You only understand Jonah if you’ve learned to hate, if life experience has educated you in heartfelt, instinctive, focused hostility.
And you only understand Jonah’s God if you are prepared to unlearn hatred, and by a painful inner reorientation accept that God is not in the hate business.
Jonah hated Nineveh; “the great city” is famed for terrorist atrocities, as the center of a brutal, organized, military machine, and as the merciless, meticulous, arrogant, conqueror and oppressor of Israel.
The equivalent today isn’t hard to imagine. Where there is religious hatred, ancient tribal enmities, and people whose suffering and oppression have educated them into hatred, there we come near to the same mindset that wants to obliterate the enemy.
The combination of terror and anger, of hatred and hopelessness, produces that lethal cocktail we call terrorism – and it flourishes in a world sold on consumerism, militarism and polarization of extremes, two poles arcing in violence.
Jonah stands for those who want to see power get what it deserves. He represents those who pray that cruelty and violence will get its payback.
So you’d think that a word from the Lord to preach against the wickedness of the great city would have Jonah book a first-class overnight camel to be the first to tell Nineveh they’d had it.
God’s prophet is being sent to tell the enemy, “God is going to zap you,” seemingly granting him permission to hate, ridicule, gloat and celebrate the anguish of the enemy.
So why did Jonah run in the exact opposite direction? Why miss out on the vengeance for which he’d prayed? Why not takes his hate and use it to make him an eloquent herald of doom?
This prophet running in the opposite direction from Nineveh only makes sense when you come to Jonah 4:2. “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.'”
Jonah isn’t disobedient; he’s in denial. It isn’t that he doesn’t believe enough in God; he believes too much. He knows God too well. His theology of God is so true it’s a liability.
Jonah runs in the opposite direction because he senses God is going to do the opposite of what he wants.
There’s a million-to-one chance that Nineveh will repent, and if that happens, there isn’t one chance in a million that God won’t be merciful.
It is an absolute certainty that God would be slow to anger and abounding in love. And that isn’t fair.
For Jonah, that is theologically inevitable and emotionally unacceptable. Abounding in love and slow to anger, this kind of God isn’t what you need when all you want is vengeance.
It would be absolutely scandalous that a vast city, built on the blood and tears of the conquered should turn from their wickedness and find mercy.
It would show there is no justice in the universe, Jonah thinks. So he won’t take that million-to-one chance and seeks to flee God’s commission.
As this story unfolds, it isn’t that Jonah will learn a new theology of God. He will learn that no matter what his theology, God remains sovereign in mercy and steadfast love.
He will witness God’s involvement in the deepest, hardest, most heartbreaking, experiences of his life, and he’ll learn about God’s generosity and human grievances.
He’ll learn that mercy is greater than murder, that compassion not cruelty is God’s way. All that and more he’ll learn.
This scandalous story touches on some of the most important things those who believe in the God of the Bible will ever need to know about themselves, about God and how God deals with those different “others” who share this planet with us.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and continues as an occasional lecturer on practical theology and areas of ministry. The full version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.