Jonah. When it comes to the minor prophets, he might be the most famous. Here is the story of the giant fish that swallowed the prophet whole and then, three days later, spat him out –alive– on the beach.
An experience like that could definitely give a person a reputation.
But as I’ve grown in my understanding of scripture and the Lord, Jonah’s story makes me think less of distasteful nautical adventure and, instead, the love of God.
How so? Let me explain.
Jonah’s story is one of disobedience. God sent him to Ninevah to call the people to repentance–and Jonah refused. He “ran away from the LORD (1:3),” boarding a ship to Tarshish and sailing far from the Assyrians and the city God had called him to.
But of course we know we can’t run from God, and for Jonah there was no getting away either: the ensuing violent storm found Jonah tossed into the ocean– only to be rescued from drowning by the aforementioned fish.
This was mercy utterly undeserved: the love of God.
Interestingly, it was that same love that sent Jonah running in the first place: he didn’t want to carry God’s call for repentance to Ninevah because he knew God’s nature, that He is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (4:2).”
Jonah wanted the Ninevites to endure calamity. He was sure they deserved it– and for good reason. The Assyrian military was the most vicious in the history of the Mesopotamian world at that time. Their war machine held city-states in terror; their armies brutalized people.
Jonah wanted to see the people of Ninevah feel the blunt force of God’s wrath.
But after a word from Jonah calling them to repentance, the entire city turned to God who in turn withheld their destruction.
The story ends with Jonah angry at God. He didn’t want God to show mercy– and yet he himself is sitting there, alive and well, because of that mercy. He says, “I am angry enough to die (4: 9).” It’s a moment of pure honesty: God shows his true nature – merciful and gracious – and so does Jonah.
We like to think that we are charitable and gracious, that we want the best for the other, that we love others as we love ourselves. But the nature of sin – and the story of Jonah – show us otherwise: we are relentlessly selfish even in the face of mercy, and we definitely prefer ourselves over anyone else. In the destructive self-centeredness of our sin, we may even prefer our own destruction over grace extended to someone else.
Thanks be to God for His mercy, relentlessly pursuing us in spite of ourselves. He was with Jonah in the fish’s belly. He was in Ninevah, calling to the Assyrians through Jonah’s words.
And He is with us even in the pit of our selfishness, calling us to Life because of His glorious love.