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Jonah: The Prophet Who Didn’t Listen

Nearly everyone is familiar with the book of Jonah. Children, in Sunday School, enjoy hearing about the prophet who was swallowed by a whale. As it turns out, the message of the book is actually quite profound for people of all ages. It teaches about God’s justice and mercy, the need for repentance, and showing compassion to all people.

Text: Jonah 1:1-3

The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.  So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

“NO!  I’m not listening to you!”  Those were the defiant words of a preschooler who had just been told by mom and dad that it was bedtime.  His little arms were crossed, and he had the meanest expression on his face that you can imagine a five year making.  He stomped his foot, to show his parents how serious he was, and then continued his tirade.  “I’m not tired yet, and I don’t have to go to bed because I don’t want to!!!”

Those are the moments when it is so much fun being a parent, don’t you think?  (Yeah!)  I always enjoy having those conversations, don’t you?  Young children like to test the boundaries and are still trying to figure out who holds the power in their family.  Can I get my way if I throw a big enough tantrum?  Is there a point where the parents will give in, because they simply do not have enough energy to stand firm?

This little guy was determined he was going to stay up as late as he wanted that night.  He quickly changed his mind, however, when his dad gave him a stern look and told him: “Buddy, you may not want to go to bed right now, but if you don’t listen and change your attitude I guarantee you really aren’t going to like the consequence.”  It wasn’t long before the little guy scampered down the hallway and hopped in bed.

It isn’t just children who have trouble listening.  There are moments when all of us struggle to do the right thing, or to make the choices that we ought to make.  A stubborn streak runs through the human heart, and sometimes it gets the best of us.  Even after we come to know Christ as our Savior, that stubborn attitude does not simply disappear overnight.  In our heart, our desire is to live a life that is pleasing to God.  But at the same time, it can be very difficult to surrender our will to His each day.

There was a prophet named Jonah who had trouble listening to God.  The Lord told Jonah to go to a place where he didn’t want to go, and to deliver a message to a group of people he didn’t want to meet.  The prophet did more than stomp his foot or argue with God.  He disobeyed by climbing aboard the first boat he could find that was sailing in the opposite direction.  As you can imagine, that wasn’t a good decision, and he would soon learn that there are always consequences when we choose to disobey God.

Before we consider why Jonah had trouble listening to God, we’re going to spend a couple of minutes looking at the background of the book.  Who was Jonah?  When did he live?  What are some of the reasons the book was written?

Who was Jonah?

Jonah was a prophet of the Lord who ministered to the northern tribes of Israel.  We don’t know a lot about his ministry, other than what read here in these four chapters.  His name is mentioned only once, very briefly, in 2 Kings.  That passage tells us, “Jeroboam II recovered the territories of Israel between Lebo-hamath and the Dead Sea, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher.” (2 Kings 14:25) Apparently, on that Jonah brought good news to the people of Israel that there would be a period of rest from their enemies.  Jonah was from the region of Galilee, close to Nazareth.  He followed in the footsteps of the prophet Elisha, who lived a generation before him.  At the end of 2 Kings 13 Elisha dies, and in chapter 14 the next prophet we read about is Jonah.

When did Jonah live?

Jonah ministered during the reign of Jeroboam II, who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel from around 793-753 BC.  (So about 200 years after Solomon).  Although the nation had been plagued by war, this was a period of relative peace and prosperity.  The borders of Israel were expanding and the army had managed to recapture a several cities that had been lost to their enemies.  That doesn’t mean Israel was walking with God, however.  The nation was in a state of spiritual decline.  The people had forgotten all about the one true God, and worshipped idols.  The prophets spoke out against widespread injustice, and called the people to repentance, but their message was largely ignored.

What is the book about?

Jonah is a very short book. You can read through the entire book in one sitting, and I encourage you to do that each week as we work through it.  It is different from the other minor prophets.  Just about everyone is familiar with the story.  I remember the flannel graph lesson in Sunday School as a child.  But the book is much more profound that we might realize.  There are a number of important themes that it presents:

     There is a call for repentance, not only for the city of Nineveh, but also for Israel.  If the people of that pagan city were willing to humble themselves before God and seek His mercy, how much more should God’s people be willing to do the same?

