Providence In A Whale

Jonah 1:1-17

If God is in control of all things, and if His providence has the final say in every matter, is it important how we live? If God is sure to execute His will, do the decisions we make have any significance?

The answer we get from the book of Jonah is 'Yes'. Our decisions do matter. Yet, what we learn from the example of Jonah is what happens when our will runs contrary to God's will.

The plot is set for us in the first few verses of chapter one, "The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, 'Arise and go to Nineveh the great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come before Me.' But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish (and) paid the fare"(1:1-3).

It was the Lord's will for Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach to them. But it was Jonah's will to go, instead, to Tarshish in order to flee from the Lord.

So you see, to believe in the providence of God is not to deny that human beings have the ability to choose. Jonah chose to resist God's will by going to Joppa, boarding a ship, and paying the fare.

Why did Jonah resist this commissioning from God? Jonah was a Hebrew prophet and the people of Nineveh were archenemies of the people of Israel. Even though Israel was enjoying a measure of prosperity during this time, they were regularly invaded and attacked by Assyria. And the capital of Assyria was Nineveh.

The reason Jonah resisted the will of God in this matter is because he couldn't have cared less about the fate of the people of Nineveh. These people were Israel's enemies, and Jonah was not about to inconvenience himself to help enemies receive the mercy of God.

My suspicion is that we are a bit like Jonah in this respect--when it is inconvenient to obey God, we choose to disobey. When God calls us to 'go', if it is not convenient, what we often do instead is 'flee'.

When it is convenient we attend Sunday service, when it is convenient we pray, when it is convenient we read our Bible, when it is convenient we help others--we are faithful Christians when it is convenient to be faithful. But as you can see in the life of Jonah, God often calls for obedience during times of great inconvenience. And we also learn from Jonah that our disobedience can make the road of providence very uncomfortable.

We see in the life of Jonah, that God allowed Jonah's will to prevail for a season. God allowed Jonah to flee. God allowed Jonah to reach Joppa, to board a ship, and to pay the fare. But God did not allow Jonah's will to prevail indefinitely. For we read in verse 4 that "the Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up."

What we see in this verse is a collision between the human will and God's sovereignty. God allowed Jonah's will to prevail only so far, and then the Lord intervened powerfully. Jonah, by his own will and power, was able to board the ship. But God, by His will and power, prevented Jonah from reaching his preferred destination.

Jonah, recognizing that the storm had come from the Lord, implored the crew to throw him overboard(1:12), and so they did "and the sea stopped its raging"(1:15).

Then comes the part of the story we are most familiar with, "And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights"(1:17).

I pray that there are none here today who doubt the veracity of this account. I recognize that there are some who occupy church pews in our country who would prefer to call this account a myth. But why? Is the God who created the heavens and the earth unable to manipulate a single fish? Is the God who created the stars and calls them all by name unable to create a storm capable of breaking up a ship?

Let us not be guilty of reducing God to what we can reason in our minds. God is much bigger than that. So then, let us stop worshipping a god we have created in our mind, and start worshipping the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible will not be thwarted in His plans for us. The God of the Bible, who declared that Jonah would go to Nineveh will make sure that he gets there. Even if it means manipulating the weather; even if it means manipulating a great fish; God will ensure that His will is done.

If your Bibles are open, you can see for yourself how little this book has to do with a great fish. This book is not so much about what happened inside of a whale than it is about what happened inside of a man named Jonah. This book is not about a fish; it is about a wrestling match between the will of Jonah and the will of God.

And it is on this level that we can engage the text and apply these lessons to our own life. Jonah wanted to go to Tarshish, and he even paid his fare to get there (v.3). But in the end, Jonah did not get to where he wanted to go--even though he had paid his way to get there.

Friends, I ask you, What is your destination? What plans do you have for your life? More importantly, From where did these plans originate? For if we have learned anything from the life of Jonah, we have learned the importance of following the will of the Lord. I hope we have learned that when our will collides with God's, it is His will that ultimately prevails.

Yes, you may be allowed to go your own way for a season. Perhaps the Lord will let you have your way for many years. But, let us be warned by the example of Jonah. When you run away from the Lord, you never get to where you are going, and you always pay your own fare.

Jonah could have avoided a lot of hardship if he had simply chosen to obey God in the first place. Instead, he was forced to endure, a great storm, being thrown overboard into the sea, and being swallowed by a great fish. Jonah, by going his own way, only made his life more difficult.

Do we know what this is like? I know that I do. Pride has so infected the human condition, that we constantly make the mistake of believing we know what is best. We would probably think that "fleeing to Tarshish" is a reasonable course of action. It is less risky, it is quicker, and besides, we've never been to Nineveh before. And just to make sure that fleeing to Tarshish is the right course of action, we strike a committee and have it moved, duly seconded, and unanimously carried that we flee to Tarshish.

Friends, the will of God is not determined by a democracy. This is why we refer to God as sovereign. God, through the Scriptures, has revealed His will. And when we come to the many commands and exhortations in the Scripture, please know that there is no place for negotiation or debate. As someone once reminded me, 'We are given The 10 Commandments, not the 10 suggestions.'

What kind of God is this, that readily imposes His will on His creation? This is a God who knows what is best for us. This is a God who has the desire and the power to cause everything in our life to work together for good (Rom. 8:28).

When we get off course, God will use any and every means to get us back on course. God used a storm, the raging Mediterranean waters, and the belly of a whale to get Jonah back on course. And when the commissioning from God came to Jonah a second time we read that, "Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the Word of the Lord"(3:3).

The lesson here for us is clear: If God wants you to go to Nineveh, to Nineveh you will go! And if God intends for you to go to Nineveh there is nothing to be gained by resisting His will.

The appointed end of providence is always good news for the Christian. Yet, we see from the life of Jonah, that we have the ability to make the process of providence very uncomfortable. God provided a storm and raging waters--ultimately for Jonah's good--but temporarily it was a source of tremendous discomfort for Jonah.

God also appointed the great fish to swallow Jonah in order to deliver him safely to dry land. And you don't have to be a marine biologist to imagine Jonah's extreme discomfort as he lay in the stomach of the whale for 3 days and 3 nights.

Do you see the choice before you? You can heed to will of God upon first hearing, and by His strength you can serve Christ and His Church. Or, you can heed the will of God according to your convenience and risk the Lord making your life very uncomfortable while you delay.

Make no mistake; God will not allow you to vacillate in your commitment to Him indefinitely. He will not allow you to 'sit on the fence' forever. The time will come when God will send a storm in your life to get you off the course that you have charted for yourself, and to get you on the course that He has charted for you. A course designed by God for your good and His glory.

Friends, I implore you: Do not wait for God to send a storm. Do not wait for Him to send a Whale. Now is the time to "trust the Lord with all your heart. Do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight"(Prov. 3:5,6). Amen.