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Jonah 1 - The Sovereignty of God

Join us as we study this prophetic narrative about a poetic prophet.

Written by David Steltz on .


We’re going to be spending the next few weeks diving into the book of Jonah, and I’m excited – I think both Mike and I are excited to share what we’ve been learning from and through and about this book!

Let’sbegin with prayer. Father, let your words speak to our hearts today in such a way that we experience you and learn about you, and may our response, whether in praise, or grace, or repentance, be glorifying to you.

OK, the book of Jonah! If you want to find your place there you can, we won’t be moving around much today. But before we get into the story, I’m curious to see by show of hands: how many of you are at least a little bit familiar with the story of Jonah?

It’s one of the most popular stories from the Old TestamentIt’s one of those names that’s really widely recognized, and even paired with an associated image from the story! Like Noah’s Ark, or David & Goliath,” or “Daniel & The Lion’s Den” we have “Jonah and…?”

And that’s probably the first picture that comes to your mind when you think of Jonah. Countless children’s books are titled things like “Jonah and the whale” or “Jonah and the very big fish” Or maybe, like I did as a kid, you’ve seen the veggie tales Jonah movie! That was very popular when it came out!

The story of Jonah is a very popular story for kids books and cartoons and story time…because it’s a good story and it’s written in a style that’s almost like a comic book!If there were a sort of “Comic-Book” genre in ancient Jewish literature, this would be like a script for a very colorful and exciting and bewildering comic book.

And it’s still a captivating story today for children, and that’s cool!And it’s awesome that many children do learn about it and become at least vaguely familiar with the concepts in it. Telling Bible stories to kids is important! And Veggie Tales made a great movie! The problem is, too many of us never bothered to take another look at the story as adults, or never studied it more carefully, with attention to detail and appreciation for some of the nuances and themes and patterns that you just don’t pick up on as a little kid. But we “know the story” and that’s enough.

But to leave at that is to really miss out on a lot that’s going on in this book, and miss out on what really the main points of the book are! So, I hope that as we study together, even if you’re familiar with the story, that you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the book of Jonah. In fact, even if you have studied it in depth,there’s always more to see. 

A few of you might remember we actually did a series, well, Mike did a series through the book of Jonah a few years agoAnd this series I think is going to look a lot different from that one! And I’m not saying that just because I’m helping with this one, I’m fairly certain that even if Mike was doing it again by himself, it would still be a totally different series than the first one. Not in a contradictory way, not even in a better way, just having a different experience, a different perspective on the text from before, and that’s just the awesome way God can speak to us through scripture for well beyond a lifetime’s worth of reading and studying and meditating.

But that’s enough said, for now, about the book! Let’s, before we get any further, just read through the story. RIGHT NOW. We cannot publish the entire book online due to copyright, so pause and read it in the bible you have with you or on your app. 

Why Jonah?

That’s quite a story!What do we do with that? Why is this story in our Bible?And I don’t mean how it was canonized. Assuming that there is some value in knowing this story, where is that value? Well, I can tell you one thing: It’sNOTthe fish! The fish is cool and all, but…the story is NOT about the fish. And it’s not even about Jonah! OK, the story is about Jonah, but the value of the story is not in knowing that Jonah was just a horrible guy. Which he was, by the way, especially for a prophet!And it’s NOT valuable for having a practical list of actionable items you can take away from it. You just won’t find that here!

The Value

So, why Jonah? I want to share with you a quote from the Expositor's Bible Commentary, from the end of Jonah:

"Quite simply, the book contains no call to action. It is, rather, a revelation of God’s character and attitude toward his creation given to Jonah and through Jonah to Israel and to us."

That is the #1 primary value in reading this book: a revelation of God’s character and of his attitude toward his creation. And this is actually typicalof biblical narrative. Usually the main point is to reveal something about God, not to provide a list of things to do or not doForgetting that is how we get into those traps in our exegesis and preaching, that Mike was talking about last week.


And a few weeks ago Mike also brought up the topic of genre and style, and how we need to approach different types of literature in the bible differently. And there are a lot of different literary styles in the Bible! So,how should we approach the book of Jonah?


