Grades 3-6 Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 1: In the Bottom of a Boat, Hiding
Author’s Notes: This week, we’re beginning a new four week series on the Old Testament book of Jonah. Each week we’ll find Jonah in a new place, with a new purpose. We’ll start out with Jonah on a boat, in a storm, trying to run from God. But we’ll be reminded that there’s no place on earth where we can hide from our Creator. If He calls us to do something for Him, and we run, He’ll keep pursuing us until we are convinced that there’s no out-running God. And the choice is ultimately ours: to run from God, or to Him.
[If you can find a “Where’s Waldo” picture, bring it with you to show the class. If time permits, allow them some time to find Waldo.]
Have any of you ever seen a “Where’s Waldo” illustration? A man by the name of Martin Handford draws scenes crowded with people or other objects. And in each picture, he includes the same man, always dressed in the same red and white outfit. The reader is supposed to try to find the “hidden” Waldo in each picture. But when they do finally find him, they usually see that he’s not really hidden at all. The reader just didn’t know where to look.
There is someone, though, who never has trouble finding Waldo, and knows just where to look. Who would that be? Mr. Handford, the man who put Waldo in the picture, would know just where to find him. After all, he created Waldo.
Today, we’re beginning a new series of lessons on the Old Testament book of Jonah. And in today’s lesson, Jonah is going to try to run from God, and hide in the bottom of a ship. But Jonah is going to find out that there’s someone he can never hide from. Who do you think that would be? Yes, Jonah could never hide from God! God is the one who created Jonah, and the sea he tried to use to escape.
So let’s take a moment to learn our memory verse. It was written by King David. And he asks the same question Jonah did… where can I go where God wouldn’t see me? Only for David, it was a comfort to know that the answer is “nowhere!” Jonah, on the other hand, didn’t feel the same way; and we’ll find out why in our lesson.
Memory verse: (Have the children repeat this verse with you several times, until they are able to say it themselves. And encourage them to repeat it to others several times during the week, so that it’ll have a place in their hearts.)
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” Psalm 139:7
Opening prayer: Lord, thank You for each student who’s here, today. And thank You for Your Word, The Bible, where we can learn new truths about You, and Your plans for us. Help each one of us here, today, to be attentive to what You would have us learn. Give us open ears and hearts, ready to listen to Your words. Amen.
This Week’s Lesson: Jonah Runs from God (Jonah 1)
Hundreds of years before Jesus came to earth as a baby, there was a very big city called Nineveh that was known throughout the region for its wickedness. They attacked Israel many times, and were said to be quite brutal in those attacks. So God decided He had had enough of their wickedness, and was going to overthrow the city.
At that time, there was a prophet named Jonah who lived in Israel. He would have been very familiar with the accounts of Nineveh’s wickedness. And some Bible scholars even believe that some of Jonah’s own family members may have been murdered by the Ninevites. So God came to Jonah with His plan.
1Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
2Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
Do you think Jonah was happy to hear that God was finally going to judge Nineveh for the terrible things they had done? I’m sure it’s something he had been waiting to hear. So how do you think he reacted? Do you think he was happy to have been chosen to carry such an important message from the Lord? Do you think he set out, right away, toward Nineveh? He was, after all, God’s prophet. His job was to bring God’s messages to the people.
But Jonah was not at all happy with his new assignment. Can anyone guess why? It’s probably not what you would think. Although Nineveh was a huge and well guarded city, and even though the people there were dangerous and cruel; it doesn’t appear that Jonah was afraid to go for those reasons.
In fact, we don’t actually find out until almost the end of the book of Jonah why he didn’t want to obey his directions from the Lord. You see, Jonah knew God enough to realize one overriding characteristic. God is a God of second chances. He is a God of great mercy and compassion. Listen to the way Jonah describes God in Jonah 4:2 – “…I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.”
You see, Jonah knew God. And he also suspected that if he went to Nineveh with the message that God was going to destroy them, and the Ninevites responded by repenting, that God in His great mercy and grace would then choose to spare them. And Jonah did not share the same merciful, kind heart that God had. The last thing he wanted was for Nineveh to repent and be spared from God’s judgment. He probably wanted God to just go ahead and rain fire down upon their heads with no warning at all. So Jonah wanted no part of God’s plan to preach to Nineveh, first.
Instead, Jonah came up with a plan of his own.
3But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
(If you have access to a map, show the students where Jonah was, in Joppa, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean; where Nineveh was, to the northeast, in Assyria; and where Tarshish is thought to have been. If you don’t have a map, help your students visualize where Jonah was headed.)
