Yom Kippur and Jonah Point to Jesus

Sermon by Chad A. Damitz


Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is considered the Sabbath of Sabbaths. It represents the atonement of repentance and forgiveness. Once a year, the high priest enters the holy of holies to sprinkle the blood of a bull offered and a goat as atonement for the people, and offer incense upon the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy seat. This holy year now points to Yeshua, our perfect atonement–the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

Jonah is appropriate for Yom Kippur

In Judaism tradition, it is customary to ask one to offer a commentary—called a d’var Torah on this book. If you grew up in a Gentile, Christian context, Jonah might be familiar to you as a Sunday School teaching. In popular culture, it may be a bearded man being swallowed by a whale, but keep in mind the Hebrew word gadol just means great fish. 

Either way, the story is relevant to the young and the old. It’s simple yet profound and complex. Jonah is full of satire and irony. For instance, Jonah runs away from a God who is omnipresent (all-present). Also, Jonah, who is a prophet of God, is the only character that disobeys God while the sea, the fish, the sailors, the sun, the wind, the king, the entire city of Nineveh, the animals, and the worm all obey God.

Jonah is all about introspection: Reader, are you like Jonah? Reader, are you okay that God loves your enemies? Reader, do you need to repent? Do you need to get right before the Lord? I think this is why Jonah is integral to Yom Kippur because it’s truth puts the mirror up to the one who reads it. This is the day of atonement. Our confession of sin. Let’s read this historical narrative.

1 Now the word of Adonai came to Jonah,[a] son of Amittai, saying: 2 “Rise, go to the great city Nineveh and call out to her, for their evil has risen before me.”

Meaning that he was a prophet of God. A prophet is one who speaks on God’s behalf. An intermediary if you will. The Hebrew word Jonah means dove and Amittai means “my truth.” These are important components as we continue to delve deeper into the book.

Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:23-25 around 750 BC as prophesying for the wicked king Jeroboam II so there already is a sense of suspicion with Jonah’s character.

Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was the archenemy of God. They were in direct opposition to Israel. The Assyrians were brutal people. They would kill their enemies and stack their bodies before the gates of their city to show just how powerful they were. Let’s give Jonah some slack here because he probably thought the Assyrians deserve judgment. After all, they are rebelling against God. They deserve His wrath. Jonah, however, doesn’t like the God of compassion and grace. The God who is slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness.

Aren’t we like this? God, they deserve to be punished. God, they are wicked and evil. But remember, apart from the grace of God, so are we. Remember, the Bible says all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Remember, God says in Isaiah 64:6 that even our greatest deeds are considered as filthy rags. Jonah forgets how utterly sinful he is. If God can show compassion on rebellious sinners, surely we must since that’s who we are too.

3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish, from the presence of Adonai. He went down to Jaffa and found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fee and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish—away from the presence of Adonai.

We can’t flee from God. There is no running from God. David says in Psalms 139 If I go up to the heavens, you are there, if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

We may not be able to physically hide from God, but I think we often try to spiritually suppress the spirit’s leading. God nudges us to share the love of Yeshua with someone, and we just think to ourselves. Him? Her? No way. She or he has hurt me in the past. Remember, this is Nineveh, Jonah’s most hated enemy. Aren’t we all like Jonah in these ways?

Story of Brandt Jean – He forgave the Dallas cop who killed his own brother. He not only forgave, but said he wanted the best for her, and if that wasn’t radical enough, gave her a hug. This is the type of radical forgiveness we will see in the story of Jonah by God. So radical that Jonah gets upset about it. Think about it. Admit it. For a second, you thought, how can Brandt Jean forgive Amber Guyger so quickly? I told my co-worker the story and he literally said: “I would never be able to forgive her.” We are all like Jonah. Let’s continue.

4 Then Adonai hurled a forceful wind into the sea and there was such a mighty storm on the sea that the ship was about to shatter. 5 So the sailors were afraid and cried out, each man to his own god. Then they cast the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest part of the ship, to lay down and fell fast asleep.

Adonai will get our attention when we run from him. Here he is making sure Jonah gets the message, but interestingly enough Jonah is asleep. There is no fear before Him. The prophet of God who should fear God the most is asleep while pagan sailors are crying out as if they are desperate for God’s help. Herein lies the irony. The pagans should be ambivalent towards God and Jonah should fear His God. Don’t we act this way sometimes?

