Jonah is a man with a difference! God tells Jonah, son of Amittai, ‘Go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.’ (Jonah 1.2).
Instead of agreeing to God’s demand, Jonah tries his best to run away as far and as fast as possible. Initially we are left to conjecture what provokes his disobedience. Could it be that he is afraid of the citizens of Nineveh? It is not fanciful to imagine, busy as they must be living wickedly, that they will not take kindly to God’s message or, even worse for Jonah, embrace his messenger with too much affection. Or has, perhaps, Jonah’s escape more to reveal of his fear of God, rather than that of the men of Nineveh?
In Joppa, Jonah found a boat going to Tarshish, ‘away from the Lord’! However, as the psalmist will have it, there is nowhere to flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139.7). The storm of Jonah’s disobedience engulfs all around him and if he is not afraid of God, everyone else on that boat is. “What is this that you have done?” they ask. What to do? The answer is obvious, cause and effect, throw the source of the trouble overboard and hope to calm the storm, answers Jonah. Reluctance first, but then at the onslaught, the deed is done and Jonah is thrown into the sea and the sea ceases from its raging (1.15). That might have been that, but, the Lord, provided a large fish to swallow up this recusant prophet.
After three somewhat blubbery days and nights, Jonah prays to God. “…Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me… As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple… Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” (2.2ff)
Has the fear of death made Jonah acquiescent? God repeats his demand, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” We do not know precisely what that message is, but Jonah, this time, goes to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord (3.3). As he begins to approach the city he declares “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3.4). The response is extraordinary, no violence, no disbelief, no dissention, even the King of Nineveh, “… rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (3.6) Result!
God, in the meantime, as he watches the people and all the creatures of Nineveh covered in ashes, declaring their immediate intention to turn away from the “violence of their hands”, relents and changes his mind and the calamity that God had said he would bring upon them, “… he did not do it.”
Jonah’s own response is immediate; he is just livid. “I knew it, I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Incredibly, this is the reason for Jonah’s disobedience… He was not afraid of violence in Nineveh, he was not afraid of God, he was prepared to disobey because he was certain God would be merciful. Mercy is God’s weakness in the eyes of Jonah. After all that he has been through he demands to die, “…O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live…”! (4.3). The story ends as abruptly as it starts, Jonah is reproved for his uncompromising lack of mercy, “… Should I not be concerned about Ninveveh?” (4.11).
Unlike Abraham who interceded with God for the righteous people of Sodom, no doubt aware of his own inescapable weakness, (Genesis 18-19) Jonah would rather die than have a part in God’s mercy, there is a man with a difference…
For a New Testament twist to mercy read the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32) or the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16) or listen to Jesus’ own words (Luke 23.34), or for a glimpse at unbelievable arrogance… (Luke 18.914).
whose compassion never fails,
an in whose love fear is always cast out:
make us mindful of our own need of your forgiveness,
that we may forgive in the same love,
and with the same strength,
for the sake of the other,
also made in your likeness,
and redeemed by your cross.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.