One “Whale” of a Story!

Imagine sitting on a Mediterranean beach sometime around 766 B.C.  Suddenly, as you’re watching the waves pounding the shore, a whale comes within close sight and projectile vomits out “something.”  Later, you discover it’s “someone” – a seaweed-covered, wrinkled man.  It’s a disgusting spectacle, but one for the books.

Jonah and the whale is one of my favorite Old Testament stories.  As a boy, I marveled at the run-away preacher who got swallowed by a great fish.  As an adult, I marvel at the imagery and suspense of the whole story.

These four chapters are fast moving and action packed.  Many who renounce the literal interpretation of the Bible struggle with the idea that a man could possibly survive in the belly of a great fish (whale) for three days.  However, our Savior recognized Jonah as an actual historical figure, so that’s good enough for me.  If Jesus confirmed the story, it has to be true!

Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples, “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).   

Entire volumes have been written about the book of Jonah but generally speaking, it tells the story of an evangelist, who because of personal biases and attitudes, decided to run from his God-given assignment.  However, the deeper issues in this story are often overlooked for more surface discussions. 

I love preaching that confronts root issues. The intrigue of the book often skims the real meaning; and in typical Old Testament fashion cries out for the reader to explore the “story behind the story.”  One preacher dubbed this account, “The Gospel According to Jonah.”  Allow me to summarize the four chapters of Jonah by using the following recap:   

Chapter one  — In a Fix

Chapter two – In a Fish

Chapter three – In a Revival

Chapter four – In a Rage

In a Fix

Chapter one sets the stage for the entire drama.  Jonah received his marching orders but refused to comply.  “Go to Nineveh,” the Lord said.  Instead Jonah boarded a vessel headed for Tarshish, located in what is now Spain.  But because the Lord is more concerned about WHO we are than WHAT we do, He caused a severe storm, which threatened the lives of the entire crew; and Jonah, per his request, was cast into the sea.  God had prearranged a whale to temporarily house the wayward preacher!

In a Fish

Chapter two describes incidents inside the whale’s belly, and records the only prayer meeting of its kind in history.  Jonah is taken deep below the surface, where seaweed (and whatever else) surrounded him.  You talk about cramped quarters! He did what you and I would do – he prayed.  You think! “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you Lord…” (verse 7).

While in the depths of the sea, Jonah experienced an attitude change.  He said, “I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you.  What I have vowed I will make good.  Salvation comes from the Lord” (verse 9). The Lord had his full attention but still, root issues inside him became exposed in chapter 4. First, let’s summarize chapter 3.

In a Revival

In this chapter Jonah fulfills his mission.  He goes to Nineveh, a city of about 120,000 people who needed to repent for their military atrocities. The Ninevites were a warrior people, who had a reputation for plunder and violence.  Jonah’s message was direct:  “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (verse 4). Then something both phenomenal and of course, supernatural happened!  Conviction seized the masses – including the king – and they repented immediately.  The king issued a decree (verses 7-10):  “Let everyone call urgently on God.  Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows?  God may relent and with compassion turn from His fierce anger…” 

What a great revival!  A crowd the size of many of Billy Graham’s crusade audiences totally repented.  Any preacher today would give his left arm for such preaching results!  Ashtabula County boasts a population of 98,632 (as of 2015), so that puts Jonah’s results into a cool perspective.

In a Rage
Then we read chapter four.  The preacher shows his real motivation.  Ironically, it made him mad when the entire city repented of their evil ways.  Yes, you read this right.  He got angry!  He pouted outside the city.  In the heat of the day, God used a fast-growing vine to temporarily shade the contorted evangelist.  Subsequently, God sent a worm to destroy the vine and expose the preacher’s heart.  What an incredible object lesson!

Jonah secretly hated the Ninevites and was surprised when they responded positively to his message.  His deeper issue was called into question.  God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”  Jonah replied, “I do.  I am angry enough to die” (verse 9).

And like usual, God had the final word:  “Jonah, you have been more concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow…But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city” (verse 10)?

Root issues in the book of Jonah beckon us to search our heart and ask the hard questions:

1.  What motivations drive our actions?

2.  Do we love people like we truly should?

3.  Are we happy when others, perhaps totally different from us, experience the blessings of God?

4.  Do we secretly hold anger and hard feelings toward people God has called us to serve?

5.  And many more…

The “Gospel According to Jonah” bids us to search our hearts and make sure our motivations line up with the heart of God!   



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