The story of Jonah and the whale is one that all Christian children learn, and it is certainly a tale of high drama and fantasy. How could a man possibly survive being eaten by a whale and live in the beast’s stomach for three days? Clearly, there was something supernatural going on. But the lesson we should learn from the book of Jonah is much deeper and more profound than the miracle of God intervening to stop Jonah from fleeing and then supernaturally preserving his life to send him to Ninevah.
You see, Ninevah was the capital of the brutal Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had brutally repressed the people of Israel, and were known for their horrific treatment of cities they captured. People were tortured is savage ways and women were raped. Jonah was a patriot who had no desire to bring God’s message of forgiveness to the people of Ninevah. He wanted God do destroy the city.
Asking Jonah to go to Ninevah would be like asking a Jewish refugee to bring a message of repentance to Berlin in the middle of the Nazi Holocaust, or asking someone from Nanking to bring a message of repentance to Imperial Japan in the 1930’s. The Assyrian Empire was that bad.
But God is long suffering and merciful! He stopped Jonah from running away and sent him to Ninevah. The repentance of the king and the people is one of the more amazing accounts in all of Scripture. God turned away His wrath when the city repented. When God can forgive and be merciful to a nation that had brutally repressed His people, why can’t we be merciful to our own enemies? Do we not want to imitate God?
Jonah did not. Even after he obeyed God, he was still angry. When God spared the city, Jonah pouted and whined and said he wanted to die. In one of the more humorous parts of Scripture, God asks him “Doest thou well to be angry?” Jonah’s answer is telling:
“I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.”
Here, Jonah’s motivation is clear. He was angry at God for not punishing Ninevah.
God points out that there are many children in the city, to say nothing of all of the animals that would also be destroyed. God asks Jonah if he wanted the children and animals to die. It is interesting that we never see Jonah’s answer. But we know what the answer should be, because this was a rhetorical question. We should want to see the wicked repent and come to salvation. We should praise God when that happens.
Above all else, we should see that our own wickedness is so great that we cannot ever pay back what we owe to God, and it is an act of pure mercy on His part that He calls us to salvation. We have no right to see ourselves as “better” than anyone else. Now matter how “clean” our lives have been, American Christians are not better than the Islamic State. We should want to see God bring repentance to them.