Do we dare read the story of Jonah as anything but a cautionary tale against disobeying God? For nearly 3,000 years, Jonah has been seen as a disobedient servant of God. And even when he did obey, he was surly, sulky, and bitter to the point of death. That of all the prophets in the Old Testament, Jesus chose to compare His ministry with that of Jonah, has always bothered me. “And while the crowds were thickly gathered together, He began to say, ‘This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation’ ” (Luke 11:29, 30).1 Jesus could have picked virtually any other prophet. But Jonah?
When the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, commanding him to go to Nineveh, he jumped up, rushed out of his house, turned down the street, ran out of town, down to the coast to Philistine country, into Joppa, and got onboard a ship bound for Spain.
Some days that is me. I often know what I should do, but I do not do it. I know I should forgive, I know I should offer grace; I know I should speak up when someone is wrong or is being wronged. I am a pastor, I need to speak. But it’s the last thing I want to do. Sometimes I look for the nearest ship to Tarshish. Why?
Maybe I want to run for the same reason Jonah ran away. This brings us to the question of this story—why did Jonah run?
If I were Jonah, I would run to Tarshish out of fear for my personal safety. Fear is often why I run. As I consider the players in this story, I would not fault Jonah for being afraid.
We know a lot concerning what the people of Nineveh did to their enemies. They mutilated their captives; abused the most vulnerable—the children, elderly, pregnant, and nursing mothers; slaughtered enemy princes; drove their chariots over roads paved with people; created forests of gallows around a conquered city; and chopped enemy soldiers into pieces. We know what they did to their enemies because they boasted of it and even created reliefs depicting every gruesome act, reliefs that survive to this day.2
Mercy was not a virtue in Nineveh. Can you imagine walking into that city and saying, “My God, a foreign God, has decided to destroy you and your city”? Can you picture the unpleasant ways they could kill you if you said that? I bet Jonah could. I would have been afraid. And when we are afraid, we run.
But we miss Jonah’s motives if we say he ran for fear—though he had every right to fear. In fact, there is a fearlessness in Jonah that I envy. Watch him on the heaving deck of that ship as the sailors cry, “What have you done to bring this on us?” See the resolve in his eyes as he says, “I ran away from the God of heaven. If you want to live, pick me up and throw me into the sea.” He offered his life to save theirs. He was fearless in the face of death.
No. Jonah did not run to save his own skin. I would understand him if he had run from fear, but a fearless Jonah faced that storm. So why did he run?
Read between the lines of Jonah, chapter 4; he hated the Assyrians. Not disliked, not annoyed by, he hated them.
Jonah knew God well enough to know the Assyrians might not be destroyed if he preached to them. Sure enough, God saw their repentance and relented from the promised punishment. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry” (Jon. 4:1). It seems to me that you would have to hate someone to be angry that they are alive.
If I were preaching this story, I would probably quote verse 9: “Then God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry . . . ?’ And he said, ‘It is right for me to be angry, even to death!’ ” And I would point out how petty Jonah really was.
Jonah was not going to get his way because God shows mercy even if His prophets do not. I think of the words of Anne Lamott, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”3 And I would conclude that God loves even Ninevites. Then I would tell you not to be like Jonah, or else bad things will happen to you.
Yet, I confess I am still confused. Yes, the Assyrians had seized large territories from Israel and had probably done horrible things to the Israelites. This was not the first run-in Jonah had with the Assyrians. He prophesied to Jeroboam, son of Joash, that he would defeat Assyria and restore the northern territory of Israel (2 Kings 14:25–28). And Israel did defeat them in battle and pushed them out of Israelite lands. I would understand if Jonah hated the Assyrians while they occupied Israel, but the Assyrians had lost—he had won. Victory should dissipate anger.
But you say, he hated them because they were foreigners; and as we all know, sometimes the Israelites could be a bit xenophobic. But xenophobia applies equally. Jonah did not hate the Philistines in Joppa or the foreign sailors on the boat to Tarshish (he offered his life for theirs) or even the people of Tarshish. If he hated foreigners, he would have stayed in Israel. In fact, the words hate and hatred do not appear anywhere in Jonah.
Why did Jonah run away? Why not hide in his house and tie himself to his bed so God could not force him to go? Why run away? He did not fear death, and, though he might have hated the Assyrians, that hardly explains why he ran. Why did Jonah run?
When all else fails, poetry
The answer to that question takes us deeper into Jonah’s motives and perhaps our own; motives that are revealed at a surprising point in the book.
I like the book of Jonah. This book is not long and has a great plot. It is like an action story. Jonah runs from God; God sends a violent storm; the sailors throw Jonah in the sea to stop the storm; a giant fish swallows Jonah. But I must confess that when I read the book, I sometimes skip chapter 2. There is an entire chapter of poetry. What is that doing there? To paraphrase the prayer of Jonah:
You cast me down into the deep
To the very belly of the sea
Wave after wave covered me
The water smothered me
The deep closed around me
Seaweed wrapped around my head
Away from the land of life
I went down, down to the roots of the mountains
Poetic, but it is hard to believe that Jonah was quoting poetry inside that fish. Why is this even part of the story? But it ends well.