Well, I’ve been calling it a story, or a narrative, but it’s actually a little bit more complex than thatFirst of all, remember how I said it almost reads like a comic book? Well, if it were to be subcategorized under that, purely in the sense of the general tone of the book, it would have to be something like satire.Here’s the definition of satire:

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices

That’s how this story comes across! It’s like reading a political cartoon or watching a skit on TV, where the situation is so extreme or unexpected that it makes a point.

Satire is usually fiction, though, and I believe Jonah is historicalnarrative, in that it’s the story of something that actually happened.But that point is usually the main point of contention with Jonah, and it’s where the conversation often gets hung up. Which is a shame. And it usually comes down to the fish, and whether or not any of it could have “possibly” happened.

But, again, the story is NOT about the fishIt’s a cool part of the story, but the message behind the story really doesn’t hinge on the fish.If you believe in the God of the bible, then it’s not hard to takethe story in Jonah historically accurate, but at the same time, if that’s the main thing you’re concerned about, then you’re kind of missing the point.


So anyway, the genre is biblical narrative, but it has the flavor of satire, but this guy Jonah, he’s also a prophet? And isn’t that why we’re studying Jonah in the first place? Because we’re studying the books of the prophets?

Yes! Jonah is one of “the twelve” – we call them minor prophets, and in Jewish tradition “the twelve” referred to one volume, alongside the 3 other prophetsSo Jonah is a part of that category of “prophets.” 

We recently went through the book of Malachi, which is the last of the twelveHow does that book begin? “A pronouncement: The word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi.”

Or you can flip forward to the book right after Jonah, which is Micah. That begins almost the same way: “The word of the LORD that came to Micah the Moreshite…”

This is the telltale marker that you’re about to read a book of the prophets. They all begin with very similar phrases, some of them use the word “vision” instead of “word” but it’s the same concept. And how does Jonah begin?

“The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:”

Disorienting Literature

So if you were a Jewish reader, just making your way through the prophets, and you’re reading “The Twelve” by the time you get to Jonah, you’ve already read through Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah: four prophets which read pretty similarly to Malachi. You get to Jonah, you see “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai” So you go “Oh, ok, I know what to expect next: some kind of message to some city or some people group about what God’s going to do, or how he feels, or what they’ve been doing wrong, something like that.”

And then there is one sentence, in verse 2, from God. The rest of chapter 1 is narrative, telling the story of what Jonah proceeded to do. Now, some of the other prophets do include some snippets of stories from their lives, but Jonah is the only book of the prophets that actually tells a complete narrative from beginning to end.

So it’s hard to pinpoint one style or genre for Jonah to fit into. I think the best way to describe it is as a prophetic narrative about a poetic prophet.The story itself reveals something about God, AND points to Jesus. So in that sense, the story IS a prophecy. But it’s also a story about a prophet, with a whole chapter dedicated to a poetic prayer.

And that makes Jonah very unique. In fact, I think it’s meant to be a bit disorienting and even shocking. It’s very backwards, from the very beginning. It’s upside-down. It starts off like a prophecy and then goes right into narrative. 

Ironic Name

Here’s another piece of irony that starts right from the beginning: his name! The name “Jonah” is the Hebrew word for “dove.” Doves, in the bible, are a symbol of purity, holiness, and innocence.  His Father’s name, “Amittai,” means “faithfulness. So “Jonah son of Amittai literally means “dove, son of faithfulness.” The word of Yahweh comes to “dove, son of faithfulness” and in verse three, the dove flees from Yahweh. That’s not very holy or faithful at all, is it! In fact, he went the opposite direction of where God told him to go.

That’s just the first 3 verses! And already we have this brilliantly dense literature that is pulling us into an upside-down, surprising, ironic, and extremeworld. That backwards approach is a motif to look for throughout the rest of the book.

First Theological Theme

And then verse 4 introduces the first major theological theme, when it saysthe LORD HURLED a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm.” Now, this hyperlinks to all kinds of other things throughout scripture, but at its core, it’s making a simple theological statement of God’s sovereignty over nature. You see it all throughout the book! (Before and after the fish is on the scene, by the way!)

