- a story of repentance, forgiveness and mercy
- the sign of three days and three nights
- a reminder that God loves even our enemies
[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. —1 Timothy 2:4
For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation. —Luke 11:30
The setting is the northern kingdom of Israel. The timeline is during the reign of King Jeroboam II (somewhere around 790 to 750 B.C.).
Many kings had ruled Israel by this time, including the infamous King Ahab, with whom the prophet Elijah had experienced such conflict. After the prophets Elijah and Elisha finished their work, we begin to hear of Jonah.
Israel’s main enemy at the time was the neighboring nation of Syria. But there was a mighty nation to the northeast that lay like a powerful, sleeping giant beginning to stir: Assyria.
The Assyrians were known as fierce warriors, and they caused much fear and destruction wherever they conquered. The Israelites were already too familiar with the violent Assyrians, having lost in battle to them roughly 70 years earlier. No doubt stories of their violent methods of warfare had spread throughout Israel.
And at the heart of the Assyrian territory was the oldest and most populous city of Nineveh.
Factoid: Nineveh is located in modern-day Iraq. When Jonah was asked to go there by God, he instead fled west by sea to Tarshish. The exact location of Tarshish is a matter of debate, though some have guessed it to be as far away as modern Spain. Viewing these areas on a map gives us a good understanding of Jonah’s travels. Clearly, he was trying to avoid going inland to Nineveh.
Surely Tarshish is far enough away from God’s presence and I won’t have to go to Nineveh.
Story and Study
Running from God
Ba bump, ba bump.
Jonah’s footfalls crunched through the sandy clay as he hurriedly made his way to the boats docked along the waters of the large seaport of Joppa. He looked around hastily, his eyes searching each ship to find what he was looking for. Finally he spotted it: the perfect escape. He hurried toward the boat and approached the men who were preparing the sails for their journey.
“Where is this ship headed?” Jonah asked.
“We’re heading to Tarshish,” one man replied as he looked Jonah up and down suspiciously. Tarshish was west of Israel, far from Nineveh, the city where God had told him to go.
“Perfect,” Jonah told the man as he paid his fare and boarded the boat.
As the boat pushed off from shore, Jonah watched Israel, his beloved home, grow smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the horizon behind him. Now, he thought, surely Tarshish is far enough away from God’s presence and I won’t have to go to Nineveh.
And with that, he went below deck to get some rest for the journey ahead.
These people were enemies of his people, Israel. And yet God was telling Jonah to go to them and ask them to change their ways?
An unwanted message
Just days ago Jonah had received a message from God: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2).
“Nineveh!?” Jonah repeated the name of the city in disbelief. His stomach boiled with anger, disgust, betrayal. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, the people who laid waste to cities and spread terror wherever they went.
These people were enemies of his people, Israel. And yet God was telling Jonah to go to them and ask them to change their ways? Did He want to be their God too? Surely He was the God of Israel, not the God of Nineveh! They had their own pagan gods they worshipped, yet God seemed to care for them as well. But weren’t they a threat to His chosen people, Israel? The very descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?
I won’t do it, he said to himself through a clenched jaw. Jonah knew God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in kindness. But he couldn’t accept that God would be willing to offer a chance of forgiveness to the enemy.
In anguish he cried out to God, “Lord, please don’t make me go to Nineveh!”
But God was not going to change His mind. Jonah just couldn’t bring himself to deliver a message from the God of Israel to Ninevites, so he decided to flee. He would go somewhere God couldn’t find him—to a new land to start over.
Factoid: Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, was thought to be founded by Nimrod. Find the story of Nimrod in Genesis 10:8-12.
Pause for Thought: How would you feel if your mother or father came to you and wanted you to forgive someone who had been name-calling and bullying you and your friends? You might feel frustrated or unappreciated for doing good yourself. You might even think the bully deserved fierce punishment. But what if they genuinely apologized for their words or actions? Would you be ready to forgive them?
Could it be that God had sent this wind just for him? That He wasn’t just the God of Israel, but of the surrounding sea too? And more?
A mighty storm
Jonah was suddenly awakened by an arm angrily shaking him. As his eyes opened he could see the ship’s captain standing before him with a look of deep distress.
“What are you doing, sleeper!?” cried the captain. “Get up and pray to your God! Maybe He will consider us so that we don’t perish.”
Jonah could see now that the captain was drenched with water from head to toe. He could hear men shouting above him, smell the salty air of an angry sea, and feel the waves crashing against the boat in a jerking motion that made his skin prickle with fear.
As he made his way above deck, he could see the men were all praying to their gods. They had tossed the cargo that threatened to sink the ship overboard and into the water below. But it was of no use. The wind would not let up.
