When you grow up in Sunday School, it’s tempting to think you know everything there is to know about the book of Jonah.
I mean, we all grew up with the story. Flannelgraphs of a giant whale (even though we know it was a fish); Bible story books with pictures of Jonah peacefully praying somewhere in the insides of the animal (although how is there a ray of light shining on him…?); shaking our heads at his stubborn rebellion against God.
And yet, when you really study the book, you realize how incredibly deep it is and just how much you don’t understand.
For various reasons, I’ve gone through the book three or four times in the past three years. Two of those were in-depth inductive studies. Every time, I’ve had more questions. And every time, I’ve been more in awe of God as we see Him in the text.
(If you aren’t familiar with this section of Scripture, the rest of this post won’t make a lot of sense. Rather than me trying to summarize it, I’d encourage you to read the actual account in the Bible here. It’s a quick read–only four short chapters.)
Of Main Characters
The first question I ask when I’m studying a passage is, who are the main characters? If it’s an epistle, I’ll look for author, recipients, and other people mentioned. If it’s narrative, I look for the main characters of the story.
When you look at Jonah, the main character seems obvious.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying… (Jonah 1:1)
But as you look more closely at the story, it’s not really about Jonah. Yes, it follows what this man did and what happened to him all those thousands of years ago. But Jonah isn’t the point.
The point is God’s compassion.
A Canvas for Compassion
Why was it, exactly, that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh? The first chapter–where we watch him run from God and receive the consequences–doesn’t actually tell us. It only tells us that he ran.
It’s not until chapter four that we discover his motivation. God had been going to destroy the city of Nineveh. (Jonah 3:4) Their wickedness was very great, and God would no longer tolerate it. But when Jonah finally arrived and proclaimed God’s judgment, Nineveh repented. They fasted and wore sackcloth and called on God. And as a result, God did not destroy them (Jonah 3:10).
And this made Jonah angry. He actually had wanted Nineveh destroyed–and he knew that if they repented, the compassionate God he served would have mercy!
He prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. (Jonah 4:2)
This compassion, this slowness to anger and abundance of lovingkindness–this is the point of the book of Jonah. The entire narrative, and all the characters from Jonah to the fish who swallowed him, are a canvas for God to display His incredible compassion.
Jonah ran away on a ship manned by pagan sailors who served a multitude of idols. By the end of the first chapter, we see them sacrificing to God and making vows to Him (Jonah 1:16).
God used Jonah, even in his rebellion, to proclaim truth to these men and display God’s power through the storm, and in the end they turned away from their false religion to serve the true and living God.
The people of Nineveh were also idol-worshippers. Their wickedness was so very great that God said it had come up before Him–before His face. It was so great He was going to destroy the entire city. And yet, He sent a prophet who called them to repentance, and when they turned from their evil He spared them.
Jonah was a rebellious and vindictive man. He hated Nineveh. He cared more about his own comfort than about a city full of men, women, and children (Jonah 4:10-11). Yet, again and again God extended compassion to this prophet.
He saved him from death with a giant fish. He used him for the beautiful, honorable task of calling an entire city to repentance. And when Jonah responded to God’s compassion with anger and bitterness, God didn’t say, “Okay, that’s the last straw. You’re done.” Instead, He used the very natural world around Jonah to teach him more about His compassion and character.
Our Incredibly Merciful God
And the book ends with a question.
“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)
Should I not have compassion?
This is the kind of God we serve. As a friend pointed out about the last chapter of Jonah, “How okay are you with a God who has compassion on even the worst people?”
Are we willing to acknowledge and embrace the fact that our God has compassion on everyone? This is a God who hates evil, and will finally punish it–but if we repent of our wickedness, and turn to Him in faith, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice covers that evil. The Son of God took the punishment for our sin. Even the sin of the people we hate.
This is the God we serve.