The Prophet Who Never Got It

“Jonah and the Whale,” Pieter Lastman, 1620, courtesy Google Art Project

The Book of Jonah

By Chuck Griffin

Do you ever wish God were different? It sounds like a strange question, but the prophet Jonah could have easily answered, “Yes.”

The story of Jonah opens with the prophet at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where modern battles have been fought in recent years.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.

The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.

Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and something like a throw of the dice showed the cause was Jonah.

And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.

This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”

In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up.

Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!

Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food or water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.

God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.

“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!

All Jonah could do was pout. That pretty much sums up the rest of the story of Jonah. He pouted while God explained his deep concern for the people of Nineveh, using a simple plant as an example.

God is love. God is mercy. Yes, God’s holiness demands justice. But God seems to have this unrelenting desire to let people off the hook, to forgive, to find a way to draw people back into relationships with him.

That truth is best expressed through Jesus Christ, of course. Through the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God found a way to extend mercy to all, no matter what evil has been done. Repercussions in this life for our bad deeds may be unavoidable, but a renewed, ongoing relationship with God is constantly available, in any moment, on any day, under any circumstances.

When we find ourselves hoping God will crush someone, we’re wishing God were different. When we think there’s no way God could love us, forgive us, or change us, we’re underestimating who God is.

Why would we want to wish for a different kind of God? The one we have freely offers eternal life. We’ll do no better than that.

Lord, thank you for your incredible, undeserved mercy, expressed most clearly by Jesus Christ on the cross, dying for our sins. Amen.

More than Enough

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 15:32-39 (NLT)

Then Jesus called his disciples and told them, “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.”

The disciples replied, “Where would we get enough food here in the wilderness for such a huge crowd?”

Jesus asked, “How much bread do you have?”

They replied, “Seven loaves, and a few small fish.”

So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to the disciples, who distributed the food to the crowd.

They all ate as much as they wanted. Afterward, the disciples picked up seven large baskets of leftover food. There were 4,000 men who were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children. Then Jesus sent the people home, and he got into a boat and crossed over to the region of Magadan.


I love the various “feeding” stories. They remind me that we still are invited to feed, knowing that when we are satisfied, there will be abundant leftovers.

Just in case you think I’m talking about food, hear what Jesus has to say to his disciples in the 16th chapter of Matthew. The layered context includes faith, the need to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (a reference to their deceptive, legalistic teachings), and the disciples’ inability to get their heads out of the immediacy of a moment.

“You have so little faith!” Jesus declares in 16:8. “Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread?”

Then, having reminded them of the two miraculous feedings recorded in Matthew, he asks, “Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread?”

Jesus is trying to remind his followers that he is the bread of life. He is the source of grace. Let’s break away from the food metaphor for a moment and get to the point: Grace comes because God grants us life-giving love despite our not deserving it.

That grace didn’t come cheap, either. If grace were bread in a market, none of us could afford so much as a slice. God had to come in flesh and buy it for us, dying on the cross to overcome the power of sin and death.

All we have to do is accept what is given. We simply behave like hungry people, holding out our hands to catch loaves of bread being tossed in our direction.

Coming from an eternal source, the supply of grace will always exceed demand. As followers of Christ, our mission is pretty simple. We find ways to tell others, “God loves you! Accept what is yours! Stop starving for the love and forgiveness you so desperately crave!”

I’ve recently spent some time writing about the “means of grace,” the places where we are sure to receive grace, so perhaps we don’t need to explore those details again today.

But for crying out loud, eat. Eat!

Lord, may we be overwhelmed as we experience your love. Help us to find innovative ways to offer that love to others. Amen.