“Compassion in Jonah”

Categories: Meditations


A few weeks ago, after I finished going through Jonah in my daily Bible reading, I posted on Facebook, “I love the book of Jonah!  It is both warm and subtle.”  In what is perhaps a sign that I deadpan too much on Facebook, most who responded thought I was joking.  Those who took me seriously, seriously disagreed.

Apparently, an explanation is in order!

I think part of the problem is that when most Christians think of Jonah, they think of the eponymic prophet and his encounter with the not-whale.  The story is dramatic, but it is admittedly not very cozy.  However, the book is not about Jonah’s ingestion by a great fish, nor even about his preaching mission to Nineveh.  As impressive as those things are, they’re not the point.  Instead, the theme of the book is God’s efforts to teach His wayward prophet compassion.

Think about it.  In the opening scene of the book, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and Jonah heads in the opposite direction, presumably because he isn’t terribly interested in saving the Ninevites.  At this point, God would have been fully justified in turning Jonah into a grease spot.  However, he doesn’t.  Instead, He sends Jonah on his undersea journey to give him time to repent, just as He wants to give Nineveh time to repent.

Jonah does, and once he’s back on dry land, he grudgingly goes to Nineveh.  Then, he warns the people of God’s impending judgment, even though he really wants to see them destroyed.  However, the outcome is exactly what God wants to see, and exactly what Jonah doesn’t want to see.  The city repents en masse, and disaster is averted.

Jonah, however, remains as hard-hearted as ever.  He camps out on the hills above the city, hoping that God will change His mind and destroy it (the opposite of Abraham’s perspective on Sodom, if you think about it).  In one last attempt to correct His wayward prophet, God raises up a plant to shade him and then kills it.  When Jonah gets upset, God points out that if Jonah is right to get emotionally attached to a plant, God is right to feel compassion for a city filled with human beings.

This is a story that gives me a great deal of hope.  It clearly reveals the depth of God’s compassion, not only for Nineveh, but for one of His own who repeatedly refuses to get it.  I’m glad I serve a God like that, not least because of all the times when I have repeatedly refused, and probably still do repeatedly refuse, to get it.  I am a daily witness to the greatness of His mercy.

Second, the story of Jonah illustrates God’s patience.  Despite multiple provocations, God doesn’t give up on Jonah.  Instead, He continues teaching him, right up to the last sentence of the book.  As a disciple of Jesus, I know that I am very much a work in progress, and I am thankful that God will patiently continue His work in me and not give up on me.

Is a book filled with storms and judgments stereotypically warm?  Well, no, but every time I read it, I find myself warmed anyway.  The conflict in it isn’t God’s fault, but Jonah’s.  The compassion, though, all belongs to God.