My guess is when you think about the story of Jonah in the Bible you think of a guy getting swallowed by a whale. Sorry, I mean big fish. But that’s not the point of the story. It’s only a small part of the narrative.
We tend to focus so much on Jonah and the whale that we miss the incredible message of this book.
Tim Keller argues that the main message of the book is that God cares how we believers relate to and treat people who are deeply different from us. Maybe now more than ever this is a message we need to hear. Be honest, you’ve treated people who were different than you poorly. More than once.
Maybe not to their face. But you’ve made fun of that weird kid in school. Said some pretty bad things about the opposing political party. When you see that beggar on the street corner your thoughts aren’t always the nicest. Or maybe you think America’s interests outweigh people from other countries.
We don’t tend to treat people differently than us well. At least I know that’s true for me. The story of Jonah in the Bible is one that we need to lean in on. We can learn a lot from him. So, let’s dive in.
The Story Of Jonah In The Bible
We are going to start by looking at an overview of the story of Jonah. And then we will end by looking at how we can apply this story to our lives today.
Jonah And His Nationalism
Because we often jump straight to the part of the story about Jonah and the whale we often miss some important details. Before we can understand why Jonah does what he does, we need to know a little about how this guy was. Let’s backtrack a little.
Jonah was a prophet, basically, a guy that spoke on God’s behalf to others.
But he didn’t always support the things God supported. In previous years, Jonah had supported Jeroboam’s aggressive military policy to extend the power and influence of the nation. In other words, he was a political player… He had opinions, power, and influence in the political realm.
Tim Keller says the original readers of the book of Jonah would have remembered him as intensely patriotic, a highly partisan nationalist.
In other words, Jonah loved his country. Which is a good thing. But Jonah took a good thing and turned it into an ultimate thing. He put his nationalism above his allegiance to God.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like much of the western church today.
We see that attitude further displayed when God asks him to do something absurd.
God’s Ridiculous Request
The book of Jonah opens up with an outrageous request. Jonah 1:2: Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh.
You’re not shocked are you?
In fact Nineveh probably means very little to you. Or maybe you’ve heard Nineveh compared to Las Vegas, and you think a trip there doesn’t sound too bad. But Nineveh was not like Vegas, it was much much worse.
Let me give a slightly more modern example.
Imagine if Jonah lived in 1943 and was a Jewish Rabbi. God shows up and says, “Hey Jonah… I want you to go to Berlin. You know the Nazi capital. And I want you to tell them who you are and tell them to repent for their evil. And by the way, if they do that, I’m going to forgive them.”
How’s that going to play our for Jonah? Not very well. Nazi Germany wasn’t very friendly to Jewish Rabbis. And no Jew in their right mind would choose to go there.
So it makes sense why Jonah runs away to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). The 1943 equivalent of Australia. He does what any of us would have done.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire; to put it mildly, they were evil. Worse than you are thinking.
They were an effective war machine that specialized in being brutal. When they captured an enemy they would often cut off their legs and one arm, and as they slowly bled out they would shake their remaining hand mocking them in their defeat. Often they would force family members to parade through with the decapitated heads of their loved one. They’d pull out tongues, flay people while alive, burn boys and girls, and cut off extremities. They were bad people.
If you want to read more about the Assyrian empire’s brutality check out this article from the Biblical Archaeology Society: Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death
If Jonah shows up to this place he knows how it’s going to go. Plus, who would want evil people like that to be forgiven? He wants them destroyed.
Jonah’s gotta be thinking, no way. No way am I doing that. My people, my country, has suffered at the hands of these people. I want them to pay, not be forgiven.
We like to point the finger at Jonah for what he does next. But come on, we would do the same thing right? If God told you to go to some terrorists that have murdered 1000s of people and tell them God forgives them, you wouldn’t do it. If we are honest, we want our enemies to pay, not be forgiven.
Jonah does what all of us would. He runs. He runs because he’s afraid for his safety. But I don’t think that was the only, or maybe even primary reason why he ran.
Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh to get what they deserved. He wanted them to pay. He didn’t want them to repent. He wanted them to be brought to justice.
And that’s not just Jonah’s thought. The nation of Israel would have been repulsed at the thought of Nineveh being spared. They would have likely shunned anyone who thought that. How could someone betray their country by forgiving these evil people?
And you and I are no different.
Most of us don’t even want that political leader in our own country to repent; you want to watch them crash and burn. You don’t want those people on the other side of the world to repent; you want them to get what they deserve. You don’t want that person that hurt you deeply to be forgiven; you want them to pay.
Be honest. We are just like Jonah. We might know the right words to say to make it appear it’s not that way. But deep down, we are the same.
I grew up being taught that the story of Jonah in the Bible was about a man who disobeyed God. He shouldn’t have done that. But you and I would have the same reaction. We would run the other way.
This reaction of Jonah, and by proxy us, reveals our ultimate allegiance. And it’s not God.
Also check out: How To Guard Your Heart
Jonah And The Whale
This is the part of the story that we are most familiar with. If you haven’t read it you can read it here: Jonah 1
In short, as Jonah runs God chases him. Which should tell us the incredible depth of God’s love. He wasn’t mad at Jonah as much as he just wanted Jonah to get it. We are going to see in the rest of the story God continually give Jonah 2nd and 3rd chances. He offers him grace and is trying to correct his wayward heart.
Eventually Jonah finds himself on a boat sailing the opposite direction that God told him to go. Ironically the people he is refusing to go to are now the people he is surrounded by.
Soon a storm starts brewing. This storm is big enough to make even experienced sailors scared. (Jonah 1:4)
The sailors start to pray to their gods for safety (Jonah 1:5). What’s shocking in this moment is Jonah isn’t praying to his God, he’s sleeping.
