Jonah is not who you'd want to speak to an evangelism committee. In fact, it's arguable that he's the Bible's worst missionary. In just 4800 words, Jonah runs away from God's grace, tries to commit suicide, prays from the belly of a fish, walks the streets of Ninevah slathered in fish vomit then, when God's Word of judgment vindicates Ninevah (instead of condemning Jonah's most hated enemies) he demands God kill him. And yet, Jonah is one of Jesus' favorite prophets.
His failure to comprehend grace spurs Jonah to run away from God. God says, "I need you to go to Ninevah and preach against it." Jonah gets up and goes, just in the other direction.
"Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD."
Nineveh is 500 miles north and east of Joppa. If it were still a thriving city today, it would be in Iraq, about 300 miles north of Baghdad. On the other hand, Tarshish is almost 2000 miles west in Spain. That's a 2500 mile space between God’s will and Jonah’s desire. God says, "Jonah, I need you to go East and preach to Ninevah." Jonah says, "Right... Westward it is then!"
Next, we witness Jonah descend, down to Joppa, but also down away from God. Jonah goes down to Joppa, then down into the ship, then down into the sea, then down into the belly of a fish. Down, down, down he flees. But the further away Jonah runs from God, the closer he comes to God.
Jonah doesn't care about Israel's great enemy. He certainly doesn't want to be the first prophet in history to leave his own country and preach to a people who regularly attack, rob, rape, and enslave Jonah's family, friends, and neighbors. So far as Jonah is concerned, he'd rather drown in a watery abyss than show his face in Ninevah. He'd rather be overwhelmed by the darkness and silence of death than go up into the light of God's grace and truth.
And yet, despite all he does to contradict God's call, everyone Jonah speaks to ends up worshipping Israel's God.
In the belly of the fish though, after he's tried to kill himself, we read Jonah's prayer, which is also where we learn why Jonah runs away from God to begin: salvation belongs to the Lord alone.
And later, Jonah expands on this when he says, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled before to Tarshish, because I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful, loving, kindness, One who turns back from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, because it is better for me to die than to live!”
Jonah knows his Bible. Jonah actually quotes Exodus 34:6-7 in his prayer. He knows God is gracious and kind, "slow to anger and abounding in faithful, loving, kindness."
Jonah doesn't want to show mercy to Ninevah, and he doesn't want God to either. Those horrible people don't deserve forgiveness. God's is mishandling the whole thing. Judgment must lead to judgment, to condemnation, to punishment. Judgment isn't supposed to lead to forgiveness!
When God's faithful, loving, kindness is directed toward Jonah and Israel that's great, but it needs to stop there. When God calls Jonah to announce the same gifts for Ninevah, he knows they don't deserve it. God's wrong. This is just poor judgment. And in the end, that's really why Jonah tries to run away. It's not Ninevah that Jonah has a problem with, it's God. He's not behaving himself, and Jonah wants nothing to do with his ridiculous plot to save Israel's enemies.
But Jonah's escape attempt is foiled and he's made to preach to Ninevah, and the Ninevites repent and worship God. And Jonah the patriot, Jonah the preacher of judgment, Jonah who should have been put on suicide watch several times, is forced to sit and watch while his enemies are repented and absolved by God's Word of grace and truth.
Jonah's so focused on himself, he never realizes it's not about Ninevah. It's not about deserving and undeserving, or Israel versus Assyria. It's not even about Jonah, though he wants it to be all about Jonah.
The events recorded in just four short chapters of Jonah, this "minor prophet", point us to the fact that God is faithful, loving, and kind toward all people. He must be, because as St. Paul teaches us (Romans 3:10-18):There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.
And, after all, all St. Paul is saying is that we're no different than Ninevah. We don't know our right hand from our left either. Jonah proves that.
The Book of Jonah is about God's 'evangel', the Good News that's for all people, especially God's enemies. God's mission isn't for a bunch of good little circumcised Torah-keepers. He sends preachers to all nations to preach God's judgment, that the God of Israel desires all people to turn and believe in his faithful, loving, kindness.
Jonah, like the religious leaders in Jesus' day, wants to believe his God rewards the deserving and punishes the undeserving. Judgment isn't intended to justify, but to destroy. Jonah' self-righteousness wouldn't allow him to embrace God's grace for him, Israel, or Ninevah.
That's what the Book of Jonah is about. It's what Jesus is always about. God's grace isn't earned, but given to those who don't deserve it. And for this, we turn and say, "Amen."
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.