Notice also this theme of going down. “went down to Jaffa, went down to Tarshish, and now we see he went down to the lowest part of the ship, to lay down, and of course, in later verses, we know he went down into the sea and down into the belly of the great fish. All this time he was to “arise, go to Nineveh. Get up, go to Nineveh. The author is using the contrast action of up and down to emphasize the fact that Jonah keeps doing the exact opposite of what God wants him to do.

6 So the chief sailor came near to him and said to him, “What, are you sleeping? Get up! Call out to your god. Perhaps the gods will consider us, so we will not perish!”

7 Then each man said to his companion, “Come, let’s cast lots—so we may know because of whom this evil is happening to us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.[b]

8 Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account is this evil happening to us? What is your profession and where did you come from? What is your land and from what nation are you?”

9 He said to them, “I am a Hebrew and I fear Adonai God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”

In verse 6 we get the chief sailor telling Jonah he should get up from his sleep and call on God to rescue them. How ironic is that? He gets on a ship to flee from God. He is with pagans who worship false gods. He falls asleep when God brings judgment, yet it is the pagans who are wide awake. It is the pagans who fear God. It is the pagans who are crying out for help. And Jonah is at a place where he least expects someone to confront him to pray to his God, from pagan sailors.

In verse 9, he does admit He is a Hebrew and fears Adonai God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land. As believers, we may acknowledge our relationship with God in front of others, but when circumstances get tough, or we are told to forgive someone we are bitter towards, our attitudes can drastically change.

Here is irony again, considering that Jonah admits God made the sea and the dry land, but he tried to flee from God at sea.

Another important concept to mention. In Ancient Near East culture, especially among pagans, there was an emphasis on territorial gods. Like dagon, the fish-god of the sea. Or Balam the god of agriculture. But to say the God of both the land and the sea shows an all-encompassing God. A God much bigger than the territorial gods they serve.

10 Then the men became afraid with an overwhelming fear and they said to him, “What have you done?” For the men knew that he had fled from the presence of Adonai, because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you so the sea will become calm for us?”—for the storm was raging on.

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he said to them, “then the sea will become calm for you. For I know it is because of me that this great storm is upon you.”

What is Jonah’s motive here? Is it compassion for the sailors? Is it a true act of repentance at this point? He does admit that the storm is because of his own rebellion and a stubborn heart. But could it be that Jonah may have an ulterior motive? In chapter 4 we know that he tells Adonai he fled because he was compassionate and gracious, and this made him upset. Then he ends with saying: better is death than life. So then, is Jonah really being a sacrifice here or does he just want to die? Let’s continue the story.

13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to return to the land, but they could not, because the sea kept raging against them. 14 So they cried to Adonai and said, “Please, Adonai, don’t let us perish on account of the soul of this man and don’t put innocent blood on us. For you, Adonai, have done as you pleased.”

15 So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea—and the sea stilled from its raging. 16 Then the men became afraid with an overwhelming fear of Adonai, and they offered a sacrifice to Adonai and made vows.

2 Now Adonai prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Think about this. Jonah flees from God because he doesn’t want to preach repentance to Nineveh. Then he gets on a boat with unbelievers, but because he gets on the boat, God shows his wrath and anger. God’s judgment causes the pagans to know the Lord. It says that they offered sacrifice to Adonai and made vows. So Jonah is, inadvertently, helping pagans come to a saving relationship with Adonai.

Isn’t it amazing how even our own rebellion can bring people into a loving relationship with Yeshua? It reminds me of the story of Joseph in Genesis 50:20, where his brothers faked his death and sold him into slavery, but he told his brothers: You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. God can always turn disobedience into an act of repentance and forgiveness.

Moreover, the sailors had compassion for Jonah. They tried with all their might to return to the land so that Jonah wouldn’t have to be thrown overboard. They even say, “Don’t put innocent blood on us.” This is before they came to know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This just shows us that God created all mankind in His image. And that God really wishes the best for all people, even the most heinous of sinners.

Jonah’s Prayer of Distress

2 Then Jonah prayed to Adonai his God from the belly of the fish, 3 saying:

From my distress I cried to Adonai
and He answered me.
From the belly of 
Sheol I cried for help
and you heard my voice.[
4 For you hurled me from the deep
into the heart of the seas,
and currents swirled around me.
All your waves and your breakers
swept over me.”
5 And I said, “I have been banished
from before your eyes.
Yet I will continue to look
toward your holy Temple.”
6 Waters surrounded me up to my soul.
The deep sea engulfed me—
reeds clung to my head.
7 To the bottoms of the mountains I went down.
The earth with her bars was around me, forever!
Yet You brought my life up from the Pit,
Adonai my God.
8 As my soul was fading from me,
I remembered 
and my prayer came to You,
toward Your holy Temple.
9 Those who watch worthless empty things
forsake their mercy.
10 But I, with a voice of thanks
will sacrifice to you.
What I vowed, I will pay.
Salvation is from 

