Jonah in the mouth of the whale

Kenley’s Sermon on Jonah

Jonah in the mouth of the whale

(14 questions)

First..apologies…this sermon was written (and executed) under the influence of a bad cold. Thus my limited intelligence has been further impeded…

Although sometimes a sermon topic jumps out at me, I really like it when church members suggest ideas for a talk. With the help of her mom Randi, Kenley came up with today’s subject–the book of Jonah.

On the surface it might not seem like great sermon fodder–you know, Jonah is a pretty simple story:

  • God commands Jonah to go tell the Ninevites they are going to get destroyed.
  • Jonah tries to escape on a ship.
  • God sends a storm.
  • Jonah ends up in a fish.
  • Jonah gets his head on straight.
  • The fish vomits up Jonah.
  • Jonah tells the Ninevites they are going to be destroyed.
  • The Ninevites repent.
  • God relents.
  • Jonah gets angry because he knew God would show mercy.
  • God tells him he shouldn’t be angry.

Not a whole bunch to it…doesn’t seem much more complex than a children’s story, does it?

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

Why Jonah is a good subject

But the book of Jonah is a great subject for a sermon…and it has far more to it than a children’s fable.

First, it is nicely “contained” in 4 chapters–in my travel TNIV it only takes up 2 pages. Although it has plenty of material to do multiple talks, it is much easier to do Jonah justice in 20-30 minutes than say a book like Matthew, with its 28 chapters.

Second, it’s a great story that everyone can appreciate (the ESV Study Bible calls it a “literary masterpiece”). It has exotic locations, a rebellion, a huge storm, a happy ending–and you get an excuse to say vomit in church! ☺

But more importantly it touches quite a bit on two very important parts of theology…theology proper and anthropology.


So, what is theology? With “theo” (God) and “ology” (study)…it would seem to be the study of God. “Theology,” however, is more universal…my Mac defines it as “the study of the nature of God and religious belief” and then tacks on a bullet which says it is “religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed.” Theology is the study of religious beliefs.

Theology proper

That’s why the term “theology proper” exists–that is the portion of theology that is the study of God Himself.


That leaves us with “anthropology” to still define. What is anthropology? My Mac is quite succinct in saying it is “the study of humankind, in particular.”

The book of Jonah teaches us a lot about God and about man…

One of the reasons Jonah is such a great book to study is because it teaches us so much about God (theology proper) and man (anthropology).


14 Questions

I know it may be hard to believe about a book that only has 4 short chapters, but it was initially difficult to choose how to preach about Jonah. Should I take the congregation step-by-step through the story? Review the original language and note things like it uses the same Hebrew word, ra’ah, 9 times (translated in the ESV as evil, disaster, displeased, and discomfort)? Some other approach?

Something that jumped out at me was the ESV Study Bible’s comment that Jonah had 14 questions. I really had never consciously noticed there were so many…so I went through Jonah yet again to find all fourteen questions…and going through those questions together seemed like a great way to drive a sermon. So, let’s see what those 14 questions tell us about God (theology proper) and about us (anthropology).

Question #1

Just because it give us a good headstart in the story, we’ll find the first question by reading the first 6 verses of Jonah (even thought he first question doesn’t show up until verse 6):

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish” (Jonah 1:1-6).

So, what was the first question? It was the exasperated, fearful captain asking Jonah, “What do you mean you sleeper?”

What does this question tell us about God? On the surface it may not seem like much…but let’s remember why the captain asked it. Jonah tried rebelled against God’s command and God sent a storm.

What this question tells us about God is He will do what it takes to get our attention–and that He is not limited in his options.

What does that question tell us about man? So…we know from Jesus’ own lips that Jonah was a prophet (Matthew 12:39). It would seem that as such Jonah knew (a) he couldn’t get away from God; (b) God was all powerful; and (c) God doesn’t take kindly to being disobeyed. Yet here he is sleeping as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. This question…or rather the fact that it had to be asked…show how we humans can have the clearest knowledge of something and still be “thick as a brick”–and that we can be very, very comfortable in our sin. Jonah took a ship the exact opposite direction that our Lord commanded him to go, and instead of having his conscience keep him from sleeping, even a ship-wrecking storm couldn’t wake him up.

