I love the story of Jonah.

I can remember, as a young kid, going into our Bible class a few minutes before time to start and playing with the gigantic fish toy and mini-Jonah action figure. I remember making the fish swallow Jonah up and then vomit him all over the teacher’s desk. It was all a lot of fun.

But the older I get, the less I like the story. Not because it’s uninteresting (it is) or because the people don’t repent (they do), but because the more I read it, the more I realize that the Jonah story shouldn’t have been about Jonah at all. The reason it’s four chapters long instead of ten verses max is because Jonah’s attitude placed himself at the center of things. His stubbornness, pettiness, and downright hatred of the Ninevites is the only reason the big fish even makes an appearance to begin with.

Jonah and Jesus

For starters, can we all agree that Jonah is just about the worst preacher ever? Not only does he run the exact opposite direction from Nineveh (towards Tarshish), but it takes him being swallowed by a fish and vomited up on dry land to convince him that he should even head to the city in the first place.

Even his prayer in chapter two – long hailed as a prayer of repentance – has a subtle tone of reluctant obligation instead of contrite sorrow. “That which I have vowed I will pay” doesn’t sound like it’s said by a man especially eager to fulfill his vocation.

Then, after he gets to Nineveh and tells everyone they’re gonna die, he parks himself outside the city “to see what will happen” to it. He’s not concerned about their souls at all; he did his job, but he’s hoping it didn’t take root.

Jesus, on the other hand, gave up His glory (Phil. 2), came to earth in the form of a bondservant, and died on the cross to save people who spat in His face. Then, He broke death to rise from the grave and secure our hope of salvation. He’s the type of preacher that we didn’t know we needed so desperately.

When Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-31 that “something greater than Jonah is here,” He’s describing His authority versus Jonah’s. No question about that. But He’s also contrasting two very different types of messengers and their attitude about the message.

Why Did Jonah Disobey God?

To understand why Jonah ran from God, we have to look at his background. Not nearly enough attention has been paid to this as opposed to simply saying that (a) Jonah was a Jew, and (b) Jews hated Samaritans.

To understand the story of Jonah, we have to be more personal than that.

The first time we see Jonah is not in his book, but in 2 Kings 14:25-27. There, during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel, Jonah, son of Amittai (2 Kings 14:25; Jonah 1:1) has told the king to restore the nation’s ancestral boundary markers. In the Old Testament, property was a birthright, redeemed during the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10) in order to keep the tribes from overpowering each other. Jeroboam listens to Jonah…but that’s about the only bright spot that we can see from his life. The rest of Jeroboam’s life appears to be pretty wicked.

Because of this, Jonah knows that Israel’s time is short. The prophet Amos, a contemporary of Jonah, reveals that God had tried to get Israel’s attention for some time, only to have them completely ignore Jehovah (Amos 4:6-11). Furthermore, Hosea, another contemporary of Jonah, speaks to the destruction that threatens Israel as a result (Hosea 7). 

Why does all this matter to Jonah, specifically? One reason: Jonah is from Israel. Gath-hepher, the city of Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, is a few miles outside of Nazareth, which means Jonah is a Galileean.

Jonah is from Gath-hepher, not far from the Sea of Galilee

Nearly all of the prophets spoke to the southern kingdom of Judah; only three – Jonah, Amos, and Hosea – speak to the northern kingdom of Israel. Of those, only two – Hosea and Jonah – are actually from Israel (and even Hosea’s location is somewhat questionable). Amos is actually based in Judah but speaks to the northern kingdom from his homeland.

The implications of these facts are four-fold: (1) Jonah knows his homeland is wicked. He sees the apostasy that Amos and Hosea speak of; he’s around it every day. (2) He knows that God will forgive people from their sins. He says that explicitly in Jonah 4:2: “…I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.“ (3) He knows that Israel won’t repent. Amos’ prophecy already argued that. (4) There’s a chance Assyria might.

What this essentially means is that Jonah knows full well that his home is probably going to be sent into exile, and Assyria may very well be the vehicle that drives them out. Aside from hating Assyria for nationalistic reasons, he doesn’t want to see Assyria succeed for very personal reasons: love for his home.

In this way, Jonah looks a lot like Jeremiah. He’s called the “weeping prophet” not only because he had a front row seat to the annihilation of Jerusalem, but also because he’s from a town called Anathoth, not far from Jerusalem itself (Jeremiah 1:1). To watch Jerusalem burn is to watch his home burn, a lament that’s fully expressed in Jeremiah 4:19-22.

Why Do We Disobey God?

Jonah allowed his personal animosity towards Nineveh and his devotion to his physical homeland to cloud his judgment in telling the Assyrians about their impending fate. He deserves every bit of scorn that’s thrown his way as a result, since he was more upset about a plant dying than he was about the possibility of 120,000 people losing their souls (Jonah 4).

And yet we’re not that different from him, are we?

When it all comes down to it, Jonah didn’t go to Nineveh because he didn’t want to go to Nineveh. We don’t evangelize, resist temptation, read our Bible, or pray like we should because we don’t want to do those things. That doesn’t mean that we’re especially sinister, God-hating type of people, but it does mean that our priorities are severely out of whack.

We run from God when we allow our personal biases cloud our mission. Jonah knew that Nineveh repenting from their sins would cast a long shadow over the fact that Israel would virtually never repent of theirs. We sometimes don’t evangelize because we know we don’t have our house in order either. We run from God just like Jonah did.

Here’s a simple fact that we all would do well to remember: Evangelism works best when we realize it’s not about us. We’re the messenger, the Message is what’s important. But just like Jonah, we interject ourselves into the story because we refuse to tell people about God – for a variety of reasons.

The story of Jonah shouldn’t have been about Jonah at all, and sharing the Gospel shouldn’t be about us. There are four Gospels about Jesus’ life and none about the Apostles. Why? Because they weren’t the story, Jesus was and is.

The quicker we pull ourselves out of the narrative and push Christ to the center, the quicker we can get to the work God has called all of us to do.

And the more likely it is we won’t get swallowed by a fish.

Last modified: June 3, 2019