Jonah is a man living as a Jew when God tells him to go to Nineveh. Nineveh had become evil and wicked and God was directing Jonah to go there to warn the people of Nineveh of the consequences of their sin.
What we will quickly see as we study Jonah is that God is not only trying to reach the people of Nineveh through him, but He is using Jonah to reach others, including Jonah himself.
But Jonah is not willing to go to Nineveh. The Word does not explicitly describe why Jonah flees from God, but flee he does, deep into a ship heading in the wrong direction. Jonah is trying to quickly escape the sight of God.
The ship Jonah boarded is headed to a place called Tarshish. During the journey, God sends a great wind and a strong storm towards the ship. The sailors take action to save the ship: they throw the cargo overboard, they pray to their heathen gods, but to no effect. All are trying to help the situation, but where is Jonah?
Jonah is hiding. Hiding deep within the bowels of the ship and trying to further hide from the situation by sleeping. This was where the captain of the ship found him to ask Jonah to pray to his God because the prayers to the other false gods were not working.
Once Jonah joins everyone else, the crew decides to cast lots as a way to identify whose fault among them it was the ship was being destroyed by the storm. As providence would have it, Jonah is identified as the catalyst for the event. The crew wants to know who this Jonah is? He responds that he is a Hebrew and that he fears the true God, creator of heaven and earth.
At this point in the story we learn that Jonah told the crew that he was fleeing from God and we are learning more about his character as the story progresses. He is fearful and unwilling to obey the God that He knows is the one true God. He is either arrogant, foolish or a coward. For now.
In any case, Jonah shows the first bit of backbone by accepting that the storm is due to his actions and prompts the crew to throw him overboard, to save them and the ship. Initially the men do not throw him over, but try the more earnestly to row the ship to dry land and safety. However, the storm persists and we see the first people positively affected by God in the story of Jonah in the crew.
The crew, convicted of God’s power through Jonah’s story and the mighty storm, have faith that the true God believed on by Jonah can save them. So they turn away from their false gods and toward God in prayer, asking for His mercy. They neither want to be punished for Jonah’s actions not do they want to be punished for what was sure to be a death sentence for Jonah in their eyes: throwing him overboard. After this prayer, the crew throws Jonah overboard and the sea calms.
The crew sees this action and they immediately fear God, taking vows and offering sacrifices to Him. This group of unbelievers in the true God have been convicted of God’s almighty power and sovereign status through the running coward Jonah. Even through our failures, God can work in the world. Such is his mysterious nature and absolute control over all we know.
When Jonah goes overboard, God is prepared. A great fish swallows Jonah and he is inside of it for three days and three nights. Jonah has gone from the belly of one great vessel to another. This time, however, it was not his choice.
We have free will, but God is in control. Jonah’s story illustrates this perfectly.