He suspected God was more merciful than advertized—and he couldn’t handle it
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE WHALE. Jonah’s story is not about the whale. It’s not even about running from the call of God. It’s about God being more merciful than advertized—and coming to grips with what that means for the likes of Jonah (i.e., us!). A simple reading of Jonah makes it clear that while Jonah wants to be a prophet of ultimate doom for people he deeply despises, behind God’s word of judgment is hope for Nineveh’s repentance.
A SPIRITUAL HISSY FIT. After serving a “time-out” in the belly of a whale, Jonah goes and does God’s bidding: he preaches God’s judgment against the city of Nineveh. It might have been more out of intense loathing for the Ninevites than out of reverence for God, but Jonah’s condemnation is completely convincing. In response, the Ninevites repent—the whole lot of them. And God, in mercy, relents, sparing the city. Jonah’s reaction? He gets so steamed at God for his mercy to the Ninevites, and his own loss of face, that he throws a spiritual hissy fit followed by royal pity party.
JUSTICE AND MERCY. Jonah, God’s defender and mouthpiece, is "mercy challenged." Jonah’s God, however, is merciful. Behind Jonah’s condemnation is real spite. Behind God’s judgment is real hope. Jonah’s sense of justice requires full punishment for outrageous atrocities. The justice of Jonah’s God, however, includes unfathomable pity. Jonah suspected God’s saving intentions all along. In the end, he felt “used” by God and saw his own sense of justice shattered. While repentant Nineveh celebrates with thanksgiving, indignant Jonah pouts. Go figure.
DO WE GET THE POINT? The Jonah story ends unresolved. We’re not sure if Jonah ever got the point. But his experience stands as a beckon to us all: Behind God’s judgment is God’s mercy, better than condemnation is confession, more important than preserving personal reputations is the repentance of sinners, and greater than salving wounded egos is the saving of people so lost they “don’t know their right hand from their left.”
I offer four basic observations from Jonah’s story:
1. At the heart of Jonah’s story and our story is a God of love who desires to save all from sin to live abundantly.
2. Our efforts to protect our reputations, feed our prejudices, and choose our preferred futures can land us in some strange and hurtful places.
3. We can do the right thing with the wrong spirit and miss the very joy we proclaim to others.
4. God is trying to move us to the point where we can serve the world freely and expectantly.
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