Imagine hearing, “Go to your enemies. The awful ones. Tell them that in 40 days the God of Israel is going to destroy them.”
Yet when the prophet eventually delivered his message, people as evil as God-only-knows listened. The king of the great city-nation of Nineveh decreed, “No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”
And God relents.
You might think that Jonah would have breathed a sigh of relief. But he doesn’t. What was he to make of a God who doesn’t keep his word— but instead ends up showing mercy to a whole city of terrible people that didn’t have the moral sense “to tell their right hand from their left?”
But that wasn’t Jonah’s issue. As it turns out he didn’t run in the opposite direction for fear of what terrorists would do to him.
In his own words, he says, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Quite a tale we tell our children. If what they hear about Jonah and the whale really does capture their imagination, maybe—when they are old— they will still be thinking about a prophet who knew his God well enough… to read between the lines.