Revisiting Jonah and God
Not to Be Confused with Pinocchio
We have been warned by well-meaning Sunday school teachers and by preachers for generations: Don't run from God—remember what happened to Jonah!
This warning has conjured up Jaws-like images of big fish (or even whales, since we sometimes get this story confused with Pinocchio!) gulping down a poor disobedient swimmer gasping for air after being shoved off a boat in the middle of a storm. Poor Jonah. Three days in the "belly" of the great fish (again, probably not a whale—that was Pinocchio).
We preachers can really bring this part of the story to life: tonsils, stomach acids, half-digested smaller fish, and so on. Then, worst of all, Jonah gets to be the product of severe indigestion of biblical proportions (literally) as he is "vomited" onto dry land (the NIV's exact words: "And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land").
Poor Jonah. That will teach him! I bet that's the last time he or anyone else thinks of disobeying God's plan! You had better be careful: God may have a big fish waiting for you next time you disobey.
But wait. That's not how Jonah viewed the big fish. Right before the infamous vomiting scene in Jonah 2:10, there is a long prayer recorded from Jonah about his journey into disobedience.
While we would expect the prayer to be a woeful surrender to the God who is too big to tangle with, since He will even use the fish of the sea to "get you" if you run away from him, Jonah's prayer is something quite different.
And it is worth revisiting. By revisiting Jonah's prayer from the belly of the great fish, we also revisit our view of God. And in this revisiting of God's character as expressed by this often misunderstood aspect of the life of Jonah, we get to adjust our own perspectives about who God is and how God does work out His purposes in our lives.
What Jonah Really Said
Although Jonah claims that God "hurled him into the sea" (2:3), and that he (Jonah) thought he had been banished forever into the realm of the dead (2:4-5), he quickly asserts that God actually brought him "up from the pit", even as the deep waters threatened him and the "seaweed was wrapped around my head" (2:5-6).
Jonah then sees that God actually rescues him through the vehicle of the large fish. So Jonah ends his prayer with "shouts of grateful praise," and in response to God's great gift of saving him from drowning ("sinking to the roots of the mountains", as 2:6 reminds), Jonah will make sacrifices to God in His temple again, and will keep the vows he has made to follow the LORD. Jonah declares, "I will say, 'Salvation comes from the LORD' " (2:9). It is intriguing that Jonah does not say, "Punishment comes from the LORD," or even, "To all those who think God does not have ways of making you talk, see my story."
Instead, Jonah sees his life as an example of God's patience and generosity.
Jonah sees himself as one who once walked outside the protection and care of a relationship with God (running in the opposite direction, in fact). Yet God did not give up on him. From Jonah's perspective, God not only gets him out of a sinking ship in the middle of a storm, but God also rescues him in an unusual and creative way (that is where the fish comes in), moving him away from the dangerous storm. The culmination of the act of salvation takes place as the fish deposits Jonah safely (though a bit smelly) onto dry land.
Jonah is not scared into going to Nineveh, according to the text. Jonah has already decided, before he even experienced the rest of his deliverance, that he will recommit himself to this gracious, patient, and loving God who saves people, even those who disobey egregiously.
Adjusting Our View of God
Many interpretations of this famous text have often done a disservice to God. God is compassionate and loving throughout the Book of Jonah, and in fact, throughout all of Scripture. God's patience and compassion are so evident to Jonah that he becomes angry at God for sending him to the Ninevites, a dreaded group of Ancient Near Eastern bullies.
Why? Because Jonah now knows from experience that God is so patient and loving that he will even spare the most disobedient, unrepentant kinds people - people like the Ninevites, people like Jonah, people like us.
Jonah and Jesus
Jesus evoked images of the story of Jonah in reference to Jesus' own journey toward the cross and resurrection. Revisiting what Jonah actually said and the unlikely instrument of deliverance that God used to rescue Jonah (the fish) can help us better understand why Jonah's story is viewed in a life-giving context.
Jesus, through whom God's love and patience is best seen, demonstrates God's love through unlikely instruments (the cross and the tomb), both of which demonstrate that this God who saved Jonah out of sheer love and grace has been trying to do the same for us all along.
Charles W. Christian is pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Cameron, Missouri.
Holiness Today, 2013
Please note: This article was originally published in 2013. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.