The familiar tale of the rebellious prophet Jonah reveals our shared flaws in understanding God’s mercy
As a regularly taught story in Sunday School and a Veggie Tales classic, I believe that most folks have an existing understanding of the book of Jonah. I’ve been fortunate enough to revisit it recently with my church, and I’ve learned that this story contains so much more depth than previously understood. When the context of Jonah’s authorship is taken into account along with a recognition of the audience for whom it was written, a key theme is revealed: as a representation of Israel, Jonah’s prolonged opposition to God is a commentary on the incompatibility of ethnocentrism and God’s salvation.
The story of Jonah reveals more of God’s character: his mercy, the gracious way in which he teaches us, and the perfect justification of his decisions. It also reflects back our own characters: our ingroup attitude to God’s mercy, our projections onto his righteousness, and the stubbornness of our flaws.
Jonah was a mid-8th century B.C. prophet who lived under the reign of the last great king Jeroboam II. Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrians, a brutal and pagan rival civilization to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Both before and during Jonah’s lifetime, the Assyrians had been a terror to his people, committing violent atrocities in the name of conquest. King Jeroboam II also made his own conquests in the name of Israel, and the period of success led to heightened nationalism and the corruption of the elite. While the prophets Hosea and Amos denounced the king for his various sins, 2 Kings includes an opinion of Jonah that portrays the king as Israel’s savior. His support for this “Israel First” king will be relevant later.
With that context in mind, we can enter this short (only 4 chapters) story.
Chapter 1: Jonah Flees the Presence of the Lord
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
Jonah Is Thrown into the Sea
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
A Great Fish Swallows Jonah
17 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 distinctly recall, even as a child, scoffing at Jonah’s apparent foolishness for believing he could “escape” God’s sight. Even in Sunday School, I knew that “God is everywhere”, but I believe there’s a genuine possibility that Jonah did not. For the Israelites, Yahweh was their god, nobody else’s. In believing that he was so closely tied to the Jewish people, I don’t believe it would have been that far of a leap to believe he was tied to the land itself. If Jonah truly believed God was someone who could be left behind, it doesn’t appear that foolish that he’d not only believe he could simply sail away from his sight, but even sleep peacefully in his disobedience.
Likewise, you can see that Jonah ties his spiritual superiority with his ethnic pride, when he responds proudly “I am a Hebrew” after the sailors ask him who he worships (v. 9). He subsequently says, “and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land”, although his actions seem to indicate otherwise. This is the first of several examples where biblical knowledge does not translate to godly behavior. Later, we will learn why Jonah fled from God’s commandment: he knew mercy would be extended to the Assyrians. Jonah has a vertical relationship with the Lord: to him, God’s salvation is only for the Israelites. He does not grasp the horizontal nature of salvation: that it belongs to everyone, even Jonah’s enemies.
Despite this, Jonah shows us that he is a prophet (albeit a flawed one) when he not only correctly identifies that the storm is an outcome of his disobedience but offers his own life to appease the Lord. The sailors’ reference to his “innocent blood” in v. 14 is the first of several foreshadowing in this tale of Jesus’s death, the other of course being the three days and three nights he spends in the belly of the fish.
The fish itself is the first example of the key characteristic of God in this passage: his mercy. Though Jonah was disobedient, God provided a way to rescue him from judgement, just as he would do centuries later in his son Jesus Christ. We will see later how Jonah’s heart responds to this kindness.
Chapter 2. Jonah’s Prayer
2 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“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.
3 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.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 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.
7 When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
In Matthew 12, Jesus responds to the Pharisees, saying, “An evil and adulterous generation craves a sign. Yet no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (v. 39). We don’t know what Jesus did when, after his crucifixion, he himself spent three days and three nights in the heart of darkness, but I believe he must have reflected on this prayer at one point or another. Jonah’s prayer is one of repentance, of acknowledging one’s guilt, and endeavoring to return to obedience. It highlights the scandal of Jesus’s death: he who knew no sin and lived in perfect obedience would endure the judgement of all sins and all disobedience. It’s a beautiful prayer that is made all the more poignant in how it points to Christ.
