As a little girl, I learned that there was a prophet named Jonah that God rescued by sending a great fish to swallow him and carry him safely to land. As an adult, I learned that Jonah was, basically, a jerk who chose to run away from God rather than go and preach to his enemies, because he knew that God was going to have mercy on them and he didn’t want any part of that. Today, I learned that I am Jonah.
Let’s take a quick look at the story of Jonah. In chapter 1, verses 1-2 we read: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” Jonah must have been a lot quicker than I am, because at first glance, this appears to spell nothing but trouble for Nineveh. Jonah, however, sees through this immediately and hot-foots it straight for a fast ship out of town in a pointless attempt to get away from God.
What Jonah recognizes that we might miss is that God, by sending Jonah to Ninevah, is issuing a clear sign of his intended mercy toward them. God wants to send Jonah to call the Ninevites to repentance so that he can forgive them. Jonah, however, despises his enemies to the point that the thought of God showing mercy to them is so reprehensible that all he wants is to get as far away from God and his tenderheartedness as he possibly can.
As soon as Jonah makes good on his escape, however, God, hurls such a great wind upon the water that it threatens to break up Jonah’s getaway ship. The Captain, who is not a worshipper of Jonah’s God, hedges his bets by asking everyone on board to pray to his own deity. He actually has to wake Jonah up to tell him to pray. Jonah, of course, is avoiding God and therefore is not inclined to speak to him; but, after the sailors cast lots to find the culprit at the bottom of this ill wind, and the lot falls on him, Jonah has to come clean. He confesses that he is actually on the ship because he is in the process of running away from his God. Naturally, the sailors are horrified. When they ask Jonah what he thinks they should do about this situation, to his credit, he mans up and tells them to throw him overboard. To their credit, the sailors try to avoid doing that, but, in the end, they call out to Jonah’s God not to punish them for doing what they are about to do, and, as verse 15 says, “they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.”
Chapter 1 then ends with these words, “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” I am going to skip over this verse and all of chapter 2 for the moment, and return to it shortly.
Chapter 3 begins with God reissuing the exact same directive to Jonah that he gave him in chapter 1, as if nothing has transpired in the meantime. This time, however, Jonah does as he is told. He walks for three days across the great city calling out as he walks, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown.” That is the entire message. God told Jonah specifically to call out the message he would give him, so it is likely this is precisely what God told Jonah to say. The point of this very simple message seems to be that the power of this message was not in its words, in the speaker or in his persuasive delivery, but in God and his convicting Spirit alone; and the Word of God did, indeed, have its intended effect.
At the end of chapter 3, the people of Ninevah did thoroughly and earnestly repent and, just as Jonah knew he would, God relented and showed them mercy by not bringing on them the foretold disaster.
Chapter 4 begins by saying, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” The Hebrew basically says this “was exceedingly evil to Jonah.” Jonah was so angry with God for showing mercy to his enemies that what God did actually seemed evil to him!
Whether I like to admit it or not, here is where I begin to see myself.
We are currently living in a very volatile climate regarding religion, politics and just about everything in between. Our opinions are strong. There are land mines hiding under almost every topic. We have drawn enemy lines and it’s easier to think more in terms of the imprecatory Psalms, like Psalm 69, where the Psalmist prays for the defeat of his enemies with harsh words like “snare”, “trap”, “burning anger”, “desolation” and “blotted out of the book of the living”, than it is to think in terms of mercy.
There is a time and place for imprecatory psalms and prayers; however, when I come smack up against a situation where God wants to show mercy to those with whom I disagree, and I am defiantly resistant to that scenario, at that point, I am Jonah.
Even if I somehow managed to avoid being drawn into the fray of politics and religion, I would have to ask myself whether I have ever held onto a grudge against someone who has harmed me? Or if there are people I believe are less deserving than I am? Or whether I ever look with disdain and suspicion on someone I feel is trying to take something which I don’t believe they are entitled to? Or whether there are people I don’t think God should want to forgive? I believe that, if I am honest with myself, I will have to acknowledge that there are; and at that point also, I am Jonah.
In chapter 4, Jonah is so angry and bitter that he is insistent that he would rather die than to live in a world with a God who would be so unjust as to forgive “Them”. God reasons with Jonah about his anger, and then presents him with a living parable. He causes a plant to grow up and give Jonah shade from the heat. Then, he lets a worm destroy it. Jonah is even more incensed and once more says he wants to die. God asks him if it makes sense for him to be so upset about the plant, but Jonah only doubles down.
The book of Jonah ends with God pointing out that Jonah had pity for a plant that he had nothing to do with, but that he did not understand God’s desire to have pity on 120,000 people “who do not know their right hand from their left.”
There is no happy ending here, where the little light bulb goes on over Jonah’s head. My only hope for Jonah lies in the fact that the book is included in Scripture, so perhaps Jonah did eventually see the light and pen the story himself, but we have no assurance of that.
Now, what about that last verse of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2 that I said I would return to?
Jesus himself refers to that last verse of chapter 1, about being in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, as being a prophecy about his own time in the grave. Many believe that all of chapter 2, which is a prayer, is not a record of Jonah’s words but, rather, the prophetic prayer of Christ, symbolic of his time in the tomb. Here is the prayer:
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
In the end, my only hope is that Jesus is always the initiator of mercy. He pursues me, even when I am unfaithful. He takes the punishment that I deserve. He removes the wrath of God from me. He sends the messengers to whom he gives the message. His Spirit convicts and turns my unrepentant heart to him. He takes pity on me because I do not know my right hand from my left. Even in the midst of my stubborn rebellion, where I resent his mercy and compassion for the “wrong people”, he cares for my needs, reasons with me and teaches me. He provides for me all that is necessary for my salvation. All I bring is my sin.