If you mention the story of Jonah, the first thing that comes to mind – if anything – is the whale, or big fish. If you know it a bit better you might then think about people in the city of Nineveh recognising that they’d lived pretty bad lives and changing as a result of Jonah’s preaching. If I were to have summarised the book of Jonah then I would probably have focussed on these two elements. However it struck me rather differently as I read it recently. For I noticed that really three of the four chapters are largely focussed on God’s dealings with Jonah.
Jonah doesn’t seem a natural rebel when he disobeys God in the first place and runs away from God’s command to preach to the Ninevites. He clearly follows and worships God – he’s quick to acknowledge this to the sailors. He recognises that he’s in trouble for disobeying God and readily confesses that he’s to blame for the storm and should be thrown overboard. All in all Jonah seems a God-fearing, God-worshipping upright Israelite, and proud to be one. And because he’s ‘upright’ he fervently hates the wicked people of Nineveh.
So why does God pick Jonah for the job of preaching to Nineveh when he knew that Jonah hated the Ninevites and while probably generally obedient would not obey this request? Perhaps because as well as being concerned for the people of Nineveh he was also concerned for Jonah and concerned enough about him to challenge and change the wrong attitude that he had. God brings Jonah to the place where he recognises that he needs, and knows what it means to experience God’s mercy and salvation. When he tells Jonah to go to Nineveh a second time, Jonah obeys. The people then repent and God relents from bringing about the punishment that they deserved and which had been promised. Jonah is angry at this – these people had done some vile things and Jonah wanted nothing more than that they should be wiped out. So God graciously teaches Jonah this truth from a different angle – shouldn’t he care about such people and show them mercy just as he had to Jonah.
Jonah is a book all about God’s grace to people who don’t deserve it. Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 points forward in many ways to Jesus’ later life, where the grace of God is evident in the most astounding way. And the book of Jonah reminds us that God doesn’t just love, and care to save the world, but he cares about the individuals in it. Jonah is full of God going to the most extraordinary lengths, turning the normal order of the natural world on its head to make a point because he loves the individual so much – even the proud, unloving ones such as Jonah – and even me.