A Whale of a Tale

Jonah is a peculiar book among our readings this past week. These prophets we’ve had for a few weeks in Year in the Bible typically are part of the people they minister to. But Jonah is sent away to speak God’s message to another nation in the city of Ninevah. Also, the prophets typically want their recipients to stop their wicked ways and turn to God. As you read the short four chapters of Jonah, you see he’s not that concerned with Ninevah’s fate. He wants God to judge them. And when God relents, Jonah is upset.

1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “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. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:1-3

Jonah complains saying to God, almost in his defense, “This is why I ran. I ran off to Tarshish because you’re gracious. I know you’d do this!” He is displeased exceedingly because God is gracious. You want to shove the Bible in his face and tell Jonah that God’s grace is exactly why he still has a people of his own. Israel has been a sinner just like the others, but they have been forgiven more times than we can keep count.

But Jonah has a selfish pride and a pompous assumption that Israel has a monopoly on God’s mercy. He doesn’t want a rival nation to be spared because he wants his own nation, and only his nation, to prosper. Jonah would rather see thousands die than witness their repentance because he hates the people of Ninevah.

Jonah tried to go as far away from Ninevah as he could.

Along with Jonah being a story of Assyrian sin and God’s grace and forgiveness, it is a book displaying an ugly nationalism that would prevent Jonah from obedience and love, choosing instead sin. Jonah sins by fleeing, ends up in the belly of a whale, then cries out for God to take his life, all because of his displeasure at seeing God work wonders in another people.

We should never follow Jonah’s lead in this regard. We are called to love our enemies, to pray for them, and to work to spread the gospel to all peoples. We cannot lay claim to God’s grace as though it is ours to possess. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it. Thanks be to God that he is in fact slow to anger and merciful.

*Tim Keller has an excellent chapter on Jonah’s idolatry in his book, Counterfeit Gods.


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