Several prophets have short, often overlooked books, dedicated to them in the Bible. Jonah is one example, though his name is more well-known among believers and others who have a casual familiarity with the Bible. It’s not that Jonah’s work was more important than that of the other prophets. His story simply had a component to it that made for better storytelling. We’ve heard about Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. They are all stories that illustrate who God is in fantastical fashion. Jonah and the Fish is a story that fits right along them.
The problem is that in boiling Jonah’s story down to his experience with the fish, we miss out on a lot of what the Book of Jonah is trying to teach us. That’s unfortunately a mistake that we sometimes make with the Bible as a whole. We try to find the big lesson or get caught up in the more amazing aspects of the various Biblical stories and wind up overlooking the important details.
We are given the crux of Jonah’s story right away.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. – Jonah 1:1-3
Jonah was a prophet. The whole purpose of his role was to take God’s Word and deliver it to the people. We aren’t told much about how Jonah operated before the story begins, but we can assume that he embraced his role and upheld his duties (see 2 Kings 14:25). However, when God directed him to go to Nineveh, he refused and tried to run away from God, something that as a prophet, he had to know was impossible.
What follows is the most famous part of his story. The ship encountered a bad storm that threatened to destroy it. The sailors were distressed. They cried out to their gods to no avail. They awoke Jonah who was somehow sleeping through the storm and asked him to pray to his god. They did everything they could to try and figure out who was responsible for bringing the calamity down on them all. They were particularly alarmed when they found out that Jonah was a Hebrew and prophet of God. He confirmed for them that he was the cause of their woes and instructed them to throw him overboard. They resisted at first, but eventually complied when they realized it was the only way to save themselves. God responded by ceasing the storm and sending the fish to save Jonah.
Right away, we see some points in the story that are often glossed over in more simplified retellings. For one, the sailors were not servants of God, but they knew and understood who God is. Also, Jonah was fully aware of what he was doing and expected God to take action. Lastly, Jonah was not as selfish or self serving as is sometimes portrayed. He was more than willing to die so as to not drag others down because of his actions.
With this part of the story, we learn that disobeying God can have dire consequences. However, from the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, repented, and praised the Lord. God, in response, had the fish deliver Jonah to dry land safe and sound. So, we also learn that God is forgiving and merciful.
This part of Jonah’s story has a good message and delivers it in dramatic fashion, which is the reason it is so memorable. However, it may not even be the most important part of the story. Retellings that focus only on this part of Jonah’s story skip out on answering an important question. Why did Jonah run away in the first place?
God said Nineva was a wicked city, so was Jonah afraid to preach there? Did he think the people would reject God and kill him in response to him delivering God’s message? No, the true reason might surprise some.
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:1-3
It might flat out shock people when they realize that Jonah fled from God’s command because he knew that the Ninevites would hear him and would repent. Jonah didn’t believe they deserved to be saved. He knew that God would show them mercy, and he didn’t believe they were worthy of that mercy. Jonah wasn’t just a little annoyed that God chose to spare Nineveh. He was very angry to the point that he wanted to die.
God inquired about Jonah’s anger, and while Jonah was pouting outside of the city in the oppressive heat of the day, God made a plant grow to give Jonah shade. When Jonah would not give up on his anger, God had the plant destroyed. Jonah was then angered by the destruction of the plant leading to the final exchange between God and Jonah in the story.
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” – Jonah 4:9-11
God’s final point was that it was silly for Jonah to be mad about the death of a plant he did nothing to create or sustain. It was just as wrong for Jonah to be mad at God for choosing not to kill a whole city of people who did not understand the errors of their ways.
The story ends there. It’s an odd ending. Did Jonah get over his anger and reconcile with God? Did he come to some understanding of the error of his ways and commit himself to always executing the will of God? Did God grant him his request and take his life? We don’t really know.
There are a couple things we do know, especially when we put this story in the context of the other books around it. First, serving God and constantly dealing with wicked and backsliding people weighed on the prophets. The Hebrews were caught in a cycle of disobeying God, being punished by God, and coming back to God. Jonah understood that, and in the case of the Ninevites, he believed that God should have broken the cycle. He didn’t believe they deserved the opportunity to come back to God.
It’s easy to dismiss Jonah as being overly judgemental and maybe he was, but was he really so different from many of us? Don’t we have times where we deem some people to have done too much wrong to be given the opportunity to make right? Aren’t we sometimes like Jonah where we get so caught up in the wrongdoings of others that we wind up doing wrong ourselves?
Our bad actions in those cases should lead to us being punished too, but therein lies the other thing we learn at the end of the story. God is gracious and understanding. He talked to Jonah and tried to get the prophet to see the error of his ways. God loves us all, whether we are people who don’t know him and are neck deep in wickedness or are believers that have let our own perceived righteousness blind us to the evil that we do. God will punish us, but that’s not what he wants to do. He wants us to see the errors of our ways and correct them accordingly. Living a righteous life can be hard. Reaching out to those who indulge in wickedness can be even harder. Still, we have to do both because that is what God commands. Perhaps, doing both of those things will be a lot easier if we make sure we never forget that, just like with Jonah, at some point God had to save us too.