Continually Jonah is looking out for his problems; he’s absorbed in himself. All while the sailors are looking out for the good of everyone on the boat.
Desperately trying to figure out who is responsible, the sailors cast lots to figure out who is responsible for the storm. Of course they land on Jonah, and he finally admits who he is and who his God is. (Jonah 1:7-9)
But still Jonah can’t bring himself to admit what he’s done. Instead, he tells the crew to throw him overboard. (Jonah 1:10-12)
The pagans surrounding Jonah had more care for Jonah than he had for them. They insist on saving him and tirelessly try. (Jonah 1:13-14)
Finally they realize they cannot get out of the storm so they throw Jonah overboard. And then the sea calms. Terrified, they worship God and make sacrifices to him. (Jonah 1:15-16)
Again we see just how far off Jonah’s heart is. Even the pagans on the boat are better representatives of God than Jonah is.
Of course we know what happens. As Jonah is sinking down God provides a big fish to swallow him, and he lives in the belly for three days and three nights. Thus the legend of Jonah and the whale has begun.
So far the imagery of this story is of Jonah going down. Physically he went down to Joppa, he went down to the belly of the ship, and now he’s going down to the bottom of the sea. But his physical trajectory isn’t the only thing going down. It’s just following his heart.
Jonah is revealing how far his heart is from God’s. He doesn’t want others to be forgiven; he wants his own needs to be satisfied.
Jonah’s Heart Is Temporarily Changed
While in the belly of the whale Jonah seems to have a change of heart. I mean who wouldn’t… Jonah 2 is just a prayer that Jonah prays praising God. And with that the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land.
It seems Jonah had a change of heart. God speaks to Jonah a second time, Go to Nineveh. And this time Jonah obeys; he goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent. (Jonah 3:1-4)
And to everyone’s surprise they don’t tear his limbs off… They repent. (Jonah 3:10)
Remember this would be like Nazi Germany repenting to a Rabbi preaching in the streets… Surprising to say the least.
That should be good news right? Or at least it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I mean after the journey Jonah has been on, he shouldn’t be shocked that God did what he said.
But Jonah isn’t happy. He’s livid. He’s furious that God actually forgave them. He’s upset that God did what he said he would do. In his heart, he was hoping they wouldn’t repent and God would destroy them.
Now Jonah goes and sulks in his misery.
Jonah’s Heart Is Revealed
Jonah is revealing his heart is ultimately for his nation, not his God. He’s upset because Israel’s enemies were forgiven rather than being taken out. He wanted national security more than he wanted people to be forgiven.
Jonah 4:1-3 sounds like a toddler complaining about a sibling getting off the hook… God, I knew you’d forgive them. I knew you’d be too compassionate. I knew you’d give them grace… I just knew it.
He ends this tirade with, “So just kill me.”
Talk about a temper tantrum.
Depressed, Jonah goes and sits down outside the city. And again God shows him compassion. He caused a leafy plant to grow to provide him shade (Jonah 4:5-6). But then God does something interesting. He sends a worm to kill the plant (Jonah 4:7-8). And again Jonah loses his mind. Asking again for God to just kill him.
God is revealing Jonah’s heart (Jonah 4:10 -11). God is digging into what is really in Jonah’s heart.
The word used in verse 10 and 11 for compassion is a word that means to grieve over someone or something, to have your heart broken for, weep for it.
There’s a compare and contrast going on here. Jonah is weeping over a plant. Literally weeping. God is weeping over people. Over those far from him, over those hurting. Jonah is looking out for himself. God is displaying compassion on others. Even those who are undeserving… Such as Jonah and Nineveh.
What God is saying is that Jonah has compassion for the wrong thing. His heart breaks for people, while Jonah’s heart broke for a plant. Jonah’s got the wrong focus (Jonah 4:10-11).
And the story ends.
Does Jonah finally get it? Does he repent? Does he continue down the same path? We don’t know. The story ends there.
And I think maybe the reason the story ends there is so we can place ourselves in the story. As Jonah faces a decision to place his allegiance in God or not, we can insert ourselves into this story. Will we turn back to God? Or continue serving our own interests?
What We Can Learn From Jonah And The Whale
What’s incredible about the story of Jonah and the whale is God’s love. Jonah isn’t the hero here, it’s God. He’s displaying incredible love and grace for everyone. Even the worst people, like the Assyrians. But it’s also for Jonah. Jonah keeps screwing up and God keeps loving him. God has love and patience for everyone in this story.
I think there are two takeaways from this story. The first one is a challenge and the second one is an encouragement.
1. Jonah And The Whale: Where’s Your Heart?
Where’s your allegiance? Is it tied to something in this world? Or does it beat for God? As long as there is something more important than God to your heart, you will be, like Jonah, both fragile and self-righteous.
To evaluate your heart requires that you be brutally honest with yourself. It’s not easy. But with the help of the Holy Spirit it is possible.
Spend some time prayerfully evaluating your heart and your life. Where does your allegiance lie? Is your desire for others or only yourself?
The story of Jonah in the Bible challenges us to ask ourselves, where’s our heart?
2. Jonah And The Whale: God Won’t Give Up On You
The second takeaway from the story of Jonah and the whale is an encouragement. God never gives up pursuing.
Throughout the whole story God is shown offering grace and second chances. Both to Jonah (a struggling follower) and the Assyrians (an evil people). And God won’t give up on you either.
The story of Jonah in the Bible shows us that God is patient and full of grace with each of us. He wants more than anything for your heart to reflect His. But He won’t force it. He will give you time and grace for your mistakes. God won’t give up on you.
If you liked this blog post about Jonah and the whale you might also like this post about Samson. This is an other incredible story that is often misunderstood. You can read it here: The Incredible Story Of Samson
Also check out: 5 Lessons From The Story Of David And Goliath
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