Anyone who’s been in church long enough has probably heard the story of Jonah and the fish that swallowed him. As the story goes, God tells Jonah to deliver a message to the people in the city of Nineveh. But Jonah doesn’t want to. He attempts to run from this responsibility. He gets on a boat heading in the other direction hoping to get away. But then God allows a storm to come that could have sunk the boat that he was in. The sailors confront him, and he admits that the storm was there because God wasn’t pleased with him. He tells the sailors to throw him overboard, and then everything would be okay. While in the water, God sends a fish to swallow Jonah. He stays in the fish for three days before the fish vomits him up and he heads to Nineveh to do what God told him to do (Jonah 1:1–17). That’s pretty much how the story has been told since as long as I can remember. I recall that story in Vacation Bible School, with the moral of the story being something like, “God protects Jonah in the whale,” or, “God gave Jonah a second chance.” But as we dive deeper into the story, there’s more in these murky waters than this simple lesson.
Why did Jonah try running from the presence of God? We don’t see a response from him when God initially told him what to do (Jonah 1:1–3). But we get some clues when Jonah prays after he completed his mission to the Ninevites. And get this: Jonah was angry. Why? Because God had shown mercy to the Ninevites because of their positive response to his words (Jonah 3:10). The Scripture states that God’s merciful act to the people of Nineveh “displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1). The Ninevites didn’t do anything to Jonah. They heard God’s Word, believed what He said, and repented for their actions (Jonah 3:1–5). What was there for Jonah to be angry about?
There is much speculation about this. One suggestion is that Jonah wanted to see the Ninevites destroyed since they were considered enemies of Israel. Removing Nineveh could have helped in Israel’s political efforts. Another suggestion is that Jonah could have been embarrassed, since God’s decree to Nineveh was that they would be destroyed and he communicated no message of mercy in his decree (Jonah 3:4). But it’s also very possible that Jonah felt the Ninevites were simply inferior and didn’t deserve the experience of God’s grace. This is the epitome of pride. Pride says, “I love myself more than I love you.” Pride prefers to receive mercy and grace (like God keeping Jonah alive in the fish) rather than to give it. Pride says, “Because I love me more, you must be less.”
What do we know about the people of Nineveh? We know that Nimrod, the son of Cush and grandson of Ham, was the founder of the city (Genesis 10:6–11). While Cush settled in the land of Ethiopia located in Africa, Nineveh can be found in the country of Iraq on today’s geographical maps. Regardless of who they were, where they came from, or their status with God, Jonah was angry that these Africans, these non-Jews, were being given favor that he felt they didn’t deserve. Jonah says in his prayer to God, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah goes and sits outside the city, hoping that God would change his mind and cause disaster to still come to Nineveh. Jonah was so angry about the situation that he tells God, “[P]lease take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3). I’m thinking Jonah was being a little over dramatic with his request. I’ve been there myself.
Have you ever wanted to see God punish someone the way that YOU would punish them? I can remember as a child when my parents didn’t have a problem “sparing the rod.” There were times when my mother would send my sister and I out to the tree to get a “switch,” which was what would be used to punish us for our wrongdoing. We would have to pick a switch off the tree for each other. Of course, like perfect sibling rivals, my objective was to pick the strongest, longest-lasting switch off the tree for her to experience the punishment she deserves. And she happily returned the favor. It wasn’t until we were older that we realized the “switch” that Mommy picked for us was always smaller and less threatening than the one we picked for each other. She was willing to show more grace and mercy to us than we were willing to show towards each other. In his own way, Jonah picked the long “switch,” likely because he considered the people of Nineveh inferior to him. Truth be told, we are all Ninevites. And though we don’t deserve mercy, Christ’s work on the cross grants us the grace we need to be in right relationship with him. Jonah wasn’t perfect; neither are we.
- Praise God that just as He has been gracious to us, He is gracious to others.
- Pray that we not harbor any sense of pride against those different than us opens the door for our destruction (Proverbs 16:5,18; Galatians 6:3).
- Thank God for His infinite mercy He shows to whom he chooses (Isaiah 55:8–9; Ephesians 2:4–5).