Do you know the story of Jonah? The one about the guy and the whale? Most people are familiar with Jonah’s story found in the Old Testament book of the same name. However, our familiarity with this story can make us miss the point.
I am a huge fan of teaching the Bible to children. Jonah is one of those stories we teach them. Why wouldn’t we? It involved a boat, water, sailors, a whale, a miraculous story…These things capture the imagination of kids. They need to know the story of Jonah. The danger is when this story becomes a tale about a whale and we miss the heart of God.
God called Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. This was a huge city full of people who did not follow or honor God. God told Jonah to go and preach so that they would turn to God and escape destruction. Jonah didn’t want to do it. He knew it was an evil city and he decided that they didn’t deserve God’s mercy. They deserved judgment.
Jonah responds to God’s command by going the opposite direction and getting on a boat to head even farther away. While on the boat God sends a terrible storm. The sailors cry out to their gods begging for relief. The storm intensifies. They begin to throw their possessions and the cargo overboard in hopes of easing the ships turbulence. All the while Jonah is asleep in the hull. They wake him so he can pray to his God since he had already told them he was fleeing God’s presence.
Jonah says if they throw him into the sea, the storm will stop. They didn’t do it. They valued Jonah’s life more than he valued his life! Jonah had run from God and would rather commit suicide than get his heart right with the Lord! Had he repented in his heart, the storm would have ceased. We don’t say it this way when we teach this story to the kids. Jonah’s disobedience had caused these sailors to lose their possessions and fear for their own lives. His sin, like our sin, always hurts other people. We think we are only hurting ourselves, but we always hurt others too.
Eventually the sailors throw him overboard. The storm ends. God sends a whale, or large fish, to swallow Jonah. He remains in the belly of the fish for 3 days. You can translate the text as “whale” or “large fish”. When we get caught up in the debate over the miracle of the fish, or the miracle that he is unharmed, we miss the biggest miracle of the story. It is the miracle of God’s patience. God could have ended Jonah’s life at any point. We see in this story that God was patient with him throughout his sinful behavior. He is patient with all of us. This isn’t a story about God’s fish swallowing a man. This is a story about God’s patient pursuit of a sinner.
After 3 days Jonah prays and ask God’s forgiveness. He repents of his disobedience and promises to obey the Lord. God directs the fish to spit Jonah up onto the shore. God tells him a second time to go to Nineveh and preach. This time he obeys. The people repent. They praise the Lord. God doesn’t destroy the city. At this point, Jonah gets depressed. He wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed because they didn’t deserve God’s mercy. We’re susceptible to that as well. We can look at others and think they don’t deserve God’s mercy…we miss the fact that we don’t deserve it either! How ironic. Jonah had received God’s mercy but didn’t think others should be so fortunate.
Take a fresh look at the story of Jonah. Look past the fish and see the glorious, loving, patient, and merciful God who pursued a man like Jonah. He will do that for you too.