Few thoughts on this prayer. First, it seems to be a godly prayer. It’s obviously biblical and doctrinally orthodox. For example, he says that salvation belongs to the Lord, which expresses the sovereignty of God. Also, it’s filled with hope that God can save Jonah from any harmful situation. In verse 7, he says “my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” Jonah also reveals the truth that God never ignores the prayers of his people. Verse 2 he says “I cried, and you heard my voice.” Lastly, Jonah realizes how merciful God is because it says here “God rescued him from the pit.” If you are familiar with the fish here, it represents Sheol, hell, the place of the grave. Really, not a good place to be in, but Jonah knows that God is compassionate and gracious. All of these truths Jonah clearly mentions in his prayer.

However, a few things to consider. Under all the liturgical respectability and religious overtones may be an issue with Jonah’s heart. First, Jonah is clearly centered on himself in this prayer. In just eight verses, Jonah says I, me, or my at least 20x. Also, when he quotes Psalm 120, which reads, “To Adonai in my distress I called.” Jonah changes the order of the words. He prayed, “I called from my distress to Adonai.” He moved God’s name from the beginning of the phrase to the end, showing us yet again Jonah’s egocentric disposition.

Then he declares in verse 9 that what he vows He will pay, but clearly, since the beginning of the story, Jonah hasn’t vowed anything to the Lord. In fact, he continues to rebel against God’s righteous decrees by running in the opposite direction. Interestingly, the only characters in the story who vowed to God were the pagan sailors after they threw Jonah off the boat.

Moreover, there is no mention of repentance in his prayer, only sorrow. He is sorrowful for the situation he is in, but it’s because of his own doing, not because of anyone else’s. For instance, the Psalms he selects to quote are from 3:8, 31:6, 22, 42:7; 69:1, 88:6-7, and 120:1. And guess what? Every single passage here is when enemies are oppressing the Psalmist. These are psalms when others are not being faithful to God and rejecting the truth. Yet Jonah did not suffer rejection. God tried to speak to him, but Jonah rejected God. The pagan sailors tried to save his life by rowing back to the land but weren’t able to. And really, it was Jonah who had made the decision to be thrown overboard. There are no enemies of Jonah right now. Even when he goes to Nineveh to preach, no one attacks him. No one refuses to listen. No one even mocks him. They all immediately repent. Jonah is not being oppressed whatsoever.

Then look at what he does at the end of his prayer: He says, “Those who watch worthless empty idols forsake their mercy. But I, with a voice of thanks, will sacrifice to you.” Come on Jonah. You were sleeping when the pagan sailors were in distress. It was only when they woke you up, that you even told them who you were. Yes, they serve vain idols, but now it’s the pagan sailors who are worshiping God in the story. It’s the entire city of Nineveh, a bunch of Gentile pagans, who will soon be converted to Adonai. But in the end, Jonah is the one so upset to die because of God’s compassion and grace. Are you really the one with a voice of thanksgiving? I am not so sure.

And you see what happens next. The fish vomits Jonah out of the mouth. I find that interesting because in Revelation 3:16, Yeshua says that the people who are lukewarm will be “spit out of the mouth.” This is exactly what happens to Jonah. Could Matthew 15:8 be true: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me?”

All I know is that this prayer really shakes me up because it shows how even a prophet of God can be disobedient to God.

Ok, maybe I am being a little harsh with Jonah, but that’s because Jonah is really a reflection of my own heart. I come before you with a sermon and religious garments, but is this my front stage self? Is this the holiness I carry out day in and day out when I am at home, at work, frustrated, tired, you name it? I know I am desperately sinful and in need of repentance daily. I think this prayer reminds me not to just act religious on the outside, but do what God commands. It’s really easy, especially for religiously zealous people, to be deceived by their own self-righteousness.

I think that’s why Paul the apostle is able to confess in 1 Timothy 1:15 that he is the chief of sinners. He recognizes his own depravity and the magnitude of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. At this point in the story, all focus should be on God. He is the one who “spoke” to Jonah, even when Jonah was rebellious. God is the one who saved the sailors from their own doom. God is the one who brought both the storm and calmed the storm. God is the one who provided a fish to swallow Jonah. God is the one doing all the work here. Jonah’s prayer is not about Jonah. It’s about God. How gracious and loving God is to all of us. We all deserve death. We deserve the wrath of God, but Yeshua, he took our punishment. He atoned for all our sins. Let’s continue the story.

