Our recent podcast study through the book of Jonah has left me wanting more. This prophet and the characters surrounding him have long fascinated me, and it seems like the right time to work out some thoughts through the essay format. Over the next few months, I will endeavor to lay out some principles and ideas that have occurred to me from this famous story, and hopefully, I will inspire you to work through some of the Bible’s most crucial passages.
The book of Jonah constitutes a fascinating story of a truly awful hero. He is often titled “The Reluctant Prophet,” but I don’t think that is entirely true. It would be more accurate to call him, “The Rebellious Prophet,” or dare I say, “The Hateful Prophet,” for the impetus for his entire story is built on his rebellion against God’s call, and the conclusion to his sad tale reveals his heart of hurt and hatred.
In our infatuation with the story of the whale, we often overlook the fact that Jonah is no hero at all, more an anti-hero than anything else. The book that bears his name, and tells his tale, is really a story of everyone else around him. He is simply the tie that binds, wrapped in the mercy of a loving God.
He is the first prophet to a Gentile nation, a prescient moment of biblical history, showing what will be the heartbeat of the New Covenant, and ultimately, the New Jerusalem. The gospel is more inclusive than exclusive; with everyone having equal opportunity to belong to the family, and the endgame is a welcoming city, with the gates left open so that those who need healing can find it.
The main character may be Nineveh, an ancient city of the Assyrian Empire, located in modern-day Iraq. By far the largest city in Mesopotamia, it sat at the intersection of two major trade routes, one which ran north-south and the other, east-west. King Sennacherib made the city a genuinely wonderful place, constructing a palace comprised of at least 80 rooms, lined with sculptures. The city had 15 massive gates, an elaborate system of canals, a well-stocked library, and was outfitted for war. The reputation of the empire was one of violence and war, and sacrifices to the gods were commonplace.
But Ninevah contained 120,000 people who couldn’t “discern between their right hand and their left,” a statement that probably refers to the number of kids. That is God’s final argument to Jonah. He wants to give Ninevah a chance because of the children, a representative of the innocent, or maybe, a representative of all of God’s children; his lambs. They aren’t Israelites, and they come from a violent, idol-worshipping land, but they are important to God. He goes to great lengths to reach them, and Jonah goes to great lengths to avoid them.
Jonah doesn’t run from Ninevah because he is scared, though he may have every right to feel that way. He doesn’t run because he is inherently rebellious. He runs because, quite frankly, he knows that God will forgive Ninevah and spare them the judgment that Jonah is quite certain they deserve. He has no real concern for those who cannot discern the difference between their left hand and their right. He would rather God be just and give them what they have coming than for God to be merciful and spare them.
When we read Jonah, we need to wrestle, not with whether we will do what God is calling us to do. When the extent of our concern with this book is that we don’t want to be guilty of turning left when God says to turn right, we miss the bigger picture. All of us need to wrestle with Ninevah, not with the call. How do we feel about the Ninevah around us? Do we long for people to get what they have coming? Do we see Godly justice as vengeance upon our enemies? Does the thought of wholesale grace and mercy bring us to argument? I do not mean that we consider someone we perceive to be lost as repenting on the altar at our local church. It is too easy to let ourselves off the hook with that argument because we would all love to see that. That has a mixture of humility and self-abasement that appeals to us. I mean imagine an instance where someone truly deserved to be punished, but God didn’t do it; and he might, if you could help in some way. That is Jonah.
The story might also be about the mariners, this group of sailors who are simply doing their jobs, only to find themselves inserted into Jonah’s journey. They are nothing special, and they are certainly not a righteous lot by any stretch of the imagination. When the storm arises, it is so severe that these professional sailors are afraid and each one cries out to his own god. They throw the cargo overboard; the very items that constitute their purpose and their income. While they may not seem to add much to the story itself, they shine brightest when the storm is its darkest. When Jonah informs them that the storm is on his behalf and the only way to save themselves is to throw him overboard, they choose to fight the storm anyway. Their reluctance to throw him to the storm is admirable, particularly considering they don’t know him, and have nothing invested in him. The mariners have more mercy on Jonah than Jonah wanted God to have on Ninevah! That is a crucial point to grapple with, and it could be the key to interpreting this book. How you treat your neighbor is of utmost importance, even if, and especially if, your neighbor doesn’t deserve it.
Even the whale may be the object of the story, or his inanimate counterpart, the shrub of Chapter 4. The whale and the shrub are both used by God to preach a sermon to Jonah, the man who didn’t want to preach a sermon at all. The whale swallows rebellious Jonah and takes him to the depths and convinces Jonah that he is dead. Then, prompted by God, the whale vomits Jonah onto the shore. The whale does as he is told, for Jonah’s benefit (which is more than we can say for Jonah). The whale gets nothing out of it, not even the meal he must have assumed he was getting when he swallowed the man. Yet, no one weeps for the whale, and why should we?
Well, someone weeps for the shrub, and that someone is Jonah. It is a fast-growing plant that springs up overnight and provides shade to a despondent Jonah in Chapter 4. He is frustrated with God because God did just what Jonah was sure he would do: he forgave Ninevah and spared them from judgment. So, God uses yet another of his precious creations to try and get through to Jonah. Count them with me: the mariners are one, the whale is two, and now the shrub is three. Seems as if there are no lengths to which the Father will not go to both reach his children, and to get through to his children.
After a restful night under the shrub, God prepared a worm to eat it, depriving Jonah of his shade. Like the final limit, Jonah snaps and God calls him on it. “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” God asks. “Jonah replies, “It is right for me to be angry, even to the death!” This prompts the famous exchange to which we alluded earlier. If Jonah is justified in being angry about the death of a shrub that he had nothing to do with forming, how much more is God justified in being merciful to his children, whom he has fashioned with his own hand.
Note the juxtaposition of Jonah’s anger with God’s love and mercy. We may feel justified in our anger and may find cause to prove that we are correct. With equal force, God is justified in his mercy. He is allowed to forgive who he will. His grace can do as it is designed to do. Much like the parable that Jesus told, of the employer who hired workers for a set wage. Later in the day he hired more workers, and at the end of the day, he paid the late workers the same amount that he had agreed to give the early workers. This fact both stunned and dissatisfied them (they were Jesus-era Jonahs in this regard). The moral of the story was that God can give grace to whomever he wishes. His mercy endures forever.
Whomever, or whatever, the story of Jonah is about, this much is clear: Jonah is not a story about a man who ran. It is more a story of a merciful God, and about how we are living the story out in our own little world. Therefore, the book of Jonah is the only one in the bible to end with a question. We are to ever be asking ourselves how important Ninevah is to us. This question is the one that Jesus lived out, daily. His injunctions to love our neighbor, and to pray for our persecutors, and to bless those that hate us, are not soft principles in a hard world, given by a man who would rather talk than fight. His words are not a new way of dealing with the world, they are God’s way of dealing with the world. Jesus doesn’t show us love because that’s what God is wanting to do in a new world. He shows us love because that is what God has always done. Anything else has been interruptions by the Jonahs of the world.
Peel back a layer of this fantastic little book and more truths reveal themselves. We will do just that next month on another essay edition. In the meantime, consider your Ninevah, and your call towards it. May you resolve to do what must be done, without a whale and without a shrub, replete with the knowledge that the whale and the shrub do indeed await, if need be.
Grace to you.