At the end of Jonah, all those who had been jeopardized were saved. God saved the sailors from the storm, saved Jonah from the sea, and Nineveh from destruction—all praise be to God.
Except that’s not what Jonah did. He did not praise God. It displeased Jonah greatly and Jonah became angry. Jonah remembered the words that had been recorded in the sacred memory of the Hebrew people—the words God spoke to Moses found in Exodus 34. The complete creed-like statement is this, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.”
Nahum the prophet who declared Nineveh’s destruction a little later quoted the very same passage from Exodus. In fact, it is the most repeated creedal formula in the Old Testament being repeated in some form or another over a dozen times. The respected Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann said that this is the closest thing the ancient have of a theological credo—a clear statement of their understanding of God. Nahum, however, stressed the last part of the creed—the part that says that God will not acquit the guilty but will hold people accountable for their sins. The later prophet saw in it the seeds of destruction.
Jonah said that the Hebrew’s statement of faith would be the Assyrians promise of salvation. And it angered Jonah. He said, “I knew this is what you’d do. I knew they would repent.” And I just want to stop there and say—that’s a really arrogant thing for a preacher to say. Hidden in the subtext is the claim—if I go and I preach there will be revival. Most of us expect an Awakening when we preach but usually it’s the awakening of people who have fallen asleep while we were preaching. But Jonah testified and the sailors listened and with a few sentences they were converted to true and sacrificial followers of Yahweh. And Jonah knew that if he preached to the people of Nineveh, they would repent and God would relent from punishing.
At the end of the story, we find Jonah camped on the East side of the city. God caused a bush to grow up and provide Jonah with shade and Jonah was happy. God caused the bush to die and Jonah was sad. And this is how the story ends, “The the Lord said ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and it perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right and from their left.”
Jonah does not move from hatred to love. He moves from a willful insistence on his own way to an obedient acceptance of the nature of God. His proclamation and his frustration all stem from the same source—that the nature of God as disclosed in the holy testimony of his people is that God is gracious even to people the prophet hates. God had been gracious and chose to save. He saved the sailors on the ship from the storm. He saved the people of Nineveh from destruction. He saved Jonah from the sea and then from the dessert. He did not move from hate to love. He moved instead from resistance to discernment. And in the end this is the message of Jonah—it is God’s will to save whether we approve or not. Jonah’s message isn’t made for the Hallmark channel. It Bluntly declares—God chooses to bless and forgive, get over it. God is sovereign and will preserve people who we don’t think deserve it. Deal with it. You may not think they know their left from their right but God didn’t ask for your opinion. God simply commands us to accept the patient forgiveness God offers and to proclaim it knowing that if we declare, people will believe.