11 Then Adonai spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.

3 Now the word of Adonai came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Rise and go to Nineveh, the great city, and cry out to it the proclamation that I am telling you.”

3 So Jonah rose and went to Nineveh according to the word of Adonai. Now Nineveh was a great city to God—the length of a three day journey. 4 So Jonah began to come into the city for one day’s journey, and he cried out saying: “Another forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

Despite Jonah’s rebellion, he did go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s truth. He may have been reluctant to do so, but the Lord still used Jonah to preach the truth. Jonah’s name is Amittai, my truth, after all.

Jonah has a very short sermon here. He doesn’t mention what the Ninevites did wrong. He doesn’t mention that God is judging them. He really just gives the bare minimum of information to the Ninevites.

40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown. 40 is a significant number as it is used quite frequently with a period of trial, probation, and chastisement (punishment). Think about the flood of Noah was 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years. The fasting of Elijah and Moses was 40 days just like Yeshua in the gospels. 40 is a significant number.

Also, Nineveh is a very large city. It took him 3 days to preach to the entire city. Here we see 120,000 people resided there, which is modern-day Iraq. This is very large, especially in the seventh century BC. Let’s keep reading.

5 Then the people of Nineveh believed God and called for a fast and wore sackcloth—from the greatest of them to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. 7 He made a proclamation saying:

In Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles, no man or beast, herd or flock, may taste anything. They must not graze nor drink water. 8 But cover man and beast with sackcloth. Let them cry out to God with urgency. Let each one turn from his evil way and from the violence in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent, and turn back from his burning anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw their deeds—that they turned from their wicked ways—God relented from the calamity that He said He would do to them and did not do it.

This is a wonderful story. Can you imagine just saying five words like Jonah did and have an entire nation, including the most powerful king in the world, repent? This was no lip service. These pagans fasted, wore sackcloth, which is uncomfortable garments, from the most powerful to the least. Wow! Not only that but then the king arose from his throne and took off his robe, covered himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes.

His action is true repentance. He gets off his throne, indicating he is not the most powerful being in the universe. The King of Kings Adonai is. Then he covers himself in ashes, which is a sign of true humility. To be human is to be lowly, to be one with the dirt. The king is reminding himself that to dust he shall return, a mere mortal.

Another important phrase here is that when God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked ways, he relented from the calamity. When there is true repentance, there is action. James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says He has faith but not works? Can that faith save him?” The rhetorical answer, of course, is no.

Faith without works is dead. Lip service to God without action is not true repentance. Action must be preceded by our faith. I think this is very important on Yom Kippur. We can go through our traditions and honor the Lord on this Sabbath day, but God wants more than that. He wants you to honor Him with your actions. He wants you to honor him in your workplace. He wants you to do good deeds to those outside the messianic community. God desires for you to be fully repentant.

I want to mention another idea here. There was nothing eloquent about what Jonah said. When he finally listened to God, God caused the people in that city to repent. God was sovereign over this situation. He brought conviction to the people of Nineveh. This story is all about God. If Jonah wouldn’t have spoken, he would have caused the rocks to cry out so that the people of Nineveh would repent.

Jonah’s Displeasure at God’s Mercy

4 But it greatly displeased Jonah and he resented it. 2 So he prayed to Adonai and said, “Please, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my own country? That’s what I anticipated, fleeing to Tarshish—for I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and full of kindness, and relenting over calamity. 3 So please, Adonai, take my soul from me—because better is my death than my life.”

This is really a shocking reaction. An entire city repents and comes to know the Lord and Jonah is upset about it. This is not the reaction we should have. Now, let’s give a small bit of empathy to Jonah. He knows God is full of truth. That’s what his name bears. He knows that these wicked people should be punished for their disobedience and hatred towards the Israelites. They were indeed evil people. They broke God’s commands. And anyone who breaks God’s commands should be punished. This is the type of vindication Jonah feels right now.

But an important verse for all of us to remember is Deuteronomy 32:35, “It is mine to avenge: I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.” God is the avenger. He is the one who decides the fate of all these people, not Jonah.

This reminds me of the Pharisees standing before Yeshua, eagerly desiring to condemns the woman caught in adultery. They all pick up stones to throw at her, but then Yeshua says to them: “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Of course, they all throw their stones down because no one is without sin. But here Yeshua could have. He was righteous and could have punished her for this sin if He wanted to. But he says to the woman, “Do any here condemns you?” No, then neither do I. Go and sin no more.

