Growing up in a Christian home and being a pastor’s son, I’ve pretty much heard every variation of sermon for any given Bible story. With this said, sometimes I struggle reading passages of scripture that would be classified as a “bedtime story” or a children’s Sunday school topic. Stories that fall in this category would be something like Noah’s Ark, Samson, David & Goliath, and in this case, Jonah and the Whale. Despite its familiarity, I felt like God was leading me to read the book of Jonah.
As I prepared myself to read, of course I thought about all my presuppositions of the story and how it portrays the consequences of what happens when someone disobeys the call God has for their life. However, after reading the book in its entirety for what I thought was “the hundredth time,” my view of the story started to shift. It wasn’t just about what happens when you disobey God or how we should never run from what God is calling us to do. It’s a narrative of God’s grace, mercy, and sovereignty. Not just for stubborn Jonah, but for the lost and morally ignorant people of Nineveh as well.
We all know the story. God called Jonah to cry out to the city of Nineveh about their wickedness but Jonah fled west to Tarshish on a ship instead. When a huge storm came, the mariners on the ship threw Jonah overboard because of their fear that God would sink them along with Jonah. This is when Jonah is swallowed up by a whale. After crying out to God, Jonah was delivered from the great fish and he was vomited onto dry land. After this, Jonah obeyed God’s command and ministered to the people of Nineveh and they turned from their evil ways and all lived happily ever after, right? Wait a minute…this is where the majority of the Sunday school lessons ended for me growing up, but what actually happened?
We do see in Jonah 3:10 that the people of Nineveh “turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring up on them, and He did not do it.” However, leading into Chapter 4, we then see Jonah get “displeased and burning with anger” because he wanted to see God judge the Ninevites, not extend grace to them! Jonah says in 4:3, “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” How dramatic is that? Jonah was so upset about seeing God’s grace poured upon the people he was called to minister to, he wanted to die. David Jeremiah says in his study Bible, “Experts in human behavior have noted a link between hatred for others and pity for oneself…The core of Jonah’s concern is revealed in his words: ‘It is better for me.’ Jonah could not have God’s heart for others because he was consumed with himself.”
I find it humorous moving to verse 4 when God says, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah then responded by moving out to the east of the city where he built such an inadequate shelter for himself that God prepared a plant as a covering from the sun to help his misery. Now that Jonah was a little more comfortable and grateful for his plant covering, God sent a worm to destroy the plant through the night. The next day God sent a scorching east wind and Jonah for the second time wished death upon himself saying in verse 8, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God asked again in verse 9, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Jonah replied with a, “Yes! Even to death!”
God makes the final “mic drop” moment in the ending statement and the book ends with God asking Jonah a question. “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more that one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” God was trying to make the point to Jonah that he had more pity for one soulless plant than he did for an entire city full of people.
Let’s talk about the presence of God’s grace and mercy in the story of Jonah. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Wayne Grudem, in his book Systematic Theology, describes God’s grace as “goodness toward those who deserve only punishment,” and God’s mercy as “goodness toward those in misery and distress.” We see God’s saving grace when He sends a prophet to a morally decaying society so that they can hear truth and potentially turn from their evil ways. As we see the Ninevites respond to the message of the Lord, God spares them even though they deserve punishment. We see God’s mercy displayed multiple times when God intervenes for Jonah in times of misery and distress. First, instead of letting Jonah drown in the ocean, God sends a blessing in disguise by the swallowing of the whale. Second, God grows a plant as shelter for Jonah from the scorching sun. The sad thing is, Jonah is so fixated upon himself, he misses every gracious and merciful act of God through the story.
How many times have we found ourselves in anguish where we are willing to give up completely or trade any other situation with the one we are currently dealing with? How many times did it feel impossible to “consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Maybe it’s because we allowed our own self misery to overshadow God’s work of grace and mercy displayed in every situation. My prayer is that we would not be blinded by our current circumstance but focus our eyes upon God’s sovereign hand. Then we ourselves can begin to pour out the mercy of God on others and approach the Lord’s throne with thankfulness through our worship.
- Aaron Davis