Jonah is one of my absolute favorite stories in the entire bible. However, if you think the story of Jonah is about a fish (or a whale), then you are sorely mistaken.
Usually, when people hear the story of Jonah, they only hear about the first two out of four chapters. The first two chapters cover the part of the story that most people are familiar with: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah runs in the opposite direction, God makes a storm, Jonah convinces the sailors he is with to throw him overboard, and a fish swallows him. After spending three days in the fish, it coughs him up on the shore, and Jonah goes to do what God tells him.
If the story were to stop here, then you would probably say that the story of Jonah is about having the courage to do what God tells us. And, while this is part of the message of Jonah, this is by no means what the story of Jonah is really about. To figure that out, we have to look at the last two chapters.
In chapter three, Jonah goes and tells the people of Nineveh that in forty days God will destroy Nineveh. Without any sort of call to repentance or assurance that this will stop God's wrath, Nineveh repents, and God decides not to destroy the city. Again, if it were to stop here, you might say that this is a story about how obedience to the will of God brings about good things. however, the real meat of the story of Jonah is in chapter four.
At the beginning of chapter four, Jonah is furious. He prays this prayer to God, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."
At this point, we could probably uses some context to explain why Jonah is so upset. To understand his rage, you need to understand who Jonah is, and who the Assyrians are. The Assyrians (whose capital city was Nineveh) were some of the most brutal, vicious, and violent conquerors to ever rule the Middle East. Some common practices of the Assyrians to inflict upon their captives were to skin their prisoners alive, cut off various body parts to inspire terror in their enemies, pull out tongues, and display mounds of human skulls. And, in the eight century BCE, The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. So, in all likelihood, they skinned Israelites alive, maimed and dismembered them, and proudly displayed their skulls for all to see before dragging them off to the four corners of their empire, never to return. The Assyrians are solely responsible for the decimation of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, one would think that the opportunity to bring tidings of destruction and wrath against the city responsible for the deaths of countless Hebrews would be a joyful task for Jonah. However, Jonah runs away because he knows God. He knows that if he goes and delivers this message, the people will have a chance to repent and be saved. The fact that this is the absolute last thing that Jonah wants is the exact reason he runs in the first place.
After Jonah tells God how he feels, God asks him if he has any right to be angry. Jonah (conspicuously lacking a response to God's question) leaves the city and goes to see what will happen to it, probably hoping that God will change his mind again and Sodom and Gomorrah it to the ground. While he waits, God provides a vine for shade. However, a worm eats the vine, it gets hot, and Jonah is again furious. So furious, in fact, that he states death would be preferable to his current situation.
And then, in verses 9-11, the last verses of the last chapter of the book, we find the true meaning of the book of Jonah. "But God said to Jonah, 'Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?' 'I do', he said. 'I am angry enough to die.' But the LORD said, 'You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?'"
This is the heart of the message of the story of Jonah: forgiveness, even to the point of being able to forgive those who have wrong us in unspeakable ways. I hope you understand how profound Jonah's ability to forgive in order to forgive the Assyrians would have to be. Jonah forgive the Assyrians would be like Jews forgiving Nazis. It would be like the Tutsis forgiving the Hutu. Forgiveness on that level is rarely seen in our world.
The book of Jonah ends unresolved. We don't know from this book if Jonah ever forgave the Assyrians; we don't know from this book how long Nineveh's repentance lasted. All we do know is that God cares about all peoples, even those we might call monsters, and that God is willing to forgive all peoples, even those we might not think deserve forgiveness.
“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”