How often we needed to be reminded not to allow this type of vindication to enter our hearts. It’s easy, especially if we have been wronged by a friend or a neighbor. It’s easy to store up bitterness in our hearts and be unwilling to forgive. How many of you right now are storing bitterness in your heart towards a family, friend, or loved one? Maybe you should ask God to help you forgive. Maybe you should repent of this. Today is Yom Kippur. It’s a great opportunity to confess this sin and allow God to be the ultimate vindicator, not you.

4 Yet Adonai said, “Is it good for you to be so angry?”

5 So Jonah went out from the city and sat east of the city. There He made a sukkah and he sat under it, in the shade, until he saw what would happen in the city. 6 Then Adonai God prepared a plant and it grew up over Jonah, to give shade over his head to spare him from his discomfort. So Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But God at dawn the next day prepared a worm that crippled the plant and it withered away. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. So he implored that his soul would die, saying, “My death would be better than my life!”

9 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it good for you to be so angry about the plant?”

It is,” he said, “I am angry enough to die!”

10 But Adonai said, “You have pity on the plant for which you did not labor or make it grow, that appeared overnight and perished overnight. So shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh—the great city that has in it more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left—as well as many animals?”

Adonai starts with a question and ends with a question. His first question to Jonah is, “Is it good for you to be so angry?” He later asks if it was good to be angry about the plant and Jonah says. Yes. I am angry enough to die.” But really, Jonah was upset because the people of Nineveh were spared from the wrath of God. His own enemies were forgiven by God, and this was hard for Jonah to accept. He may be thinking about God’s righteous decrees since his name once again means truth.

But the truth is, God is not just full of wrath. He is also a God of compassion. He is a God who is slow to anger and steadfast in mercy. So Jonah gets upset about God sparing his enemies. Then he gets upset about a plant that is eaten by a worm and no longer shades him from the scorching sun. He is being quite petty in this situation. He wants protection from a temporary sunburn after being constantly rebellious toward God and yet wants his enemies to utterly perish by God’s eternal wrath even when they truly repented and asked for forgiveness.

At the end of the story, it is God who has the last remark. He asks Jonah, How can you have pity for the plant which has no eternal value but has no pity on 120,000 people who need redemption and salvation in Yeshua? It’s quite a powerful finish to the book of Jonah.

What does this mean for us today?

First, it means that we need to do more than give lip service to Adonai. It’s easy to make a wonderful petition and religious prayer, but it’s difficult to live each day in obedience to God. He wants our hearts more than our rituals.

A powerful verse to remind us of this is 1 Samuel 15:22, where Samuel says “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” I think we can be like Jonah often. We have this liturgical prayer. We hate the sinfulness of pagan idolatry. We even stand for God’s truth. But when it comes to obeying the Lord, we often hide from this.

Second, we should be reminded that God desires to save all of mankind. Here you clearly see that God picks no favorites. He gladly saves the mariners, which are pagans. He gladly saves the Ninevites, who are enemies of Israel. He saves the most powerful king in the world. And even still, He gives grace to Jonah when he rebels. He provides a fish to save him from the watery judgment. He protects Jonah throughout his entire journey to Nineveh. It’s amazing How God desires good for everyone if they repent and trust in Him.

Third, the story of Jonah depicts the salvation we have in Yeshua. Matthew 12:40 states: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Here we see the true prophet of God. Jonah doesn’t obey the Lord, but Yeshua perfectly obeys the Lord. Jonah reluctantly preaches to the entire Gentile nation and all get saved. Yeshua eagerly preaches to the entire world, both Jew and Gentile, and many get saved. Jonah was clearly one who heard from the Lord, Yeshua is the God-Man in flesh. Jonah had the words of repentance, Yeshua is repentance in bodily form. He is the Messiah. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He is our High Priest, redeemer, and rescues us from our own belly of the fish, rescues us from our doom and destruction.

This is good news. God saves sinners. God saves even the most rebellious sinners. What we must realize, today, is we are indeed in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Let us learn from Jonah’s mistake, not to be too conceited with our own religiosity. Let us learn from Jonah’s disobedience, not to be sympathetic toward our pagan neighbors. Let us learn from Jonah’s error, to obey God the first time and to rejoice and be glad when people repent of their evil ways and come to know the Prince of Peace. Yeshua, our Lord and Savior. Let’s pray!

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