Commentary on Jonah 1:1—2:1-3 [4-6] 7-9
Perhaps you know the pleasure of figuring out ahead of time a plot twist in a novel or movie. So, when the “surprising” event happens and all is revealed, you think “I knew this was going to happen!”
Jonah also has one of those moments when reality meets his anticipations.
When Jonah is called by God the first time, he runs quickly in the opposite direction. We are not provided the reason for Jonah’s running. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons one might run from God. God does, after all, want Jonah to go to Nineveh, “the wicked city.” The capital of the Assyrian empire, the headquarters of oppression. Ask anyone about Nineveh, ask Zephaniah1 or Nahum2, and they will tell you: Nineveh is a desolation, a bloody city. They will tell you: We will clap our hands when Nineveh is destroyed!3 Being called to Nineveh is reason enough for Jonah to run.
So, this dove—Jonah means “dove” in Hebrew—takes flight to get away from God.
But when God calls Jonah a second time—after an encounter with a big fish—we discover the true reason for Jonah’s running away.
This time, Jonah listens to God, goes to Nineveh, and delivers a message of doom to that great city. Jonah delivers one of the shortest sermons of all time: “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
And the whole city responds! We’re talking city-wide revival. Animals, not just people, are fasting. Animals are putting on sackcloth. All are turning from their wickedness and violence. Even the king is covered in ashes. Like several of the details in the book of Jonah, exaggeration is used as a literary device: the city’s response to Jonah’s sermon is over the top.
And what does God do?
God changes God’s mind about the disaster that God was going to bring to this great evil city. The Bible said it, not me. God’s changes God’s mind. God relents, if you prefer gentler language. And God doesn’t do it.
I knew this was going to happen!
And how does Jonah respond to this sudden cancellation of judgment? Jonah is furious! He is outraged!
Jonah thinks, “I knew this was going to happen! I just knew it. I saw this coming a mile back! This is why I fled to Tarshish. This is why I went in the opposite direction of Nineveh. This is why I ran from that call, God. This, what you are doing here, God. This. I knew you were a merciful God, a God of compassion, giving birth to mercy. I knew you were a God of steadfast love. I’ve been reading Exodus 34! And I knew somewhere deep down from reading Torah that this mercy and love was not just for me and Israelites. I knew—and this is what really gets me—that if we gave them, the Ninevites, a chance, you would do your mercy thing, your relenting thing, and you wouldn’t bring disaster upon them. You would relent. I knew you’d change your mind. That king of Nineveh was right all along about you and your mercy, your ability to change your mind.”
So, Jonah concludes: “I would rather die than see THEM receive your mercy!”
Seeing ourselves in Jonah
We might be tempted at this point in the story to think that Jonah has overreacted. Why all this anger and animosity? After all, most preachers would love to receive such a large response to their ministry. A whole city—animals, kings, and all – turn to God, and Jonah’s angry?
I can’t help but see us in Jonah.
I can’t help but see myself in Jonah’s anger.
In calculating that divine equation that involves the variables of Justice and Mercy, I can often too heavily lean on my own ideas of who gets justice and who deserves judgment.
Like Jonah, I start thinking: “You reap what you sow. Nineveh, My Nineveh, whoever my Nineveh may be, that wicked city, deserves God’s judgment. No exceptions. Like Jonah, I too can create a nice list of the wicked—well, I might not call them wicked, that’s a strong word—but I definitely think they deserve some judgment.”
I too can find myself in the shallow waters of faith. Have you ever found yourself standing in shallow waters: waters in which God’s profound mercy has not been reconciled to MY desire to judge and maintain the category of wicked? These shallow waters of spiritual formation.
Where I try not to think too much about God’s mercy and compassion, but instead spend a great deal of time focusing on who around me stands in need of some judgment. Shallow waters.
Where I’ve read enough Torah and heard enough Jesus to know about God’s mercy and acceptance, forgiveness and love. But I’m not quite ready to have those concepts actually operating in my relationships.
Where I can sing “There is a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea” but then think “yeah, BUT that wideness probably has some limits, probably ends before we get to the Ninevites.”
But here’s the thing about God. While we are standing in those shallow waters, tending to our judgments, forgetting God’s mercy, God calls us to Nineveh. God says go to Nineveh, that place that we want to receive judgment so badly. And maybe at first, we think: “well, this is going to be good, I’ve always had a few things on my mind to tell those wicked folks.” But then we quickly realize that if we go, that we leave our shallow waters and wade deeper into the water, that we might find God’s mercy for Nineveh. That we might find in the wading in the water that we say “I knew this was going to happen.” I just knew. I know too much about God’s mercy.
Thank God, that when we wade into the water—God’s gonna trouble the water.
- Zephaniah 2:13-15
- Nahum 3:1-7
- Nahum 3:19