I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. … The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” [Jonah 4:2,4 (NLT)]
The first thing to clear up when writing about the Book of Jonah is whether it was a fish or a whale. Both the Hebrew word (dahg) and the Greek word (ketos) in later translations were used to describe this sea creature. In 785 BC, at the time of this story’s writing, neither language had a word that could identify the exact species so it could have been a fish, shark, whale or some other now extinct large sea creature. For those who choose to use this discrepancy to attack the Bible’s veracity, it’s probably wise to remember that Linnaeus’ classification of living things occurred in the 18th century and not 2,800 years ago when Jonah was swallowed by something huge in the sea. When learning the story in Sunday school, most of us were told it was a whale. Having seen Disney’s Pinocchio with Geppetto living in a whale’s belly, it was easy to picture Jonah doing the same.
When God told Jonah to prophesy God’s judgment to the people of Nineveh, a powerful and wicked city in Assyria, the prophet immediately set sail in the opposite direction to Tarshish. God sent a great storm that threatened his ship and everyone else on it. Knowing the storm was his fault, the prophet told the crew to save themselves by throwing him into the sea. Once done, the storm immediately ceased and Jonah was swallowed by a great nameless sea creature. Unlike Geppetto, Jonah didn’t build a fire to escape. Instead, he prayed to God, repented his disobedience, and miraculously was delivered onto the beach. My Sunday school lesson ended at that point with the message that there is no hiding from God. There is, however, far more to the story.
Although Nineveh was a powerful and wicked city, Jonah didn’t run away because he was afraid for his own safety or that his message would be rejected. He was afraid that the people of Nineveh actually might listen to God’s word, repent and be saved! His contemporaries were the prophets Amos and Hosea—men who prophesized that Israel would be conquered, exiled, and forced to serve Assyria. Why would Jonah want to save the very people who eventually would defeat his nation?
Once safely on the beach, God again told Jonah to deliver His message to Nineveh and this time Jonah reluctantly obeyed. After being told that within forty days their city would be destroyed, the Ninevites immediately repented of their wicked ways but, instead of being pleased about their salvation, Jonah was angry. He threw himself a pity-party because God would not destroy the city. Although God mercifully gave Jonah a second chance when he repented, Jonah didn’t want to share God’s mercy and forgiveness with his enemies.
With one more lesson for Jonah to learn, God planted a leafy plant above his head to shade the despondent prophet as he waited to see what would happen to the once sinful city. Grateful for the shade, Jonah became upset when God caused a worm to destroy the tree and a scorching east wind to blow. God pointed out that Jonah was angry about the death of a tree he never planted and then asked a question. “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness…Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” [4:11]
Jonah begrudged God’s mercy shown to a hostile pagan nation. Sometimes we are like Jonah—although we want to be saved, we want to see our enemies suffer and be punished. While we want God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, we’re not willing to share it with the people who have hurt us. This story was a lesson for Israel—that their purpose was to be a blessing to all nations by sharing God’s message—and later a lesson for the church—that Jesus’ came to save Jew and Gentile alike. Let’s remember that Jesus isn’t our own private savior; He’s meant to be shared. We all belong to Him and His mercy is a gift for everyone and anyone who repents and believes.