Of all the lessons we could remember from the book of Jonah, the part which has caught people’s imagination and prompted most discussion is one of least importance.
I have no problem believing that the God who created the universe could prepare a large fish to swallow a man and preserve him intact, but it’s hardly the point of the story. There is far more to Jonah than that.
Jonah was sent to his enemies.
The Assyrians were a terrible threat. They were the superpower of the region that eventually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took them into exile, scattering them to such an extent that they never really recovered their identity. Those ten tribes were lost. And it is to Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, on the Tigris River, that Jonah is sent to call on its king and inhabitants to repent.
Jonah goes on a cruise
Jonah appears to be heading for Spain, the opposite end of the Mediterranean, a sea cruise instead of a hot, dry, dusty inland slog. This is not simply a case of ignoring God’s command or failing to hear his voice. It’s open rebellion!
God’s will is irresistible
It’s not that we can’t say “No” to God, it’s just that when we do there are consequences! It seems that God will apply extra pressure on some people to get the job done. The person who is sensitive to God’s promptings can never feel at peace when he or she is not complying. Jonah knows instantly why the storm is threatening their lives. He’s not casting around wondering, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?”
The fish is an act of grace
It seems as if Jonah has abandoned himself to his fate when he asks to be thrown overboard. He realises that he can at least save the lives on board the ship and that he cannot escape God’s displeasure. I suppose he expected to die as a punishment.
But God preserves his life, gives him time to reflect and realign his life, and puts him back on land for a second chance.
The point of the story
So Jonah travels to Nineveh, and preaches a message of repentance to his enemies, hoping that the citizens will take no notice and be wiped out by God. Amazingly though, they do repent and God spares them, just as he spared Jonah. And Jonah is furious!
And here is the confession which shows us Jonah’s heart…
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” What is Jonah saying? “You, God, are merciful, but I am not!” Jonah is not like his God. He is angry enough to want to die! He is more angry over a shade tree dying, leaving him exposed to the sun, than he is about a whole city being destroyed.
God’s statement at the end sums it up…
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?
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is has always been obvious, but rarely acted upon, that the message of God’s Kingdom is for the Gentiles as well as the Israelites. The good news of God’s kingship was meant to be blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3), friend and enemy alike. And now the inheritors of the Old Testament Covenantal promises are given the same task of taking the gospel into the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20). To the family member that you haven’t spoken to in ten years, to the neighbour who throws rubbish over your fence, to the Asian family playing foreign music loudly across the road, to the Muslims whose faces you can’t see, to the homeless people occupying the park, to the criminals of every sort in the local gaol, to the extremists in the Gay Community, who tried to put you out of business because you did not approve of their lifestyle.
We may feel angry
but God says,
Should I not have concern?
Who are we like in this story?