Jonah’s heart fell. Could it be that God had sent this wind just for him? That He wasn’t just the God of Israel, but of the surrounding sea too? And more? Had Jonah limited God’s power in his own mind by thinking he could run away?
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you.”
The men decided to cast lots and Jonah was not surprised to find that the lot fell to him. He knew what they had to do. But the sailors were amazed to hear the prophet say, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me.”
How could they do such a thing? Instead they tried to row to safety, but the storm was too powerful. With sorrow they prayed that God would not hold them responsible for what they were about to do. Then they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea. Almost instantly the waves covered the prophet, and then he was gone and the surface of the sea was calm. Astonished by this display of absolute power, each of the sailors stood in awe of God, gave Him a sacrifice, and made vows to Him.
Factoid: Casting lots was an ancient tradition to reveal the will of God. We don’t know exactly how it was done, but we can make an educated guess that each person was given a stone or stick, with one marked in a special way—one stick shorter or one stone a different color, for example. The practice is similar to rolling a die or flipping a coin, while asking God to determine the outcome.
The smell of rotting fish and seawater, the squishy surface and the constant bobbing. Was he inside a large sea creature!?
Journeying into the depths
Jonah hit the warm waters of the sea with a splash. The waves quickly enveloped him and overpowered his body. He could feel seaweed wrapping around his head as the waves swept over him. He tried to kick up to the surface, but no air was found—only waves and water. His mind turned to God as he prayed for rescue, but no hand reached down to grasp his, no eagle swept beneath the water to carry him to safety. He began to sink. Down, down, down ... until his lungs screamed for air. Then everything went black.
He awoke suddenly, throwing up great amounts of salty water that he had swallowed on his way down. He coughed and sputtered and wheezed in breathable air with relief. His eyes slowly opened and he blinked. He was surrounded by darkness. He waved his hand in front of his eyes. Nothing.
He could feel himself sitting in water. And the smell! Oh! It was awful! He’d smelled dead fish before, but this—this was an all-encompassing stench. Whatever craft he was in, he could sense himself moving back and forth, back and forth, traveling within this ... this ... wait. The smell of rotting fish and seawater, the squishy surface and the constant bobbing. Was he inside a large sea creature!?
Factoid: Was Jonah swallowed by a large fish or a whale? In the original languages of the Bible, there was no distinction between aquatic mammals and fish, so you’ll find both words in references to this story. As far as Jonah was concerned, he was being transported by a monster of the sea—perhaps a fish, perhaps a whale, perhaps something unique like the leviathan referenced in the Old Testament. Whatever creature it was, it’s clear that God provided it to preserve Jonah’s life.
Weak, trembling, and with a deeply humbled heart, Jonah again prayed to God and promised to carry out the message to Nineveh.
Three days and three nights
It had been three days and three nights since the great sea monster had swallowed Jonah. He was trapped, completely stuck inside this creature in the middle of the sea. He was starving, thirsty beyond belief and feeling completely hopeless. He had seen no evidence that God had received the prayers he had offered up these last three days.
As the great fish continued to carry him deep within the sea, he knew he couldn’t survive much longer in this state. Weak, trembling, and with a deeply humbled heart, Jonah again prayed to God and promised to carry out the message to Nineveh.
“You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered You; and my prayer went up to You, into Your holy temple,” prayed Jonah. Thinking of his special mission to deliver a message to Nineveh, he added, “I will pay what I have vowed.” (You can read all of Jonah’s moving prayer in Jonah 2.)
Hearing Jonah’s heartfelt prayer, God spoke to the sea creature. With a great big splash, it spit out Jonah and he fell in a heap onto dry land. As the prophet became aware of his new surroundings, he heard God’s message again: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.”
So Jonah took a deep breath of fresh air, stood up, and started toward Nineveh.
It would take him three days to walk through it, just like the three days he had spent inside of the sea creature.
The great city
As Jonah drew closer to the great city of Nineveh, he prepared himself for what he would say to the people he did not want God to forgive. He looked up to see the outline of the city looming in the distance. It would take him three days to walk through it, just like the three days he had spent inside of the sea creature.
As he entered within the city walls, he began his message by crying out, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4).
The prophet’s message had an almost immediate impact. As Jonah had suspected, the Ninevites did in fact heed the warning message he brought from God. The king even proclaimed a fast, setting an example for the people, and the whole city turned from its evil ways. God saw their works and humble repentance and chose not to destroy them at that time. (Later, they showed this was just a temporary repentance and sadly returned to their ways of wickedness, so God allowed them to be defeated by armies of the Babylonians and Medes around the year 615 B.C.)
