The story of Jonah and the whale is NOT a story about obedience. It’s not even a story about Jonah and it’s certainly not a story about a whale.
It is a story about the great and compassionate God whose heart is for the world’s redemption. It is a story that shows us how God reached out Israel’s ENEMIES (Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians who took the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC) and offered them an opportunity to repent and turn from their sins. Which they did. For a generation. But then they rejected God so he sent Nahum to call them out. Two books, calling the enemies of God’s chosen people to repentance. Warning them about what happens if they don’t repent. That’s grace.
Rather than being the hero of the story, Jonah serves as a dramatic foil for God. God calls Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh. Jonah flees in the other direction in a boat. When a storm threatens the boat he’s on, Jonah admits he’s fleeing from God and his disobedience is likely the cause of the storm so they throw him overboard. A large fish swallows Jonah. The storm stops. While inside the big fish Jonah prays and praises God for deliverance (Jonah 2 is a beautiful prayer, you should read it). The large fish spits Jonah up on the shore. Jonah then goes and preaches to Nineveh and the city repents. God relents. Jonah is angry. He says to God, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (ESV)
Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to repent. He wanted justice. The Ninevites were BAD people. Jonah rightly wanted them to suffer for their injustice. But he wrongly refused to extend God’s offer of grace for repentance. It’s a weird tension, being angry at sin and sinners but being ambassadors of a graceful God to unjust people. It’s the tension I feel when I hear stories of child abuse. I am so angry at the abusers and want them to suffer for the damage they’ve caused but I also desperately want them to know the transforming grace of Christ. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and confusing to think and feel both things. Jonah didn’t have to worry about that though, he focused on justice, letting the evil people suffer. And by focusing on this, he was missing out on a huge part of the character of God and he missed out on willingly being a part of the redemptive role Israel was supposed to have in the world.
So we see God offering second chances to both Jonah and the Ninevites. It doesn’t really appear that Jonah wanted a second chance, but God gave him one. God rescued Jonah from death by sending a big fish. (Nineveh means, “city of fish.” I’m sure God intended the irony.) So Jonah had a second chance at life. Then he had a second chance to be obedient, which he took, albeit begrudgingly. Then he had a second chance to realign his heart with God’s, which he apparently did not take. After Nineveh repented Jonah went out on a hill where God grew a plant to give him shade. Then God killed the plant. Then Jonah said, “God, this sucks. I want to die.” And God said, “Are you kidding me? Do you really have more compassion for this plant than that city of more than 120,000 people…and their animals?” And the book ends. On top of showing grace to Israel’s enemies, God was calling out Jonah and, I believe, calling out the whole nation of Israel for not being the light to the other nations that he intended them to be.
To be clear, God doesn’t call Jonah out for disobedience. He calls him out for lack of compassion.
Jonah’s lack of compassion highlights the depths of God’s compassion. That, my friend, is what this story is about. So stop using this story to scare people into obedience. No more, “You better obey God the first time or you might find yourself in the belly of a fish!” type threats. No more children’s books that focus on Jonah’s failure to obey and then his subsequent choice to obey. Share the story for what it is, a story that highlights how amazing, gracious and compassionate God is. It’s a story about loving your enemies.
Proper application isn’t “Be obedient!” Proper application is to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. It is to go and make disciples of all nations and of all types of sinners, even the ones who are really bad. Proper application is to be gracious and compassionate toward those who offend you the most, in the same way that Christ was gracious and compassionate to you.