Jonah: a paradox
Jonah is “a paradox: a prophet of God, and yet a runaway from God: a man drowned, and yet alive: a preacher of repentance, yet one that repines at repentance.”1
In the early part of Joash’s reign, Jonah prophesied the restoration of Israel’s northern borders lost in wars with Syria and a time of prosperity and safety that would follow to rival the nation’s former greatness.2 However, in her prosperity, Israel became complacent and arrogant thinking that they alone were the people under the divine favor and no other nation was so esteemed (Amos 9:7) by the Living God (Amos 6:1-8).
Exasperated with Israel’s unfaithfulness, God sent prophets to declare judgment against Israel warning them that He would use the Assyrians, whose capital city was Nineveh—a feared nation known for its cold-blooded barbarity—to punish and expel Israel from the land because of her sins (Hos. 9:3, 10:6, 11:5; Joel 1:6,7; Amos 9:11). In this setting God called Jonah to preach judgment against “Nineveh the great city for their wickedness” (NASB, Jon. 1:2). However, Jonah decided to make a run for it in the direction opposite Nineveh.
Jonah: his love for God and Israel
Some commentators attribute Jonah’s action to moral faults in his character but such accusations are unwarranted and implicitly denied within the narrative.3 In addition, there is the idea Jonah ran away because he was afraid for his own safety should he confront the powerful and evil people of Nineveh.
It is not expressly stated why Jonah “rose up to flee unto Tarshish4 from the presence of Jehovah.” However, the implication may be set forth on this premise: Jonah was a faithful Jew more in tune with Yahweh’s revelatory character than other Jews of his time. He correctly apprehended God’s gracious character and anticipated God’s compassion to extend beyond the borders of the nation of Israel, His chosen people.
As such, Jonah did not want to take the chance that God would forgive Nineveh. Nineveh’s existence remained an omen of God’s judgment against Israel, threatening Israel’s national existence. It was Jonah’s concern for the people of God, and not rebellion or fear, which prompted his flight.
Jonah was aware of the ways of God all too well: “I knew that you were a gracious God, merciful, slow to get angry, and full of kindness: I knew how easily you would cancel your plans for destroying these people” (LBP,5 Jon. 4:2). It was not in rebellion but rather in protest against God’s decision to destroy the nation of Israel for her sins. He was taking the same stance as Moses who confronted God in order to protect God, that is, His reputation before the heathen nations (Ex. 32:9-13, 30-32). It was not fear for his own life, but love for God’s people that prompted Jonah’s run away from God.
Torn between his love for Israel and his prophetic insight into God’s love for all men, Jonah ran away to escape his responsibility as God’s spokesman. He did not want to risk the chance that Nineveh would be spared if that would assure Israel’s divine punishment. Jonah “had shown himself prepared to forfeit his prophetic office, prepared to flee into exile, prepared even to resign life itself, rather than that Nineveh should be spared! Now such deliberate self-abandon…transforms his motive from apparent pettiness to something touchingly heroic.”6
Jonah found a ship on its way to Tarshish in order to make good his escape. However, while taking flight to the “remotest part of the sea” (NASB, Ps. 139:7-12), he was relentlessly pursued by the “Hound of Heaven.”7 While Jonah slept, and to the sailors’ terror, the Lord caused “a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up.”
Having found out the reason for the storm, the crew finally took Jonah’s advice and reluctantly threw him overboard leaving him to drown. However, God “had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah,” preserving his life. At the end of three days’ confinement in the belly of the “great fish,” Jonah made his lamentation to God; being at the end of his rope, he repented, promising to obey God’s commands (Jon. 2:7-9).
Again, God repeated His command to Jonah (3:1-2). This time Jonah complied and went “to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord” (LBP, 3:3). Once deep inside the city, Jonah proclaimed that God’s judgment would be executed in forty days because of their wickedness. But, in contrast to the obstinacy of the covenant people, the “people of Nineveh believed God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth.” Even the king of Nineveh “arose from his throne, laid his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and ashes” and proclaimed a decree for all the people of the city to express repentance in the hope that God would be inclined to “withdraw His burning anger.” Seeing their earnest repentance, God did not destroy Nineveh as He had intended (NASB, 3:5ff).
God’s change of mind “greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry.” Finding a place outside and in full view of the city, Jonah waited impatiently to see if God would destroy it. With ever increasing despondency, to the point of suicide, his hopes failed. Nineveh remained a threat to Israel because, unlike Nineveh, Israel refused to repent.