God sent a plant to grow to give him shade, a welcome relief in the dry heat of the desert.
When Jonah heard the news of Nineveh’s repentance, he felt defeated. He was not joyful or glad that these previously wicked people had turned to God. He was angry and frustrated, but also deeply sad. His gracious God had completely forgiven Nineveh’s evil acts, many of which had been done to Israel—the people that tried to follow God (although they, too, had fallen short many times).
Jonah went outside of the city and built a shelter for himself to get out of the hot sun. There God sent a plant to grow to give him shade, a welcome relief in the dry heat of the desert. He sat thinking about all that had come to pass and eventually fell asleep.
But when we awoke the next morning, the plant was shriveled and wilted. Sure enough, Jonah could see a worm had eaten it so much that it had begun to die. No longer did the plant give shade. No longer could it bring any comfort to Jonah as he sat there alone in his sad state.
And with the morning light came a very forceful wind that blew on Jonah as the glaring sun beat down upon him. Jonah couldn’t take it anymore! The anger and sadness and the perceived unfairness of it all was too much for him. All that he had been through! Why? For what?
God looked down on Jonah in His everlasting compassion and saw him in his plight. Very patiently, He corrected the sullen prophet: “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
The story ends so abruptly that we are only left to imagine what may have happened next. Surely God’s words would have cut to Jonah’s heart, but what would his actions be? Would he go on in future days to view Nineveh and other enemy nations as people God cares about, too, and yearn for them to repent? Or would he wallow in self-pity, failing to see God’s great plan for all people to be a part of His family?
He’s not just the God of one country or one sea. He’s the God of the universe who created it all!
You can’t hide from God. He’s not just the God of one country or one sea. He’s the God of the universe who created it all! He has a purpose and a plan for His creation—especially for human beings (Hebrews 2:10).
God’s purpose will come to pass. We can either turn from it and suffer the humbling consequences, or we can embrace it and experience the joy of participating in God’s work, trusting in Him to see us through all things.
Jonah didn’t know it then, but his story foreshadowed an even greater event that we can read about in the gospels.
How many days and nights was Jonah in the belly of the sea creature?
Why didn’t Jonah want God to forgive Nineveh?
Another event recorded in the Bible happened for three days and three nights. Do you know what it was? Jonah didn’t know it then, but his story foreshadowed an even greater event that we can read about in the gospels: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The exact amount of time that Jonah was in the belly of the great sea creature was symbolic of the time Jesus would spend in the grave before His resurrection from the dead. Jesus Christ validated the truth of the book of Jonah by giving a very specific prophecy about how long He would be in the grave after his death: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
1. Why did Jonah think he could run away from God? Is it possible to hide from God? Refer to Psalm 139.
2. Discuss the words repentance, forgiveness and mercy with your child and consider in what ways we should extend forgiveness to others. Discuss our role in the Millennium and how forgiveness will be so vital.
3. Does God tell us to love our enemies? How can we show love to our enemies? Why should we do it? (See Luke 6:27-36 for some ideas to spark a conversation.)
Trapped in Darkness
Go into a very dark space like a closet or put a blanket over a table. Think about how Jonah would feel being trapped in such a dark space for three days and nights. Without being able to see, do your other senses become heightened?
Try out what it would be like to “cast lots.” Find several similar small rocks or sticks and change one to have a different quality. Maybe snap one stick much shorter or paint one of the rocks white on one side. Grab some siblings or stuffed animals and give each a “lot.” See who “wins.”
What Timeline Is It?
There are several dates referenced in this lesson. Seeing dates on a timeline can help history make more sense because it helps us see how one event flows to another through time. Cut some pieces of construction paper to about 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide and tape them together lengthwise so they form a long strip. Draw a line along the length of the strip and place hash marks at key moments in history, labeling the date and event. This lesson references the following dates or historical events:
Nimrod founds Nineveh (post-Flood)
Assyria defeats Israel in battle (roughly 850 B.C.)
King Jeroboam II rules in Israel (790 to 750 B.C.)
Jonah prophesies to Nineveh (around 770 B.C.)
Nineveh falls to the Babylonians and Medes (roughly 615 B.C.)
Further Your Study
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When God proclaimed a drought on Israel, the prophet Elijah was sent to deliver the message to King Ahab. How would God protect and provide for His servant during such uncertain times? Read More >
Imagine being abducted at a young age, taken to a foreign land away from everything familiar, and placed as a servant in a wealthy household. Learn about the courageous faith of a young girl and a miracle performed through God Read More >