Anyone who has ever attended a Sunday school class knows that Jonah was the man who was eaten alive by a fish and then vomited out three days later. But that’s about the extent of most people’s understanding of this Old Testament prophet and the book that bears his name. And that’s too bad, because Jonah is a Bible character worth knowing, and the book he wrote is not only rich in theological content, but is extremely relevant.
Jonah was a Hebrew prophet who lived about 750 b.c. However, unlike other Hebrew prophets, Jonah was called to minister to Gentiles outside the boundaries of Israel. God sent him to preach a message of repentance to the citizens of Nineveh — a people belonging to the Assyrian Empire and noted for their extreme wickedness. But instead of obeying God, he rebelled by getting on a ship headed in the opposite direction from Nineveh. And the reason for Jonah’s blatant disobedience is revealed in the last chapter of the book. He angrily admits that he knew God was gracious and merciful, and therefore was afraid that the Ninevites would repent in response to his preaching and escape divine judgment (4:1–2). In other words, Jonah was so desirous for God to pour out His wrath upon these evil Gentiles that he was actually angry at Him for wanting to bestow mercy upon them!
Even though Jonah and his activities are repeatedly mentioned throughout these four chapters, he’s not the main focus of the book. The principal person in the book is God, because the primary theme and message of the book is about God’s mercy and compassion upon sinners. The book of Jonah is a divine rebuke to Old Testament Israel, who, like this prophet, lacked concern for the spiritual welfare of the Gentiles of the world. While the Jewish people of Jonah’s day enjoyed being the recipients of God’s love and compassion, they resisted the idea that God would be merciful to pagan Gentiles — especially people like the Ninevites who were enemies of Israel. Instead of loving the lost Gentiles of the world, they despised them and longed for God to pour out wrath upon them. Therefore, the chief purpose of the book of Jonah is to communicate the truth that since God has a heart of compassion for the heathen, His people should reflect that same attitude by reaching out with the message of salvation to all who are alienated from God — especially those who are blatantly evil in their behavior.
If Jonah is the author of this book — and we certainly believe that on account of the detailed accounts of some very unusual events in his life — then these four chapters are a very honest confession of a true believer admitting his own prejudices and lack of compassion for the heathen. But more than simply an admission of his sin, Jonah’s aim in writing this book is to pass along to his readers the lessons he has learned about God’s mercy, and there are several of them. In each chapter of the book, God shows Jonah a unique expression of His mercy by demonstrating His kindness upon the undeserving.
In chapter one, the Lord’s compassion is seen by His work of converting the pagan sailors who were aboard the same ship that carried Jonah away from Nineveh. In chapter two, God’s compassion is demonstrated by appointing a fish to swallow and protect His rebellious prophet from drowning in the sea. In chapter three, God shows His compassion upon the wicked Ninevites by bringing them to salvation and therefore averting His wrath and judgment. In chapter four, God demonstrates His kindness upon Jonah by mercifully appointing a plant to shade him from the heat of the sun.
Jonah isn’t the only believer who has ever preferred God’s judgment for sinners over His mercy. It is not uncommon for those who have experienced God’s grace in salvation to begrudge this same bestowal of grace upon others — especially those who have been cruel and vicious. If you think that this couldn’t possibly be true of you, then you need to consider your attitude towards a notorious sinner, such as the global terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Have you ever prayed for the salvation of this Islamic man’s lost soul, or do you long for him to spend eternity in hell? Or perhaps a little closer to home, has someone ever maliciously hurt you or a loved one, but instead of forgiving them (Eph. 4:32), the longing of your heart was for God to “crush” them for their sin? If we won’t extend the mercy of personal forgiveness to those who sin against us, then we certainly don’t want God to extend His mercy of forgiveness to them either.
Like Jonah, the bent of our sinful hearts is to prefer God’s judgment to His grace. However, God’s heart is not like that. As He tells us in Ezekiel 18, He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (v. 23). Instead of desiring their death and judgment, He rejoices over sinners who repent (Luke 15). So eager is God to bestow His salvation upon the lost that He is pictured in the parable of the prodigal son as running, embracing, and kissing the repentant sinner (v. 20). May God help all of us to cultivate this same heart of mercy for lost sinners.