More Than a Fish Story
I don't remember many details about those Bible class stories on the book of Jonah. I do remember I was generally focused on the part about the fish. I also remember the message of the story was fairly simple – when God issues us instructions, we should follow them. Seems pretty straightforward. But in our journey through the Bible this year, I found myself more intrigued by the last half of the book of Jonah, what Paul Harvey might have called, "the rest of the story." In particular, a couple of things in the final chapter of the book really jumped out at me and challenged my thinking.
The first is Jonah's unusual reaction to the seemingly successful completion of his mission. After following God's instructions to go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it, Jonah sees the entire city, including its king, repent, humble themselves and turn to God. As a result of this remarkable turnaround, God relented from destroying them. And, what was Jonah's response? We find out in the first few verses of chapter 4:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, "Isn't this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Wow. Talk about your unexpected response from a man of God after a wildly successful revival. Jonah is angry because God revealed his character by showing grace and compassion to the people of Nineveh. Jonah even uses God's own words as he described himself to Moses back in Exodus 34. So, why would Jonah be angry to the point of wishing he were dead because of God's mercy? Clearly, Jonah had no desire for the people of Nineveh to repent and for God to relent. Instead, Jonah wanted God's judgement to rain down on his enemies and destroy them. The irony, of course, is the fact that Jonah himself had just been the beneficiary of God's grace and mercy. When commanded by God to go to Nineveh the first time, Jonah disobeyed God and rebelled. But, instead of receiving God's judgement, Jonah received God's grace. He was miraculously rescued by a fish and was given another chance to obey God's voice. Yet, Jonah had no desire for the people of Nineveh to receive this same grace he had been extended. He wanted God's judgement for his enemies and God's grace for himself.
If I'm being completely honest, I can identify with Jonah. When I encounter difficult people, outright enemies or those with whom I disagree strongly, my response is all too often anger and judgement. I want them to get what they deserve and I expect that God may just take care of that someday. While I clearly see the irony in Jonah's actions, I'm often blind to the terrible irony of my own. Just as Jonah was saved by three days in the belly of a fish, I've been saved by a God who spent three days in a tomb and was raised from the dead to pay for my sins. Having been saved by God's extravagant grace, how can I be unwilling to extend grace to others? Jonah caused me to rethink that question.
The second thing that jumped out at me in Jonah's story occurs at the very end of the book. After Nineveh repents and Jonah gets angry, Jonah sits down outside the city to sulk. God causes a plant to grow up over Jonah, providing him shade to comfort him from the heat of the day. Jonah, of course, is thrilled with this development. The next day God sends a worm to attack the plant, causing it to whither, along with a scorching east wind. Jonah, in a typical rapid reversal, once again says he'd rather die than go on living. God's rebuke of Jonah hits me right where I live:
Jonah had completely lost perspective. As a prophet of God, a man who heard God's voice and delivered his word, Jonah showed more concern over a plant than he did over 120,000 souls who turned to God. Ouch. Imagine getting so caught up in our own self-centered circumstances that we fail to see the broader circumstances around us that may have eternal implications. This lesson really challenges me as I spend so much of my time each day focused on my own circumstances and problems. How many opportunities do I miss by failing to see with kingdom eyes and an eternal perspective?
May God give us the grace we need to extend grace to others, especially those with whom we disagree and those who may view us as enemies. And, may God help us to have an eternal perspective, to lift our eyes beyond our own circumstances to see the world as he sees it. If we do so, we'll have learned some worthwhile lessons from the book of Jonah. It's certainly much more than a fish story.