Jonah and an Angry God?
One day God saw Jonah praying and decided He’d listen in.
“I know you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Job 4:2) Jonah prayed and God smiled. It was true, but Jonah didn’t know the half of it.
God was particularly fond of Jonah and wanted him to grow in the revelation of His grace, compassion, and love, for all people. So God invited Jonah to know what was on His heart.
“Yes, God?” Jonah responded with fear and trembling.
“You know I am a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
“Yes God, I was just saying so,” Jonah responded, with enthusiasm. It is wonderful when God agrees with your prayers.
“Jonah, you know those Ninevites?”
Jonah’s face contorted in disgust, he nodded at God knowingly and then spit on the ground. “Yes, filthy foreigners, sinners, every last one!”
God chuckled and shook His head, “Yes, they are so confused they can’t even tell their right hand from their left. They are so desperately lost that they will destroy themselves if left ignorant of my grace, compassion and-“
Jonah cackled and finished God’s sentence for Him, “… and good riddance! They are Your enemies and we hate them!”
God smiled knowingly, “I have a really good idea-“
Jonah nodded in anticipated agreement and butted in once again, “…Way ahead of you! If I may quote one of my favorite bible verses, ‘the arrogant cannot stand in Your presence; You hate all who do wrong.’” (see Psalm 5:5) Jonah’s tone turned almost gleeful as he asked, “How will You destroy them? Fire? Plague?”
God was quiet for a moment and the weight of God’s silence caused Jonah to realized how, in his enthusiasm to see judgment to their enemies, he’d interrupted God, twice! He waited, hoping God would be slow to anger.
“No, Jonah. It is my heart that none would perish. (See 2 Peter 3:9) I desire to save all humanity, not destroy them. (See Luke 9:56) And I want you to help me with that. I want you to go to Nineveh and tell them what you know about me; that I “am a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Jonah thought he would be sick. Suddenly his whole world was spinning, his theology was under attack, his belief system under siege, everything he knew about God and man was being tossed on its head, and it was God doing the tossing! If Jonah was being honest, the very idea that God would forgive their enemies offended and disgusted him. But he decided to take a moment and consider if God’s words could be true.
“The Ninevites were sinners, foreigners, they were not like Jonah or the people of God, his people. If God showered grace, compassion, and love on all people, then what would separate us from them?” Jonah wondered.
“If Ninevites can be saved, that would mean anyone can be saved!” The implications hit Jonah and his next thoughts came fast and furious. “What’s the point of following the law if God swoops in last-second and saves unlawful people! Without an ultimate punishment, why live righteous at all? And then, how could leaders control anyone.”
That last thought scared Jonah.
“No, the idea that God is always redemptively gracious toward everyone was, ‘dangerous,’ ‘heretical,’ ‘ungodly and…”
Grasping at straws, Jonah suddenly had an unholy epiphany; it calmed and then emboldened him. Making a show of it, Jonah slowly unzipped his bible. Smugly, he flipped through its pages landing on a scripture. Then, almost condescendingly, Jonah leaned over and made as if to invite God to read it for Himself.
God looked on confused and slightly amused.
Then, grinning like a fool, Jonah hurled scripture like a spear.
“Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord?… I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them, my enemies.” (from Psalm 139:21-21) Jonah closed the book with a sense of finality. He had made his point, with scripture, so, case closed, checkmate!
Then God became very serious. The kind of serious that only a powerfully generous Creator of the Universe can become.
“Son, that may be scripture, but it’s nothing like me. Jonah, you have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’” (Matthew 5:44-45)
Jonah gasped as the weight of God’s words hit him. Suddenly he was confronted with a thought, “God was way better than he had believed.” And for a moment, he wanted to change the way he believed.
But Jonah was too invested in his theology. Jonah hardened his heart and determined he wanted no part of a God that good. He would continue serving an angry God who destroyed sinners, laid waste to His enemies, and sought ultimate retribution on all who disobeyed Him.
This left Jonah neatly trapped. And he knew it. He had decided to willfully disobey God and this meant he would have to live the rest of his life on the run, living on the lamb. So he made his escape.
Jonah caught a boat sailing for Tarshish, a city in the opposite direction of Nineveh.