As we learned earlier, Jonah lived in Israel. 2 Kings 14:25 tells us specifically that he was from the town of Gath-hepher. So if he was near his hometown when God called him, it would have been several days journey, over land, to the north and east, to reach the city of Nineveh. But is that where Jonah headed? No! Our passage says he went down to Joppa. Joppa was a seaport on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It was southwest of Gath-hepher… directly in the opposite direction from where he was supposed to be headed.
And not only did he head out in the opposite direction, did you catch the next part of his plan? Jonah planned to flee on a ship heading to Tarshish. Tarshish is believed to have been in the area of Spain. At that time, going to Tarshish was like going to the other end of the earth. It was about as far as Jonah could get from the city of Nineveh.
And why did he head for the ends of the Earth? What was he trying to do? Verse 3 says he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Have you ever knowingly disobeyed someone; perhaps a parent or a teacher? If you have, did you want to be near them? When we are living in disobedience, we often try to get as far away from the one we’re disobeying as we possibly can. We don’t want to listen to what they might say. And we don’t want to see that look of disapproval and disappointment in their eyes.
Jonah probably felt that way, too. He had decided he was not going to do what God asked. And at that time, although God is everywhere, He had also chosen to dwell, in a special way, in the city of Jerusalem, in the Temple. Even after God removed His presence from the Temple, many Israelites still looked at Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. So in choosing to go to Tarshish, Jonah was not just going the opposite direction from Nineveh; he was also trying to get as far away from God’s “house” as he could.
But what did we learn from our memory verse this week? Listen to the verses that surround our memory verse:
Psalm 139:2-4, 7-12
2Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.
3Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
4For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
7Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
11If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
12Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
Do these verses give us any place to hide from God? No. They make it clear that there is nowhere to go that God is not already there. And do you remember how we said that the creator of “Where’s Waldo” always knew where to find him… because he had put the character in the picture? The same is true of God. He is our Creator, and knows every little thing about what we’re doing, where we’re going, and even what we’re thinking. There is just no way to hide from God.
But that didn’t mean that God was going to try to stop Jonah from running. God knew Jonah had some lessons to learn. So He let Jonah do as he pleased, and get on that boat heading in the wrong direction.
We aren’t told just how far the ship got before things began to change. But somewhere along the trip, God began moving His creation to get Jonah’s attention. God was not satisfied with Jonah’s decision not to go to Nineveh. And He wanted him to rethink what he was doing.
4But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.
5Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
What did God do to get Jonah’s attention? He sent a storm to disrupt their trip. How did the sailors react to the storm? They began praying to their gods. Then they started throwing things off of the ship, into the sea, to keep the ship from sinking. And was Jonah there helping to lighten the ship, or praying to His God? No. Where was he? He was down in the sides of the ship, fast asleep.
How could Jonah possibly sleep through such a thing? There are a couple of possible answers. One is that he was trying to sleep so he could avoid thinking about what he had done. Maybe he thought that the whole issue would just go away if he slept long enough.
Living in disobedience can also take a big toll on a person; making them feel exhausted, worn out. Maybe Jonah was so tired from all the running that he just collapsed, and fell asleep.
Whatever the reason, it didn’t last for long. The other men on the ship realized that what they were doing was not enough to save them. So they began looking around the ship for another answer to their predicament. And the shipmaster found one. Jonah!
6So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
7And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
When the shipmaster found Jonah sleeping, what did he ask Jonah to do? He wanted Jonah to wake up and pray to his God. Most of the sailors probably worshipped many gods. So they were probably hoping to get lucky, and have someone pray to the right god…the one who was angry and causing all the trouble. Little did they know that Jonah did have a connection to the God who had created the sea, and the storm. But God soon gave those sailors a clue as to who was at the center of His storm.
How did the sailors determine who was responsible for the peril they were in. They cast lots. That means they had some system of singling out one person through a seemingly random process. They might have rolled some dice, looking for a particular sign or number. Or they may have each drawn from some marked cards or other items. And God allowed their test to show that Jonah was, indeed, the one He was after.
But once the sailors knew who was responsible for the danger they were in, what were they supposed to do about it? They had already done all that they knew to do. But something more had to be done, or they would all die in the storm. So they turned to Jonah, and asked him.
8Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?
9And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.
10Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him. Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.
11Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.
12And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.