That’s the first main point: It’s not an action point, there’s nothing you can DO about it, it’s simply something to believe.It’s a statement of truth. God is sovereign over creation.It’s kind of an obvious one though, it’s the premise established in Genesis 1:1 that provides the fundamentals for understanding everything in the rest of scripture.So it’s not a unique quality that Jonah asserts God’s sovereign authority, but it is an important statement nonetheless.

It’sinteresting that I haven’t heard as many arguments, if any, as to whether or not God really did or could cause a storm to put the ship in distress. The argument’s always about the fish. Why is that? For some reason, the idea of “God” being responsible for weather is almost obvious. Even in secular contexts, for legal purposes for example, events related to weather and nature in general are often referred to as “Acts of God.

And even these pagan sailors who were on the ship with Jonah had the intuition and tradition to recognize divine intervention. They were not familiar with Yahweh, but they each had their own “gods” who they worshipped, and they assumed one of them was angry. And after crying out to their gods, they get busy hurling stuff overboard!

Sidenote: notice repeated words like “hurl” or “throw” and the word “great” or “huge”

Jonah’s Sinfulness

Meanwhile, while the sailors are pleading for their lives, Jonah is down in the lowest part of the ship…hiding, sleeping. At this point, by running away in the first place, he’s demonstrated a disregard for the fate of the people in Nineveh, and now also for his own life and the lives of those around him.

But the captain shakes him awake and says “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”come, call out to whatever god you worship and actually do something to contribute to our situation…out of the chance that it might possibly do some good.

This is another example of just how backwards the story is. Prophets of God are supposed to be the ones shaking sense into the stupor of other people, and here we have a pagan captain waking up dove, son of faithfulnessto implore him to be faithful (by praying). Which, by the way, there’s no indication of doing at that time. So the pagans were more committed to prayer than the prophet. #BACKWARDS!


And then they cast lots. In verse 7.And in doing so, Jonah was singled out. Lots are an interesting topic. Basically, it was like throwing dice. Or drawing straws. It was a randomized act of chance, the outcome of which was left up to higher powers. This was obviously a common pagan practice, but it was actually a Jewish tradition too. The priests would use the Urim and Thummim in a similar way, to discern God’s will.

In both cases, the understanding was that the outcome was subject to divine authority, and the Jews understood that authority to be the sovereignty of Yahweh. Consider Prov. 16:33

Proverbs 16:33 (NLT)We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines how they fall. 

Proverbs 16:33 (LEB)The lot will be cast into the lap, but all of its decisions are from Yahweh. 

The lot singled out Jonah, and again we see God’s sovereignty in that outcome. So, the attention turns to him, and they demand an introduction: “Who are you? Where are you from, why are you here, what’s going on?”

And his answer is so interesting. It’s thick with irony: “I’m a Hebrew. I fear Yahweh, the god of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”

He claims to fear Yahweh, makes a statement about Yahweh being the creator of the world and thus having authority over the current, stormy situation. And yet we know that he’s on the run from Yahweh, which he must realize deep-down is impossible, and on top of that, it’s clear they’re all in danger because of him!He is not bearing the name of Yahweh very faithfully.

The other men, they ask him for advice. What should we do? More specifically, “What should we do TO you?” Their assumption was that Jonah’s God was angry and required some form of recompence.

Now, Jonah knows about Yahweh. He knows he’s merciful. In fact, that’s why he was running in the first place. He comes out and says it in chapter 4 verse 2, remember? “This is what I said while I was still in my own country…That’s why I fled in the first place, I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster.

So, before he ever got on the boat, he had this understanding of God, and yet when confronted in the storm, he told the men to throw him overboard, to kill him, rather than repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, and choosing to obey instead of run away.

He would rather DIE, putting his blood on the hands of those sailors, than admit his sin and see God be merciful towards the city of Nineveh. Some dove, son of faithfulness, eh? In my opinion, reading Jonah’s actions as a selfless self-sacrificial act of heroism that sort of redeems him, is just not accurate. There’s nothing to indicate God told Jonah to tell them to throw him over, and there’s nothing to indicate any sort of repentance or remorse on behalf of Jonah.