“When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the LORD;
And my prayer went up to You,
Into Your holy temple” (Jon. 2:7).
OK, that is beautiful! Quotable! God had finally broken through to Jonah; he was ready to give in.
“Those who regard worthless idols
Forsake their own Mercy.
But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed.
Salvation is of the LORD” (vv. 8, 9).
In verse 9, you can almost hear Jonah’s voice echoing through the sea. I am so distracted by the beauty of verses 7 and 9, but verse 8 is so awkward and vague that even when I do read chapter 2, I skip verse 8—and I completely misunderstand Jonah’s motive.
Jonah was not angry because God was merciful. He knew God’s mercy often leads to renewed violence, suffering, and evil. Jonah knew what would happen if Nineveh survived—even if they repented, they would forsake the mercy shown them and come attack Israel again.
Hosea had already told Israel the Assyrians would take them into exile (see Hos. 9:3). And that is exactly what happened in 721 b.c., just as Jonah knew it would.4
Jonah loved Israel! He wanted the people of Nineveh destroyed, not because of what they had done, but because of what they would do. He raged against God’s mercy that would let it happen. Yes, he ran so he would not have to preach but also to protect Israel. He knew God was merciful, but he also knew what God could do to a disobedient prophet. So instead of risking his friends and family, he risked the lives of foreign sailors on the way to Tarshish. Jonah was not surprised by the storm, I think he expected it. And he loved Israel too much to let that storm break over them.
And when God spared Nineveh, Jonah was angry, not with a petty anger, but a strong indignation: the hopeless fury of a doctor trying to save a nation from an incurable disease; the outrage of the assaulted when their attacker goes free; the helpless rage a parent feels by his or her child’s bed on a cancer ward. “God, You could stop this. Why won’t You stop this?”
Jonah loved.5 And those he loved most were put at risk by God’s mercy. I understand that motive. I would be angry too. But he obeyed. No wonder Jesus told the Israelites of His day to look for the sign of Jonah.
In the bowels of a fish, in the depths of the sea, while facing the destruction of his people, Jonah turned to God. Even when he knew what it would cost, Jonah still said,
“I will pay what I have vowed.”
One brief, frequently overlooked verse changes the whole picture. It changes everything!
The sign of Jonah
Another Prophet was surrounded by a storm, no natural tempest—a storm of demons; drenched not with seawater but with His own sweat, blood, and tears.
Jesus was cast down into the deep
To the very belly of hell
Wave after wave of our sins covered Him
The weight smothered Him, even His soul
Evil closed around Him
Satanic lies wrapped around His head
Away from His best friends
He went down, down to the depths of the abyss.6
Jesus did have much in common with Jonah:7 three days of darkness, the suffocating experiences of Gethsemane and Golgotha, and a confirmed vow. On the cross, Jesus cried, “ ‘Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?’ ” (Matt. 27:46). He was quoting what I consider the definitive poetic picture of the Crucifixion from Psalm 22.
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? . . .
All those who see Me ridicule Me;
They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him;
Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!” . . .
I am poured out like water,
And all My bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It has melted within Me. . . .
For dogs have surrounded Me;
The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me.
They pierced My hands and My feet; . . .
They look and stare at Me.
They divide My garments among them,
And for My clothing they cast lots (Ps. 22:1, 7, 8, 14, 16–18).
This is no hymn of discouragement but an affirmation of faith and mission. The psalmist continues, “My praise shall be of You in the great assembly” (v. 25a).
And like Jonah, in the deepest pain and darkness, Jesus stayed the course. “I will pay My vows before those who fear Him” (v. 25b). Jesus paid what He had vowed, even though He, too, knew that God’s mercy often results in renewed violence, suffering, and evil.
Into the mystery
Every time I abuse His grace, every time He forgives and I relapse, He knew. He knew I would forsake the mercy He showed me. Every time I break my vow to proclaim the gospel, He proves to be the God who shows me love and calls me to love like Him. Jonah counted the cost and went to Nineveh. Jesus counted the cost and went to the cross. What on earth am I afraid of losing? But if I go, if I speak, the curtain will be pulled back and, like Jonah, I will glimpse the very mystery of God “that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the NKJV.
2 See Erika Bleibtreu, “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death,” Biblical Archaeology Review 17, no. 1, (January/ February 1991): 52–61.
3 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (New York: Anchor Books, 2005), 22, quoted in Susan Blau and Kathryn Burak, Writing in the Works (Boston: Wadsworth Publishing, 2010), 16.
4 See Ephraim Stern. “Israel at the Close of the Period of the Monarchy: An Archaeological Survey,” Biblical Archaeologist 38, no. 2 (1975): 26–54.
5 This is not to say that Jonah was right about the situation. He still had a narrow view of God’s love and justice. The book ends with God reminding him that all people, and even animals, are precious in His sight. Though we do not know who wrote the book, it is reasonable that Jonah himself related the details of the story. This suggests he probably took the message to heart. Otherwise why recount it? The point of the book is not Jonah’s anger but rather God’s mercy.
6 Author’s paraphrase of Jonah 2.
7 Though unlike Jonah, Jesus was not bitter about the sacrifice.