Based on Jonah 1–4
Retold by Paul Katula
God gave Jonah, a reluctant prophet, a commandment to deliver a message to the wicked people of Ninevah. The very mention of the city of Ninevah, which was the capital of Assyria at the time, would have filled people in Jonah's time with terror, because their memories of the city were filled with bitterness and tyranny. In other words, there were some seedy sinners there. They were into all sorts of bad stuff, like killing, stealing, prostitution, gambling, and so on.
Therefore, Jonah couldn't quite get up the nerve to go to Ninevah. Instead, he boarded a ship headed in the exact opposite direction, toward the town of Tarshish.
When this boat went to sea, the Lord sent a big storm with high winds, which was threatening to break the boat up into a thousand tiny pieces and kill everyone on board, even those sailors who didn't even know why the Lord had sent the storm.
Eventually, they figured out that the storm was happening because of Jonah and his disobedience to a commandment of the Lord. "What have you done to us?" they asked him.
Jonah told them he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. The sailors demanded to know what they should do to Jonah so that God would calm the raging sea and spare their lives. Jonah told them they would have to throw him overboard, "for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you."
The sailors weren't exactly thrilled that Jonah wanted them to throw him overboard, because in this storm, they knew it would result in his death. They didn't want to be responsible for the death of another man. Therefore, they tried to row the boat back to shore, but the sea was just too violent. In the end, they had no choice but to throw Jonah overboard, which made the storm end.
Fortunately, the Lord provided a large fish (some people think it was a whale), which swallowed Jonah, who remained safe in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. While he was in the belly of the whale, Jonah gave thanks to God:
"As my life was fading away, I remembered you, O Lord. My prayer came to you in your holy temple, and with a voice of thanksgiving, I will make sacrifices to you. I will do exactly what I have promised," Jonah cried out.
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, which promptly deposited Jonah on dry land. His life was spared, so the Lord talked to him for a second time. This time, Jonah got up and went to Ninevah, as the Lord had asked.
When Jonah got to Ninevah, he delivered the message from God, a message that eventually made it to the king's palace. When the king heard that the Lord was planning to destroy Ninevah because of their evil and wickedness, he proclaimed that everyone in the city should not eat or drink anything, including water.
"Who knows?" the king cried out to his people. "Maybe God will change his mind and spare us, if we show him that we can change our evil ways and love him instead of all these false gods we have been worshiping all this time."
The question is: Would God spare the lives of the people, as he had spared the life of Jonah by sending the whale?
The answer was "yes." God changed his mind, because he saw how the people had listened to Jonah and changed their evil ways into lives of love and worshiping God.
Jonah, however, who always knew the people of Ninevah were evil, was very disappointed that God let them off the hook. "They were sinning all these years and then, one time, the king makes them fast and you spare their lives!" he protested.
"I mean, I always knew you were a gracious God, full of mercy and steadfast love," he continued in his prayer. "That's why I went to Tarshish instead of Ninevah in the first place. But Lord, it just isn't fair! I think you should punish me now, instead of showing me mercy for not listening to you in the first place. Take me now, because I would rather die than live in the disgrace of having disobeyed you.
"And I can't believe you didn't kill the people of Ninevah! They have been bad people for so long, and you basically let them get away with it!"
But instead of killing his prophet, God decided to punish Jonah by making him suffer in the hot sun, which made him faint and wishing to die. The way God did this was first to create a bush that gave Jonah some shade from the hot sun and then send a worm to destroy the bush, taking the shade away from Jonah.
Of course, Jonah was mad at the bush, that it was withering and didn't provide any shade after the first day. But God scolded him, saying, "You are so petty to be concerned about a bush — which, by the way, you didn't even create. Don't you know that I created the people of Ninevah, even though they are Assyrian and not Hebrew? How can you expect me to kill them when I created them?"
God comes to each of us in a unique way — sometimes through prayer, sometimes through reading scripture, sometimes through the gentle guidance of someone who loves us, like our parents.
We don't always want to do what God asks us, either because we are afraid, selfish, tired, or for any number of possible reasons. We learn from Jonah that God is merciful, which means he will call on us again and again to serve him, until we do what he asks us to do. He will never give up on us, because he created us to love and serve him. He would never abandon us, for we are exactly what he wanted us to be.
In the story, God uses a storm, a whale and a worm to teach Jonah about his mercy and kindness. Even though the whale and worm did not make Jonah feel very good, he learned from the experience. Sometimes God works this way in our lives, too. He might prevent us from taking a path that leads away from what he is asking us to do, or he might protect us from harm while we meditate about his goodness.
This divine protection, though it might be a little uncomfortable, is really just a sign of God's mercy: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes. As long as you're still alive and ready to come back again, God will give you another chance to be a better friend to him and his people.
Many people also see another moral in Jonah. They believe the story tells us we have to go out and preach about the Lord and the life he led, which should be a model for us all. We should tell people who are living sinful lives to turn from their evil ways as soon as possible, which is usually as soon as someone tells them they are living a life that would not make God very happy.
We should also be like the king, who proclaims that all the people should change their ways and live a good life, hoping that God will have a chance to change his mind. God shows mercy when he doesn't punish us for doing wrong, as long as we show him how sorry we are and promise to be better.
Then, of course, as Jonah said inside the whale, we have to live up to our promises. We can only hope that it isn't too late, but as long as we declare our love for the Lord, the story of Jonah teaches us that it won't be too late with God. After all, the people of Ninevah were spared after years and years of living evil lives. The thing is, just as soon as Jonah told them that God was angry with them, they changed on the spot to lives that were more pleasing to God.