Now, you might wonder, why wouldn’t God move on from Jonah, maybe find someone else who would repent. I would like to suggest it’s because God loved Jonah and wanted to see him free from the bondage of his broken retributive theology.
For Jonah’s sake, God wouldn’t let it go. Many years later, God would literally enter Jonah’s delusion and both expose and destroy it from the inside out. But in this story, God got on the boat with Jonah.
And this is where the story gets crazy. The kind of crazy that makes its way into children’s picture books. A storm catches Jonah and the sailors; a nasty one.
The author of this story tells us that God sent the storm. But Jonah is the fella who interprets the meaning of the storm. And you guessed it, Jonah interpreted it through his angry God lens.
God, the One whom Jonah was convinced was wrathful, had sent the storm to punish him for his disobedience; to kill him. This, of course, is something Jonah’s god would do.
Most of my life I read this story and believed God sent a storm to kill or punish Jonah. Because, well, that’s what Jonah told me. And also, it’s how I was taught to read it.
I’ve also been told this was a story about God’s unwavering desire to save the Ninevites from His hell-bent desire to destroy them. But the Ninevites were just a subplot. The fact is, God didn’t need Jonah to help Him get a message to the Ninevites. God is really good at communicating, He can use donkeys if needed. And, even, whales.
This story is about a man who had a distorted understanding of the nature of God. And about a Kind and Loving God seeking to change the man’s heart and mind about Him.
That’s pretty much what every story in the bible is about. And also my life, and yours.
What would have happened if, in the midst of the storm, Jonah had gotten on His knees and prayed, “God forgive me of my elitist thinking? Forgive me of my religious “us and them” racist thoughts about You?”
Who knows, maybe a heart is transformed and maybe a storm calms? Maybe Jonah even turns and speaks “peace, be still” over the storm. That would have been cool, and biblical.
But he didn’t. Instead, he preaches his angry God gospel to terrified sailors who want no part of his religion. With self-righteous arrogance, Jonah doubles down and determines it’s the will of God that he die for his sin. Instead of repenting, Jonah, with his sanctimonious gospel, preaches himself overboard as a sacrifice to his angry god. And worse, he makes the sailors complicit in his death religion.
For many, this is Christian evangelism 101. You know it, God is angry and hell is coming. But if we’ll participate in the ideology of human sacrifice, we can be saved.
Jonah literally sacrificed his life on the altar of his understanding. He would rather die proving God was wrathful, than live with a God who forgives His enemies. Jonah would rather die for his belief in an angry God than repent and believe God is good; even better than he thought.
But Jason, the storm died down after Jonah was thrown in the sea, so the storm must have been God’s will. Maybe, but I would suggest God’s will is to calm storms. And if God wanted to kill Jonah, He didn’t need a storm, nor would He have sent a whale to save him.
If you know this story, it has a good ending, for the Ninevites.
After three days in the belly of a whale, Jonah relents. But sadly, Jonah never truly repents. He never leaves the “us and them” theology he defied God with, the ideology he was willing to die for. Instead, much like the older brother that Jesus tells us about in Luke 15, Jonah obeys.
Like a slave for a master, Jonah preaches his angry gospel to the Ninevites and then is surprised when they repent and receive forgiveness. But not happily. In this story, Jonah never got the heart of God right.
When destruction did not come, “to Jonah, this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Then Jonah makes a heartbreaking statement. The statement I started this article with. A truth Jonah knew at the beginning of the story but refused to be transformed by, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
Jonah never repented, he never changed the way he thought or what he believed. And I think it’s what Jesus may have meant when He said, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
When it comes to the story of Jonah, you could say it this way, “we depart from Him when we reject His good love.”
We can know all the scriptures, do all the stuff, obey all the rules, but if we aren’t willing to be offended by His goodness, if we aren’t willing to repent, to change our thoughts, to step away from “us and them” thinking, then we are missing the whole point.
This Jonah story is on every page of the Bible and in every cell of our bodies. Over and again, God is revealing Himself perfectly through Christ as gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, forgiving, redeeming, restoring, abounding in love, desiring to save us from calamity.
And God said to Jonah, “…should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left…” And Jesus said from the cross “…Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?” (Jonah 4:11, Luke 23:34)
God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. In these volatile days of “us and them” may we grow ever sure in His love and be transformed by it.
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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