Most prophets spoke against Israel’s disobedience. Jonah was told to prophesy against Nineveh, one of Israel’s fiercest enemies. Other prophets argued with God about their assignments, but Jonah just ran away by going to Joppa and boarding a ship headed for Tarshish.
The ship was overtaken by a terrible storm. Jonah confessed his responsibility. Sailors threw him overboard. He was swallowed by the unforgettable whale we learned about as children, where Jonah remained for three days. He prayed to God, not repenting for running away but thanking God for saving him from drowning by allowing the whale to swallow him.
After the whale vomited Jonah onto land, God repeated his instruction. This time, Jonah obeyed and prophesied Nineveh’s destruction unless the people repented. They did at their king’s behest, and God relented.
Jonah was furious. He despised the Ninevites for their cruel oppression of Israel. Jonah had ignored God’s original command, not because of concern for his own safety, but because of concern that God would do exactly what he was doing. He had seen this happen before when God had spared Israel despite its wickedness. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…” (3:2). Jonah was so angry that he asked God to kill him.
We’re like Jonah sometimes, particularly if we want God to hurt, not spare, an enemy. Jonah’s story is one of the few in the Old Testament where God appeared as the God of all peoples.
Remarkably, Jesus referred to the sign of Jonah as the sign of his resurrection. (Matthew 12:40) As Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, Jesus would be in the grave for three days. Just as God is God of all, Jesus died that all might be saved.