Jonah's is one of those stories that most people think they know. He’s the man God told to go to Ninevah and preach, but who ran away instead. He’s the guy who was swallowed by a fish, gave in to God, and got a second chance to preach. That’s the story I often heard in Sunday School growing up. It wasn’t until seminary that I finally understood this book, and then I sat in class thinking, How did I miss this? How did I not see that Jonah was a book about God’s grace?
The key to unlocking the meaning of Jonah isn’t in the chapters that make up the Sunday School fish tale. To do that, you have to look ahead to the end of the story in chapter 4. (I’m not going to ruin the story showing you this; I promise you that it will be even better.) It’s in this chapter that Jonah explains WHY he ran, and you must know the reason to understand the message of the book.
Here’s a super-quick timeline of Jonah’s story so you understand the passage I’m about to show you: Jonah runs from God. God chases him down. God shows mercy and grace to Jonah. Jonah writes a poem about it. He goes and preaches to the Assyrians. They repent. God shows mercy and grace to the Assyrians. And Jonah reacts like this:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “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. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live”
- Jonah 4:1-3
There it is. Jonah runs because he knew—just knew—God would be gracious and compassionate. The prophet knew God would forgive the Assyrians, and he was angry about it! Jonah was an angry, bitter man. And God pursued him anyway.
Did you catch that? God was aware of Jonah’s prejudices, his hatred for the Assyrians in Ninevah. He knew exactly why Jonah ran. He knew that the prophet’s fish-belly conversion of sorts went only so deep and certainly didn’t uproot the bitterness in his heart. And God came after Jonah to show him grace anyway. Again and again and again.
The grace shown the Ninevites is only a small piece of the story. God’s mercy rushes into every nook and cranny of this tale. That’s why we’re calling Jonah a story of outrageous grace.