Jonah was a man of faith. He loved God and he loved his people—Israel. Now that is the first important part of the story. He loved the people of Israel, his own kind of folk, but he did not like Assyrians, or Egyptians, or Babylonians.
God calls Jonah in a dream to go to the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria. Nineveh was a big city like Washington DC, Baltimore, San Francisco, New York, Cincinnati—a big city with all the troubles of a big city. God wanted Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh to get their act together, or their city would be destroyed in 40 days. But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. He didn’t like Assyrians and he didn’t think God should like them either.
So Jonah runs away from God’s call. He’s not about to go to Nineveh! Jonah runs as far as he can in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish, 2000 miles away.
He gets on a boat and off he goes. Suddenly, a big storm develops and the boat is in danger. Everyone on board is scared and they begin to think there is a jinx on the boat. Jonah is singled out and he confesses that he’s running away from God. The sailors try to accept that, but the storm keeps getting worse and worse. Jonah knows he is the trouble, and to save the others on the boat, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard. They do it—and what do you suppose happens? The storm stops!
What happens to Jonah splashing around in the water? He becomes fish bait and is swallowed up by a big fish (the Bible says big fish—we say whale). Jonah is in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights. He turns to prayer and tells God that he will now do what God wants him to do. He’ll go to Nineveh, if only God will get him out of his present predicament.
God tells the fish to give Jonah up. The big fish can’t stomach Jonah anyhow and is suffering from indigestion. The big fish vomits—and out comes Jonah all in one piece on dry land. Kind of graphic isn’t it? Sometimes God has to do some drastic things to get us to hear His call.
So off Jonah goes, reluctantly, to Nineveh. He does what God has asked him to do. He talks to the people—the people in the slums, the people in the suburbs, the people in the condominiums, the people on Nineveh’s Wall Street and Fifth Avenue. He tells them to turn to God and change their ways or their city will be destroyed.
And behold, the Ninevites do turn to God and do change their ways. They repent. They turn over a new leaf—everyone—from the slums, the suburbs, the condominiums and Wall Street and Fifth Avenue. The Ninevites turn to God. Jonah must have been a powerful speaker to make such a difference. And you would think that he would be happy with such success.
Not Jonah. He was furious with God for letting it happen. He goes into a deep depression. He becomes psychotic, wanting to do himself in or for God to do him in! Why?—because the people of Nineveh are now God’s people. God has changed his mind about them. God isn’t going to destroy them! Here God is walking hand in hand with them and loving them, as if they were Jonah’s own people, Israel.
Jonah just can’t take it! God may have changed his mind—but not Jonah. He despised the people of Nineveh. He hated them! So he yells at God: “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen. That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were full of grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! So God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”
What was Jonah’s problem? He wanted God to play his game. If Jonah wanted to do away with these Ninevites, then God ought to do away with them! If Jonah hated these people, then God should hate them too. God should act the way Jonah wanted God to act. But God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways,” and God still says that to us in the 21st century.