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God’s Mercy: The Theme of Jonah’s Book
Missions is but one manifestation of God’s mercy. God shows his mercy in Jonah’s book by sending Jonah and saving the sailors (ch. 1), in saving Jonah from the storm (ch. 2), in using Jonah’s message and saving Nineveh (ch. 3), and in soothing Jonah (ch. 4). The entire book is a manifestation of God’s mercy.
Jonah’s book is unique among the Prophets because his story includes both the prophecy and the response. Only a small portion of his book is strictly prophetic, and that is his message to Nineveh.
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” begins a hymn by F. W. Faber. Jonah is set up as a foil (or a contrast) to God’s perfect mercy—towards the sailors, towards Nineveh, and towards the prophet himself. “The selfish unbelief and vindictiveness of man is contrasted with the gracious patience and benevolence of God.”1
The humor of the book is a large part of its appeal. The sailors and Ninevites receive God’s message eagerly, but God’s ordained prophet gives it reluctantly. He is the most self-effacing prophet of the Old Testament, and he accomplishes the bare minimum of righteousness. Yet Jonah uses humor to deal with serious needs that are universal to Christian life.
Comparing Jonah with John the Baptist (John 1:6), S. D. Gordon writes, “All men are sent. But they don’t all come, some go. There was a man sent from God whose name was Jonah. But he didn’t come. He went.”2
The reason for Jonah’s flight to Tarshish is explained by G. Campbell Morgan: “The book of Jonah is a prophetic story indicating the inclusiveness of the Divine government for Nineveh as well as Israel; and rebuking the exclusiveness of the Hebrew nation as manifested in the prophet himself.”3 Even today ethnocentrism is one of the largest barriers to missions. We are often glad to see someone else go, but feel in our hearts that we would never do so ourselves because we do not love other nations, and do not desire their salvation.
Jonah’s Song of Repentance
As always, the believer who flees from the Lord then seeks God “out of his distress” (2:2). “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2). Thus Jonah compares his underwater hideaway to the grave itself. By taking him to the depths of death, God chose to make Jonah a sign of resurrection.
His song concludes: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (2:9) Then the sea-creature spits him out. By this God-wrought salvation, Jonah proclaimed death and resurrection(Matthew 12:39-40), both to Nineveh and to future generations.
Jonah’s Sermon of Repentance
Alexander Whyte summarizes thus: “The prophet Jonah was both the elder son and the unmerciful servant of the Old Testament.”4 The key is that he did not rejoice at the mercy received by others; as Christians, we should rejoice when God pours mercy on any other nation. We should never have any nation written off in our mind, as if God could not or would not grant mercy to those people, or they would not receive it.
Jesus gave credit to the Ninevites, saying that Jonah’s generation of Nineveh would rise in judgment against Jesus’ generation of Jews that had rejected him (Matthew 12:41). In this way, Jesus asserted that Jews could live stubbornly unrepentant while Gentiles could be righteous with God by faith.
Finally, after all the lessons that God has taught him, Jonah still shows resentment, in spite of his correct view of God! (4:2) However, Whyte writes that Jonah must have repented and written the book “in sackcloth and ashes”5 as he learned that God’s mercy was not to be hoarded. Through the repeated dealings of God, he must have learned God’s intended lesson, for no one else could have shared the story. May God teach us this same great truth.
The book ends with God’s glorious expression of mercy. “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?” (4:11)
Many books and Bible studies show that God’s plan has always included all nations. A few that come to mind are Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson, Missions in the Age of the Spirit by John York and Mission in the Old Testament by Walter Kaiser.
1 Herbert Lockyer. All the Books and Chapters of the Bible, pp. 203-4. Zondervan, 1966.
2 S. D. Gordon. Quiet Talks on John’s Gospel, Locations 585-586. Kindle Edition.
3 G. Campbell Morgan. Voices of Twelve Hebrew Prophets, p. 12.
4 Alexander Whyte. Concise Bible Characters, p. 301. AMG Publishers.