Jonah is the ultimate book about the Sovereignty of God and His interaction with free creatures.
I am floored when I read that God hurled the wind (1:4), or caused the storm to not let the sailors row back to shore (1:13-14), or that God caused inanimate objects like lots (or dice) to fall on Jonah (1:7), or for a great fish to swallow Jonah while he was running from the LORD (1:17).
It is unbelievable the fish obeyed (1:17 & 2:10).
It is even more unbelievable that wicked people like Ninevites would respond in belief and repentance to simple preaching such as, “Destruction will come on you in 40 days” (3:5). And it is intriguing that God responded to their repentance by relenting (3:10).
What does this all mean in relation to God’s sovereignty and our free will? Do we have free will? Does God change His mind?
First, let us look at what we learn about God in this story:
Yahweh, the LORD, is the Creator of all things, He is the source of life and all that exists:
- Yahweh is Creator of all things and persons (Jonah 1:9; 4:10).
- He creates the storm (1:4), the fish (1:17), the plant (4:6), the worm (4:7), the scorching east wind (4:8).
- He is Creator of Jonah and the inhabitants of Nineveh (4:9-11).
- The LORD is creator of the animals in Nineveh (4:11).
The LORD is Sustainer, Sovereign over all, and Savior:
- Hurling the storm, appointing the fish, plant, worm, wind = sovereignty.
- He is the only one who can save the sailors (1:6, 14) = Yahweh is Savior
- He is the only one who can save Jonah (2:2, 6, 9, 10) = Yahweh is Savior
- In fact He is sovereign to save Jonah, even when Jonah doesn’t want to be saved (1:16-17) = Yahweh is Sovereign over salvation
- He is the only one who can save Nineveh (3:9; 4:11) = Yahweh alone Saves
- The sailors’ gods (1:5) and idols cannot save (2:8), and they have no power over the sea.
- Only in the LORD God of the Hebrews is salvation (2:9).
- The LORD can take Jonah’s life (4:3) = He is Sovereign over human life
- The sailors come to learn by experience that they are entirely dependent on the LORD for their existence and sustenance or continuing existence (1:10, 12, 14; 2:6-7).
- Jonah comes to learn that by fleeing from God he will face death, unless he repents and does what the LORD has called him to do (1:12; 2:4, 9).
Humans are called to observe the LORD’s Sovereignty and respond in obedience and worship:
- The verb “to go down” means to disobey God (1:2, 3, 5; 2:6) and be out of His will, with all the emotional distance and depression experienced in disobedience (1:5 – “down” in the ship and “laid down” sleeping implies he was hiding from God and depressed, which resulted in slumber).
- The verb translated “to rise up” or “arise” (1:2, 3, 6; 3:2, 3, 6) or “lift up” means to obey God (1:12, 15) and be pointed toward life.
The LORD God is a God of Mercy and Grace:
- All of life is dependent on God’s General Grace given to all. His mercy sustains the good and evil in this world to give all an opportunity to repent (see chapter 4, especially v. 11).
- Mercy sustained the life of disobedient Jonah (chapters 1-3).
- Mercy sustained the sailors so they would repent (1:16).
- Mercy sustained the Ninevites to hear the preaching so they might repent (3:9).
- God can do anything He wants to with creation (4:10-11) – but He deals with creation with mercy to preserve humanity for the offer repentance.
So what do we learn about God?
He is Creator, the Source of creation, and He is completely Sovereign, with the right and authority to do anything He wants to do, consistent with His character, within the realm of creation.
So do we have any real freedom?
In Jonah 3:1-4, Yahweh calls Jonah to preach. He preaches total destruction of Nineveh for their evil, but gives them a 40 day grace period according to the word of the LORD. And the Ninevites, from the greatest to the least of them, including the king and the animals participate in a fast, humbling themselves by wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes as they respond in belief and repentance. The king, in making a proclamation of repentance to all of Nineveh, was calling not just for a flippant observance of a ritual of repentance, but for a total transformation of living, a reformation of laws and practices and a renouncing of evil and wickedness of the people so that perhaps God would change His mind and not bring total destruction.
And God relented of the evil He was going to bring on the Ninevites (3:10).
What does it mean, “God relented”? To relent in Hebrew is nehem, which means “to show compassion” or “to change one’s mind.” In other words God showed compassion to the Ninevites and did not destroy them. He relented from sending calamity.
What does this say about the nature of God?
In 1 Samuel 15:21 it says, “…the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind [nehem], for He is not a man, that He should change His mind [nehem].” But in 1 Samuel 15, in v. 11 and v. 35 it says, “I am grieved [nehem] that I have made Saul King.” An explanation of what is going on in 1 Samuel 15 will help us to understand Jonah, and help us to understand God’s interaction with human free agents. In short,
“God does not capriciously change His intentions or ways of acting. It is the change in Saul’s behavior that leads to this expression of regret [nehem].” (Mike Buttersowrth, in The New International Disctionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis: Vol. 3, edited by Willem VanGemeren, p.82).
Let me translate: the LORD’s “changing” is not a change of the character of God, as if He made a mistake and needs to correct His mistake. Rather, as humans respond to God, so also God responds righteously to humans in His just character implying there is a genuine interaction. And sometimes God brings about certain circumstances prompt a certain response in humans. And when they respond appropriately, God responds in compassion and lessens His punishment.
But the real question is: If God is Sovereign and All-Knowing, then why would He “change His mind” about anything? Especially if, as hyper-Calvinists would say, God predetermines all things from the smallest to the greatest details? Is there any true freedom in such a situation?
This is a really hard question to answer because there are a many Scriptures that are like puzzle pieces we need to put together to come up with a comprehensive theological explanation. And there is no theologian in the history of humanity who has put these puzzle pieces together in such a way that satisfies everyone.
So what are those puzzle pieces?
- God knows the future before anything actually happens (Psalm 139).
- God is All-powerful, creator of everything, Sovereign over creation, and able to do anything that He wants in the realm of the created order (Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139, Jonah, Matthew 28:18, Colossians 1:15-20, and Revelation 20-22).
- God foreknows who will be spiritually saved and He even predestines the process through Jesus (Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:3-14).
- And, according to passages like Jonah 3:5-10 and James 5:13-20, the Sovereign God of the universe interacts genuinely with human free agents.
These are the four puzzle pieces about God’s Sovereignty and our free will; how these puzzle pieces fit together is the mystery of God. The above may not have totally clarified things for you, but the good news is we don’t need to know how, exactly, this all works in order to trust God, interact with Him, and know that we are infinitely and abundantly loved by our God and saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.