Questions #2 through #5

The next 4 questions come together in rapid fire. The sailors cast lots to see who is responsible for their predicament, and the lots fell on Jonah. Then we read:

Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you? (Jonah 1:8)

The sailors naturally want to know more about the person who has brought imminent destruction on them…

What do those questions tell us about God? Nothing really…but they do tell us a lot about the seamen’s perception of gods. Bad things happen because you have made god cranky. (The Bible, however, tells a different story…but that’s outside the scope of this sermon.)

What do those questions tell us about man? First, connected with what was just noted, that we have a messed-up perception of how God works. Bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. Now clearly that isn’t the only misconception we have about God…and not everyone has that misunderstanding…but you must admit it is fairly common even today.

Second, it tells us that often our beliefs are tied to where we’ve grown up–that too often people’s religious beliefs have nothing to do with logical (or spiritual) acceptance of truth–instead are the fruit of the random nature of our birthplace combined with hearts that are hardened against the truth. The sailors figured that once they found out where Jonah was from they would know which God he worshiped.

Luckily we know that:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:28-29)

And that:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Although the religion of one’s youth is still very dependent on that of our parents, God’s convicting spirit knows no boundaries…not by nation…nor by societal status…nor by sex. Anyone can be an “[heir] according to promise.”

And although it is also outside the scope of this sermon…if you read my article about inclusivism, you can see how the Bible shows God is searching everyone’s heart…so that the random nature of our birth isn’t the deciding factor in whether we’ll be in heaven or not…

Question #6

Our next question is a follow-up from the sailors to Jonah’s response to the previous four:

And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

What is this you have done?! Once the sailors put two-and-two together–that Jonah had disobeyed “the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land”–and now the sea that was about to engulf them–they reacted like we might have with a rhetorical question, “What is this you have done!”

What does this question tell us about God? Again, not much. It still tells us more about how the sailors view God…

What does this question tell us about man? That we are quick to blame someone else when things go awry for us (and not acknowledge our own culpability). In this case the sailors were right–the storm was buffeting the ship because Jonah was on it…but you must admit there was a lot of assuming going on. How often in your life to you think your precarious situation is the fault of someone else instead of realizing you had a hand in it? Even with the sailors…does Scripture not record that they knew he was fleeing from his God?

Was their predicament really only Jonah’s fault?

Question #7

Now the sailors know the cause of tempest…what to do?

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:11-12).

Again we likely would have asked the same…Jonah (or insert the name of the person in your similar experience), now that you’ve gotten us into this mess…what’s the best way to get out of it?

What does this question tell us about God? Yet another where it’s really more a commentary about us, not about our creator.

What does this question tell us about man? That we believe that somehow by our actions we can earn the favor of God. However, the Bible makes it clear that:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

We do not earn God’s favor…

Question #8

Before we get to the next question we see the sailors act more like faithful believers than the prophet of God…Jonah get sucked up by a large fish…Jonah pray…the fish vomit Jonah (See! I got to say, “Vomit” again! ☺ ), Jonah finally preach to Nineveh, and…shocker of all shocker…the Ninevites believe God. Go figure!

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:6-9)

“Who knows?” Have you every reacted like that? Something seems inevitable, but you try anyway because, “Who knows?” Can you empathize with the king?

What does this question tell us about God? Again, nothing really…although, quickly going back to the previous question. I said that we do not earn God’s favor…yet we read, “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:15). What that tells us about God is that he meets people where they are–and back then a quid pro quo approach was the best way to connect with us thick earthlings…but even then you’ll notice no magic potions, special chants, etcetera. The quid pro quo was a combination of logical rules of conduct and a ceremonial system that pointed to the one would make it so we worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24) instead of in acts that are meaningless if our heart isn’t in it (which was also true during the quid pro quo phase).

What does this question tell us about man? I would argue that it tells us that God has given us a spirit that has a hard time giving up (a commendable characteristic)…and that…even without direct revelation of the fact…realizes our Lord is compassionate and merciful. Perhaps we don’t understand God’s love completely, but at least at a level where we can say, “Who knows?”

