Jonah Lesson One: Jonah 1:1-17 – Jonah’s Disobedience

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted  Me.” However, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s presence. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, from the Lord’s presence. 

Then the Lord hurled a violent wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart. The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship’s cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep. 

The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won’t perish.” 

“Come on!” the sailors said to each other. “Let’s cast lots. Then we’ll know who is to blame for this trouble we’re in.” So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business and where are you from? What is your country and what people are you from?” 

He answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship Yahweh, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” 

10 Then the men were even more afraid and said to him, “What is this you’ve done?” The men knew he was fleeing from the Lord’s presence, because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you to calm this sea that’s against us?” For the sea was getting worse and worse. 

12 He answered them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea so it may quiet down for you, for I know that I’m to blame for this violent storm that is against you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they couldn’t because the sea was raging against them more and more. 

14 So they called out to the Lord: “Please, Yahweh, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For You, Yahweh, have done just as You pleased.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 

17 Now the Lord had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights. (HCSB)

As we begin our study of the book of Jonah, let’s look at facts known about Jonah.

  • Jonah was the son of Amittai – 2 Kings 14:25.
  • Jonah was from Gath Hepher, located in the territory of Zebulun in the Northern Kingdom – Joshua 19:13.
  • Jonah prophesied either during or shortly before the time of Jeroboam II – 793-753 B.C.
  • Jonah was a successor to the prophet Elisha.

Now, let’s look at historical facts about the city of Nineveh.

  • It was an ancient city dating back to around 4,500 B.C.
  • It was one of the major cities of ancient Assyria.
  • Nineveh was built by Nimrod – Genesis 10:11.
  • During the reign of Sennacherib, it was an extremely important city and, at one point, was the capital of Assyria.
  • It was located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, opposite the modern-day city of Mosul, north of Zab.
  • Its “greatness” was a reference to its size, not its reputation.
  • Nineveh was Israel’s worst enemy at the time.

Finally, a look at Assyria.

  • It was an ancient empire that was considered the symbol of terror and tyranny in the Near East.
  • It was located in northern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq.
  • It derived its name from the city-state of Asshur.
  • The city of Asshur was the center for worshipping the sun god Asshur.
  • The Assyrians were known for their brutality.
    • The grandson of Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal, was known for tearing off the hands and lips of his victims.
    • Tiglath-Pileser would skin his victims alive and make large piles of their skulls.
    • They would bury their victims alive.
    • They would impale them on sharp poles exposed to the hot sun.

Now that the stage has been set with an understanding of Jonah, Assyria, and the city of Nineveh, let’s start digging into the first chapter.

I’ll separate the chapter into three parts.

  • God’s command – verses 1-2.
  • Jonah’s response – verse 3.
  • The consequences of disobedience – verses 4-17.

God’s Command

The book begins with the phrase, “the Word of the Lord,” a phrase which only opens one of the books of the Bible in Jonah. The phrase occurs in many other biblical books but in the setting of a larger narrative. The phrase occurs seven times in Jonah, clearly indicating that even though Jonah was attempting to run from Yahweh, God never gave up on Jonah speaking God’s message to the city of Nineveh.

Verse two is short but packed with meaning.

  • “Get up!” is a call to take action. In this case, prepare for the journey and task Yahweh had prepared for Jonah. The prophet was assigned a mission from Yahweh.
  • “Go,” implies a sense of urgency to the mission. Jonah shouldn’t take his time; he must set out immediately for Nineveh.
  • I’ve already mentioned the word “great” is simply a description of the size of the city and not a reflection of a positive reputation in the region.
  • “Preach against it,” indicates a prophetic word from God against the city.
    • Jonah’s message would inform them that their wickedness was known by God.
    • The message would also be a proclamation of a coming judgment for their wickedness if they didn’t repent.
    • At this point, there are no further details about God’s message. However, from various sections of Jonah, we can conclude what those details included.
  • “Their wickedness has confronted Me” gives the reader the sense of the great sin committed by the Assyrians.
    • All sin is an affront to God.
    • Biblical writings include examples of specific groups of people who had become so wicked that God made a special call for localized judgment against them.
    • The Assyrians now had a bullseye of judgment placed squarely on their back.

Jonah’s Response

Verse three contains three main points in Jonah’s decision not to obey God.

