The story of Jonah scares me. By all accounts, the book of Jonah is a strange text. It’s considered one of the “Minor Prophets” of the OT even though there is only one line of prophecy in the whole book. It’s a text that is well known for the wrong reason. The great fish gets most of the attention even though he only gets two verses in the text (less than the theologically more important plant of chap. 4). It is a four-chapter book that could have concluded at the end of chap. 3 and have made a nice story. There is much to learn from chaps. 1-3 and many “take-away” points. To just list a few: (1) you can’t run from God, (2) sometimes you find faith in strange places (the pagan fisherman of chap. 1 and the people of Nineveh themselves, including their king), and (3) God’s salvation and mercy knows no bounds. Again, if the book had ended at chap. 3 no one would miss chap. 4. Yet a fourth chapter there is and it begins with a surprise and ends with a question. It’s that question that haunts me.
In 4:1 we read: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry.” Here’s a more wooden rendering of the Hebrew text: “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” What is the “it” that was “a great evil” to the prophet? The answer is clear. It was God’s forgiveness of Nineveh and his decision not to punish them. Jonah continues in 4:2 with a prayer to God: “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Here Jonah quotes one of the most important verses in the OT. It comes from Exod 34:6-7 where God revealed himself, indeed his very character and nature, to Moses. Jonah knew God well enough to know that God is the kind of God who forgives and shows mercy to those who repent, even to people like the Assyrians. Simply stated, he didn’t want Nineveh to receive God’s mercy! They didn’t deserve it. They had wrecked the lives of countless thousands. They had terrified and tortured the innocent. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians (whose capital was Nineveh) and the ten tribes of the northern kingdom were cruelly scattered across the Ancient Near East, never to be reconstituted. Jonah wanted to see Nineveh get what they deserved. God’s grace undid justice in Jonah’s mind. Jonah did not want to be merciful like God.
The rest of chap. 4 shows a despondent, pouting prophet waiting, hoping that God might still choose to destroy Nineveh (4:5). Jonah actually asks God to take his life, saying, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God tries to teach Jonah a lesson in pity by causing a plant to grow for shade for the prophet and then sending a worm to kill the plant. The story, though strange, seems to convey a simple message: Does Jonah pity a plant which grew for a day then died, but does not pity a city full of people? The book concludes with the hanging, looming, haunting question. God asks Jonah, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from the left, and also much cattle?” With that question, the curtain falls on the book of Jonah.
We don’t know how Jonah responded. The book doesn’t bother to tell us and I think I know why. In a way, it is not so important that we know what Jonah did with the question because the question is for us. How would we respond to God’s question? Would we get on board with God’s project of mercy and forgiveness if he were to respond to our “Ninevites”? Like all texts, we need to update the language to feel the force of the passage. How might we be Jonah? Who might our Ninevites be? Would we be Jonah if God responded to the repentance of those who have hurt us or have hurt those we love? Would we get on board with God’s mercy to that boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse who used us and lied to or about us? Would we get on board with God’s radical kindness to a terrorist (the planners of 9/11, the Boston bombers, or the perpetrators of the Paris attacks)? What about the sincere repentance of a murderer, a rapist, an abuser?
Jonah’s story scares me because I see myself in him. He knew the word of God. I know the word of God. He could quote chapter and verse, speaking of God’s mercy and grace to the repentant. So can I. Furthermore, he had experienced the mercy and pity of God when he himself had been disobedient, just like I have. He prays a beautiful prayer to God thanking him for sending undeserved salvation in the form of the great fish. I pray and thank God for his forgiveness and grace. He does what God wants, eventually, going to a difficult place with a difficult message.
Jonah scares me because he gets a lot right. Jonah scares me because he knows God. Yet, for all of this knowledge, experience, and even obedience, his heart was not one with God. He knew of God’s mercy, had received God’s mercy, but did not want to be merciful himself, especially when it involved showing mercy to “those” people.
This “man of God” would rather die than see God be God to the Assyrians. I’m reminded at this point of Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s great book, Les Miserables. Convinced that Jean Valjean cannot be reformed, because true reformation is impossible, he eventually faces the hard truth that Valjean is in fact reformed. This so shakes his worldview that he chooses death rather than change. Jonah is like Javert. I fear that I am as well.
Will I call the good work of God “evil” when mercy gets costly and explodes my categories of grace, and who deserves it, and who does not? Can those who know God so well be so resistant to God’s work, so resistant to having God’s heart. The last “take away” of the book is the best and most important, and it takes the form of a question from God to all of us, a question that cuts through all of our piety and gets to the core of who God is and who we are and are willing (or not willing) to become. God asks, “Should I not be God to them?”