In the Jonah Bible story, we find an example of an ugly little truth about the human spirit that tends to also show up when we’re broken by betrayal – People want revenge. Somewhere deep inside we all want to see those who have wronged us “pay” for their mistakes. We want them to hurt like they hurt us. So, when repentance happens, and the great mercy of God shows up, we’re left to deal with an unsatisfied longing for justice. This often creates a great battle within our souls so dangerous, it has the potential to derail our faith if we’re not careful.
So let’s look at the Jonah Bible story to see what we can learn.
When Being Swallowed by a Giant Fish ISN’T the Tragedy of the Jonah Bible Story
So, we all know the Jonah Bible story, right? Well… at least, we all know the FIRST part of Jonah’s story:
- Man has really cool job of receiving and delivering messages from the Lord to the people as a prophet of the Living God.
- Man gets devastating message for the people of Nineveh (who he hates) that he doesn’t want to deliver, so he tries to run from God
- God pursues man and makes it clear that running from God is an impossibility.
- Man gets thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant fish where he remains on death’s doorstep for three days.
- Man cries out to God in repentance from inside the fish and is miraculously saved and spit out onto the shore.
- God tells man again to go deliver the message to Nineveh.
- Man agrees, goes to Nineveh and delivers God’s message.
Those are the parts of the story almost everyone knows. And maybe, a lot of people know this part too:
- The people of Nineveh receive God’s message and respond with quick and total repentance – Completely humbling themselves before God and turning from their sin.
- Because of their repentance, God has mercy on Nineveh and decides not to destroy them as He had said He would in Jonah’s message.
If that was the whole story, I suppose the tragedy of the whole thing would simply be that Jonah ran from God in the first place and had to spend three days, practically dead, in the belly of a giant fish. (Gross!) That’s certainly the part of the Jonah Bible story we all tend to focus on.
But when I read the whole book of Jonah, I don’t really think that’s the tragedy of the story at all! The really, really sad part comes after Nineveh repents, and God forgives:
Jonah 4:1-4 – This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that You would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”
The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”
Friends, the great tragedy here was not the time spent in the belly of the fish, it was Jonah’s pride. It was a pride so great he believed he knew better than God what should happen to the people of Nineveh. It was a pride that became so focused on whether or not he was going to be right that it forgot all about the people involved, making the idea of mercy unpalatable.
When Misery Trumps Mercy
After God asked Jonah if it was right for him to be angry about this, (A question that wasn’t really a question, am I right?) Jonah made a choice. He could have humbled himself right then and there and agreed with God. He could have recognized that he himself had just recently been on the receiving end of God’s great mercy, though he too didn’t deserve it. But sadly, that’s not how it went down:
Jonah 4:5- – Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. And the Lord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was grateful for the plant.
But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed!
Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”
“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”
Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?
Do you see what I see? Jonah would have rather sat there in the scorching sun, miserable and angry, than simply accept that God had shown mercy to the people of Nineveh, and that this was a good thing! I find that SO convicting because I can’t help but ask myself, how many times do I do the same?
How many times do I choose to sit and pout because God isn’t responding to a situation the way I think He should? How often does the thought of asking God to help me understand His heart for people not even cross my mind? Y’all, how often do I stubbornly believe that I’d rather die than look at my situation through a different lens (God’s lens)?
Jonah could have chosen, at any time, to come down off that hill and accept the situation for what it was. But he didn’t. It didn’t even seem to occur to him that it was a possibility. He exclaimed that he would rather die than live there like he was – being tormented by the elements, but there was absolutely nothing keeping him there, living that way, other than his own stubborn pride!! And still, God was so gentle with him…
How Humility Changes Everything
What a different story the Jonah Bible story would have been if, after Nineveh repented and God relented, Jonah had chosen humility! How I wish he had been able to say, “The same God who had mercy on me from inside the belly of the fish, has proven again how merciful and compassionate He is. He is slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to turn back from destroying people. I will praise the Name of the Lord!”
Can you imagine the ministry he could have had, going from place to place telling the story of God’s great mercy on both him and the city of Nineveh? Who knows how many other cities may have turned to God as a result? But the Bible gives no indication that this ever happened. There is nothing said in the Jonah Bible story of his ministry after this point, so it is very possible he died there. In misery. Waiting to watch Nineveh be destroyed!
But friends, our story doesn’t have to end that way. We can choose a different path. WE can choose humility! We have the choice to accept the mercy of our Lord, not just in our own lives, but in the lives of those who have wronged us as well. We can choose to rejoice, just as the angels do, when even one sinner repents, and praise the God whose mercies begin afresh each morning! Will you join me in asking God to give us His heart?
“Heavenly Father, You are so good! You are merciful and compassionate. If it weren’t for this truth, God, I would be helplessly lost in my sin. But You are slow to get angry, and filled with unfailing love. So You made a way for me to receive Your forgiveness through the blood of Your precious Son, and I am SO grateful.
Help me to never forget how much I have been forgiven. Help me to never feel more deserving of Your mercy than anyone else, because none of us deserve it Lord! Not me, and not the person who has wronged me. But You offer it to both of us, just the same. So give me Your heart, Father. Help me to see people through Your eyes. Help me to rejoice when anyone repents, and to be quick to show mercy, just as You do. Keep me humble, Father. In Jesus’s Name, amen.”