Jonah’s Justice

Scripture: Jonah 1:1-16


Title: Jonah’s Justice



  • Introduction – Nineveh
  • Jonah and God (vv. 1-4)
  • Jonah and the sailors (vv. 5-16)
  • Conclusion



Today we begin a new sermon series on the city of Nineveh

–         According to Genesis, Nineveh was founded by Nimrod (the great grandson of Noah and a mighty warrior & hunter) [1]

–         Archaeologists have found pottery at the site of Nineveh which dates back to 3000 BC – so Nineveh was a very ancient city indeed

In Old Testament times Nineveh was located in the Assyrian Empire – what we today would call Northern Iraq (about 220 miles north of Baghdad)

–         The Assyrian Empire doesn’t exist anymore but back in the day the people of Nineveh were Israel’s enemies

–         At the height of their powers (during the 7th Century BC) the Assyrians controlled a vast area – reaching down through Palestine into Egypt

–         The residents of Nineveh had a reputation for cruelty and violence

–         Consequently the city of Nineveh was considered an evil place – sort of like Sodom & Gomorrah or Babylon


The two books of the Bible which have the most to say about Nineveh are the prophets Jonah & Nahum

–         We are going to start our series on Nineveh by looking at the book of Jonah and, depending on how that goes, we may look at the book of Nahum later in the year

Jonah was a prophet who lived in Galilee (that’s the northern part of Israel)

–         We read about Jonah in 2 Kings chapter 14 – where he successfully predicted king Jeroboam II would recapture some of the lands of Israel to restore its former borders

–         In other words, Jonah gave the king of Israel confidence to fight and reclaim lost territory for Israel

–         This was a good message to bring – a patriotic message


It also tells us Jonah lived and prophesied in the 8th Century BC, so he came after Elijah & Elisha, but before Jeremiah

–         Jonah was a contemporary of Amos & Hosea

Please turn with me to Jonah chapter 1 – page 895 in your pew Bibles

–         We can’t be certain but the story of Jonah is probably set about 750 years before Jesus when the Assyrians were on the rise – just before they became a super power

–         From Jonah chapter 1, verses 1-16 we read…


One day the Lord spoke to Jonah son of Amittai. He said, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and speak out against it; I am aware of how wicked its people are.” Jonah, however, set out in the opposite direction in order to get away from the Lord. He went to Joppa, where he found a ship about to go to Spain. He paid his fare and went aboard with the crew to sail to Spain, where he would be away from the Lord.


But the Lord sent a strong wind on the sea, and the storm was so violent that the ship was in danger of breaking up. The sailors were terrified and cried out for help, each one to his own god. Then, in order to lessen the danger, they threw the cargo overboard. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone below and was lying in the ship’s hold, sound asleep.

The captain found him there and said to him, “What are you doing asleep? Get up and pray to your god for help. Maybe he will feel sorry for us and spare our lives.”


The sailors said to each other, “Let’s draw lots and find out who is to blame for getting us into this danger.” They did so, and Jonah’s name was drawn. So they said to him, “Now, then, tell us! Who is to blame for this? What are you doing here? What country do you come from? What is your nationality?”

“I am a Hebrew,” Jonah answered. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made land and sea.” 10 Jonah went on to tell them that he was running away from the Lord.


The sailors were terrified, and said to him, “That was an awful thing to do!” 11 The storm was getting worse all the time, so the sailors asked him, “What should we do to you to stop the storm?”


12 Jonah answered, “Throw me into the sea, and it will calm down. I know it is my fault that you are caught in this violent storm.”


13 Instead, the sailors tried to get the ship to shore, rowing with all their might. But the storm was becoming worse and worse, and they got nowhere. 14 So they cried out to the Lord, “O Lord, we pray, don’t punish us with death for taking this man’s life! You, O Lord, are responsible for all this; it is your doing.”


15 Then they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea, and it calmed down at once. 16 This made the sailors so afraid of the Lord that they offered a sacrifice and promised to serve him.