Another theme has to do with compassion for the lost.  In one sense, Jonah is a missionary book, showing how God’s love extends beyond the borders of Israel to people of distant lands.  We will focus on that in a couple of weeks.

And the book wrestles with the relationship between God’s justice and His mercy.  We sometimes want God to treat our enemies justly, giving them what they deserve, but then expect Him to show mercy to us.  Jonah teaches us that God is both merciful and just, willing to forgive all who turn to Him.

That gives us an idea of the background of the book.  This morning we want to focus our attention of the first three verses.  These opening lines surprise us, and we can’t help but wonder why did Jonah respond with the level of defiance that we see here?  He was a prophet.  He was used to going wherever God directed him to go.  Why did he refuse to listen?  It might surprise us that it for some of the same reasons that trip us up, and keep us from following the Lord as we should.  Believers should listen to God, because there is never a good excuse of ignoring God’s commands.

Sometimes it is fear that keeps us from listening to God.

When Jonah heard the assignment that God was giving to him, I’m sure there was a part of him that was afraid to do what God was asking.  In verse 2 the Lord told him, “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”

If you had lived in Jonah’s day, Nineveh was not a place you would have wanted to visit. For one thing, it was in a distant land, more than 500 miles to the east, beyond the borders of Israel. The large and wealthy city was situated along the Tigris River, close to the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq.  If the prophet walked 15-20 miles a day, his journey would have lasted about a month before he came to the massive walls of the great city.

But that wasn’t the reason the prophet was so reluctant to go.  It wasn’t the distance that worried Jonah but the reputation of the people who lived there.  Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  They were the enemy of Israel.  The Assyrians were known for terrible brutality, and treating prisoners of war with unspeakable cruelty.   Archeologists have uncovered all kinds of statues, artwork, and literature in their excavations of the ancient civilization.  There are tablets celebrating military victories, depicting the soldiers of Assyria decapitating prisoners of war, or flaying them alive.  No wonder the Lord said to Jonah, “their wickedness has come up before me.”  Nearly every reference to Nineveh in the Bible describes it as an evil city.  The prophet Nahum would later write, “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!” (Nahum 3:1) Do you think Jonah was a little nervous about going to that city and delivering and warning them of the judgment to come?  Probably!  I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a place that I would want to visit.

Imagine a missionary organization, give you a call one day.  They ask, “Have you ever thought about going on a short term missions trip, it would be a great experience.”  And you say, “Sure that sounds interesting.  Where would you send me?  I would love to see the beauty of Africa, maybe do a safari in Kenya.  Or maybe you could send me somewhere tropical like Brazil.”  But the person on the other end of the phone says, “Actually, we’re looking for someone willing to go somewhere a little dangerous, where the gospel is not well received, and some of the missionaries who have visited this place have been martyred for sharing their faith.  It has the nickname: ‘the city of blood.’  Could we send you there?”  After a long pause you might answer, “I’m really sorry, but this summer is looking really busy, and I don’t have passport, and there are so many ministry opportunities right here in Ada, Ohio where it’s so much safer.  I’d  love to go, but that doesn’t sound like a place I want to go.

God often called the prophets to speak out against the nations, but rarely did he call them to go to the nations.  Jonah had every reason to feel timid, and afraid.  He would much rather take his chances at sea, than spend time with the Assyrians.

There may be times in our lives when we are afraid to do what the Lord is calling us to do.  He may not send us somewhere like Nineveh, but He does often lead His people into daunting circumstances.  We are called to live out our faith in what can sometimes be a hostile world.  We are called to share the gospel with those around us.  We are called to stand out, and hold different values, priorities, and beliefs than most of the people we meet.  Scripture never tells us it will be easy to follow Christ.  In fact, the NT tells us we can expect to face challenges and opposition.  Will you let fear hold you back and keep you from obeying the Lord?

I think of a young man who is part of his church youth group.  He loves God.  He loves studying the Bible.  He loves being a part of the youth group, and encouraging his Christian friends.  They decide that they are all going to wear their church t-shirts to school the next day.  There is a cross, and a verse of Scripture.  At first he is excited.  But then he wakes up that morning and starts to wonder, what if the other kids laugh and make fun of me?  Most of the youth group has a different class schedule than me, so I will be the only one wearing it in my class.  And so he decides not to wear it.  He makes up a story to tell the others “My shirt was dirty and my mom said she would wash it but she forgot.”  When he gets to school, he is surprised that only a few kids from the youth group followed through and wore their shirts.  They were too afraid.

