We don’t actually know what the prophet Jonah was thinking and what his reasoning was to run from God. He may have been thinking something like, ‘This cannot be happening. I cannot take part in this. How could I warn those people? Do you know what they have done?’ Nineveh was part of the nation of Assyria and had been an adversary of the Israelites for decades. Jonah apparently did not want to have these adversaries in God’s good graces.
So, we have a scene here of Jonah’s will versus God’s will. Jonah doesn’t like what God wills, so he takes off and heads in the other direction. Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I did that myself. Jonah takes the first boat he can find out of town and in the opposite direction. He doesn’t even seem to look back or ask God if there is anything that can be done differently. He doesn’t ask to send someone else. He doesn’t ask if he will be successful. In chapter 4 we see that Jonah says he was upset from the beginning because he knew God was gracious and merciful. How odd that runs away from God who is gracious and merciful.
Jonah throughout this book laments that others will gain God’s favor when they do not warrant it. Well, I say ‘Praise Him for that!’ None of us warrant the favor we receive from God, the grace and mercy. It seems that Jonah has forgotten the grace and mercy that was given to him when he too was just a sinner and unrepentant.
Jonah runs away from God in disobedience. He buys passage on a boat and even tells the deckhands that he is running from the Lord. When the boat encounters a terrible storm, they cast lots to see who could be responsible for angering the gods and causing such a storm. When the lot falls to Jonah he explains a bit more about God who is running from. The God who created the seas and the lands is mighty indeed. The ignorant deckhands understand well the strength that is described in this title. It is interesting that Jonah says to throw him overboard to calm the storm, but they don’t.
It is hard to understand why they would not, but instead they work hard to get him to shore and off the boat. They cannot master the waves. Not surprisingly since it is the Creator of the seas and lands who Jonah has disappointed. I wonder how many were willing to jump into the disobedience of Jonah, because that is what the deckhands were doing. How often do we follow others into disobedience? Or lead others into it? How often do we disobey and look around only to find numerous companions in our misery?
It takes Jonah three nights and three days in the belly of a fish to understand that his misery is all his own doing and admit he could not outrun the Lord. Wow. How many kids just sit in their rooms in time-out and alone and are stubborn enough to stay there until they fall asleep? How many times have we self-isolated or ‘solved’ our misery in unhealthy ways, just as stubborn as that young child in time-out?
Admitting what Jonah did was not enough to deliver him. He had to turn to God for deliverance. We often know what is wrong but don’t know how to change course. Jonah knew the problem, he just didn’t take any steps to remedy it. The first step was turning to God; Jonah was stuck in a fish. He could not tell where he was or how far from land and maybe even thought he would die in the belly of that fish. But he cried out to God as his all-powerful savior from the depths of the pit. Jonah understood that God was still paying attention and would hear him. God made the fish spit him out on dry land. And God spoke again.
The funny (terrible? disappointing?) thing about this story is that Jonah never seems to understand that he needs to change his attitude and rejoice when God rejoices. Through to the end, he says it would be better to die than help the Assyrians. He does not rejoice as they repent, even as heaven rejoices when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7).
God pursues Jonah too. Isn’t that great? God pursues Jonah even when Jonah is angry with God. Jonah doesn’t seem to repent of his anger, though God approaches him directly. God seeks him out yet Jonah doesn’t budge. God seeks to impart his compassion in Jonah. God saw the suffering of others, it moved him, and he wanted to alleviate it. This big fish story began because God wanted to show compassion and Jonah ran from it – into the mouth of a fish. That is a pretty powerful example of the compassion that we too must have for others. I admit as I look over this story again, it has never hit me that this is all about compassion: God’s compassion, the compassion He seeks to teach Jonah, and subsequently us.
I think it is incredible that God pursues us even when we are angry with him, but it is how important compassion is to God in this story that will stick with me.