A peculiar and somewhat mournful interest hangs around the life of Jonah. Elements of good and evil struggled powerfully within him—at times plunging him to the lowest depths and, at others, raising him to supernatural heights. Born in a morally dismal age, Jonah was forced to tread strange and murky paths, remarkable for both their troubles and achievements. He seemed ill-prepared for the times and they for him. Often an unhappy prophet—the troubled spirit that plagued him through life seems even to slumber in his ashes.
The Lord sent Jonah to Nineveh, a great and evil city, situated in what is now northern Iraq. But Jonah fled to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. And the runaway parted with far more than his passage money that day. No booking clerk in Joppa could have counted up for Jonah all that it cost him to flee from his duty to Nineveh.
Jacob fled from Esau, David fled from Saul, but only Jonah fled from God. Mankind has never been able to hide from God. As Wiesel writes, “God is always swifter and arrives first everywhere, even when He departs last.” Once Jonah sped from God, all that followed was inevitably doomed to failure.
It was not long after the ship set sail for Tarshish that the weather began to show signs that it was not willing to allow such a contraband cargo as a wayward prophet to go unchallenged. And a mighty wind rose while Jonah was fast asleep in the ship’s sides. The heathen crew cast lots to discover who to blame for the storm, and Jonah came up guilty.
Bravely, the condemned Jonah instructed that, if he was hurled to a watery grave, the sea would calm. And this is exactly what happened. Do you understand, though, that the greatest miracle did not consist of the storm itself but of the pick of the lot and the immediate calm when Jonah was ejected from the ship?
After the terrible tempest, and hours in the deep; after days in the belly of hell and deliverance through earnest prayer—after all of that, we might imagine that, so purified, Jonah would now be the most self-effacing prophet ever commissioned by God.
Well, Jonah made no magnificent speeches, composed no litany, proclaimed no series of sermons. He preached stark repentance. He roared out judgment upon Nineveh. On every street corner, he fervently predicted divine annihilation. “Forty days and you will die in your sins,” he thundered.
Then a great miracle occurred. The people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, put on sackcloth, and turned from evil and violence! We wouldn’t be as shocked if Jonah was laughed at as a senseless dreamer or splayed on the nearest spear. But, no—a proud, perverted metropolis turned suddenly to God in response to a simple judgment proclaimed by a frenzied, whale-bleached prophet with seaweed stuck in his beard. When God saw that they had truly repented, he turned away his wrath.
Jonah had been resting under the shade of a castor oil plant, but when he heard that, he flew into a rage, followed by a pouting session, that spiraled into a bitter death wish: “Now, O Lord,” he commiserated, “I beg you, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. . .for I am justified in my anger, even unto death.”
Why was Jonah so infuriated? Like the rest of Israel, he both feared and hated Nineveh. Jonah knew that Nineveh was predestined to be the scourge of the conquered and captive Israel. He had not one atom of hope for his own country unless the sheer wickedness of Nineveh was to finally exhaust the patience of God. But with a deity so given to mercy at the first sign of true repentance, even from the beginning, Jonah was afraid his missionary message would, God forbid, actually cause a revival and short-circuit the judgment.
God is often maligned for his perceived lack of compassion, but here we find the opposite. Jonah’s overstated criticism against God is almost humorous. He shouts, “I knew this would happen! Didn’t I say you are too gracious, and merciful, and slow to anger, and full of kindness, to follow through with this judgment?”
Jonah seemed to have far more respect to his own credibility as a prophet of the divine judgment to Nineveh than he had either to the good of Nineveh or to the glory of God. Jonah enjoyed wielding the power of God as if it was his own. He had the twisted idea that if judgment was stayed, it would somehow discredit his prophetic reputation.
Jonah apparently came to himself on the long trek from the east gate of Nineveh back to Gath-hepher, his father’s house. Alone with God and his own thoughts, Jonah had a gradual change of heart. But, better than that, he was prepared to write his story—every humiliating word of it. His stubborn will was broken. The Hound of Heaven had corralled His wayward son.
What can we learn from Jonah?
Jonah sends a vivid message to us of the futility of running from God. For Jonah, there was nowhere to hide from the omnipresent Almighty. There are those who try all their lives to escape God, but, like Jonah, they must finally acknowledge that He whom they try to escape is their only hope for a truly worthwhile and fulfilling existence.
Bible Verses about Jonah
2 Kings 14:25; Jonah 1-4; Matthew 12:39, 16:4; Luke 11:29
What questions does this help to answer?
- Who was Jonah in the Bible?
- Why did Jonah disobey God?
- Did God forgive Jonah?
- What animal swallowed Jonah?
- Does God forgive disobedience?
Steve Fortosis served for six years as youth minister in several parishes. Meanwhile he was also working toward his masters, then his doctorate in religious education. Through the years he has enjoyed teaching on the college and seminary levels and writing professionally. He has published a number of books including story and prayer compilations, missionary biography, Biblical character biography, devotional lit, children’s lit, and even stories of Bible translation. Presently he resides in Florida with his wife, Debra, where he teaches part-time and writes on a free-lance basis.Steve Fortosis