Jonah and the Big Fish

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The account of Jonah and the big fish is one of the best known and favorites of all the “Sunday school stories.” While most know the story, it teaches deep and incredible principles for the people of God.

Think break: 

Read the book of Jonah (It’s a short book of the Bible).

As you read, what lessons did you notice?

Jonah: A Man on the Run

First, Jonah emphasizes the importance of obedience to God. The prophet is commissioned in Jonah 1:2 to go to Nineveh and give them a word of warning from God because of their evil. The very next verse tells us of his immediate disregard as he chooses to go the opposite direction! There are times when our disobedience sprouts from inward struggle or painful indecision, but Jonah seems to make his mind quickly that he will not be going on this prophetic mission. 

One of the beautiful lessons for believers that grows out of Jonah’s disobedience is the overwhelming power of God. Not only does God see where Jonah is going, He has power to intervene by causing nature to serve His purposes. God creates (He hurls or sends out) a huge storm for Jonah’s escape boat to the point that the mariners are fearful of death and begin praying to their pagan gods for deliverance. Further, we see God’s complete control over this storm as it ceases upon them throwing Jonah overboard. Then God is described as “appointing” (ESV) or having “prepared” (NKJV, etc.) the fish to swallow Jonah (1:17). He also appoints a worm and the wind in 4:7–8 to teach Jonah later. What this appointing means is somewhat unclear. Did he “prepare” a fish to be physically able to swallow Jonah whole or did He simply command a fish big enough to swallow him to do so? I don’t know what all this entailed, but this I firmly know: God is presented as powerful and able; thus, He should be feared and respected.

Jonah: Praying with Humility

Jonah teaches us how to humbly pray to God. In chapter 2, we read Jonah’s prayer from within the belly of the fish. While it takes a poetic form, it becomes clear that Jonah’s situation was growing desperate as he sank in the water and thought he would meet death. His prayer is focused on God’s deliverance and provision–which saved his life. Ironically, after the pagan mariners had prayed to their gods and then praised THE God, Jonah ends his prayer with “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (2:8–9). He realizes that God offers “steadfast” or enduring love and has provided another chance for him to obey.

Jonah and Repentance

Upon being vomited onto the shore, Jonah is again told to go to Nineveh. This time, he promptly begins his journey there. Here we see the power of the message from God. The short message is “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4). Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. Historically, we know of the brutality, sickening inhumanities, and terrifying oppression the Assyrians showed during battle and afterwards to survivors. Those accounts could give nightmares even to the brave and calloused. These people were known for their outspoken approaches to creating fear in the hearts of those who opposed them and their wickedness as a people were plain and obvious. Thus, a message of impending destruction catches their attention easily and causes widespread repentance. When we view God’s messages of repentance today, are we as quick to surrender our will to His?

After witnessing the change of heart of the Ninevites, Jonah displays emotion that perhaps we didn’t see coming. The prophet is shown to be sulking and angry that Nineveh was spared! What a hypocritical approach from a man whose life was spared just a short bit ago! Could it be that Jonah ran away from God’s instruction because he thought they weren’t worthy of His grace? Could it be that Jonah desperately wanted them to be condemned? These seem his exact reasoning as we read Jonah 4:1–2. We learn a hard lesson as we watch Jonah ask to die rather than watch Nineveh receive mercy from God. This hateful, hypocritical attitude seems to be the same as the older brother exhibits in Luke 15 in the conclusion of the parable of the prodigal son. This viewpoint says, “They don’t deserve grace!” Yet what Jonah overlooks is that we all need grace! Romans 3:23–24 points to the undisputable fact that everyone has sinned before God, but they can find grace through Christ. 

More than a Fun Story

In looking at the book of Jonah, I hope we don’t simplify it to the point that we lose the lessons that even the most mature Christians need to hear or be reminded of. God’s Word is deep and powerful, and we learn profound lessons in this short 47-verse book of the Bible! I hope we see the incredible power of God showcased in Jonah. I hope we seek repentance as quickly as those of Nineveh. I hope we are more forgiving and merciful than Jonah turns out to be.

Think on or Discuss the following:

  • While reading the story of Jonah did you notice any details that you didn’t remember?
  • Which lesson did you need to learn most of all out of the various lessons pointed out in this devotional?
  • What is irony and how does it play a role in the story of Jonah?

More Devotionals:

Look at the lessons from the story of Cain and Abel 

Be reminded the importance of obeying God: Noah and the Ark

Want to change the world? Jesus’ World Changing Instructions

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