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

Irony - polar bear

Jonah & God:

Here we have a road sign saying, ‘Watch for ice’, with a polar bear slipping over in the background – this is a picture of irony


Irony, in this sense, is when the situation seems to reverse normal expectations

–         We wouldn’t expect a polar bear to fall over on the ice, so it is ironic

–         The book of Jonah is full of irony – especially chapter 1


The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh to speak against it because of its wickedness

–         This is not what Jonah expected

–         Normally in the Old Testament when prophets were asked to speak against foreign nations they simply did it from the relative safety of Israel

–         But in this situation, God actually wants Jonah to go to Nineveh in person


The difference is this…


If you preach against your enemies at home, then people will applaud you

–         They will take heart and gain hope from your message

–         Not only that but your enemies are unlikely to hear your message and therefore even less likely to change their ways and be forgiven


But if you go to your enemies and preach to them, then you are putting yourself at great risk

–         It would be like God saying, ‘Go to ISIS controlled territory (in Iraq) and preach against their violence’

–         You would expect to be killed

–         Having said that, there is an outside chance they will listen, change their ways and be forgiven – after all, you wouldn’t expect God to send you unless he thought there was some possibility of success


Jonah doesn’t like what God is asking him to do so he lodges a protest with God

–         The opening chapter doesn’t record Jonah’s protest – it presents Jonah as silent on the matter

–         But chapter 4 makes it clear that Jonah had words with God before going

–         As we shall see, Jonah was not afraid of dying

–         Jonah was afraid he would be successful – that the people of Nineveh would be conscience stricken by his message, repent and be forgiven


This also is ironic – a prophet who doesn’t want his message to be successful

–         Jonah didn’t think God should forgive the Assyrians

–         Jonah believed in justice and forgiveness isn’t fair

–         Just as there was no room for Jesus in Bethlehem – there is no room for forgiveness in Jonah’s heart

Instead of obeying God, Jonah goes to Joppa, pays his fare and gets on a boat bound for Tarshish – in Spain

–         Now Tarshish is in the opposite direction from Nineveh

–         In Jonah’s day Tarshish was considered to be on the edge of the known world

–         The point is, Jonah was trying to get as far away from Nineveh (and from the presence of the Lord) as he possibly could


Now when it says that Jonah was wanting to flee from the Lord, it doesn’t mean that Jonah somehow thought he could outrun God or go somewhere that God wasn’t

–         As a prophet Jonah knew that God was present everywhere in the world

–         Jonah ran away from Israel because Israel reminded him of the Lord and he didn’t want to be reminded of what the Lord wanted him to do


The band U2 have a song, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’

–         The words go like this…


I want to run, I want to hide

I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside

I want to reach out and touch the flame

Where the streets have no name


The walls that hold me inside’ are the things that restrain us and make us feel trapped on the inside

–         And I interpret ‘Where the streets have no name’ to be a place that is unfamiliar to you – a place you don’t know at all


I’m not sure what Bono meant by those words but they speak to me of a person (like Jonah) who is wanting to run away from something but feels trapped

–         If you’ve lived in the same place for a while then you build up this library of memories – some of them good and some of them bad

–         And those memories are attached to places – to streets with names

–         So every time you go down a particular street it reminds you of something – perhaps a failure or a regret or even worse, something good that you’ve lost


My grandfather used to take me fishing when I was kid

–         We had some great times in this little aluminium dingy of his

–         He was good to me – we were close

–         When he died I inherited the dingy

–         Funny thing is I never took it out on the water again

–         I can’t really explain it but perhaps it reminded me of my loss

–         Fishing without my grandfather just wouldn’t be the same


I reckon Jonah wanted to go somewhere completely new where the street names didn’t have any memories attached to them – where he wouldn’t be constantly haunted by what God wanted him to do or by what he had lost

–         For Jonah, Spain was a place where the streets had no name

–         A place where he wouldn’t be reminded of the Lord

–         Of course, Jonah’s action in running away from God was like playing with fire – reaching out and touching the flame – he would get burned


Now at this point God has a choice

–         He can either replace Jonah – cut him loose and ask someone else to go to Nineveh in his place

–         Or, God can go after Jonah and turn him around


We’ve just completed a series on the 23rd Psalm and have learned that the Lord is not inclined to cut his sheep loose

–         If a sheep wanders off and gets lost then the Lord (who is a good shepherd) goes looking for that sheep in order to restore it to the flock

–         This is exactly what God does with Jonah

–         God, in his goodness, pursues Jonah – he doesn’t give up on him


Verse 4 tells us how God sent a wind on the sea that was so violent the ship was in danger of breaking up


Jonah & the sailors:

