‘Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel’
If we read Jonah 1 out of the context of the whole book we would probably think that Jonah ranaway from God because the task assigned him was too hard and that the storm and Jonah’s subsequent adversities were God’s punishment for his disobedience. Chapter 4, however, makes it clear that the whole of the book of Jonah is about God’s mercy. Jonah ran away from God because he didn’t like the though that God’s mercy might stretch as far as Nineveh and he certainly didn’t want to play any part in that mercy being demonstrated to Assyrians. This may be understandable when we consider the extent of Nineveh’s atrocities, but it is not acceptable for anyone committed to following the God of mercy. We can’t pick and choose the elements of God’s character that we think should be applied in any given situation. God is bigger, better, more merciful and more scary than we or Jonah would sometimes like him to be.
The awfulness of the voyage towards tarshish, resulting in Jonah’s being thrown in the sea and swallowed by a fish, was not a punishment from God but a further sign of his mercy towards Jonah. If Jonah was to be the best that he could be for God, to achieve his full potential, then there were things that he had to learn. Because of his stubbornness, such learning could only come through very hard lessons. If God had let him simply move away from Nineveh’s influence, Jonah would never have come to terms with who God really was and that would have been a huge loss to him, but God is ready to show mercy not just to Nineveh but even to stubborn Jonah–and incidentally to the good-hearted, if somewhat theologically confused, sailors at the same time.
God’s mercy may involve forgiveness for the ‘unforgivable’ and apparent disaster for me. Am I ready to accept God as he really is, or do I only want to worship him if he conforms to my expectations?