We need to pray for the courage we need to obey God.  Ephesians 6:19–20 says, “and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.”  If the apostles prayed for the courage to obey God, we should too.  Don’t let fear hold you back from following the Lord.  The path God calls us to follow won’t be easy, but He will never command us to do something without equipping us to obey.  Allow Him fill you with boldness to live out your faith each day.

It may have been fear that kept Jonah that caused Jonah to defy the Lord, but there may have also been another reason as well.

Sometimes it is thinking we know better that keeps us from listening to God.

The Lord told Jonah to go to Nineveh.  The prophet had other ideas.  Verse 3 says, “Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.  So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them…”

The prophet was so determined not to obey the command of God, that he actually came up with a plan to make sure he would never find himself anywhere near Nineveh.  There was a port not far from where he lived, where he would have been able to hire a boat, probably a Phoenician merchant ship that carried goods back and forth across the Mediterranean.  He bought a ticket, and got out of town as quickly as he could.

Why Tarshish?  Probably because it was about as far away from Nineveh as you could go.  It might as well have been on the other side of the world, roughly 2,500 miles across the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Spain.

It isn’t that Jonah thought he could hide from the Lord.  He was a prophet, after all, and would have known that wasn’t possible.  He was fleeing because he didn’t like God’s plan, and was determined to have no part of it.  He must have realized knew that God had a reason for sending him all the way to Assyria.  It wasn’t simply to issue an oracle of judgment.  He could have done that from anywhere.  If God was asking him to go there in person, it could only be so the people would have an opportunity to repent.  If they humbled themselves before God, and listened to His warning, they might be spared from the destruction that was coming.  But Jonah didn’t want them to be spared.  In his mind, they deserved God’s judgment, and he was eager for fire to fall from heaven to consume them.  He will admit this, at the end of the book.

It wasn’t so much prejudice that caused him to feel this way, but concern for his own people.  If Nineveh survived, Israel was in danger.  The armies of Assyria had already threatened the land, and there was no telling how much longer it would be before they launched a full scale invasion.  In the past, God’s hand of protection had guarded His chosen people, but if they continued to rebel against the Lord, Jonah knew that it was only a matter of time before kingdom of Israel fell.  He didn’t want to be the prophet that saved Israel’s greatest enemy from destruction.  Jonah reasoned that by fled to Tarshish, Nineveh would never hear the message of warning God wanted him to deliver.  If they didn’t hear the warning, they would continue in their wicked ways.  If they continued in their ways, God would destroy them.  And then the Assyrians would no longer be a threat to Israel.  In essence, Jonah was banishing himself from his homeland, but hoped to keep his people safe in the process.  But Jonah’s plan was short sighted.  God would accomplish His purpose no matter what Jonah did.  Didn’t Jonah believe that God knew what He was doing?  Didn’t He think that God loved His people?  Didn’t he know that God’s understanding is much greater than ours?  He was exalting His will over God’s will, his plans over God’s purpose.

We do that too, sometimes.  We second guess God.  We think we know best.  We insist that our plans are better than His.  We have it all figured out, and if he would just listen us, and do things our way, it would work out the way it should.  But in reality, we’re the one who need to listen, and do things His way.

I was picking up Shay from preschool last week in Forest, and she got upset because I didn’t take the road she thought I should take.  I don’t normally pick her up from preschool, and I wasn’t heading straight home, so I turned on the GPS on my phone so I didn’t get lost in the country roads.  When it told me to turn, Shay said, “Be quiet Google.  I don’t want to talk to you.  You don’t know the right way.”  I had to explain Google was helping me, and it would be okay, we weren’t going to get lost.  But she didn’t believe me, and complained the entire way.

Sometimes we have a difficult time trusting God with our lives.  We want to be in control, and it’s difficult to let go, and follow Him not knowing why He leads us to down a certain path.  We grow impatient, and want to rush ahead on our own without waiting for His wisdom to guide us.  We need to still our anxious hearts and pray, “Lord, I admit that I can’t understand everything that is happening in my life, but I know that you do.  Help me not to insist on my own way, but to look to you to lead me.