Chapter 3: Jonah Goes to Nineveh
3 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The People of Nineveh Repent
6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
God’s relenting of the disaster he warned Ninevah of would have come as a great shock to the Israelites reading this. Not only had he extended salvation to Gentiles, but he had offered it specifically to mortal enemies of his people. It’s easy for us to read this many years later and struggle to understand the magnitude of this act or Jonah’s response in the following chapter. But it’s important to note that this ethnocentric view of salvation persisted in the Jewish culture all the way to the time of Jesus and the Pharisees, to the new Christian church with Paul, Peter, and James, and to today, as we see a more fractured and divided church than ever. Though it may come as less of a guttural shock to us today, understanding this point and its persistence today is core to understanding Jonah.
Chapter 4: Jonah’s Anger and the Lord’s Compassion
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6 Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
At the beginning of this final chapter, we see that Jonah has had the correct theology from the start. In referencing Exodus 34, Jonah reveals that he knew from the start that the Lord would show mercy to the Assyrians. However, it was his obsession with the verticality of his relationship with God that drove him to such intense anger at the sight of God’s mercy. Here we see again how Jonah is a perfect example of how solid theology does not a godly man make. Even after his beautiful prayer in the belly of the fish and the second chance afforded to him by a merciful God, Jonah reveals the stubbornness of his (and ultimately our own) heart in its flaws.
The climax of this story is marked by the pivotal question: “Do you do well to be angry (v.4)?” In fact, it’s repeated again in v. 9. It’s easy for us the readers to answer that question: no, it is not right for Jonah to be angry that the Assyrians were spared, and it’s not right for him to be angry for the plant. But it’s harder for us to notice how we resemble Jonah in our everyday lives. It can be difficult for us to prevent those feelings of bitterness when we see God bless someone we believe to be undeserving. In this divisive climate of politics and injustice, we struggle to accept that God’s mercy is for the “other” as much as it is our own.
The odd story of the plant and the worm also reveals another key shortcoming in Jonah’s (and ours, by extension) relationship with God. Like the fish that God sent to rescue Jonah from the sea, the plant is another act of undeserved grace, a manifestation of his love. And just how Jonah’s heart was unchanged after the first instance, he reverts back to his anger when the plant dies. This is a poignant illustration of our tendency to love God’s blessings more than God himself. When we become more attached to the creation rather than to the Creator, we begin to believe that we earned that job, that position in the church, those relationships. The reality is, none of those would have been possible without countless blessings and gifts of grace from God. When I lose such gifts, I pity them even though I couldn’t have worked for them or enjoyed them without the health God gave me, the support from the teachers and family and friends he gave me, and the privilege he gave me of growing up in this country and in this socioeconomic status. When we realize that none of this would have been possible without his grace and mercy, we grow both in our gratitude for what we do have and in our appreciation for our Father who created such things for us.
Finally, this chapter ends on a cliffhanger, an open-ended, unanswered question that challenges us reading it thousands of years later. When the Lord says “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city (v. 11),” he makes two things absolutely clear: 1) how thoroughly justified God is in in extending mercy to everyone, and 2) how inarguably foolish it is for us to apply our own parameters to his limitless mercy.
The readers of this book, both past and present, must be aware that God’s character is diametrically opposed to sin. He is justice, and it is unconditionally right that he would judge it. The Old Testament is clear in its depictions of God’s response to sin. The Sunday School version of the fall of Jericho usually omits the conclusion: “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword (Josh. 6:21)”. When Moses discovered the Hebrews’ sin of the golden calf, he commanded them ““Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor (Ex 32:27).’” Only through understanding God’s zero tolerance for sin can we even begin to realize the depth of his mercy through the withholding of the daily, second-by-second judgement that we deserve, and through the greatest miracle of his son Jesus Christ.
Just as the Lord’s character is multidimensional, wielding both justice and mercy, our relationship with him and his creation must also be. Vertically, we must be invested in him and our church communities; but also horizontally, we must push against our ingroup tendencies to embrace all of God’s creation. Revelation 5:9 says:
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation
Commissioned to make disciples of all nations, we only perpetuate brokenness when we elect to live as though God’s mercy is only for people who look like us, or hang out in our social circles, or agree with our sociopolitical beliefs. As easy as it is to look at Jonah and dismiss him as a defective prophet, it is all the more crucial to turn inward and ourselves: “Do we do well to be angry?”