Aside from finding infamy as an aquatic appetizer, Jonah has become somewhat of a whipping boy in modern thought. Generally, great attention is paid to his frustration against God and his anger against his mission field. I have often heard him portrayed as the archetypical “bad preacher” whose brief and ill-constructed message about God’s fury brought about repentance of an ancient pagan metropolis.
Perhaps because of the distance between Jonah’s time and ours we are tempted to scoff at Jonah’s attitude and think of him as a jerk that couldn’t to appreciate God’s amazing grace. It is clear that Jonah hated Nineveh and was angry that God gave them an opportunity to receive His grace. I mean, the dude sat on a hillside and grumbled about God saving a whole city of people and their milk dispensers (Jonah 4:11). That alone should disqualify him from the prophet hall-of-fame.
While we are right to condemn Jonah’s sinful anger, we should avoid making him into a caricature. He had strong and vivid emotions, but as we look to the whole of the scriptures, we may find there is more to Jonah than meets the eye.
First, we see that he was a successful prophet in Israel as well as Nineveh (2 Kings 14:25). Being a prophet often involved having your audience hate you and even throw rocks at you (Hebrews 11:37) because of your message. These men often endured great suffering in order to accomplish the mission God placed them on (James 5:10). As they say in So Cal, “propheting ain’t eazy”.
Second, Jonah was willing to jump into a stormy sea in order to save some his foreign shipmates (Jonah 1:12). If Jonah was such a jerk, why did he offer to give his life for these pagan strangers? Certainly his faith, motives and worldview were imperfect, but it seems that Jonah displayed amazing courage and love.
Finally, in Jonah’s ironically humorous (perhaps intentionally?) prayer from the belly of the fish, he recognizes both God’s sovereignty (“you cast me into the deep”) and His salvific power (“Salvation belongs to the Lord”). Moreover, his thankful spirit (“but I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you”) is an indictment against our attitude when our pizza arrives 31 minutes after ordering it.
With these realities in mind, we must remember that Jonah was not a caricature. He was a human being with a complex multitude of human emotions and motives. He, like us, ranged from self-sacrificing love to self-centered anger at our enemies. We must hold this reality in balance as we investigate Jonah.
Furthermore, I’m not sure Jonah’s anger against Nineveh is totally unfounded. I mean, the city was full of Assyrians, an enemy who had warred with Jonah’s people (Israel) on many occasions. If Jonah was wrong for being angry that God was showing grace to Assyria, it would mean that we are wrong for being angry when God shows grace to our enemies and calls us to love them….of course, that is, perhaps, the point.