Jonah and the Whale

READ : Jonah 1

If I say “Jonah,” do you immediately think, “whale”? Everybody’s heard of Jonah and the whale, but this famous story isn’t really about the big fish. It’s about a big-hearted God, and his love for the whole world.

If I say “Jonah,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? It’s “whale,” isn’t it? “Jonah and the Whale” is what most people think of. But in a way that’s too bad because if we only think of Jonah as an incredible fish story or perhaps a story about an incredible fish, we miss the point of this very important Old Testament book. Jonah, someone has said, isn’t a story about a great fish but a story about a great God. In a sense, the story of Jonah offers us a key to understanding the whole Bible. This little book shows us what is in God’s heart, and then prompts us to share that heart and get busy with the work God has entrusted to us.

“Go to Nineveh”

You probably can remember Jonah’s story. God called him to be a prophet, to proclaim his word and call people to repentance. But unlike the other biblical prophets, the Lord didn’t send Jonah to preach to the people of Israel. He sent him to Nineveh. Now there were two very large reasons why Jonah didn’t want to go there at all. One was that the people of Nineveh were foreigners, gentiles, pagans. Why should they listen to the word of
Israel’s God? The other reason was that those people were the enemy. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria was the big bad bully living on Israel’s block.

So Jonah ran away. He got on a ship heading in the opposite direction, to Tarshish or Spain, we would call it; about as far from Nineveh as Jonah could possibly travel. But the Lord didn’t let him go, and I think you know what happened next: a storm at sea; Jonah thrown overboard to save the ship; a great fish “provided” by the Lord to swallow Jonah (Jonah 1:17) and then deliver him to Nineveh; followed by a second call to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. So Jonah goes at last, and does what he’s been commanded to do.

But the surprising twists and turns of his story aren’t finished yet. Jonah does proclaim his message in Nineveh, though a less enthusiastic preacher could scarcely be imagined. “Jonah began to go into the city,” we read, “And he called out, `Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” (Jonah 3:4). That’s rather harsh, rather abrupt, isn’t it? Not much of an effort there to win the hearts and minds of his listeners.

But amazingly, Jonah’s message met with a positive response. “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (v. 5). And when the people of Nineveh repented, God showed kindness to them by sparing their city and forgiving their sin.

Jonah’s Reaction

Now the spotlight shifts back to Jonah, who has been observing these developments closely. This is what we read in the opening verse of the last chapter, chapter 4 of the book of Jonah: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.”

Can you believe it! Jonah has just preached to a mighty city and the entire population has repented and turned to the Lord. No other prophet or apostle in the Bible ever experienced success as complete as this. Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, even Peter and Paul, never saw that kind of response to their preaching. You might have expected Jonah’s reaction to include surprise at the suddenness and completeness of what happened among the Ninevites, perhaps awe and thankful wonder at the power of God’s word, and the faith with which it was met. Maybe gratitude for this demonstration of the Lord’s wonderful mercy — but anger? All Jonah felt was anger. That’s hard to understand.

Jonah gives vent to his frustration and anger in a prayer that is surely among the most surprising in the Bible.

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. (Jonah 2)

Here is the clue to Jonah’s whole behavior in the story. He ran away not because he was afraid he would fail but because he was afraid he would succeed. He quotes Israel’s great confession of faith, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” But instead of quoting it in praise of God Jonah is using them as the basis of his complaint against God. This is the only place in the Bible where God is criticized for being patient, merciful, and forgiving.

What sort of way is this for a man of God to act? Which is, of course, exactly the question the Bible writer wants us to ask. From beginning to end there is no justification for anything Jonah has done. No explanation can excuse his attitude or his behavior. When we look at him, we can only wonder how anyone could be so mean-spirited, so narrow-minded, so hardhearted. How is it possible that a man who himself has received so much undeserved kindness from God should become so upset when others are given exactly the same thing? But that’s what we are meant to wonder, not only about Jonah, but about ourselves.

God’s Response

God doesn’t leave Jonah alone and fuming at the end of the story. He comes to him with a final attempt to help him change. “Do you do well to be angry?” the Lord asks him (v. 4). What a kind thing that question was! You see what God is doing. He is inviting Jonah to stop, step back, take a time out, look at himself, analyze the appropriateness of his feelings and behavior. Is this right, Jonah? Your attitude? God is trying to hold up a mirror so that Jonah can see himself and his attitude for what it really is.

But Jonah is in no mood to listen, so the Lord offers him a little object lesson in the last chapter. Jonah has wanted destruction for the whole city of Nineveh. He wished to see death dealt out on a vast scale. So God decides to give him on a little taste of it to let him see how it feels. A plant springs up beside Jonah and offers shade to him, protecting him from the heat of the day. And Jonah cherishes that plant, but soon it withers and dies, and once again Jonah wishes that he too could die. Back comes the Lord with the same question: “Jonah, do you do well to be angry? Is your anger appropriate? Is it right and good?” “Yes,” says Jonah, “I have a right to my feelings. I cared about that plant and now it is gone.”

And at that moment, as the prophet sits there sulking and complaining, and the Lord patiently and gently is engaging him, we come to the book’s punch line. At last Jonah — and we — are ready for God’s final question, the question that is the point and climax of the whole story.

A Dangling Conversation

Listen. Here are the verses with which Jonah concludes:

And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

My first reaction is that this is rather a curious way to end Jonah’s story and the book that bears his name. But the glimpse it gives us into the depths of God’s heart is nothing short of astounding. What a revelation of the compassion of God! “The Lord is good to all,” says the Bible, “and his compassion is over all he has made” (Ps. 145:9). God is concerned not only for the 120,000 inhabitants of Nineveh; he even cares about the animals
that live there!

God’s heart of love is moved with pity for people who don’t really know what they are doing, who, like those Ninevites, “do not know their right hand from their left.” God cares about the countless people in the world who live from day to day without a thought about eternity, or the state of their souls, or even about God himself; people who live like dumb beasts, with never a concern about anything higher than their own physical comfort or pleasure; people who don’t even know that they don’t know the only one in whom there is life and hope — the Lord Jesus Christ. God has compassion for all such. He pities them. And he wants to break through to them, to reach them with the message of his love and mercy.

One thing that I find most striking about the conclusion of Jonah is that it doesn’t really end anything. The story closes with a dangling conversation. God is talking with the prophet. His last sentence is a question: “Should I not pity that great city?” But the question receives no answer. The book simply ends. You can’t help but wonder: How did Jonah respond? Did he get up and say, “You are right, Lord. I have been behaving terribly.” And did he then go off to preach and serve with gladness? Did he proclaim the message of God’s compassionate love to still other peoples who needed to repent? We don’t know. We’re not told.

But I think that is just the point. The ending of the story is deliberately ambiguous. The reason Jonah doesn’t answer God’s question is because we each have to answer it for ourselves. Do I share God’s heart? Do I care about people the way he does? Do I feel compassion for those who do not know him, who haven’t heard about his love, who’ve never learned the name of Jesus? Am I willing to do something about it?

What answer would you write to complete Jonah’s story if it were your story? Because, really, it is.

About the Author

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.