The Bible is full of the stories of many prophets, many of them with eponymous books in the Bible, full of the messages God sent them to deliver to various recipients. While a few of them had some of their personal stories told, majority are known mostly for the messages they delivered. But one man included among the prophets is known more for his own story than for his message – his story of disobedience no less. From resisting God’s instruction to taking offence at God, Jonah’s story is more like a 21st century millennial than an Old Testament prophet, one we will do well to pay attention to in our days.
First, let’s have a quick synopsis. God calls Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh. But Jonah gets on a ship going in the opposite direction. The ship suffers a storm and Jonah is thrown into the sea to get it to calm down. He is swallowed by a great fish and vomited on land three days later, after humbling himself before God while inside the fish. He then reluctantly goes to deliver God’s message to the Ninevites and gets upset when the people repent before God. Finally, he gets into an exchange with God and insists that he’s right to be angry at God’s mercies towards His enemies.
Jonah’s story may seem odd in the context of the Old Testament, but it was deliberately positioned there by God to remind us of our own frequent stubbornness and unforgiveness despite receiving mercy from God on several occasions. The book is a story of God’s loving mercies towards humanity – both the Ninevites (Assyrians) whom God called to repentance, and Jonah, who refused to repent of his own sins. Jonah most likely had a grudge against the Assyrians for some evil they had done, and we can tell he avoided calling them to repentance because he knew God was merciful and gracious (Jonah 4:1-2).
He was obviously religious, and believed in the Almighty YAHWEH, even able to hear his instructions (Jonah 1:1,9). Yet he would rather flee (in vain) from the Creator of Heaven and Earth, than let go of his desire to see the Ninevites destroyed because of their sins. He wanted to make them pay for their sins by avoiding preaching repentance to them. But not only was God determined to save the Ninevites, he was determined to save Jonah, making him the vessel to call them to repentance. He was kept alive in the great fish and heard when he called out for mercy. Yet he refused to offer mercy to others.
Jonah delivered his message and saw the whole city repent with fasting. Again, he became unhappy because he knew that would guarantee God’s forgiveness. As he waited outside the city to see what would become of it (Jonah 4:5), God provided him a natural shade from the desert sun, withdrawing it after one day. Jonah’s short-lived joy gave way as his anger bubbled to the surface again, declaring he was better off dead than exposed to the scorching heat. Despite God reasoning with him, he refused to budge, and the story ends abruptly with God asking him a vital question (Jonah 4:11).
God loves all His creation and is always compassionate towards them (Psa. 145:9). But we His creation often hold grudges against one another, despite having come short in God’s sight and receiving his everlasting mercies. If God is willing to forgive, who are we to hold grudges? How often do we find ourselves plotting a course of action that is contrary to God’s plans? How often do we take the opposite direction to avoid doing that difficult thing God instructed? How often do we abandon friends, families, and communities of faith so that we can indulge our selfish desires? How often are we like Jonah?