The Minor Prophets: Jonah

The book of Jonah is different than just about every other prophetic book in the Bible. The other prophetic books mainly deal with God’s relationship with Israel and Judah, with the possible exception being Obadiah who mainly deals with Edom. However, Jonah is even different than Obadiah in that he is not sent on a mission to condemn a Gentile nation, but rather to offer salvation. Jonah is also unique in that there is no outright message to Israel at all. It is a book that is written in story form with Jonah’s message to the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

The first we hear of Jonah is actually not in the book that bears his name, but rather in 2 Kings 14:25. This verse says that he prophesied the expansion of Israel in the time of Jeroboam II. If you combine this information with what we know of him in his book, we can see something very clearly. Jonah was not like the other prophets who warned Israel of impending disaster. He seemed to be a more nationalistic prophet with a more positive message for the Israel of his day.

As I have said before, context is everything. Jonah has been accused of being a racist, along with many other things. The reality is that he was not a racist, but rather someone who wanted to see his nation and kingdom succeed. To be fair he was like many Americans, and many others around the world who love their nation and way of life. Assyria was a nation that was going through a hard time when Jonah was called to preach to them. However, they still posed a very real threat, and Jonah did not want to see them succeed.

Most of us know the story of Jonah. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah refuses. God sends a whale to swallow Jonah. Jonah then decides to preach and Nineveh repents. The story ends with Jonah being angry that God would actually dare to save GENTILES! And that’s all there is to the story right? Pretty simple? Not quite. When you really uncover what’s going on in this powerful book it changes how you view God, and how you view yourself.

The fact of the matter is that Jonah refused to preach to Nineveh because he didn’t think they deserved God’s mercy. They were the enemies of Israel and would eventually destroy the northern kingdom completely. He was like many of us, even though we are ashamed to admit it. We look at people, and before we know anything about their story, we have concluded who does and does not deserve the grace and mercy of God. Usually we conclude that those who agree with us deserve God’s mercy, while those who don’t deserve to rot in hell.

More than anything else, Jonah teaches us the lesson that Samuel also taught us. God doesn’t see things as man sees them. He doesn’t look at physical appearance, culture, race, or political affiliation. He sees everything through the eyes of mercy. If there is a person, people group, or entire nation that needs and wants mercy, God’s desire is to grant it to them. Jonah was standing directly in the way of that, and that’s why the the storm came that eventually got him thrown into the sea.

We often picture the whale in the story as some kind of judgment on Jonah. It was not. In a strange twist of irony, the man who refused to preach a message of mercy to “those rotten Gentiles” was granted mercy by being swallowed by a whale. The whale didn’t come to kill Jonah. It came to teach him a lesson about mercy. God spared him from drowning, and now it was his turn to give the Assyrians an opportunity to experience that same mercy.

Obviously, Jonah did not get the message. He stalks around the city preaching, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” No message of mercy or compassion. No preaching about hope or salvation. Jonah was the opposite of many of today’s preachers who ONLY preach those things. He was only going to do his obligation, and nothing more. If Nineveh was going to repent it was not going to be because of his message!

In a shocking development, Nineveh does indeed repent, and God responds with mercy. Why? Because that’s how he ALWAYS responds to true repentance. This should have made Jonah happy. He was one of the rare prophets who actually saw people repent at his preaching. This stood in stark contrast to Israel and Judah who refused to repent, even though God gave them plenty of opportunities.

Instead, Jonah gets even angrier! “You see God, this is why I didn’t want to preach in the first place. I knew you would forgive them and show them mercy!” What kind of a response is that? Why would anyone get upset at the repentance of someone else? Shouldn’t Jonah have been happy that an entire city was spared from destruction? God responds by miraculously growing a plant to shade Jonah from the heat, and then having a worm come destroy it. When Jonah gets angry about that too, God hammers his point home. “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” And that’s how the book ends.

That is a strange ending to a book right? We don’t hear Jonah’s response, or see any kind of repentance from him at all. And that’s exactly the point. This book is not written just to tell a story about a nationalistic prophet who got swallowed by a whale. The book of Jonah is meant to hold a mirror up to all of us, and get us to look deeply into our own souls. How do we respond when God grants forgiveness to those we don’t believe deserve it? And perhaps more importantly, are we more concerned about God and his will, or are we more focused on our own will? So I will end this blog in the same way that the book of Jonah ends. Should God have compassion on those that don’t agree with us?

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