Updated: May 25, 2020
By sis Sophia Tay
Most of us know Jonah as the reluctant prophet who tried to escape from his task given by God. Jonah is often the example cited to illustrate what we should not be. However, when I studied the Book of Jonah, what I found most memorable was the complexity of human characters, and how God is so patient and merciful to us because of our human failings.
“Good” prophet VS “bad” pagans? If you read all four short chapters, you may notice some events that seem strange or peculiar. Like every book in the Minor Prophets, the book of Jonah begins with “Now the word of the Lord came to ...” That God chose that person to deliver His message implies that God saw something in him/her that was fit for His purpose. Why did God pick Jonah? While the Bible doesn’t always explain what quality God favoured in the people He chose, Jonah’s case is even more puzzling. Not only did he deliberately buy a ticket for a ship journey to “flee from the presence of the Lord” (1:1-3), he also told his intention to his fellow passengers (1:10).
The mariners onboard were pagan worshippers – they were praying to their gods to save them from the storm (1:5). However, when Jonah told them to cast him into the sea (in which he would probably drown) to calm it, the Bible says, “Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them (1:13).” The pagan men tried to preserve Jonah’s life and did not want to throw him overboard, perhaps for fear of having “innocent blood” on their hands [vs 14]. It is interesting to note that while the men were afraid of offending the Lord, Jonah as a prophet seemed to display no remorse for disobeying God in the first part of the book. Notice that he was sleeping and had to be woken up by the captain during the storm (1:5-6). It’s strange that Jonah could sleep soundly despite knowing that he had fled from God.
God’s great mercy The fish God had prepared in fact saved Jonah’s life. It was this salvation that led to his repentance (2:5-7). His prayer indicates that he was sinking and drowning before the fish swallowed him. Later on, he went to preach in Nineveh, and the whole city repented. The Bible records Jonah’s reaction in Jon 4: 1-3 as “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “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, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Essentially, he was saying, “I knew you would do this!” He was so angry that he wished for death. Verse 1 uses a phrase that usually describes God (think e.g. Abraham reasoning with God over Sodom and Gomorra), but in this book, a mean-spirited man is angry with God, and God is the one who reasons with him (4:9-11).
God could have been angry with Jonah for believing more in his own personal idea of retribution (punishing wrong) than love (forgiving wrong). Instead, it’s remarkable that God indulged him. God patiently explained that His mercy is all the more necessary because the people there lack understanding and strayed from the right way – they “cannot discern between their right hand from their left.” A lesson we learn from Jonah is that God has the power to create and take away (like the plant and the storm), yet He will be merciful to us, to show love rather than retribution if we become right with Him.
Verse 11 is where the book of Jonah ends, so we do not know Jonah’s reply to God, if any. It is apt to regard it as a rhetorical question from God in verse 11. Certainly if we put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes, our reply should be a resounding “Yes. Lord, salvation is yours to give.” This is similarly emphasised by Jonah in Jon 2:9.
“But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.”