Is God Sovereign? (A Study of Jonah)

             We recently commemorated the 13th anniversary of the September 11th, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was a day that radically changed our country forever.  I remember sitting in history class when the professor told the class that the second plane just hit removing all doubts that our country was under attack. The events on September 11th rattled our country’s security, yet reinforced our national pride.  September 11th is a day when we remember.  We remember those who lost their lives and rededicate ourselves to be fervent in our fight against terrorism.  And as we remember that day, we often ask, “Where was God on September 11th?” The question is often asked after events of great calamity.  Where was God during Hurricane Katrina? Or the Tsunami in Indonesia? Where is God now with the brutal slayings of Christians in the Middle East? It is a very honest and important question to ask.

            Granted, many people ask the question with disdain or anger, but others ask out of confusion or deep hurt.  If we are going to be honest, we all have probably asked that question.  The Psalmist asks this question in the face of much terror,

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:9-10).

We live in a day of terror. We cannot escape it. And when we face this kind of terror and calamity, we may be tempted to ask, “God, are you sovereign?” Sovereignty means possessing supreme or ultimate power. In the face of terrible evil, we may be tempted to doubt God’s control of the universe.  Is God sovereign?  Is God in control?

            This is the question we hope to answer as we study the book of Jonah.  We continue our series through the Minor Prophets asking eternal questions. When most Christians hear of Jonah, we immediately think of him spending 3 days in the belly of a whale.  Although Jonah being swallowed by a great fish (perhaps a whale) is important to his life, it is not the ultimate purpose of the book.  G. Campbell Morgan aptly says, “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.[1]” Jonah is a book displaying God’s sovereign compassion for the world even in the midst of much terror.  God is in control.

            Jonah is different from the rest of the Minor Prophets in that the focus of the book is on the prophet’s story rather than on his message.  It is written more as a narrative than as a prophetic book.  Some scholars question the veracity of this book and try to categorize it more as a fictional parable rather than a true historical event.  This is a flawed view and one that does not honor a high view of Scripture.  The book is full of real places and real people experiencing real events.  Jesus even referred to Jonah as a real historical person (Matthew 12:39-41). In effort to explain away the supernatural, scholars have denied the historicity of Jonah and set themselves up against the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.

God Sovereignly Calls

            We see God’s sovereign hand at the very outset of the book in His calling of Jonah. God shows that He is in control from the beginning to the end of this book because He is control from the beginning to the end of all things.

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.”

Nineveh is a great city and also a great enemy of God’s people. They were known for their brutality and cruelty.  God knows of their sin (as God knows of all sin) and has called one of His people to speak out against it.  It is foolish to think that we can hide anything from God.  All sin will be held accountable.  Are there any sins in your life that you think are hidden from God?  Rest assured, He sees all and one day will call you to account. 

            As it is foolish to think we can hide anything from God, it is also foolish to think we can hide anywhere from God, but that is exactly what Jonah tries to do, verse 3,

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 down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

It is never good when God tells us to do something and our reply begins with, “But.”  I hear that word often as a parent after telling my children to do something, they often reply with, “But Daddy.”  The only thing that follows that statement is an excuse for disobedience.  Jonah went the opposite direction of Nineveh and paid a fare to go away from the presence of the Lord.  Jonah, the prophet of the Lord, was being disobedient. 

God Sovereignly Chases

            It is hard to miss the Lord’s hand traced throughout this book.  The people of Nineveh deserved to be destroyed for their evil and yet God was sending a prophet to call them to repentance. Jonah deserved to be cast from God’s presence because that was exactly where he wanted to go. And yet, the Lord sovereignly chases him with a compassionate love.  Verse 4-6,

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.”

The Lord sent the wind. God was pursuing the disobedient Jonah through the wind and the raging. 

Sometimes the Lord uses circumstances to calls us to repentance.  We saw this happen after 9/11, Katrina and the Tsunami.  Tragedy exposes the reality of death and brevity of life which often cause us to call out to God.  Do you see the irony in that last part of verse 6?  The pagan sailors tell Jonah the prophet to call out to God and maybe God would think of them and they would not perish.  As the story continue, see how God has already thought much of them for the wind was not only for Jonah, but for these pagan sailors. 

The sudden power displayed in the wind and the sudden silence of the wind was to cause the sailors to fear the Lord.

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 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?” 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.” 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. 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. 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.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.

