There are a few figures that often make it into children’s storybooks that baffle me. You have the classic story of God’s great wrath upon mankind in the story of Noah. I still don’t understand why the mass genocide of the earth in the tale of Noah regularly makes it into Little Timmy’s nursery. Another unexpected account for children is the story of Jonah. Jonah is a unique figure in the Old Testament. He is simultaneously one of the worst, and most effective prophets in all of Scripture. His book highlights the unexpected redemptive love of God extending to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people). Now you and I may take this for granted today for we are grafted into the one people of God by Christ (Ephesians 2:11-16). But this was not the case then; Gentiles were rather hopeless.
God provided his prophet, Jonah, with a simple command, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2 ESV) Jonah is a historical figure as we find evidence for in 2 Kings 14:25. He served under the wicked king Jeroboam II. And Israel at this time was following their king in wickedness. In other words, the church then was in darkness and committed to every perversity imaginable. But rather than be sent to his own people, God sends Jonah to one of the most violent, idolatrous, and fearsome cities of the ancient world: Nineveh.
Nineveh was located in modern day Mosul, in northern Iraq. The city was so large that it would take three days to travel from one side to the other. Nineveh had a great palace, aqueducts, canals, and a famous library. But just as their cultured estate was vast and desirable, their violence would cause any man’s heart to quake. In addition, their brutality was infamous. They were also committed to some of the more perverse cultic practices, as was annually celebrated between the king and the priestess of Ishtar for the sake of fertility.
Needless to say, Jonah was not coming to a tolerant, kind, progressive city that was open-minded to a general call to destruction due to their wickedness. Jonah was called to one of the fiercest nations the ancient world ever saw. These Assyrians would eventually go on to conquer the northern kingdom of Israel. With this in mind, it makes sense why God called Jonah to preach against them. So why did the prophet run from God’s call? Why did Jonah, instead of taking the 500 mile trip Northeast towards Nineveh shoot the exact opposite direction and set sail to the edge of the world in modern day Spain over 2,000 miles away?
Jonah was no rookie in his prophetic work. He knew the voice of God. But He also knew the character of God. Jonah reveals why in Jonah 4:2, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (ESV) He knew something about God’s grace, and Jonah did not want God to spare these people. We do well to reflect on the words of Ezekiel 18:23, when God says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (ESV)
A lot of people forget about this glorious grace of God. And if you look carefully you’ll notice that God’s mercy extends even to his abysmally selfish, hard-hearted, racist religious villain known as Jonah. He was a man with an antidote, that refused to share. But as we shall see, God was going to make it painfully clear to Jonah that God always has the final word on whether people receive grace or judgment; not men. And Jonah will soon learn, that he needs God’s grace just as they do.
In many ways this is a warning to us all. We can never write people off. We never know what the Lord is going to do, or when He is going to do it. God had called Jonah, but Jonah ran. Even Jonah’s running brought about God’s end because the pagan sailors at the end of chapter 1 worshipped the LORD. Jonah prefigures Christ in his prophetic labors by bringing the light of hope to Gentiles. Beloved the Lord is calling you to trust in Christ for your salvation and to stop running from what he’s called you to. You may not receive an audible call, but the Lord commands all of us to share the love of Christ and especially the Word of Christ with all. Let us learn from Jonah’s failure. For God will use you for His glory, but must you first go through the belly of a fish before you believe it?