Question #9

And the king’s “Who knows?” was rewarded…well, he and his city’s faith was rewarded…with God relenting. Not everyone was happy with this outcome…

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster (Jonah 4:1-2)

Instead of praising God, Jonah got very angry. He knew God would forgive the Ninevites if they repented…and he didn’t want to chance them making the right decision…so he ran off until it became clear would lose his own life if he didn’t do what he was told.

What does this question tell us about God? Combined with the narrative just before it, it tells us that the God we serve is what Jonah accused him of being–gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and steadfast in love. What a great God we serve!

What does it question tell us about man? That our hearts are so hard we often would rather see our enemies destroyed than share salvation with them. That we want to horde it for ourselves or our “community”…and that we prefer our adversaries suffer instead of becoming our friends.

Questions #10 and #11

One question is basically repeated twice in Jonah. First, right after what we just read:

Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:3-4)

And not to much further along in the 4th chapter:

When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:8-9)

“Do you do well to be angry?”

What does this question tell us about God? Up to now the questions really told us more about us than about God…but the book of Jonah ends with queries that really allow God to shine. Let’s think about it…Jonah is an insubordinate prophet…a lowly human…a person who was not troubled by his own sins. Yet, in response to Jonah’s disrespectful comments and actions God asks…

“Do you do well to be angry?”

What this tells us about God is that values the intellect He has given us and would rather we understand than obey “just because.” He knows that those who obey “just because” are very likely to disobey “just because” too…so when they…we…do rebel, He’s glad to sit down and discuss it with us (with the hope that with understanding we’ll be able to jettison that part of our rebellion). This is the same God who so famously ask us to, “come now, let us reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18).

What does this question tell us about man? That although God is glad to sit down with us, we often aren’t willing to give him the time of the day. “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”

But Alan…when has God ever taken the time to sit down with me?! When have I ignored Him?

We ignore him every day we read Scripture but don’t take it to heart…and every day we don’t read the Bible…or pray…or put into action that He has already taught us.

Oh…and from this little interaction from God we can understand how perhaps we shouldn’t be angry with God if He ever takes away something He previously gave us…

Question #12

Okay…here is where I admit that no matter how many times I’ve read through Jonah, I can only find 12 questions…although I can come up with thirteen if I count Jonah 4:8 where it says Jonah asked if he might die.

So…if you thought this sermon was running a bit long…you’ll be excited to know we have actually reached out final question. ☺ I really don’t know, however, how the English Standard Version Study Bible came up with 14…

And the final question is my favorite one:

And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

What does this question tell us about God? It shows us what great lengths God went to reason with Jonah–noting how if Jonah could feel bad for the plant (that God miraculously provided) he should understand how God would have concern for the Ninevites. We see a Lord who makes it 100% clear that He cares for all of His creation. You don’t have to be a member of PETA to appreciate that He even expressed caring for an animal that many of us prefer between two buns and with ketchup, mustard, and pickles. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

What that question tells us is that we can be sure that no matter what our condition, God cares about us…about our families…even about our pets!

What does this question tell us about man? First…how lucky we are to have that kind of God! But, that’s really not an anthropological statement…

But God does say something quite telling about us in that question…that we “do not know [our] right hand from [our] left.” He knows no matter how smart we think we are, we…again using one of my favorite terms…are as “thick as a brick” when it comes to spiritual things.


However…if there is any way God can reach us…whether it takes a storm…fish vomit (See, I snuck it in again!)…or anything else…if we can be saved He will reach us.

Let’s just hope that we react differently than Jonah did…that our story doesn’t end with such a large question mark…

Was Jonah saved? The book of Jonah ends on a note that doesn’t look so good for the recalcitrant prophet. Did he finally get the point?

Have you? How would you respond if makes you a missionary to your worst enemy?

Hmmm…come to think of it…haven’t we already been given that assignment? Will you flee?

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Alan is an ordinary guy, living in a small, high plains Colorado town...and humbled to be a minister of God...

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