The little book of Jonah is not only a fascinating narrative about a belligerent prophet and with consequences but also a rich theological reference on creation, divine sovereignty, the nature of sin, repentance, forgiveness, salvation, worship and mercy. But to me, mercy is the most dominant theological theme throughout. Not only is God merciful to Jonah in huge ways; He is also amazingly merciful to the Ninevites with extension of that mercy even to the animals there.
What’s so amazing about God’s mercy toward Jonah is that He gives him another chance even though his disobedience is so deliberate in spite of his informed knowledge of God. In the first chapter, Jonah’s attitude is blatantly fearless and arrogant. It’s only when his life is all but snuffed out that he becomes genuinely remorseful. Though he claims to be a worshipper of God in the first chapter he is not a conscious worshipper until he finds himself “at the bottom.” There in the depths of his situation he is eloquently remorseful. And the Lord saves him and also recommissions him.
Obviously, from a story like this we should easily conclude that belligerence is not unique to this worshipper of God. Before we’re too hard on Jonah we should look at our own tendency as Christians or especially as Christian leaders to head west when God says to head east. How quickly we are inclined to move toward the good life in the west when God has a mission for us in the east.
What’s really interesting is how much God cares about the people of Nineveh and how quick (much to Jonah’s disgust) they are to repent of their violence. It’s amazing to see how much God longs for the repentance of peoples of cultures other than our own. God will do almost anything to see people saved before He is willing to drop the hammer. (And of course He did — giving the life of His own Son for the sin of the world.) It wasn’t long before the king of Nineveh took up the message of Jonah with a greater sense of mercy than even he displayed. Jonah’s was a message of judgment, but the king’s was a message of mercy.
The really sad part of the story comes in chapter 4 where it is obvious that Jonah didn’t really get it. He was angry when he saw the response of the Ninevites because he wanted God to destroy them since they represented a huge threat to the Israelites. The fact is that Jonah really didn’t want them to repent. Jonah’s lack of vision for true repentance among the Ninevites turned to anger. Jonah was intensely self-centered caring more about his own comfort in the hot sun than the mass of people in Nineveh who had lost all sense of moral discernment.
In the end, the prophecy of Jonah is a study in contrast between the self-centered unforgiveness of a spiritually sick prophet and the amazingly patient compassion of the Creator and sustainer of the universe. God was merciful to the Ninevites for their own sake, but He also was merciful to them because the repentance of the Ninevites would help to avert judgment upon His own people by the hands of the Ninevites. Wow! What mercy!