  • The destination of Tarshish.
    • The significance of the destination is underlined by the fact Tarshish is mentioned three times in one verse.
    • At this point in history, the Phoenicians were the major sea-faring nation in the Mediterranean. Joppa was the major port in Palestine. 
    • Tarshish was a Phoenician city in southern Spain, just west of Gibraltar.
    • In essence, Tarshish was the westernmost point of the “world” as it was known at the time.
    • Jonah was attempting to flee to the “end of the world” in an attempt to disobey God.
  • Jonah’s decision and following (likely) actions indicated a deep and planned out act of disobedience.
    • The decision to flee to Tarshish indicates Jonah didn’t plan on returning.
    • The cost to sail to “the end of the world” was likely not a small fare. 
    • Jonah would have sold his property and possessions before heading to Joppa.
    • Jonah used the proceeds to pay his fare.
    • What we see is not a spur of the moment; I made a bad decision act by Jonah. Instead, his response to God’s instructions was a deliberate one that required planning.
  • Jonah fled from the LORD’s presence.
    • First, it’s important to note Jonah didn’t believe he could actually escape from the purview of God.
      • Numerous passages in the Old Testament prior to Jonah’s life clearly indicated Israel didn’t believe Yahweh to be a local deity.
      • Jonah affirms this in 1:9 by his description of God.
    • In the case of Jonah, it declares his unwillingness to serve God.
      • We already know that Jonah was a prophet of Yahweh.
      • If a prophet is unwilling to pass along the message entrusted to them, they were renouncing their role as a prophet.
      • Jonah’s actions signify open rebellion against God and His sovereignty.
    • The reader, at this point, may consider that Jonah didn’t go to Nineveh because of fear.
      • Scripture has numerous examples of prophets being called to speak against other nations. And outside of Amos’s visit to Israel, no other prophet had made a “personal appearance” to speak the prophecy in the presence of a foreign or enemy country.
      • In this case, Yahweh was asking Jonah to make a personal appearance and speak a word of judgment against a nation well-known for its brutality.
      • While it’s true Jonah may have feared for his safety, it’s clear that wasn’t the predominant one. If we fast-forward to 4:2, we see the reason is that Jonah “feared” the Assyrians would repent!

We could summarize the first three verses with three statements.

  • God calls people to serve Him.
  • God cares enough about sinners to send a message of hope, love, and grace.
  • No one can run from God.

The Consequences of Disobedience

We see from the very beginning of this section of the passage that God’s response to Jonah’s disobedience wasn’t long in coming. God was going to use Jonah’s disobedience as a “teaching moment” for the wayward prophet. 

Let’s consider the storm.

  • Storms were not uncommon at sea.
  • However, this was no ordinary storm. This was a storm Yahweh would use to teach Jonah a valuable lesson and to introduce himself to the sailors who may not have heard of Him yet.
    • It was a “violent wind” that God sent. We don’t know exactly how strong, but it was strong enough that the ship was in danger of breaking apart. When we add the fact that the ship was going to make a journey to the “end of the world,” it is safe to assume the ship would have been one of the largest in the merchant fleet.
    • God aimed the wind right at the ship carrying Jonah, much like a warrior hurls a spear at an enemy. 
    • The term “threatened” used here is one used in Hebrew to denote a human or divine subject and means to consider or plan. When understood in this light, the ship is personified and was determined to break apart. 
    • We should understand verse four to signify a cooperative effort controlled by God between the wind, sea, and the ship to thwart Jonah’s plan of running away from his calling.

Let’s look at the actions of the captain and the ship’s crew.

  • The storm was strong enough that each one “cried out to his god.”
    • An indication the crew was made up of sailors from multiple countries or locations.
    • Even though these were likely experienced sailors, their reaction indicates a powerful storm and/or a brooding uneasy feeling about the nature of the storm.
  • In an attempt to lighten the load and prevent the ship from sinking, the crew began to throw the cargo overboard.
  • While this was going on, Jonah had gone to the belly of the ship and had fallen asleep.
    • It’s possible he was physically exhausted from traveling to the port and boarding the ship.
    • It’s possible, but not likely, that the tossing of the ship made him sleepy.
    • It’s possible Jonah was suffering from spiritual and emotional exhaustion from his decision to turn and run from God.
  • The captain approaches Jonah and tells him “get up” and to “call” out to Yahweh in the hope that Jonah’s “god” will save them. Each of the phrases in the original Hebrew bears significance.
    • “Get up” is the same phrase Yahweh used when He commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh.
    • “Call” is the same verb as preach. 
    • It’s possible the captain felt it was Jonah who was responsible as he was the only one not making an appeal to a deity.
  • With no progress being made in appealing to the various deities called upon, the sailors relied on a standard practice at the time, the casting of lots.
    • The standard way of casting “lots” was to throw two stones, which were painted on one side.
    • If two unpainted sides landed up, the verdict was “no.”
    • If two painted sides landed up, the verdict was “yes.”
    • If the result was one of each, the lots were thrown again.
    • The casting of lots signified Jonah was in some way responsible for the storm.
  • Although the sailors use a similar phrase, “who is to blame,” both before and after the casting of lots, there is a different nuance to the question being asked.
    • Before the casting of lots, they wanted to know who was responsible for the storm.
    • The question posed after the lots singled out Jonah refers to the sailors wanting to know about Jonah; who he is, why he is on the ship bound for Tarshish, and his country of origin and people group.
    • They wanted answers quickly since their lives were in danger, and they wanted to understand why the storm was happening.

Now, let’s look at the discussion between Jonah and the crew.

