Jonah, Part 4: Radical Mercy, Scandalous Grace

After Jonah pours out his soul in heart-felt repentance, the LORD commands the fish to spit Jonah out on a beach. “Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: ‘Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.’  This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1-3, NLT). Jonah then launches one of the most effective evangelistic campaigns this world has ever seen:

The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow… When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:5-10, NLT)

And this miraculous repentance is exactly what Jonah feared the most! Jonah’s reaction to God reveals that there is still much hardness and bitterness in his heart:

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.” (Jonah 4:1-3, NLT)

“I know exactly what you are like, God,” Jonah bitterly exclaims. “I knew that you are merciful and compassionate, and that you would be willing to forgive them—even them!” Isn’t it all so tragically ironic?

God’s response to Jonah’s four-year-old temper tantrum is astonishingly compassionate and patient: “The Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about this?’” God simply asks Jonah a question. Just like a loving parent, trying to soothe a screaming child. God is trying to get Jonah to recognize the root of his heart problem. But Jonah stomps off to find an area with a good view, so that he can see what might happen to the city. He’s hoping for a good firework show.

“And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant” (4:6-7). Did you notice that God does a lot of preparing in this story? God prepares a storm, God prepares a fish, God prepares a plant, and now God will prepare a worm and a bitter east wind – all for the purpose of showing Jonah his desperate need for a heart transformation. Now, let’s read the ending of our story:

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?” (Jonah 4:8-11, NLT)

The End.

What, the story is over? That can’t be all of it! What happens to Jonah? Does he ever repent? First of all, you may find it encouraging to know that the book of Jonah may have been actually written by Jonah. If that’s the case, Jonah’s repentance would have certainly preceded his authorship of the account. Furthermore, Jewish tradition actually tells us that, after hearing the LORD’s words, Jonah fell on his face and proclaimed, “Govern your world according to the measure of mercy, as it is said, To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness (Daniel 9:90).”

But we’re sort of missing the point when we worry about what Jonah’s response might have been. Because this book isn’t about Jonah… It’s about God. It’s a story that begins and ends with God. The story is bookended by God’s mercy. Maybe part of the reason that our story’s conclusion is so open-ended is because it’s meant to put us, the audience, in Jonah’s shoes. There’s a sense in which we get to decide the ending four ourselves. We get to choose whether to accept or reject God’s completely radical, entirely scandalous offer of mercy and grace.

And so, how does the story end? Well, the question is up to us: What will you choose?

Jonah, Part 3: In the Belly

It is in the belly of a fish, the ultimate “dark night of the soul,” that we find one of the most profound and heart-wrenching psalms of worship in Scripture. As I mentioned in our last study, Jonah fully expected to die as he was cast into the sea. What an unbelievable turn of events, then, when Jonah instead finds himself alive in the gut of some sort of sea creature! Although he is alive, Jonah does not find himself in a comfortable situation. (God could have saved Jonah via a luxury cruise, but He didn’t do that, did He?) Jonah’s physical situation is a reflection of the intense psychological, emotional struggle of his very soul. And now, for the first time in our story so far, Jonah finally reacts in the best way possible: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish” (Jonah 2:1). I hope that we can remember to cry out to God from the depths of our struggles as well.

It is in this psalm of worship that we see Jonah as a representation of Christ. Jesus was also thrown into the sea of separation from God so that we might be saved. Jesus explicitly references Jonah in Matthew 12:38-41 and identifies His mission as our Savior with Jonah’s three-day experience. Jonah 2:1-9 is a song and prayer of trust in the face of seemingly irreversible separation from God. Notice how this passage ends with a triumphant cry of faith:

You threw me into the ocean depths,
and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’
(Jonah 2:2-4, New Living Translation)

Jonah’s prayer is also one of repentance. He promises to fulfill his vow of obedience to God, while recognizing that salvation and forgiveness come from the LORD alone:

Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
[Side note: Isn’t it interesting that Jonah compares
his stubborn rebellion from God’s will to the sin of idolatry?]

But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.

I love how the prayer ends. It doesn’t end with what Jonah will do for God, but it ends with what God has done for Jonah – and, by extension, what God has done for us: Salvation begins and ends with the LORD. I am reminded of Hebrews 12:2, where we remember that Christ endured the ultimate “Jonah experience” – Christ bore the cross, courageously facing its shame and humiliation. And now Christ reigns triumphantly in His Father’s throne where He is able to freely dispense the gift of salvation to all who care to ask for it:

“looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, NKJV)