Nestled in the middle of the Bible is a short, humorous book called Jonah. Readers of the book are often so distracted by questions about the book’s historicity that they fail to notice its wit.
The reader is introduced to Jonah, a prophet of questionable reputation, who hears the call of God to go and preach against the city of Nineveh. Now Jonah hates Nineveh, so you would expect him to jump at the chance to verbally assail them. But surprisingly, he boards a boat headed for Timbuktu instead. Why?
Well, as the story unfolds, Jonah eventually finds himself in Nineveh, where he preaches the shortest sermon in the Bible, five words in Hebrew: “Forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” That’s it. All judgment, no hope. No fancy rhetoric either – just a single sentence of hopeless peril.
Much to Jonah’s chagrin, the whole city is converted overnight in response to Jonah’s scant sermon. They repent of their sins and put on garments of mourning and cover themselves in ashes. Not even Pentecost saw so many conversions so quickly. More than 100,000 people turn to the God of Israel. Even the cows put on sackcloth and start fasting!
And when God sees Nineveh’s genuine repentance, God chooses to show mercy and spare the Ninevites.
This makes Jonah very angry. And in his anger, Jonah prays, “This is why I fled to Timbuktu. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Now, that group of words derives from another story in the book of Exodus when God reveals his glory to Moses. God is described as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
From that moment on, that group of words forms a doxology – a confession about who God is and what kind of God Israel worships.
In other words, Jonah has his theology right. But ironically, rather than using these words to praise God, Jonah uses them to form an accusation. “I knew it! I knew you would do this! You always do this! You are always so gracious and forgiving. I knew that if I preached and perchance they repented, you would decide not to smite them. That’s why I ran!”
Jonah doesn’t want his enemies to turn to the Lord; he wants to watch them burn. That’s why he fled in the first place, and that’s why he preached the bare minimum.
Then Jonah ends his prayer by asking God to kill him. He would rather die than live with a God who is so merciful.
Is this story still about Jonah? Or is it about us?
Jonah acts like a mirror to the reader, revealing our own hatred and ill will for those who have done us wrong. In the dark corners of our soul, we don’t want these people to live and live well – we want to watch them burn.
But if God is truly gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and if we truly worship this God, then we must become more like him. We must allow our doxology and confession of faith to shape the way that we think and feel and act.
So put away your vengeance and malice. Put away your slander and hypocrisy. Instead put on compassion and kindness, humility and patience. Forgive one another. Be tenderhearted. Pray for one another. Freely you have received; freely give.
The Rev. Parker Bullard is senior minister at Poncha Springs Church of Christ.