Pagans Doing Great

Meanwhile, these pagan sailors have outstanding and heroic moral stamina, and they do everything they can to avoid killing Jonah. But the storm just doesn’t relent, in fact if you compare the language in verses 4, 11, and 13, it gradually builds in the intensity of the storm.It’s a very colorful and effective way to build suspense in the story.

Eventually they do throw him overboard, but they cry out to Yahweh for forgiveness while they do it!That’s something Jonah never bothered to do!

And after they throw him over, everything quiets down, which confirms that it was indeed Yahweh, Jonah’s God, who was responsible for the storm. 

In response, they offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows, presumably to recognize him as “one of” their gods, but it’s significant that it says the men were seized by a “great fear of Yahweh” (there’s that word “great” again!) Jonah was the one who said he feared and worshiped Yahweh, and now here the pagans are the ones fearing and worshipping Yahweh. It’s totally backwards.And on top of that, they declare the sovereignty of Yahweh. AGAIN we see this concept, in their statement “You, Yahweh, have done just as you pleased.”

The Fish

And then FINALLY in verse 17we have the first of only 3 verses to mention the fish. The fish swallows Jonah, who hangs out in its belly for 3 days and 3 nights. We’ll come back to that at a later time, but for now I want you to primarily notice how the verse begins: “Yahweh appointed a great fish…” That word appointed is another word you’ll see repeated several other times, and it’s yet anotherstatement or acknowledgement of Yahweh’s sovereignty! That’s 5 times in just the first chapter:

  • Yahweh hurled a great wind onto the sea.
  • The lots (determined by Yahweh) singled out Jonah.
  • The storm immediately calms down after Jonah is disposed.
  • The sailors acknowledge that Yahweh has “done just as he pleases.”
  • The fish was appointed by Yahweh.

The events of chapter 1culminated in Yahweh’s authority being recognized, and his name being worshiped. The sailors are never mentioned again, so we really don’t know what happened with the rest of their lives. Once the fish comes in, we’re swept away to a totally new scene, and even a whole different literary genre in the next chapter. But, the stage has been set, and you’ve entered this upside down, bizarro world where the pagans do everything right and the prophet does everything wrong, but through it all, one of the core messages is still that God is sovereigneven when it seems like everything is backwards.

There is a LOT more to be said, and to explore, but for now, I want to leave you, not with 3 application points, because Mike when he preached about preaching preached not to preach 3 application points just because we’re Baptist. 

It’s not that this story is without application. But for now, I want us to take this book and use it as a way to reflect on who God is. And I guess I do have a call to action for you. A challenge. But not derived from the story, rather I just encourage you to read the book. Several times. Throughout the week. It doesn’t take long! Read it in multiple translations, look for repeated words and concepts, look for theological truths, and ask questions. Ask questions. There are a lot of questions that can be raised in Jonah! Whether or not you actually ask another person, write it down, ask yourself, reflect on it, and just allow yourself to wrestle with the concepts presented in Jonah. 

We’llbe exploring and wrestling and looking at lots of different layers together on Sunday mornings, but I can only ramble for so long…or at least I should only ramble for so long.

But we’re going to take our time with this book. SoI’m trying to resist, and asking you to resist as well, from rushing to conclusions or charts or paradigms or checklists. Rather, allowing God to reveal himself to us through His word, and letting that not only be “enough” as the takeaway, but also realizing it’s the most valuable treasure we can find no matter where we look in scripture.

And maybe at the very end we can make some charts and checklists. For now, let’s pray.

Lord God, creator of heaven and earth and everything that has been created, I’m in awe that we can come before you and address you as our Father. We seek the glory and honor of your name as your servants in your kingdom. Lord, we recognize your sovereignty and submit ourselves in service to your will. And we ask, God, that you would reveal yourself to us and teach us how to know you more and love you more fully, with everything we are. Provide for us, Lord, and teach us to be patient and content with what we have. Forgive us, in the name and by the blood of Jesus, our many debts to you, and teach us to forgive with the depth with which we’ve been forgiven. Let your spirit guide our path and keep it straight, as we strive to love you fully and love our neighbors as ourselves.



Jonah 1 - The Sovereignty of God