I grew up thinking that the fish that swallowed Jonah was evidence of God’s anger. In reality, it was evidence of his mercy.
A fish named Grace swallowed up a drowning prophet who was unwilling to show grace.
Jonah was a prophet. While the book with his name made him famous, the dreaded Ninevites were not his first assignment. Before being called as a missionary to the Ninevites, he was a prophet the Israelites (2 Ki. 14:25). Now God was calling him to a different ethnic people who Jonah despised. They were Israel’s enemies and Jonah didn’t think they deserved God’s grace.
God asked Jonah to get up and arise to go to Ninevah (Jon. 1:2), and instead he went:
- down to Joppa (Jon. 1:3),
- down to a ship (Jon. 1:3),
- down to the lower part of the ship (Jon. 1:5),
- down into the sea (Jon. 1:15),
- down in a fish (Jon. 1:17),
- down to the pit (Jon. 2:6).
Do you see the progression? God called him to one place, and Jonah ran towards the opposite direction.
The most dangerous place to be is not where God could call you but the opposite direction to which you would flee.
Jonah hopped on a ship in the opposite direction, and God followed him. You can’t outrun God. God refused to give up on the Ninevites or on his prophet. As God appointed Jonah (Jon. 1:1), he also appointed a wind (Jon. 1:4), a fish (Jon. 1:17), a plant (Jon. 4:6), a worm (Jon. 4:7), and a scorching east wind (Jon. 4:8) to get Jonah where he wanted him. As Jonah attempted to get as far away as he could from God’s will, God sent a storm to make him reconsider.
Disobedience endangers those nearest to us.
Not only was Jonah in danger, but the sailors guiding him were as well. In these intense moments, these pagans showed more reverence than the prophet (Jon. 1:14). They eventually give into Jonah’s request to throw him overboard and all thought he was as good as dead. Honestly, that’s what he deserved.
But that’s when Grace showed up.
God appointed this great fish to be at the right place at the right time to digest him just the right way (Jon. 1:17). He would remain in the belly of the fish for three days (Jon. 1:17) foreshadowing one who would remain in the cavern of death and rise on the 3rd day (Matt. 12:40).
Grace Brings Repentance
In the belly of Grace, Jonah repented. He realized that God’s discipline does not indicate a lack of care but reveals a proof of love. Before Jonah would preach this message to the Ninevites, he had to first deliver it to himself (Jon. 2:4). God can always hear the faintest cries of desperation (Jon. 2:7). He was so grateful for the LORD’s salvation (Jon. 2:9).
How could I deny another the salvation that has benefitted me?
After he received grace, he repented. And then he was vomited out (Jon. 2:10). Right in front of Nineveh. Here’s your second chance, Jonah (Jon. 3:1).
Repentance Brings Grace
He walked into this large, leading Assyrian city of his enemies and obeyed. Probably a sore to the eyes and a stench to the nose, he gave a simple message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon. 3:4).
He gave no clever presentation. Jonah just promised judgment.
Preaching needs clear content more than dramatic delivery.
It only took 1 day (Jon. 3:4) for this message to reach across a 3-day wide city (Jon. 3:3). The people believed (Jon. 3:5), prayed (Jon. 3:8), and repented (Jon. 3:10).
They did everything God desired and everything that Jonah resented.
Jonah didn’t want to give the grace he had been given.
Jonah knew God was gracious and that’s why he didn’t want to go in the first place (Jon. 4:2). Knowing something and accepting something are two different things.
Jonah knew the Ninevites deserved God’s wrath. He was correct. The Ninevites deserved fire from heaven just as much as Jonah deserved the bottom of the sea. When we desire God’s grace for everyone but our enemies, we forget that we once were God’s enemies.
The conclusion of the book finds Jonah sulking and God prodding. Jonah has more concern for his temporal comfort than others’ eternal security. God tries to reason with Jonah:
“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons…” (Jon. 4:11).
The narrative ends in a cliffhanger. We never hear Jonah’s response.
Jonah’s ending is uncertain. Mine doesn’t have to be.
Will I be more concerned with my temporal comfort than others’ eternal security?
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Distinctive Discipleship. He is married to Amanda and the father of two sons and one daughter. Travis graduated from North Greenville University with a B.A. in Christian Studies and earned his M.Div. and D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with his doctoral focus on family discipleship.