How did the book of Jonah get into the Bible? It contains only five Hebrew words of grumpy prophecy.1 I think it’s there because God wants us to know the simple but strange story of Jonah himself. He’s called a “minor prophet” but he’s more of an anti-prophet—the opposite of a good prophet of God.
God sent Jonah to the sinful city of Nineveh with a warning to repent (Jonah 1:2). At first, we are not told why Jonah immediately fled from God’s presence, but when God said, “Go east,” he went west. Later it becomes clear that he resented the idea that such wicked people would be given a chance to repent. So, when Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, delivered his one-liner, and the people did repent, Jonah became extremely angry—so angry that he wanted to die.
It greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this 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.Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
Such anger is the inevitable outcome of a will that is set against God’s. Jonah had consistently and dramatically opposed God: He ran from His presence, hoped to drown rather than speak to Nineveh, and finally asked God to end his life (Jonah 1:3, 12-14; 4:3, 9). In a sense, Jonah was in touch with a stark reality: whenever our will conflicts with God’s, we will not get our way. Jonah was like anyone who says in their heart, “Life is not worth living if I cannot have . . . .” Did Jonah have a good reason to be angry? He certainly had a reason, but it was an ungodly and intensely selfish one (Jonah 4:9).
Jonah is the opposite of a true prophet. The prophetic gift grows as we submit to God and align with His will and His ways. Jonah demonstrated the reverse. God cares about all people, even the most wicked. He looks for spokespeople who will call them back to Him. When people turn, He is quick to forgive them and cancel punishment. In Jonah’s mind that was unfair, unjust, irresponsible, or plain crazy. Why would God give a free pass to evil enemies of His chosen people? Jonah’s religious ideas were so deeply ingrained that they prevented him from absorbing God’s heart. The Bible Project summarizes the message of the little book as a question, “Are you OK with God loving your enemies?”2 Jonah was not OK.
The love of enemies is perhaps the most challenging choice of humble obedience that we face. Whether those enemies are those who fight or oppose us, those who are strikingly different from us, people who deeply hurt us, or those who insult our Lord and His kingdom, it is hard to love them.
To resist the urge to flee from God’s will, like Jonah, we must be honest with ourselves about where the challenges lie in our lives. What ingrained ideas harden our hearts? What do we subtly demand and require from God? Is being right in our judgments more important than ministering mercy? If we are to be prophetic people we must recognize and renounce those attitudes.
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