Jonah is instructed by God to leave Israel and go to Nineveh in Assyria and to deliver a message of judgment. Jonah, unlike any believer I know (sarcasm intended), decided to do the exact opposite of God’s command: Jonah paid his fare and boarded a ship to sail to Tarshish—a place believed by the Jews to be as far away from Israel and Nineveh as you could possibly get.
God stops Jonah’s flight by creating a cataclysmic storm. Jonah asks to be thrown overboard in order to save the other sailors from God’s wrath. As Jonah lands in the water, it calms instantly.
Then, he is swallowed by a big fish and spat out three days later on dry land somewhere within a relatively brief journey of Nineveh. Of course, Jonah tucks his tail and delivers God’s warning to the people of Nineveh.
The Ninevites repent and are saved from destruction. Jonah, who hated the Ninevites, pouts and complains that God would save such heathens.
Many have their doubts about this entertaining book in the Hebrew Scriptures. I have listened to marine biologists insist that no known species of fish could swallow a grown man and live—much less provide an underwater safe-haven for three days.
Theologians argue as to whether the story of Jonah was history or parable. Some historians doubt that a man from Israel would have even been able to speak the Assyrian language—even if he did arrive in one piece after being thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish.
In my view, this is a divine miracle and God can do anything that He wants to do! Clearly, Jesus believed in the historical nature of this story. Jesus said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
In the ceaseless arguments about how a fish (or whale) could or could not swallow a human, people miss the important principle of Jonah’s folly: God loves those who many of us have given up on.
Jonah did not want to believe that God would forgive the irreligious, murderous, unclean people of Nineveh. Jonah had waited all of his life to see these people get what they deserved. Jonah refused to believe that God could ever save them.
Jonah was an elitist. Jonah thought that God would bless Israel and no one else. I imagine that Jonah’s short sermon—“Forty days and Nineveh will perish”—was passionless and pathetic.
Jonah was preaching under compulsion. Jonah did not embrace God’s mission to share a message of warning to those outside of his religious circle.
How many believers today are like Jonah? I believe many of us are like the runaway prophet.
We secretly feel that certain people are less deserving of God’s grace and forgiveness. We would rather not extend hope and grace to others because they are “too far gone.”
Jonah learned a valuable lesson. God reminded Jonah that He is a gracious God abounding in steadfast love. We should also remember that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
— Chris Crain, Pastor, North Valley Church, Margaret