Churchgoing or not, most people have heard the story of Jonah and the whale. I remember as a kid listening to this spectacular story as my teacher used the cutouts of Jonah and the big fish on our Sunday School felt board. Swallowed by a fish? Alive in his belly for three days? It is enough to excite the imagination of any person. The impact of Jonah's story goes beyond the big fish, though. Jonah's story offers quite a lesson on the issue of unforgiveness.
Before we dive into the biblical text, let's look briefly at two main characters in this narrative. First, we have Jonah. Jonah was a Hebrew prophet from the region of Gath Hepher. He was the son of Amittai (1:1), and he lived during the reign of Jeoboam II. You can read more about Jonah and his ministry in 2 Kings 14. The important thing to know for our purposes is that Jonah was an Israelite. Next, we have Nineveh. Historically, we know that Nineveh was a wicked city. The people of Nineveh, the Assyrians, were a strong and mighty nation who threatened the independence and safety of Israel and all nations of the Near East. They were the enemies of Jonah's people.
We arrive now at the beginning of Jonah's narrative in Scripture. God gives Jonah a command: go to the NInevites and warn them that their destruction was imminent due to their wickedness (1:2). But instead of obeying, Jonah fled in the opposite direction (1:3). At this point in the story, his reasons for fleeing are not known to the reader. All we know is that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh with the message God had given him.
I am going to cheat and tell you now Jonah's reason for fleeing instead of going to Nineveh, which Jonah makes known near the end of the book. Jonah knew of God's merciful nature. He knew that if the Ninevites repented after Jonah proclaimed God's message to them, God would relent from His judgment (4:1-2). In other words, Jonah did not want grace extended to his enemies. Nineveh wasn't just a nation that threatened Israel; Nineveh had been named in prophesy as the nation that would conquer Israel (Hosea 11:5). They were Israel's enemy to the nth degree.
Just how far did Jonah's hatred of the Assyrians go? Enough that he would disobey God and change his life's course in order to avoid the possibility of saving Nineveh. Jonah boarded a ship headed to Tarshish (1:3). Once at sea, the Lord caused a great storm to blow through, and everyone onboard the ship was in danger. The mariners began throwing items overboard in hopes of avoiding the ship capsizing. They called to their gods, and they cast lots to see who on board might be the cause of their suffering. The lot fell on Jonah.
At this point, we know Jonah had a choice. He could have repented. He could have chosen obedience. But he didn't. His inability to forgive the Ninevites drove him to put the lives of everyone on that ship at risk. Once they discovered Jonah was the cause of this storm, he told them they must throw him overboard in order to be saved.
Did you catch that? He said, "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you" (1:12). Jonah would choose death over grace, and not only that, but he was willing to put blood on the hands of other men in order to avoid doing the work of God (1:13-16). Talk about taking unforgiveness to the next level! Of course, to save their own lives, the men eventually did hurl Jonah into the sea.
God ordained a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah stayed there for three days. Three days and three nights in the dark, stinky, dreary belly of a big fish. Finally, after three days and three nights, Jonah called to God in repentance (2:1-9). It is not that God punished Jonah with a three day/night stay in the big fish. It took Jonah that long to finally decide that obedience to God was better than rebellion. He finally chose to release his enemies to the hands of God instead of harboring vengeance in his heart toward them.
The big fish spit Jonah onto dry land after he repented, and Jonah went to Nineveh with God's message of judgment. This people, the Assyrians, humbled themselves before the One True God and prayed that He would relent from His judgment (3:1-9). And as Jonah predicted, God did just that. God saw their changed hearts, and "God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them" (3:10). An entire city of people, redeemed by the mercy of God.
Oh, but Jonah. You think he'd have learned his lesson, but he had not. We find Jonah in chapter 4 to be exceedingly displeased with this turn of events. Angry, he prayed to God,
"O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." (4:1-3)
If only we were all that honest before God with our motives. Jonah laid it out plain and simple. He did not want to forgive the Assyrians, and he did not want God to forgive them, either. He was angry that God would show any mercy to his enemies. Next, Jonah went outside the city of Nineveh and sat under a booth he made for himself, "till he should see what would become of the city" (4:5). Camped out in all his bitterness and anger, Jonah chose to spend his days watching and waiting for his enemy's destruction.
How many of us have done this? How many of us are doing this? Jonah went out of his way to avoid trusting God with those who had betrayed him and his people. He rearranged everything and fled his home to avoid extending mercy. And now we find him camped out in bitterness, waiting and hoping for the destruction of his enemy. But who was Jonah really hurting in all of this? Unforgiveness is never worth it for the one betrayed.
There is one more lesson to learn here. God caused a plant to grow over Jonah, bringing him a comfortable shade. This pleased Jonah exceedingly. But the next day, God caused a worm to eat and destroy the plant, and then God sent a scorching east wind (4:6-8). Once again, Jonah was angry and cried out to God that he would rather die than live (it seems Jonah was a bit on the dramatic side at times). And the Lord answered:
"Do you do well to be angry for the plant? ...You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (4:9-11)
Once we have been betrayed, it is easy to no longer see the humanity of those who have hurt us. It is easy to allow anger and bitterness to take root in our spirits, and before we know it, we are no longer living. We are slaves to our misery, camped out and waiting for the destruction of our offenders.
But is it not for God to deal with them? Is it not God's decision to raise up or bring down? And if our offenders do repent, is it not for God's glory that He show them mercy, and that we do the same? And if they never repent, is it not for God's glory that we release them anyway, that we can live free of the past, as God's genuine people? As Paul teaches us in Romans 12:17-21, let us live today:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."