Jonah demanded they throw him into the sea. Since the Word of the Lord had come to Jonah, directing him to go and justify Nineveh, the prophet had wrestled with, prayed against, and run away from the consequences of God's decision. We'll never know why he demanded the sailors throw him overboard as a storm raged, and the ship disintegrated. Maybe he selflessly wanted to save their lives, or perhaps he had decided that the only thing left within his control was his life, so he chose suicide over preaching God's grace to Nineveh.
The prophet didn't explain his decision; he just demanded they throw him into the raging waters to die. But Jonah was wrong if he thought he had any control over life and death. What God chooses to do, nobody can undo.
If Jonah chose suicide rather than declare God's justification to Israel's enemy, the prophet chose the selfish way out. He left kin and country. He turned his back on family and friends, past and present. He decided to leave the work of preaching repentance and forgiveness to others. He selfishly chose suicide rather than declare salvation to those he deemed undeserving of God's grace.
Once he'd chosen, he couldn't go back on his choice. Jonah couldn't undo his decision once he'd been thrown into the abyss. He was selfish. But, all our choices are selfish, whether we argue that they're intended for good or not.
We can do something selfish for selfless reasons or choose to be selfish for self-serving reasons. It's a dichotomy, but it doesn't change the fact that whether we do something for others or solely for ourselves, the decision is guided by self-interest.
We can't escape being selfless and selfish at the same time.
We volunteer our time serving others at church because it makes us feel good to feel that we're serving God. We pray for children because we want a family, but also so that our family name doesn't end with us, and we don't die alone. We donate to charity, give blood, and buy gifts for our spouse because it means we're helping our neighbors, improving the lives of others, and in this way, our life has a more significant meaning. But if it didn't make us feel good, we wouldn't do it. We can't escape being selfless and selfish at the same time.
Jonah chooses to end his life because he cannot bear the burden of the Lord anymore. He can't preach grace to evil Nineveh, and he can't go home. Since God has bent all of creation towards Nineveh's salvation, the prophet decides death is his last, best option. He chooses suicide rather than accept the consequences of God's decision. Jonah believes God is a God of faithful, loving-kindness, and yet he can't accept that his God can be God for all people, even the evilest people in the world. Jonah believes and refuses to believe. Both are true, as is proven by the number of times Jonah prays for God to kill him after he's vomited up on the beach following his failed suicide attempt.
Jonah always had a choice. But, his choice was always to end his struggle with God's Word. Like the prophet Elijah, Jonah prays, begging God to kill him. The choice would end his grief and pain. His fears would be quashed. God would have to find another preacher of grace.
But like Paul Harvey used to say, "and now, for the rest of the story..."
God's decision to act for Nineveh could not be undone. The sailors, the storm, the fish, the worm, the plant, everything, and everyone was bent towards Nineveh's salvation, even a suicidal prophet whom the Lord chose to be their preacher. More than that, Jonah's three days in the belly of a fish would become the Messiah's proof text for his resurrection from the dead. What Jonah chose as a way out of preaching justification to his enemies, Jesus chose as God's way to reconcile himself with a world that treated their Creator as an enemy.
Jonah chose to act in his self-interest. Jesus chose to act wholly out of selfless, faithful, loving -kindness. God's Word that had so burdened Jonah's conscience removed the sinful burden of grief and pain from all humanity when he allowed himself to be thrown into death and hell. Jonah was vomited up on the beach so that God's justification of Nineveh was fulfilled. Jesus exploded the doors of death and hell at his resurrection so that all people might be saved.
His resurrection reveals that Jonah, and all of us, even the evilest people, are salvageable, even from suicide, in Jesus' death and resurrection.
Jonah is an example for us that we always choose the selfish way, even though we believe God's Word is true. God's Word can come to us, and we can run away from God. We can volunteer our time and help other people live better lives, and feel good about ourselves while we do it. We can act selflessly and act out of our self-interest. Both are true at the same time.
But, ultimately, Jonah is a sign of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus' resurrection after three days (raised for our justification, as Paul writes in Romans 4:25) reveals to faith that we are selfish and selfless at the same time. His resurrection reveals that Jonah, and all of us, even the evilest people, are salvageable, even from suicide, in Jesus' death and resurrection.