It must have been a pretty bad storm because the sailors, who were used to high seas, were terrified

–         The fact they threw cargo overboard tells us this was a serious situation


But throwing cargo overboard is not the first thing the sailors do

–         These sailors are not atheists – they are pagans

–         They don’t know about Yahweh, the God of Israel, and yet they are still religious in their own way

–         Their first response is to pray – each to his own god

–         Their gods are not real and have no control over the elements but the sailors don’t know that


What makes this scene highly ironic is that Jonah (the prophet) is fast asleep while the pagan sailors are praying

–         We would expect Jonah to be leading the prayer meeting, not sleeping through it


That Jonah is able to sleep so soundly through such a violent storm tells us that his conscience is not disturbed

–         We would expect Jonah to be feeling some degree of guilt or shame and therefore not to be sleeping well – but apparently he is comfortable with the decision he has made


Why is that?

–         Well some people might say it’s because Jonah has hardened his heart

–         But I don’t think so – that doesn’t fit with Jonah’s character

–         He’s actually a fairly sensitive bloke


I reckon Jonah is able to sleep easy because, in his mind, he is acting with integrity


Jonah’s belief in justice – that people should get what they deserve – is so strong that it allows no room for God’s grace or forgiveness


You know how in a forest the larger trees overshadow the smaller saplings

–         So the light doesn’t get through and those smaller plants don’t ever get a chance to grow

–         Well it’s a bit like that with Jonah


In Jonah’s heart and mind justice is the really big, dominant tree in the forest – and mercy or forgiveness is the sapling that just doesn’t get a chance to grow

–         Jonah believes the people of Nineveh should not be given an opportunity to repent and be forgiven

–         In his mind that wouldn’t be fair, not after what they’ve done

–         God has to prune the trees of justice in Jonah’s mind to let the light of his grace through and allow the saplings of forgiveness to grow


Any guilt that Jonah may feel as a consequence of disobeying God is absolved by his self-imposed exile

–         Jonah is consistent – if he doesn’t obey God’s word then he doesn’t deserve to live among God’s people

–         Which may be part of the reason he takes himself off to Spain


Unfortunately, acting with integrity doesn’t guarantee that you are right

–         It is possible to be perfectly consistent and yet still be wrong


It seems to me that Jonah has confused justice with God

–         While it is true to say that ‘God is just’

–         It does not automatically follow that ‘justice is God’

–         God is free – both free to punish and free to forgive – that’s what makes him God

–         If God had to submit to Jonah’s idea of justice then he wouldn’t be God


The captain has to go and wake Jonah

–         “What are you doing asleep”, he asks, “Get up and pray to your god for help. Maybe he will feel sorry for us and spare our lives.”


Irony again

–         The pagan captain is basically saying to Jonah, “Pray for mercy”

–         This is what Jonah should be saying to the people of Nineveh

–         But Jonah doesn’t believe in mercy – he believes in justice

–         Despite the captain’s call to prayer Jonah doesn’t pray at this point – he is giving God the silent treatment


The sailors draw lots to find out who is to blame

–         We can’t be sure, from this distance in history, what ‘drawing (or casting) lots’ involved, but it was something like throwing dice

–         If your number came up then you were it

–         Surprise, surprise, Jonah’s number comes up


The sailors ask Jonah a series of quick fire questions and Jonah responds…

–         I am a Hebrew

–         I worship Yahweh, the God of heaven who made land and sea

–         And, I’m running away from the Lord


Now the sailors are even more afraid

–         But their fear this time is different

–         At first they were simply afraid of dying

–         Now they’re afraid because they have become aware they are in the presence of such a great and powerful God

–         It’s that sense of wo-oh – this is for real

–         We are not alone, we are in the presence of someone or something that we do not understand and cannot control


The sailors are absolutely shocked that anyone would disrespect their God like that – especially a God so powerful


The waves were getting worse so the mariners ask Jonah, “What should we do to stop the storm”,

–         And Jonah replies, “Throw me into the sea and it will calm down”


Now this is a brave and interesting move by Jonah

–         There was more than one way to stop the storm

–         Jonah could have cried out to God for mercy and forgiveness

–         The Lord would have stilled the waves and the sailors could return Jonah to Joppa


But Jonah doesn’t do this – sadly his integrity gets in the way

–         Jonah wouldn’t ask for forgiveness and mercy for himself all the while expecting justice and judgement for the people of Nineveh

–         No – if they deserve justice, then so does he

–         Jonah may be wrong but at least he is consistent

–         Jonah would rather be thrown in the sea and die than ask the Lord for forgiveness – that’s how tight his integrity is


As Terence Fretheim points out…

–         “Jonah admits that he is guilty, yet he will not repent. And so he will satisfy God’s justice. He will take upon himself what he deserves…

–         In a clever move Jonah has here succeeded in throwing the ball back into God’s court. He will show God how to act justly” [2]


We the audience are left wondering, ‘How will the Lord respond?’


