Jonah is an interesting prophet. Most of us know the story of Jonah and the whale, but we often forget the other half of Jonah’s story. Jonah heads to Nineveh, finally surrendering to God’s will. He takes a three-day tour of the city, proclaiming that God will destroy them in three days. There is no hope in Jonah’s message. It is entirely doom and gloom. It isn’t repent or burn, but simply burn! Jonah, as we know, despises the Ninevites, as any self-respecting Israelite would. And yet, Jonah’s efforts are undone. The people of Nineveh repent. They fast, put on sackcloths, cover themselves in ashes. And God does not destroy them.
I think about this all the time. Here in the United States, our message is so often one of hate. There is an enemy and we must defeat it, destroy it, turn it over to God to be burned. Often the enemy manifests as the “Culture” or the LGBTQ community or Democrats (or more rarely Republicans). We want to see them destroyed by God’s righteous wrath.
But we forget, as Jonah did, that God is not wrath. He is love. Jonah is angered when he sees the Ninevites repentance and God’s forbearance. He says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4.1-3). The Ninevites had been wicked, there is no denying that, but rather than simply destroy them as he said he would, God relents. This is our human way of understanding God, to say he relents or repents. In reality, God does not change. Rather, he is always love, and our reception of that love is altered depending on what state we are in. When we are in a state of sin, especially a sin we have chosen, we receive God’s love as anger. We cannot withstand it.
But this isn’t what God wants. He wants us to repent.
And yet, how often are we like Jonah, not only failing to see our sinfulness, but desiring the destruction of those things we believe to be wicked? Jesus frequently tells the Pharisees that the only sign they will have is the sign of Jonah. We always interpret this to mean Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish and how it corresponds to Christ’s three days in the tomb. But perhaps it is also meant to be a sign of the importance of preaching repentance because God loves us. How might this change how we respond to what we perceive as sin and injustice in the world? What if we looked for a way to redeem rather than destroy? After all, isn’t that precisely the story of the Gospel? Christ has come to make all things new. This means the culture, individuals, systems of racism and the people who uphold them. All of this must be redeemed. Yes, some of it must pass first through the fire, but this fire is only there to refine, to purify, not to destroy. We must be devoured by love. Jonah understood this for himself but could not accept it for those he saw as other. God shows him that this is not an option.
Let me leave you with a short poem I wrote, a reflection of Jonah’s time in the fish and what we might learn from him.
“Devouring Love” A wide and gaping mouth prepares to greet me, The deep has come to drag me to the depths. My hatred for the other led to the sea, And now it seems I’ll take my final breath. I tried to run, I tried to hide from him, But he found me hiding in the storm. To save the other from devouring damnation, I gave myself up to that hideous worm. How could it be God’s love can cause such pain? How could I believe that I could hide and run? And now I’m swallowed up by my own shame, Descending to some place without the sun. I throw myself into his hungry jaws Wondering if there’s hope within God’s laws.
Dr. David Russell Mosley is a poet and theologian living and teaching in the Inland Northwest. His debut book of poetry, “The Green Man,” is forthcoming from Resource Publications. In his spare time, Dr. Mosley likes wandering around in the woods, spending time in community and smoking a pipe.