Jonah finally admitted that he was the one God was after. He was the one responsible for bringing down a storm from God, on all of them. This is a good reminder to us that we are not the only ones who suffer when we are disobeying God. Sometimes those around us will end up having to bear our punishment, as well. It’s important for us to stop and think about how our decisions to obey God, or not, might affect not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. In our disobedience, we might also bring suffering into the lives of those we love. There are many consequences to the sin of disobedience!
The sailors now knew that Jonah was responsible for their suffering. And they had heard his suggestion to ease God’s hand against them. But it turns out they were men of compassion, and could not bring themselves to throw Jonah overboard, as he suggested. They respected the fact that Jonah was a living human being. And did not feel comfortable with the idea of intentionally taking his life.
13Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.
What did the sailors try, instead of doing as Jonah said, and throw him in the sea? They tried to use their own strength to row the ship toward land. They now knew that Jonah’s God was strong enough to bring this powerful storm. But they didn’t yet understand just how powerful He is. But when they had finally exhausted all their own resources, they realized they had no choice but to do what God wanted. They would have to throw the disobedient prophet into the sea.
We should also note, before we go on, that the pagan sailors were the ones who were “exceedingly afraid” when they learned that Jonah was running from God. They seemed to have a good understanding of the fact that this Creator God was a God to be respected and feared. But Jonah, God’s own prophet who should have known Him better than anyone… he was not afraid to do his own thing, and run from God.
Once the sailors reached the end of their own strength, they again acknowledged that God was a God to be respected; and that human life was worth preserving at almost any cost. But in their final desperation, the sailors finally gave in to Jonah’s direction. And while doing so, they pleaded with the God that Jonah had yet to speak to.
14Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.
15So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
16Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
What did the sailors finally do with Jonah? They threw him overboard, into the sea; just as he had directed them to. And what happened when they threw him overboard? The storm stopped immediately; reassuring the sailors that while what they had done was a terrible thing… in this case, it was the right thing. God was satisfied with their actions.
So where did that leave Jonah, now? Jonah was probably sinking quickly in the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea. There would be no hope of his swimming all the way back to shore. And he probably thought that his disobedience had ultimately cost him his life. But God was not yet finished with Jonah.
Do you remember how we mentioned earlier that God likes to give second chances? Jonah was about to learn that for himself, first hand. God still had a job for Jonah to do. So He had specially prepared a big second chance opportunity for Jonah.
17Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
What had God prepared, especially for Jonah’s rescue? God had prepared a big fish that was able to swallow Jonah whole! This fish was not there to punish Jonah. It was there to rescue him. And there he would sit, in the belly of that fish, with lots of time to think about the direction he had chosen; and the mercy of God that had spared his life.
Our lesson next week will take a closer look at those three, long days and nights of wallowing in the seaweed, rotting seafood, and fish-digestive fluids. It was a big wake-up call for Jonah; even bigger than the one that had pulled him up from the bottom of that boat.
So as we head into this new week, we can remember that God still new exactly where Jonah was. He knew where he was in the bottom of the ship. And He still knew, when he was in the smelly belly of the big fish. There’s absolutely no place that we can go where God does not know exactly where we are. There’s no place we can hide where God cannot see us. That can be either a great concern, or a great blessing.
When we’re living in disobedience to God, doing something we know would disappoint Him, then we won’t be comfortable knowing that He can see us. We’ll probably avoid spending time in prayer and Bible study. And we might even avoid spending time with other Christians so we’re not reminded of the fact that we’re running from what God wants us to be doing. That’s a pretty miserable way to live!
On the other hand, when we’re living in fellowship with God, fully trusting Him and doing what He’s asked us to do, then we will be comforted by the fact that God has His eye always upon us. We will sense His loving approval, and seek out His presence in our lives.
So how will you choose to live this week: running away from God, or running to Him?
Closing Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank You for the reminder that You always know just where to find us; that You are our Creator who loves us and calls us to do Your will. Help us this week, Lord, to desire to do all that You call us to. And remind us that if we choose to turn the other way, that You will not let us go. But will pursue us, because You love us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
Activity: (Review Questions)
Fill in the Blanks
True or False
1. Jonah gladly accepted God’s call to go to Nineveh. (false – he ran away)
2. Jonah found a boat going in the opposite direction from Nineveh. (true)
3. The sailors tried, unsuccessfully, to pray to their own gods to make the storm stop. (true)
4. When the sailors learned that Jonah was responsible, they immediately threw him into the sea. (false – they first tried to row to shore)
5. The sea was calm once the sailors threw Jonah overboard. (true)