  • For the first time in the book, Jonah speaks.
  • Jonah answers their questions with a simple, two-pronged response.
    • First, he was a Hebrew. By calling himself a Hebrew instead of an Israelite, Jonah was using terminology that would be familiar to the crew.
    • Second, Jonah worshipped Yahweh, “the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”
    • The original Hebrew for worship used here is understood as “fear” or reverent awe and respect. By using this terminology, Jonah explicitly lets them know it was his actions that caused the storm.
    • Since Yahweh was the creator of the sea and the land, He was the creator of the storm.
  • Once the crew heard Jonah’s answers, they were even more afraid. The expression in the original Hebrew would be understood as “they feared with a great fear.”
  • Their fear was two-fold.
    • They were horrified the storm was a divinely initiated judgment.
    • They were filled with a holy fear because Jonah served a “god” who controlled everything.
    • To run from a god was foolish; to run from the “God of the heavens” was suicidal.
  • Their next question, “what have you done” is not a question that requires a response. It was a question/statement that equaled an admission of horror regarding their situation. The depth of their fear increased.
  • The sailors had now determined who was responsible for the storm and why the storm occurred. They were unfamiliar with the angry deity. Now, they wanted to know what could be done to appease Yahweh.
  • Considering Jonah’s actions to this point, his response to the sailor’s question is quite fascinating.
    • Jonah’s response is a confession of his responsibility.
    • Jonah understands his actions have resulted in a storm that was threatening to sink the ship and kill everyone on it.
    • He then tells the sailors to throw him overboard so the storm would stop.
      • Jonah’s actions don’t exhibit any sense of repentance.
      • Instead, being thrown overboard was simply a solution to the problem.
      • We know from his actions in chapter four he wasn’t showing compassion for the pagan crew. Instead, it seems it was his conscience directing his actions.
      • Jonah wasn’t willing to throw himself overboard. It could be because of fear, or it could be he viewed the crew as agents of God’s punishment.
  • At this point, the sailors are in a quandary. They feared Jonah’s God but weren’t willing, at least not at this point, to throw him into the sea.
  • Their solution was to try to get back to land and rid themselves of the troublemaking cargo.
  • However, their attempts proved futile. The harder they rowed, the worse the storm became.
  • As the situation worsened, they realized the only solution was to follow Jonah’s advice. The solution is an illustration that repenting from rebellion and disobedience often requires a radical solution.
  • Before the sailors follow through on Jonah’s solution, they make a three-fold petition to Yahweh.
    • First, understanding that Jonah is the one responsible for the storm, they make a plea they won’t die because of Jonah’s actions. They might have also feared they might face some type of judgment for throwing Jonah overboard, indirectly killing him.
    • Second, because the sailors were not a witness to Jonah’s actions and Jonah hadn’t been convicted in a legal hearing, they used the term “innocent” when describing Jonah.
    • Third, the sailors indirectly charged Yahweh as “guilty” in the judgment of Jonah. They understood Yahweh’s power and wanted to reaffirm their innocence in the event which was about to take place.
  • The sailors then picked Jonah up and threw him overboard.
    • It appears the effect on the storm was immediate, as the “sea stopped its raging.” 
    • Jonah was proven correct that Yahweh did control the seas.
  • The impact on the sailors was profound. The “fear” they felt was the same reverent fear or awe that occurred in verses five, nine, and ten.
    • In this case, it resulted in submissive actions on the part of the sailors towards Yahweh.
    • We don’t know what they “sacrificed” to Yahweh and what vows they made.
      • The cargo had been thrown overboard earlier.
      • The transport of edible animals on ships was a rare occurrence.
      • It could mean they threw their idols overboard as an acknowledgment of Yahweh’s power.
  • We now get to one of the most recognized and debated verses in the Bible; a fish swallowing Jonah and his “captivity” for three days.
    • First, there is no doubt Jonah’s survival in the belly of a fish for three days is a miracle.
    • Second, for those who believe this part is fictional, if God was able to speak creation into existence, why is it not possible for God to protect Jonah for three days and nights in the belly of a fish?
    • The word “appointed” occurs four times in Jonah and always points to Yahweh’s power to accomplish His will.
    • We shouldn’t get caught up in trying to determine what type of fish swallowed Jonah. Doing so is a red herring to deflect us from the bigger picture in the book. 

When we take a broad summary look at the first chapter of Jonah, we see an illustration of what occurs when followers of Christ backslide in their relationship with Him.

  • There are numerous causes of backsliding.
    • A wrong attitude toward God’s will.
    • A wrong attitude toward witnessing.
    • A wrong attitude toward enemies.
  • The path of backsliding is downward.
    • Down to Joppa.
    • Down into the ship.
    • Down into the sea.
    • Down into the fish.
    • Disobedience always leads downward.
  • The consequences of backsliding are tragic.
    • No longer hearing God’s voice.
    • Losing spiritual energy.
    • Losing the desire and power of prayer.
    • Losing the ability to witness to pagans.
    • Losing influence for good.

However, even in backsliding, God will pursue the backslider to restore the broken relationship.


  • When God has a message or plan for you, pursue it and don’t run from it.
  • Don’t let your actions break your relationship with God.
  • When you realize you’ve been disobedient, repent and return to God in humility and submission.    

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