial status or material goods, but rather, following God always improves the more important things… I have never had to counsel any couple because they both have just been following God too closely. I have never had to sit down with parents and a child because they were all just following God too much. No one has ever had a falling out with a business partner because they were both just too serious about God…

Whenever we run from God, we run down to trouble and misery. 

Whenever we run to God, we run up to peace and joy.

Now right now, you might not believe me. In the moments before the ships captain woke him up, in the moments before Jonah fell asleep, he thought he’d found a way to avoid what God wanted him to do and not run into any trouble.

In fact, the ship about to be torn apart, the ships crew are throwing cargo overboard to try and make it through… Every man is praying to their God… desperate to find some help to get through this storm… And Jonah is asleep.
Asleep. The world is turning up side down and Jonah is asleep.

Can I tell you, that this is exactly where some of you are right now? Your world is turning upside down, you are headed toward major pain and heartache, God is using drastic measures to attempt to get your attention and you are oblivious.

When I read this interaction between Jonah and ship’s captain, I immediately thought of a popular cartoon by KC Green. It’s popular because people have taken to using the first two frames of the cartoon in reaction to news that seems awful but apparently is the new normal, so we just accept it. The first two panels show a dog drinking coffee inside of a burning room… saying this is fine.  Most people who post it don’t know the origin, the title of the cartoon, or how the cartoon ends. The title of this cartoon is “The pills are working.”

The 3rd and 4th frames show that things progressively get worse… The last two frames are kind of graphic, so I won’t show them… The pills are working… Pills a form of escape. A form of pretending that everything is ok.

Escape, allowing us to sleep in the hull of a boat that is about to be destroyed…. Allowing us in some measure to ignore the fact that everything is not fine. That everything is bad. This morning, I hope that I can be like the ships captain and wake you up. Everything is not fine! Arise, call upon thy God! The storm acts as a catalyst for Jonah to wake up and call on God. For that, the storm is actually an act of grace.

The theme of Jonah is grace. God wants to warn the people of Nineveh, to give them opportunity to turn from their sin – Grace.
God sends the storm to get Jonah’s attention – Grace.
God sends a great fish – Grace.

You see, even though Jonah has messed up and everything is not fine, through all of this, God is attempting to get Jonah’s attention, to give him a chance to turn from his disobedience…That’s what God does in your life too…

It may be that he sends some storms. It may be that you get yourself into some pickles all on your own.

But through it all, God is trying to extend his grace to you.

I had a little fun at the expense of the Buffalo Bills last week, making fun of the fact that they lost so many Super Bowls.

I mentioned that I had seen a documentary about those seasons, that on their first trip to the Super Bowl they partied and weren’t ready for the game. On the next trip they were all business and they were wound too tight.

There was another story from that documentary.

In the first Super Bowl that the Bills lost, they had played poorly and allowed the Giants to take the lead. With time winding down, they managed to make it down the field and had a shot at a 47 yard field goal.

Scott Norwood was a great kicker. He made 4 game winning field goals the previous year and was selected to the pro-bowl. The only Buffalo Bills kicker to do so…
47 yards is a long field goal, but Scott Norwood had never made a field goal of that length on a grass surface.

He missed it. Wide Right.

After the game he stayed at his locker for an hour answering the same painful questions again and again.

The following day, the city of Buffalo held a rally for the team to show their support. Different plays said a few words, but then the fans started chanting, we want Scottie.

When the team shoved Scottie to the front, the crowd applauded and cheered. They let him know he was still their kicker.

It may seem like a strange way, but when God sent the big fish to swallow Jonah, he was showing him grace.

What did Jonah expect when he was thrown into the raging sea? He expected to drown, but through the unlikeliest of scenarios, God saved him.

38Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.

39But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:

40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Just as God used the great fish to save Jonah, Jesus used a grave to save us.