Looking Beyond the Self-Pitying Prophet

Most of you know the story of Jonah and have probably been hearing it since you were little. Jonah is famous for his disobedience, his pity party, and for spending three days inside a giant fish. Is this all there is to Jonah? Is this even what his story is really about?

Considering that God gave us the Bible to reveal Himself to us, it’s safe to say the book of Jonah is more than just an account of how not to behave. It’s ultimately about God. With that in mind, here are four characteristics of God that stood out to me as I recently re-read Jonah’s story.

1. The Holiness of God

The book begins with Jonah receiving instructions from God to go to Nineveh to warn the people of God’s impending judgment because of their sin (1:2).

Nineveh was not the friendly next-door neighbor who brings over a plate of cookies when you move in. Nineveh was Israel’s enemy, so naturally Jonah, who was prophet in Israel, did not like them. Instead of obeying God, Jonah took off in the opposite direction, right into a storm.

Jonah is very complacent about his sin. He’s so chill he falls asleep in the boat that’s taking him away from his assignment! God, on the other hand, takes sin very seriously. He is a holy God who is grieved by our sin. Without Jesus, even our best efforts are like a pile of dirty clothes to God (Isa. 64:6).

This should cause you to consider how you view your sin—like Jonah or like God? Are you comfortable with your sinful habits? Do you excuse your wrong choices because “it feels right”?

2. The Sovereignty of God

Jonah and the crew ran into a storm so fierce that even the seasoned sailors were scared out of their wits. Jonah thought he had outsmarted God, but God is still in control. Catch this: Because He’s always in control.

Jonah 1:4 says it was the Lord who sent the storm and who appointed the great fish in verse 17 to swallow Jonah. Then God didn’t just calm the storm; He used it and Jonah’s disobedience to calm a storm raging within the hearts of the pagan sailors on board (vv. 15–16).

Seeing good result from our mistakes doesn’t excuse sin. But you should find hope in knowing that God is not limited by your decisions, either good or bad. It’s not a game of chess where He’s nervously twiddling His thumbs, waiting for you to make your move. He is the sovereign God who knows and reigns over everything—from storms to fish to rebellious hearts.

3. The Mercy of God

At some point while in the belly of the fish, Jonah came to full repentance (Jonah 2). Faced with death, Jonah called out for God’s mercy. He saw himself for who he really is—helpless, sinful, undeserving—and saw God for who He truly is—sovereign, holy, merciful.

Jonah had ended his prayer from within the fish with “salvation belongs to the LORD!” (2:9) He liked that promise when it applied to himself, yet when it later proved true for his enemies . . . well, he’d rather see them pay. No mercy for them!

Do you ever expect God’s mercy in your own life but can’t stand to see God extend it to those you dislike?

God scolds Jonah in chapter 4 for having pity on a dead plant, one that grew up in a day and withered the next (vv. 10–11), but not on a whole city full of thousands of people made in God’s image. Jonah’s a jerk!

But wait a minute . . . is Jonah’s attitude any worse than our own? Do you ever expect God’s mercy in your own life but can’t stand to see God extend it to those you dislike? Do you become so absorbed with satisfying your own desires that you resist the will of God? This happens when we value the things of God more than God Himself.

4. The Grace of God

The good news is that there is Good News! The grace God showed to Nineveh and to Jonah is available to you. Who could be more lost than a people with no sense of right or wrong like the Ninevites? What looks more beyond hope than a man inside a fish at the bottom of the sea? You are never beyond God’s reach. That’s because Jesus, unlike Jonah, did not defy His Father’s will. He obeyed.

Jesus, unlike Jonah, did not defy His Father’s will. He obeyed.

When called by God to go to a sinful people, Jesus left everything and went. He didn’t run away. He set His face like a flint and faced death for us (Luke 9:51; Heb. 12:2). Jesus absorbed the wrath of God so that sinful man could be loved by God.

Through the book of Jonah, we see the imperfections of man—his sin, his weakness, his arrogance, his selfishness—at odds with the perfect nature of God—His holiness, His sovereignty, His mercy, His grace. But we find resolution in the God-man. Jesus did what Jonah couldn’t do, what we can’t do. He fulfilled the Law and was obedient to death, making a way for the repentant to be at peace with God (Phil. 2:5–8).

Next time, rather than reading Jonah’s story to mock at his foolish choices and childish attitudes, marvel instead at God’s flawless character and the wondrous work Jesus did on the cross for you!

(And just for funsies, check out this little girl’s cute rendition of the story of Jonah!)

About Author

Leanna worked on staff with Revive Our Hearts from 2014 to 2019. She loves a cup of hot tea with a good book, experimenting in the kitchen with a new recipe, and cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals.

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