I began writing about Jonah expecting to dislike him thoroughly. At first, I did. I find Jonah annoying and he is hard to understand because of his indignancy. However, Jonah has redeeming qualities valuable to God. So, why don’t I like him? Truth is, Jonah is like so many of us. Though he’ll never be my favorite prophet, I have taken away from his story a lesson to challenge my own indignancy. I hope we all can learn from him and become more obedient and less self-centered.
The book of Jonah is narrative material covering a brief portion in the life of the Jonah (a minor prophet). Jonah is the main character and though there is mention of the crew of the ship, the story is solely about Jonah and his response to God.
The book of Jonah begins with Jonah running from God and fleeing to Tarshish (Jonah 1). Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh, an evil Assyrian city, and preach against it. Nineveh at the time was a wicked city that was on the brink of destruction by God. The command of God was clear, but instead of being obedient, Jonah ran away, paid a fare to board a Phoenician ship, and sailed away from Joppa to begin the journey towards Tarshish—one of the farthest cities from Nineveh.
God was displeased with Jonah’s disobedience and sent a violent storm which threatened to break apart the ship—a ship built to withstand the worst of storms. The storm sent by God was a storm unlike any the sailors experienced and in response the crew began appealing to their gods for help. The sailors threw out their cargo in an attempt to lighten the ship. In the great turmoil and distress, Jonah is found by the captain to be sound asleep in the cabin! Upon seeing this, the captain tells Jonah to get up and call upon his God for help—but Jonah never prays. The sailors, in desperation, then cast lots to determine who is responsible for the tumultuous storm. The lots fall upon Jonah and when questioned, the sailors learn he is fleeing from God. Jonah suggested they should throw him overboard as a resolution. Why didn’t Jonah jump himself? Why didn’t he pray? For Jonah, the jump would have meant certain death and he could not commit suicide and the sailors did not want his blood on their hands. So, the sailors then tried to row towards land, but they were unsuccessful.
In the end, the sailors prayed to God (the true God) and finally agreed to throw Jonah off of the ship. As soon as Jonah was thrown from the ship, the sea became calm and the sailors feared God. As Jonah hit the water, he was swallowed by a large fish. Jonah remained in the belly of the fish for three days and nights and in that time he prayed an earnest prayer to God. God heard his prayer and delivered him from the fish (Jonah 2).
Thankfully, for Jonah, God was patient with him and compassionate towards Nineveh, so he again commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and speak against it. This time, Jonah was obedient and did as God said. When in Nineveh, Jonah preached against it and the king heard of the impending destruction and ordered all of the people to call out to God and turn from their wickedness. Due to their response, God did not destroy the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3).
In the last chapter (Jonah 4), Jonah continues to reveal his true nature and heart towards the Ninevites. Jonah harbored hate in his heart towards the people and was angry when God did not destroy them. Though he was obedient in chapter 3, Jonah never fully understood God’s plan and he maintained his own agenda. Jonah knew by going to Nineveh, the people would turn from their wickedness. Regardless of his poor attitude, God used Jonah to reach the Ninevites. God had compassion on the Ninevites because they were people who could not distinguish between their right and their left (Jonah 4:11). God was telling Jonah that the people could barely see right from wrong and that the people were worth saving! Jonah could not see through his hate, but God looked and saw his creation.
As Jonah was leaving the city of Nineveh, he stood back and looked upon it—but not in love. While waiting, he was given the chance to sit in the shade, and God protected him from the sun and helped to bring him comfort. Then as Jonah slept, God destroyed the plant that he made to comfort Jonah, and when Jonah awoke he was angry and also lamented. Jonah was so self-focused that he could not see the hand of God comforting him and how important the lives of the 120,000+ Ninevites were in the sight of God.
The key themes expressed through the book of Jonah are God’s desire for obedience, compassion, and love. Jonah’s hate for Nineveh is similar to most American’s feelings towards Middle Eastern people. The majority of the people in the Middle East are not radical or terroristic, but based upon misperceptions, recent catastrophes, and the evil actions of the minority, many Americans feel towards the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran as Jonah did towards the Ninevites.