In Jonah, we see a prophet who is told by God to go to Nineveh and tell them that there are consequences to disobeying God. The reluctant prophet hates the people of Nineveh though and is sort of looking forward to their judgement. So Jonah does what any reasonable person might do after they hear the voice of God telling him to go and preach consequences of disobeying God… he disobeys God. Hmmm… That seems reasonable. Wait though, it gets better. When Jonah is on the first boat to “anywhere else” they get caught up in a storm of, well why not, biblical proportions. Immediately all the sailors cry out to their various pagan gods and recognize that the storm is clearly divine judgement. While they do this, Jonah decides he should just sleep the storm off. He enters the story again when the captain is waking him and screaming at him saying…
“What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” -Jon 1:6
In other words, these pagans who didn’t even know Jonah’s God thought that it was reasonable that this God might save the repentant sinner. Then when Jonah finally gets to Nineveh to tell them “Forty days and this city is gonna turn into a big smoking crater in the earth”, not exactly a subtle call to repentance, Jonah then sits overlooking the city waiting for the fireworks.
Some people think that Jonah completely misunderstands who God is. Many read the story of Noah and think that he is some kind of ignorant person who has to be led by the hand out of an ignorance of who God is. This is not the case though. In fact, Jonah knew God well. It is because he knew God that he disobeyed Him. Jonah portrays a thorough theological knowledge when he speaks to God in the beginning of chapter 4.
2 “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. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” –Jonah 4:2–3
Jonah knows God. He isn’t ignorant of who God is. He doesn’t flee because he thinks he can escape God. He flees because he thinks he can get away with it. Jonah’s problem is not in his theology. His problem is with his heart. He hates the Ninevites because they disobey God, and still God is willing to forgive them. Jonah knows God well. The problem is Jonah disagrees with God. Jonah thinks sin should always be met with judgement. This is why he doesn’t fall to his knees on that boat, but instead asks them to through him into the ocean… a certain death. God saved Jonah, because that is what God does. Sin should have no mercy according to Jonah, but according to God the penitent heart finds grace and mercy, and even in unrepentant heart in Jonah gets one last shot at repentance.
The story of Jonah shows a misunderstanding of who God is in salvation. It wasn’t a misunderstanding of theology. It was a misunderstanding of the heart of God. The “why” of salvation is the misunderstanding here. Why does God save the repentant sinner? Why does God give Jonah a second chance when Jonah himself doesn’t even think he deserves it? The answer is given by God at the end of the book when God speaks again.
10 And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” -Jon 4:10–11
God is righteous. God hates sin, but God loves sinners. He pity’s the lost, and wants them to be redeemed. He loves. This is the misunderstanding that Jonah has. He doesn’t know why God wants to save sinners. He doesn’t know why because he doesn’t understand that God fashioned these people, He gave them the care to live and grow, He gives them each breath, and He knows and loves each of them. Love inspires redemption. God forgives, not because He must, but because He loves those that need forgiveness. Jonah had all the theology, but his message didn’t include God’s love. Still, it seems that the people of Nineveh knew something of God that Jonah didn’t, or, maybe they just dared to hope. They are the ones that wept over their sins. They are the ones that appealed to God to forgive them. If we fail to preach the “why” of forgiveness, then we fail to represent God accurately. The “why” makes forgiveness possible. God could react to sin just like Jonah thought He should… with cold, strict and cruelly precise judgement. The problem is that this isn’t who God is. God is love. I am glad for Nineveh that God loves us. I am glad for Jonah that God loves sinners. I am also glad for myself that God loves. If we fail to understand this simple and amazing characteristic of God, forgiveness will never make sense to us. When we do understand it, forgiveness may still not make sense to us, but it will perhaps encourage and inspire us.