That Jonah is willing to sacrifice himself to save the pagan sailors also shows us that Jonah wasn’t against Gentiles (or non-Jews)

–         Jonah’s resistance in going to Nineveh wasn’t a racial thing – it was a justice thing


Like Jonah, the sailors have integrity too

–         They are not about to throw Jonah overboard if they can help it

–         Ironically, they try to repent on Jonah’s behalf – they try to row back to shore

–         But it’s no use – you can’t repent for someone else, they must do it for themselves


The wind and waves just get worse

–         In the end they realise there is nothing else for it

–         The sailors pray to Jonah’s God – to Yahweh – asking for mercy,

–         “O Lord, don’t punish us with death for taking this man’s life”


Yet again we see the irony…

–         Jonah won’t pray to the Lord (he won’t ask God for mercy, even though he knows he’ll get it)

–         But the pagan sailors do ask, even though they’re not sure of the outcome


As soon as they throw Jonah in the drink, the sea goes calm

–         At this the sailors fear the Lord


The Hebrew word for fear (yara) is the same as for worship

–         So to fear the Lord (in this context) is to worship the Lord


The sailors have been pretty consistent through all of this

–         They have been afraid the whole way along

–         But the nature of their fear has changed

–         In the beginning, when the storm started, they were afraid of dying

–         But in the end, when the stormed ceased, they feared God


Two quite different types of fear

–         When you are afraid of dying then you tend to do stupid things

–         But when you fear the Lord, you make better choices

–         The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom

–         The sailors’ fear of the Lord led them to offer sacrifices to him and promise to serve him


Again there is this beautiful irony

–         Jonah’s disobedience to God results in the sailors’ conversion

–         God doesn’t waste anything, especially not our mistakes

–         If Jonah hadn’t got on that boat to Spain the sailors would never have come to know the Lord

–         They would never have experienced the reality of God’s power like they did in that storm and the calming of the storm

–         Nor would they have met a prophet like Jonah to interpret God’s power for them


And that’s the fascinating thing right there

–         God’s power in and of itself was not enough to change the sailors

–         The storm is inarticulate – it doesn’t make sense

–         God’s power by itself just makes the sailors more afraid of dying

–         The sailors need Jonah to articulate God’s purpose in the storm

–         When Jonah interprets the events for them then the sailors’ fear is transformed from soul destroying appeasement to life giving worship


We might think the part we play in God’s plan of salvation is unimportant

–         And while it doesn’t depend on us entirely God does give us a vital role

–         Like Jonah we may be called upon to interpret God’s power

–         The wonderfully ironic thing is that it’s through his weakness that Jonah interprets God’s power

–         It is when Jonah confesses his wrong doing that the sailors come to know God’s grace



Some Biblical commentators are pretty hard on Jonah

–         They think the moral of the story is, “don’t be like Jonah”

–         But I don’t think that’s point at all

–         I like Jonah – he is honest and he is brave

–         And most importantly he points to Jesus


The name ‘Jonah’ means dove

–         Doves were used by the poor, in ancient Israel, as a sacrifice to the Lord

–         If you couldn’t afford a lamb or a goat then you sacrificed pigeons or doves instead

–         Jonah (the dove) sacrificed himself – he put himself at risk – for the sake of those who did not know the Lord

–         Remind you of anyone?  (That’s right – Jesus)


Jesus had integrity – he believed in justice, but not at the expense of grace and mercy

–         God is free – free of our expectations

–         We must have a belief system (a theology) which is spacious enough to allow room for both justice & mercy

–         We don’t want to let the tree of justice grow so large that the sapling of forgiveness has no light to grow


Let us pray…








[1] Genesis 10:8-11

[2] Terence Fretheim, ‘The Message of Jonah’, page 88-89.