onah and the whale is one of the first stories we
Take a walk through any Christian bookstore or peruse one online, and you’ll see a plethora of books, crafts, and toys all along the theme of Jonah and his great adventure in the belly of a large fish. As children, it captures our imagination. Parents and church-school teachers often use the story to illustrate the risk of running from God as well as God’s willingness to forgive and let us begin again. It’s a wonderful story to illustrate or to act out and makes a rich vacation Bible school theme. Our pastor once thrilled the youngsters in our congregation while preaching on Jonah by emphasizing that the fish vomited Jonah back onto the shore. He had their giggles and their attention.
What is important, though, as with any good story, is that we revisit it as we grow up. There is much in the story of Jonah and the whale that is informative for the most pressing controversies of our times, much that isn’t always included when we bring Jonah into scale for the nursery crowd.
What Happens in the Story of Jonah and the Whale?
If it’s been some time since you’ve read the story or you haven’t revisited it as an adult, it’s found in the Old Testament in the book of Jonah (in the minor prophets, right between Obadiah and Micah). In four short chapters, the writer tells the story of Jonah’s prophetic call to the Ninevites.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, long-time enemies of the Israelites. It’s first mentioned in Genesis 10:11-12, as one of the cities built by Nimrod, a mighty hunter. The ancient Assyrians were known by Israel to be cruel and a people who worshiped idols. In Nineveh, it’s likely the primary goddess was Ishtar. The location of Nineveh in modern times would be in Iraq.
All this means that Nineveh, the capital city of a nation considered idolatrous and one of Israel’s chief enemies, would not have been the top of any Israelite’s list to visit. When God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and speak against the evil being committed there, Jonah doesn’t only NOT start heading East to obey, he sets his sights to sail to Tarshish which was as far West of his location that he could imagine going.
God sends a great storm that churns up the sea and the sailors on the ship fear certain death. Jonah sleeps in the belly of the boat while the mariners cry out to their gods for help. The captain rouses Jonah to join them and they cast lots to see whose fault it is that this storm has come upon them and the lot falls to Jonah.
Jonah admits that he worships the God of heaven and earth and that right now, he is fleeing from God’s direct command. He asks the men to hurl him into the sea, which they do, and the storm subsides. The Lord appointed a “great fish” to swallow Jonah and there, Jonah resides in his belly for three days and three nights.
Chapter two of Jonah is entirely Jonah’s prayer of repentance from inside the great fish and concludes with the fish spewing Jonah out onto dry land. Jonah then obeys the Lord and heads to Nineveh. This is often where our children’s versions of the story end but there is more to Jonah’s story.
In chapter 3, Jonah does, in fact, preach to the Ninevites that they have sinned and that if they refuse to repent, in 40 days Nineveh would be overthrown. Probably the most shocking part of the Jonah story happens next, because the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s warning and set about to demonstrate their repentance, from the greatest of them to the least. God sees their sincere repentance and He relents of sending disaster upon them.
That should be the happy ending, but Jonah doesn’t see it that way. Jonah is angry and annoyed at God’s compassion and mercy. In his understanding, these evil people were the bane of his nation. He didn’t expect them to repent. He expected to preach to them, see them laugh, and then watch while God punished them. Instead, they receive grace and Jonah proceeds to pout just outside the city under a shady plant. After a time, God withers the plant, and Jonah, suffering from the heat, despairs at the loss of his plant. God uses this to teach Jonah that if he could form an attachment to a plant that he didn’t even grow from seed, how much more should God have compassion on a city full of people and animals He created if they repent from their sin!
Why Does Jonah Refuse God’s Plan for His Life?
Jonah gives us a clue as to why he initially refused God’s plan for his life in Jonah 4:2 ESV “And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
Why would he not want to see God demonstrate His gracious mercy? Because the Ninevites not only weren’t God’s chosen people, they were the enemies of God’s people. Jonah is loyal to Israel and this loyalty precludes him from wishing forgiveness and grace for their worst enemy.
The story of Jonah has much to say about the role of racism and patriotism in relation to following God. God loved Israel and made no secret that they were His chosen nation. There was nothing wrong with Jonah loving his own people and maintaining loyalty until God specifically instructed him to go to another nation and proclaim an opportunity for change.
Jonah wasn’t interested in seeing the Ninevites change. He wanted to see them punished. He knows God well because He was the God of Jonah’s people. He knew God was gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He knew because God had demonstrated to Israel that when they repented, God relented from disaster. Jonah didn’t share God’s interest in the Ninevites.
Why Does Jonah End Up Carrying Out God’s Plan Anyway?
Jonah had experienced the deliverance and salvation of God himself. When he fled, in direct disobedience to God’s command, God saved him from drowning in the deep sea. The miraculous provision of the great fish that swallowed him and the fish’s delivery of Jonah to shore made clear that God authored Jonah’s salvation and no one else.
Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:7-9 ESV) reveals why he turned from traveling from west to east. “‘When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!’”
Jonah obeys because God is worthy of obedience. He travels to a place hostile to his own people. He preaches repentance to a people who have tried to destroy his nation. And he turns from his own sin, all to follow God’s command out of thanksgiving for a God has done in saving him.
Jonah doesn’t become convinced that what the Ninevites have done is somehow acceptable. He doesn’t suddenly develop a strong heart of love and mercy toward the Assyrians. He doesn’t decide that worshiping idols is suddenly not so bad after all. What he does become convinced of is that God is God, and that salvation is God’s business, not Jonah’s. Jonah’s actions got him into a situation from which He could not save himself and he had to rely on the Lord for deliverance. That is also the situation in Nineveh.
What Does the Story of Jonah and the Whale Teach Us about God’s Plan for Our Lives?
There are many commands of God that are not burdensome to obey. Jesus’ yoke is easy and light. But there are times when God asks us to obey Him in something hard, something challenging, something that initially appears impossible.
That’s when we usually scramble to list all the reasons we shouldn’t go. All the reasons His command doesn’t make sense. All the other ways we could possibly serve Him that are NOT that one thing He’s asking.
Maybe it’s to forgive someone who has committed an atrocity against someone we love. Maybe it’s to leave the comfort of predictable lives to make friends and demonstrate the gospel to people of another culture or who live in a neighborhood that rivals ours. Maybe, it’s to return someplace where we’ve been hurt to testify to God’s power to heal.
Whatever it is we’re called to do, our resistance is best met, not by suddenly seeing the wisdom of God’s command, but by remembering who God is, what He has done, and what we owe Him because of Christ. Salvation belongs to our God. We could not save ourselves from sin – what makes us think others can? Just as we needed God to lead us into repentance, so others do, too.
God calls us to be part of that work of preaching repentance and declaring the good news of Christ. That’s often inconvenient and sometimes it means watching people we feel are undeserving receive the grace and mercy of God. But that’s exactly the moment we need to remember that we are undeserving recipients of that mercy and grace, too. To keep this in mind is to glorify God with our inner attitudes as we obey Him with our outer actions.
In fact, we are called, like Jonah, to preach salvation through Jesus Christ to this generation. Jesus said in Matthew 12:41 ESV “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
This verse tells us at least two things. First, the story of Jonah is true. Jesus references it as a historical event, a foreshadowing of His coming. And second, this generation is called to repent just as the Ninevites were. We are called to speak repentance just as Jonah did. Are we going to obey directly or will many of us take a dip in salty waters and offer prayers from inside a great whale before we remember all we owe to Jesus and obey His command to make disciples of all nations?
Schedule time this week to reread the story of Jonah and ask God if your life needs an about-face in any area. He is worthy of all our love, obedience, and attention.