I really enjoy the stories in the Old Testament. Growing up in church I heard them: Daniel with his lions, Jonah with his fish, Balaam with his donkey, David with his stones, etc. For a lot of them, though, now that I’m older I have a very different perspective on them. They’re not like fairy tale stories to me anymore: I try to see myself in the stories, and think about what the characters felt while they were in the middle of it. I try to remind myself that Joseph didn’t know when he was sitting in prison that Pharoah was going to pull him out and make him a ruler. I try to think about the bravery it would take for me to face a giant warrior with no weapon except 5 stones, with no idea what was going to happen. It’s challenging.
Anyways, today we get to read the story of Jonah. As a kid I remember always picturing Jonah in the giant fish being like a cave (maybe like Pinocchio and Geppetto in the Disney movie, when they’re in the whale). It was a shock to me when someone caused me to think about what it would’ve meant to be in a fish’s stomach. Imagine a stomach, and imagine being suffocated inside it, pitch-black, slowly being digested for three days. What a horrifying picture. Good thing for Jonah that God gave the fish indigestion!
So after God uses this tremendous experience to make a point to Jonah he obeys, but he still doesn’t really have God’s viewpoint on the whole thing. Ninevah was the capitol of the Assyrian empire, an empire that was one of the first in the world to deliberately cultivate a reputation of fierceness and brutality as a psychological instrument of warfare, similar to the Huns and Mongols in later centuries. I don’t know if we really have an analogy in today’s world, unless maybe the LRA in eastern Africa would count. Jonah didn’t think they deserved God’s mercy, and he was rebelling because he would be quite pleased if the Lord sent a little judgment their way, thank you very much. He was looking forward to it.
The amazing mercy of God is that He looked at the city (the linchpin of a brutal, pitiless empire) not as a symbol of “the enemy”, but as a collection of normal, unremarkable human beings just trying to live their lives in the culture they were born into. Following their repentance, God saw more to be pitied than hated (Jonah 4:11). We need to have God’s perspective on those around us, and those elsewhere in the world: even those we think we have legitimate reason to despise and wish for vengeance upon. God’s ways are so much higher than ours.