The Genius of Jonah

Jonah strikes me as a guy who might have gotten punched in the face a few times over the course of his life. The short book that bears his name records that he fled from God when called to service, he hid his sin from those who were suffering from the consequences of his mistakes, he got angry at God for allowing his enemies to repent and for allowing his shade plant to wither, and he asked God to kill him because those frustrations made death more appealing to him than life. By the end of chapter four, Jonah seems to be the epitome of the title, “Jerk.” But when you do a bit of study, you learn that this book is likely autobiographical. In other words, Jonah is probably the author of this account. And, if that is true, than Jonah arguably highlighted his less than honorable characteristics for a purpose. So, what would make a man point out his flaws so transparently?

If you read the book (which I hope you do), you’ll notice that God is the hero of this story. God calls, disciplines, saves, sustains, and forgives over and over as the events unfold. Even through the most unlikely of means, God leads Jonah in the way he should go. And Jonah learns his lesson. From the belly of the great fish, Jonah prays a prayer praising God’s compassion and forgiveness and rejoicing in his faithfulness and provision. He recognizes God’s hand in his circumstances (“For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me….” Jonah 2:3). But rather than growing bitter at this point, he gains clarity, for he concludes,

“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
Jonah 2:7-9

Jonah recognizes that God alone is God. He sees God for who he is, sees himself for who he is, and responds in faith and obedience. Yet even then, the lesson doesn’t seem to stick. As chapter three ends with the repentance of Ninevah and the mercy of God, chapter four begins with the bitterness of Jonah. And, oddly enough, Jonah’s bitterness runs through to the end; his response to God’s lesson is not recorded, so the last words we have of him are from his anger and frustration. Yet, as I’ve heard it argued before, the existence of this account proves that Jonah did in fact learn his lesson.

If Jonah wrote this account, then he must have grown beyond verse nine of chapter four. I think Jonah realized that God was right, that pity and not hatred is the correct response to wicked men. I think Jonah recognized the beauty of God’s second chances, as Veggie Tales taught us back in the day, and I think he gained a fresh understanding of God’s love for sinners. And I think we can learn some valuable lessons from Jonah’s testimony.

The story of Jonah helps us to see ourselves more clearly. All too often, I learn a lesson, praise God for a blessing, and then get frustrated and angry at things that don’t warrant frustration or anger. Too often, I am selfish and bitter rather than compassionate and loving. Too often, I focus only on myself, on my desires, my comfort, and my plans. Yet the beauty of Jonah’s story is that it teaches that God uses us in spite of these faults. Though we keep getting it wrong, God still sovereignly works all things together for good (Romans 8:28). Though we run from him, he still saves. Though we kick and cry and curse and fight against his will and love and might, he is patient and providing, gracious and merciful, loving and compassionate. He disciplines us for our own good as well as for the good of others. He works through us in spite of us. And he gets all the glory.

And I think that’s why Jonah wrote so clearly of his failures. He was showing just how weak and hopeless he was on his own so that all who read his account would see just how glorious God is. He made himself out to be a sort of villain in the story so that all would clearly see that God is the hero. He made himself nothing to make the Lord everything. That’s the genius of Jonah: humility for God’s glory. And I think, if I could ask him now what his mindset was in writing this short book, he would say along with John the Baptist,

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John 3:30

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