Taking it In
What else can this king do besides hope that God, whoever this God may be, will have a change of mind? The king may not have known that this is Yahweh yet, but his response as we have seen is spot on. One is reminded of Joel 2:14, “Who knows whether [God] will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” This kind of love and mercy is exactly what Jonah knows about God and isn’t telling, as we’ll see. It’s actually pretty extraordinary when you think about it: Nineveh is following in Israel’s footsteps here, even without a prophet to help them. All they have is a hopeful, humbled king who has an incomplete picture of God thus far, but still follows through. Interestingly, the word often translated as “anger” is also the word for “nostrils.” So, adding “fierce anger” to the king’s picture of God would be a “burning of the nostrils.” He pictures Yahweh, whose name corresponds with breath, snorting in fury. The king will be pleasantly relieved and surely surprised that God sees this and gives the king and the Ninevites a different picture. We, the readers, are sucked up in the story from Nineveh to God’s watchful eye in heaven and are invited to see what God sees. And what we see is good. The evil that came before the face of the Lord at the beginning of the book in 1:2 is no longer there. They changed their minds, so God changed God’s mind. Quite literally, God repents. For this to happen is to have mercy where God threatened to execute justice.
Working it Out
When you think about it, the book of Jonah isn’t about Jonah at all. Much like the “Acts of the Apostles” is much more the “acts of the Holy Spirit,” so is the ministry of Jonah much more the ministry of Yahweh, perhaps even despite Jonah. Jonah clearly hears the call of God and even more clearly knows that he won’t, and actually, can’t, follow that call. He can’t follow that call because deep down he knows that he cannot agree with God’s ways and God’s mission. Jonah sees others and the way they live and really believes they should be punished severely for it because it’s what they deserve. And not only that, but the “righteous” should be rewarded. Bad things should happen to bad people and good things to “good people.” If the people of Nineveh repented, Jonah was pretty positive that they would be saved because God would embrace them based on God’s character. When we make the decision to follow Jesus, we are called to lay down some of our most valuable possessions and/or internal and inherited values. When the disciples traveled with Jesus they had to get rid of their beliefs about God, God’s mercy, love, and justice. Each of them had their similarities with Jonah in resisting the call and questioning God’s mission. Like them, for all of our stumbles that we take following the way of Jesus, and all the ways we question God’s ways, God’s will is always done. Jonah’s running, rebellion, and even his teaching on God’s wrath and disaster, could revert what God was doing in Nineveh. We think we have it so worked out and God’s will so under our thumb, only to find out that eventually, God gets what God wants. Not us. God’s kingdom is coming, God’s will is being done. And God’s kingdom includes people we would never want there and God’s will includes trying to get those same people to the very place we don’t want them: under God’s grace as much as we are. We mentioned earlier in this series that everyone has their “Nineveh,” that is, people they are so sure are outside of God’s grace or people they refuse to love. We pray for God’s kingdom to come, but as we pray that, we also have to be willing to follow wherever that kingdom continues to expand, until “every knee should bow and every tongue confess.” The further we go, the harder it may become.