The men recognized it was Jonah that caused the storm, yet they did not want to cast him into the sea. They rowed hard back to dry land, but the Lord would not allow them to as the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.

 The Lord continued to hurl the mighty wind against them until finally the sailors had no choice. Verse 14-16,

Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

The demonstration of the Lord’s power caused these men to repent and fear the Lord exceedingly.  God sovereignly chased Jonah AND God sovereignly chased the sailors.

God Sovereignly Catches

            Jonah was heading down to the pit of the sea, but the Lord sovereignly catches this wayward prophet through appointing a great fish to swallow him. Do not stare at the fish, but notice the one behind the fish.  Verse 17,

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 

Many scholars believe that Jonah wrote this book because of the intimate details that are shared which only he could know.  Through Jonah’s own words, he confirms God’s sovereign control of the whole situation. Listen how Jonah testifies to God’s control. Chapter 2,

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Salvation indeed belongs to the Lord.  God is sovereign in salvation from beginning to end.  He is in control.

God Sovereignly Calls (Again)!!

            The Lord continues to show His kindness to Jonah.  We come back to where the book started with God calling Jonah. Chapter 3:1-5,

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

Jonah wisely obeyed God’s word and went to Nineveh as verse 3 highlights (according to the word of the Lord). God had been working on Nineveh long before Jonah got there. It has been documented through historical records that a few years prior to Jonah’s entering Nineveh, there was a severe famine and solar eclipse. This may have given people more reason to respond to God’s message. 

The message was declared and the people believed. And God was behind it all. He was behind the calling of Jonah, He gave the message, He was in control of their circumstances, and He prepared their hearts to believe. God saw the change in the people’s lives and relented in destroying the city, verse 3:10,

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

God did not repay Nineveh for their sins, but gave them mercy.

God’s Sovereignly Compassionate

And this is the very reason Jonah ran in the first place.  It was not because he thought the task was too hard, but that he did not want God to show compassion.  God’s sovereign compassion given to His enemies and a proper response to that compassion is the main point of the book. Jonah 4:1-4,

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

Jonah was angry that God showed mercy.  Have you ever questioned God’s compassion?  Why did God show mercy to those people? Why was God kind to them? 

            Jonah was blind to the kindness of God in his own life. Jonah was in disobedience and God sovereignly chased him and caught him.  He was rescued by God’s grace, and yet, he does not want that same sovereign grace to be extended to his enemies.  He knows of God’s mercy, but he does not truly know God’s mercy.  So God demonstrated his merciless heart for the lost through a vine. Verse 5-11,
Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 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.” 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.” 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?”

The book ends with a question. A question to make us think about the Nineveh’s in our life.  We may not be indignant like Jonah, but we may be indifferent. Do we trust that God is sovereign? Do we trust that He is good?  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely that is unless the One who actually has absolute power is incorruptible. 

We have to always remember that God has compassion on the lost. We were once like the people of Nineveh not knowing our right hand from our left. We were like the pagan sailors bowing down to false gods.  We were like the wayward prophet knowing of God’s mercy, but not truly knowing His mercy personally.  We were lost so God sent His Son Jesus Christ to demonstrate true compassion.  Matthew9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Lift your praise to God that He has sent us the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep.  This is the epitome of compassion. Jesus gave His life for us and now He expects us to do the same.

            God is in control of all things and His control always works for our good.  We may not always feel His presence or see His hand, but we can know for certainty that God is working.  God is working because God is always at work.  Jonah shows us God’s gracious control to pursue the disobedient prophet, the pagan sailors and the people of Nineveh.  God is working, so ask yourself, “Will you work with Him? Or will you flee from Him?

Jonah spent 3 days in the belly of the great fish and he spent 3 days teaching in the great city.  Jesus said in this Jonah served as a sign of His resurrection.  Jesus spent 3 days in the earth, before He would rise again.  Jonah foreshadowed the resurrection.  Jesus was declared to be the Only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in his resurrection (1 Tim 6:15-16).  And now we are called like Jonah, to be witnesses of the resurrection (Acts 1:22).  God had pity for the people of Nineveh, who are far from God. God had pity on us when we were far from God. Jonah ends with a question so we will ask ourselves, “If God has pity on the lost, will we?”

[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Minor Prophets: The Men and Their Message (Westword, N.J.: Revell,1960), 69 quoted in The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made. Dever, Mark. 782.
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