The story of Jonah is a fascinating tale found in the Old Testament of the Bible. Jonah was a prophet who was called by God to go to the city of Nineveh and preach repentance to the people. However, Jonah resisted God’s call and tried to flee by boat instead. He was thrown overboard during a storm and swallowed by a large fish. Inside the belly of the fish, Jonah repented and cried out to God for mercy. After three days, the fish vomited Jonah onto dry land and he finally obeyed God’s command to preach in Nineveh. The people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s message, and God relented from destroying the city. However, the story doesn’t end there. Jonah becomes angry that God spared the Ninevites and he goes through some more trials and lessons. Ultimately, the book of Jonah illustrates God’s compassion and how He desires repentance and forgiveness over punishment. As we explore how this short Old Testament book concludes, we will see how God’s grace triumphs.
Jonah’s Anger at Nineveh’s Repentance
After Jonah preached God’s message of coming judgment in Forty days, the people of Nineveh immediately repented. They put on sackcloth, fasted, and turned from their evil ways (Jonah 3:5-9). This response likely surprised Jonah, who seemed to want Nineveh destroyed for its wickedness. When God saw the sincere repentance of the Ninevites, He relented from destroying the city as He had intended (Jonah 3:10).
One would expect Jonah to have been thrilled that an entire city repented at his preaching. But instead, Jonah became extremely angry and disgruntled (Jonah 4:1). Why was Jonah so upset that Nineveh was spared? A few reasons help explain his response:
- Jonah likely harbored a deep resentment toward the people of Nineveh. The Assyrians who occupied the city were known for their extreme violence and cruelty. As an Israelite, Jonah despised this foreign nation.
- Jonah probably felt he had failed in his mission. Though he preached repentance, his motive was likely to see Nineveh punished, not saved.
- Jonah’s nationalistic pride was offended. He knew that God showing compassion to Nineveh displayed His love for all nations, not just Israel.
In his anger, Jonah essentially throws a tantrum before God, complaining it would have been better if God had just killed him rather than spare the Ninevites (Jonah 4:2-3). Clearly, Jonah still had much to learn about having compassion for others.
God’s Lesson Through the Plant
After venting his frustration, Jonah leaves the city and makes a shelter to sit outside and watch what would happen (Jonah 4:5). God then causes a leafy plant to quickly grow over Jonah’s head, providing comforting shade from the hot sun. Jonah was very happy about this plant (Jonah 4:6). But the next day, God sent a worm to chew on the plant until it withered and died. Then He sent a scorching east wind and blazing sun, causing Jonah to become faint (Jonah 4:7-8).
Here are some key points about this part of the story:
- The plant delighted Jonah by meeting his selfish needs for shade and comfort.
- Jonah took no part in growing or sustaining the plant – it was an unmerited favor from God.
- Just as easily as God gave it, He took the plant away to teach Jonah a lesson.
- Jonah became angry and depressed about the withering plant.
When Jonah again complains about wanting to die, God asked him if he had any right to be angry over the loss of the plant (Jonah 4:9). Jonah insisted he was right to be upset all the way to the point of death (Jonah 4:9).
Then God delivered the main lesson: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
God’s point was that if Jonah could have compassion and concern for a single plant that benefited just him, how much more should God have compassion for an entire city full of confused, helpless people who couldn’t discern right from wrong. As the Creator of both animals and humans, God desires mercy over destruction. It seems the story ends with Jonah still sulking under the brutal sun, but hopefully gaining more of God’s heart for the lost.
Major Themes Demonstrated
The story of Jonah ends with two major themes strongly reinforced:
God’s Mercy and Compassion
Jonah highlights God’s incredible compassion and patience. He pursued Jonah relentlessly even when fleeing from his mission. God corrected Jonah’s bad attitude but did not destroy him for it. The Lord spared the wicked city of Nineveh when they sincerely repented. He corrected Jonah’s self-righteous anger by explaining His desire to show mercy whenever possible, even to Israel’s enemies. God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8). The story reminds us that He earnestly desires people to turn to Him and thus He is willing to relent from punishment.
Universal Scope of God’s Love
The book of Jonah shatters any notion that God only cared about Israel in the Old Testament. Through sparing Nineveh, God displayed His abundant love and mercy toward all nations. His compassion was not limited by ethnic, cultural or geographic boundaries. This universal scope of grace pointed forward to the coming of Jesus the Messiah who would save people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The story hints at the central New Testament theme that God’s love is for the entire world (John 3:16).
|God’s Mercy and Compassion
|God relentlessly pursues the lost and desires mercy over destruction if people repent.
|Universal Scope of God’s Love
|God cares for all nations, not just Israel. His love extends to the entire world.
Jonah’s Impact on Later Scripture
Jonah is unusual as a prophet because his story is more about God’s relationship with him than his actual prophecies. But this little Old Testament book had a surprising impact on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Here are some key connections:
Jesus Compares Himself to Jonah
Jesus said the experience of Jonah being in the belly of the fish for three days was analogous to His own death and resurrection:
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)
So the “sign of Jonah” became representative of Jesus’ crucifixion and miraculous resurrection after three days in the tomb (Matthew 16:4).
Jonah as an Example of Repentance
The repentance of Nineveh at Jonah’s preaching became a model that Jesus wanted to see happen in Israel:
But the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:41)
Though the Israelites had the very Son of God performing miracles and teaching in their midst, most still refused to repent.
Justification for Gentile Inclusion
The apostle Paul used the story of Jonah at least twice to justify his mission to the Gentiles. Referring to his vision to preach to the peoples of Southern Europe, Paul declared:
Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46)
Later, at the Jerusalem Council, Paul again referenced Jonah regarding God’s inclusion of the Gentiles by faith:
“After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ —things known from long ago. (Acts 15:16-18)
So the account of Jonah became an influential part of New Testament teaching.
The story of Jonah ends with a powerful portrait of a merciful, compassionate God who cares deeply for all people and desires none to perish. Jonah resisted God’s plan, was indifferent to the lost, and needed to learn valuable lessons about grace and forgiveness. Though the prophet struggled, God remained faithful to His mission of redemption. As Jonah is vomited onto dry land for a second chance, so God continually grants us new opportunities to participate in His work. The themes of universal love for all nations and the desire for repentance over punishment resonated strongly into the New Testament. Jesus Himself drew important parallels between Jonah’s experiences and His own death and resurrection. When we grasp how Jonah’s story fits into Scripture’s overarching narrative, we gain a richer understanding of the Creator’s steadfast pursuit of the lost and broken. His compassionate heart for all people continues reaching out through us today.