Jonah rested under the shelter of a plant provided by God to shield him from the scorching sun. As he slept, God then “appointed a worm…and it attacked the plant and it withered.” Consequently, the direct exposure to the sun made Jonah unbearably weak and he “begged with all his soul to die” adding to his sorrow over Nineveh’s repentance and God’s act of forgiveness (4:1-8).
God spoke tenderly to Jonah asking if it were proper for him to be angry that Nineveh was spared. Jonah answered that he had every right to be angry because, now that Nineveh was spared, he knew God would surely fulfill His intention to punish Israel—and why should Israel be punished and Nineveh be spared? Is not the nation of Israel God’s special people above all the nations? Are not Nineveh’s sins still deserving of, not pardon, but punishment? Though not surprised by God’s mercy towards the repentant people of Nineveh, nevertheless, Jonah implicitly accused God of having wronged His own people (4:9)!
God taught Jonah an important lesson (4:10-11). If Jonah could have compassion on that which concerns his own safety and comfort (and how limited in scope were his concerns!), did not God have the right to extend His compassion to those things that concern Him, especially to the helpless? Should compassion be limited to the people of Israel? Should mercy, on the one hand, be shown to those who persist in ignoring laws clearly presented and, on the other hand, judgment be exacted on those who are unaware of what they are doing? Should God punish the repentant in order to spare the unrepentant?
Jonah needed to learn that God’s special favor toward Israel did not mean a lessened love for others… The election of one nation did not mean the rejection of others!8
Israel’s election does not prevent God’s mercy to others.
[Jonah] confronts the reader with the serious…question whether his own response to human need is the same as that…exemplified by God.9
I glean the following observations from the book of Jonah:
- The favored status of a child of God does not exempt him from judgment; neither does another’s alienation from God exempt him from mercy. We should not take God’s mercy for granted just because one is His child. God who is quick to forgive is also certain to judge the unrepentant. No one sins with impunity. Neither should we resent the blessings God pours on those we judge to be less deserving (Matt 5:45b).
- Understanding is not a prerequisite for obeying God; neither is disobedience excusable even on noble grounds. When God’s command is clear, though seemingly unreasonable, our responsibility is not to take the time to understand, but to immediately obey. For example, we cannot shirk family responsibilities on grounds that we must spend time reading the Bible or going to church.
- Though God does not minimize the guilt of disobedience, He does bring His understanding of our reasons to bear in determining the proper discipline. At times our hearts may be right but our actions wrong as, for example, when Moses killed an Egyptian who was “beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren” (Ex. 2:11-12). Moses was cast off into the wilderness as a complete failure in his attempt to serve God, but for only a time, not permanently. In Jonah’s case, God appointed a “great fish” as his discipline, not to kill but to swallow him up alive. Jonah’s life was spared because of the hope that God had in him. He knows us and has pity on our strivings to do what is right (Ps. 103:14).
- Finally, and on a more personal note, human failure does not mean divine abandonment. Though Jonah ran away in disobedience to God’s command, God ran after Jonah, not to punish but to restore. A Christian may find that he is “on a shelf,” but this does not necessarily mean God is not at work in his life. God works to make the unwilling willing; the unprepared prepared; the not cared for, cared for.
It is my understanding, in sympathy with the story of Jonah, that a believer can be disqualified for service. However, disqualification does not necessarily constitute total rejection. As in Jonah’s case, God may decide to shut one away in isolation because of disobedience, anticipating the proper time to again call him to repentance and back into service (1 Cor. 9:27).10
Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.11
3 Contrast Armor D Piesker’s comments in the Beacon Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 161 with J. Sidlow Baxter’s one volume commentary, Explore the Book, Lesson 92.
5 Living Bible Paraphrased
6 Explore the Book, J. Sidlow Baxter, vol. 1, Lesson 92
7 Title of the poem by Francis Thompson (1859-1907). William Harmon, editor of the Top 500 Poems, notes that Thompson’s depiction of God as a “canine pursuer shocked some Victorian readers who were more accustomed to Frances Alexander’s” gentler version of God (848).
8 Explore the Book, J. Sidlow Baxter, vol. 1, Lesson 92.
9 Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 668.
10 The apostle Paul was aware that it would be tragic if “one who had instructed others as to the rules to be observed for winning the prize, should he himself be rejected for having transgressed them.” Robertson and Plummer quoted in the Beacon Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 403.
11 Bittersweet, George Herbert.