James Dean once starred in a film entitled Rebel without a Cause and became an icon of rebellious youth. That title could well have described the prophet Jonah, who was told by God to go and preach against the city of Nineveh, but refused to do so. As a prophet of God, to whom God spoke and who received the word of God for his time, Jonah was ‘on line’. It is good to be in touch with God and to hear what He has to say to us in this world in which we live and in the situation in which we find ourselves. This world is crying out for Christians who are ‘on line with God’. Yet the moment Jonah chose to disobey God’s clear instructions he stepped ‘out of line’. He boarded a ship that was heading for Tarshish, which was in the very opposite direction to Nineveh. Nothing would make him go and preach to a people he hated and feared. It was not that he did not want to preach judgement to them – it must surely have been music to his ears to hear that God wanted to judge and destroy his enemies the Assyrians. It wasn’t the greatness of God that was Jonah’s problem: it was the goodness of God. Jonah’s great fear was that, if as a result of going to Nineveh and preaching judgement upon the city the people repented, God would forgive them. ‘I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness’, Jon. 4. 2. Disobedience to the clearly revealed will of God is always a bad thing. No true believer should ever set out on a path of deliberate disobedience to God. We may sometimes go against His will unknowingly but to do so knowingly and deliberately is a very serious thing.
But God had not finished with Jonah. He targeted him – Jonah was ‘in the firing line’. First of all God targeted the ship in which Jonah was asleep, sending a massive storm upon it, so that it was in danger of sinking. Like a great javelin thrower, God hurled a storm onto the ship.Then he targeted the prophet asleep in the hold of the ship, for He made sure that ‘the lot fell upon Jonah’, Jon. 1. 7; Prov. 16. 33. Jonah now knew that there was no getting away from God. God was pursuing him.
The Spirit of God through the writer of the book deliberately uses the same word to show us what disobedience to God leads to. Having decided to rebel against God’s revealed will for him, Jonah went ‘down’ to Joppa, he went ‘down into’ the ship ‘to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord,’ and he then went ‘down into the sides of the ship’ to go to sleep, Jon 1. 3, 5. When he is eventually thrown out of the ship, he ‘went down to the bottoms of the mountains’ before the fish swallowed him up, 2. 6. The implication of this is clear – a course of disobedience to God will always lead us ‘down’ – down spiritually, down morally, down emotionally and perhaps even down physically. The direction of a disobedient servant of God is downwards.
We notice also, however, Jonah’s decisions. Having been found out, he does two very important things that contribute to God’s forgiveness and Jonah’s eventual restoration. He begins by confessing his disobedience to the people around him. ‘The men [in the ship] knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord because he had told them’, 1. 10. If we do wrong to others, if we are disobedient to God, if we sin against Him, we ought to confess that before men. It may be that we are repentant before God, but it is good to show others that, too. Then Jonah does the next important thing – he confesses his sin to God, chapter 2.
Jonah has already made one important discovery - that God disciplines His people. King David had learned that as well.‘Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word’, Ps. 119. 67. God does discipline His children, just as human fathers do, and we should be grateful for that. The way of a transgressor –even a believing transgressor – is hard. ‘Despise not thou the chastening of the Lord nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth’, Heb. 12. 5-6. God can, and will, bring trials upon us to bring us back into line. But then Jonah discovers for himself what all repentant sinners find – that God hears and answers prayer.‘Out of the belly of hell cried I and thou heardest my voice’, 2. 2. ‘When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord. And my prayer came in unto thee’, 2. 7. Thankfully for Jonah, he also discovered that God delivers His repentant people. ‘The Lord spake unto the fish and it vomited out Jonah’, 2. 10. God was giving His prophet another opportunity to obey Him and do what He had asked him to do. ‘The word of the Lord came unto Jonah a second time’, 3. 1.
Are you a disobedient Christian today? Have you set out on a way of life that you know is contrary to the revealed will of God for you as a believer? Learn from Jonah – if you continue on this course, you will go ‘down’. Spiritually speaking, you will lose close fellowship with God and possibly close fellowship with His people; morally speaking, your conscience will become increasingly scarred and silenced; and physically speaking, God may cause you to be sickly and maybe even to be called home, 1. Cors. 11. 30-31. Note your direction, make the decision to confess and turn again to God and then you will make a wonderful discovery – God always hears the prayers of the repentant.