Sometimes it is failing to take God’s Word seriously that keeps us from listening to Him.

Again, verse 1 says, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah…”  That is a familiar phrase that we read a number of places in the OT when God revealed Himself through the prophets.  Out of all the people in the world, the prophets understood the incredible gravity of God’s Word.  They didn’t preach their own opinions or ideas.  They weren’t offering suggestions for how to live a better life.  They were delivering a message from the Almighty God.

When the Lord speaks, His people must listen.  It is not something to be taken lightly, or carelessly ignored.  His Word carries authority.  There would be serious repercussions for those who did not heed the voice of the Lord.  That’s why it is so surprising that Jonah responded the way that he did.  He hadn’t received the words of some earthly ruler.  It was the Ruler of heaven and earth who had had spoken. And God’s instructions had been very clear.  He wasn’t asking the prophet if he might possibly be interested in going to Nineveh at a convenient time.  He was commanding the prophet to go, and to do so immediately. Sadly, the prophet closed his ears and hardened his heart and refused to obey the word of the Lord.

That happens often today, as well.  We would expect the unbelieving world to take a low view of Scripture.  They scoff, “why would I pay any attention to the words of some ancient book that was written two years ago?”  But what is especially heartbreaking to the Lord is when His people begin to embrace a similar attitude.  We might try to explain away passages of Scripture that we’d rather not follow.  We may argue that certain verses do not apply to us in our modern context.  Or we just ignore the plain teaching of God’s Word and quit reading it altogether

A women finishes her devotions early one morning.  She quits reading halfway through, because she doesn’t like what she reads.  “I know Christians are supposed to love their neighbors as ourselves.  But surely the Lord was not talking about my neighbor.  No one could possibly love someone like that.  I don’t care what anyone says, I’m not going to do it.”  –God’s word is clear, but she is not listening.

There is a growing trend for Christians and churches to ignore the passages they do not want to believe, or obey.  “This can’t be right God, we know better today, we will just correct this doctrine to fit with our modern views”  But they’re not listening to God, or taking His word seriously.  God’s Word isn’t meant to be helpful suggestions for us to follow when it’s convenient.  It is given as the ultimate authority for our lives.

I had a friend in high school who tried to convince his sister that there are certain stop signs that are optional. You can stop if someone is coming, but otherwise it’s okay to roll right through.  She was taking driver’s ed, and studying for a test, and he thought it would be funny to mess with her, and he almost had her convinced.  “The red stop signs with a white edge around the outside, those are the ones you can ignore.” he told her.  She realized that all stop signs are red with a white edge around the outside.

Just imagine if everyone really had that kind of attitude when towards traffic signs.  The sign reads: Speed limit 35 miles an hour, but we say, “Aw, I don’t feel like going 35, I’m in a hurry, who cares what the sign says.”  It says, School Crossing, we’re supposed to slow down and yield to pedestrians, but we say, “I don’t think so, I’m late for work, people are going to have to get out of my way.”  It would be chaos.  If we respect the command of traffic signs, how much more should we respect the commands of God?  His authority is infinitely higher than any human authority.

One Christian author writes, “All the words in the Bible are God’s Words, therefore to disbelieve or disobey any words in Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 90)

It’s not just parts of the Bible, that are inspired, but the entire Bible.  It’s not just the sections that appeal to us, but every page matters.  James 1:22-25 tells us,

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”

Conclusion

A child who refuses to listen to mom and dad gets themselves into all kinds of trouble.  He may not realize that mom and dad have his best interests in mind.  They’re not being mean.  They tell him when its bed time because they want him to be well rested the next day for all of the activities they have planned.  He is going to miss out, if he is too tired.

Our Heavenly Father also has our best interests at heart, and wants us to obey for our good.  We get ourselves into all kinds of trouble when we refuse to listen to His Word.  a.) Ask for courage, don’t be intimidated by the world thinks of you when you live for God… b.) Remember that God’s wisdom is greater than ours, He sees the big picture, we don’t… c.) Choose carefully when determining what the ultimate authority for your life will be.  If God is speaking, we must listen.

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