I don’t remember a lot from Sunday School as a kid, but one picture that remains clear in my mind was coloring the picture of Jonah in the belly of the fish. That picture, which so beautifully engages imaginations young and old, makes the Book of Jonah exciting and difficult to preach.
With a familiar story like Jonah, I have had to fight the temptation to skip exegetical work because I think I know what is going on already. This familiarity makes preaching the first two chapters easy but the last two quite puzzling. In case you need a reminder in the first two chapters, Jonah heads the opposite way on a boat from the mission that God gave him. God sends a storm and the sailors, after trying everything else, listen to Jonah and throw him overboard. God appoints a fish to swallow Jonah. In the depths of the sea, Jonah cries out to God and the fish spits him onto shore. In chapters 3 and 4, Jonah goes to Nineveh. After a rather short sermon, the city repents and God does not destroy them. The story concludes with an angry prophet outside of the city who does not understand God’s mercy. It ends with a final question from God to Jonah: will the prophet begrudge God’s grace? The preacher is left with a different question. What do you do with an ending like that? The whole book becomes clearer when we consider the audience to whom the book of Jonah was written.
This is the spot where familiarity can really hinder clarity. We know the story, so we don’t take the time to dive into the context. Think about it. Jonah was written at a particular time for a particular people. That’s true of every book. Jonah was not written to the prophet; he is the main character! Jonah was also not written to the Ninevites. If it were for the Ninevites, then it would not have ended up in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jonah was originally intended for the people of Israel. It was for the Northern Kingdom who saw a great enemy named Assyria casting a shadow over their land whose capitol was Nineveh. Understanding the audience of Jonah helps us answer the question of Jonah. Namely, trust God when what he appointed is different than what you expected.
Appointed vs. Expected
From the beginning of the story until the end, God is doing something different than what Jonah and the original audience would have expected. The call to go to a rival nation is not expected. The storm that frightens the sailors was appointed by God but was far greater than anyone expected. The fish was appointed by God and saved the rebellious prophet. The prophet proclaimed God’s Word and the Ninevites (of all people!) unexpectedly repent. Finally, the Lord speaks to Jonah after showing His mercy to the Ninevites and we don’t expect Jonah’s reaction. All of it is about expectations and reality, what the prophet expects and what God appoints. Jonah expected destruction. He wanted to sit and watch God destroy the enemy of God’s people. Yet God was merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God had one last thing to appoint for Jonah and the people of Israel to understand. The Lord appointed the plant, the sun, and the worm to give Jonah relief and take it away. God appointed the plant to show mercy for a moment in hopes that Jonah would love the mercy more than he hated the Ninevites. But sometimes when what we expect is different than what God appoints, we cannot move beyond it. God wants Jonah to love His character and to desire it for himself.
Loving God’s Character
Jonah knew God’s character. He quotes the familiar refrain in Jonah 4:2 from Exodus 34:6, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Beyond that, Jonah referenced at least 10 Psalms in his prayer of chapter 2. Jonah knows God’s Word and he know God’s character. The question for Jonah and for us is whether that knowledge will move from our heads to our hearts. Jonah rages at God’s kindness to his enemies. The Israelite audience was confronted with such an unexpected outpouring of grace. So, the question at the end is how we respond to God’s character. God is gracious and merciful, and we cannot despise God for being who He is. Will we let the message of grace and mercy come into our hearts even when it is extended where it is not expected? Will we be amazed by grace or offended by it? God’s grace is truly amazing in that it comes to all who will trust in Christ, a different prophet who sat outside a different city and was in anguish enough to die. His anguish was not anger; it was grief and it was for us. So, let’s love God’s character and be amazed at the grace given to rebels and enemies like you and me.