At first glance, the story sounds like a fairy tale, something you might find in a choose-your-own ending adventure novel. But it actually comes straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures -- big fish, swallowed prophet, and all. Growing up, the story of Jonah spoke a strong admonition to follow God's ways lest you walk a plank and end up in the belly of a fish. But as I read about Jonah now, I see a bigger picture of God's missionary heart.
I see a picture that's less about a prophet's failed runaway and more about our God's unrelenting love.
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me." Jonah 1:1, 2, NKJV
Depending on the way you read these words and tone of voice you imagine God speaking with, this can sound like some serious doom and gloom. This message of judgment against a city beyond the borders of Israel can presumably be heard as a complaint from heaven, a divine temper tantrum about the neighbors next door. But what if it's not a cry of complaint? What if it's a plea of compassion? What if God's "cry" is not a calling out to criticize but a calling for to convert?
Think about it. If God was solely motivated by anger and personal offense over the Ninevites' immorality, we wouldn't be reading about a message to them but an obituary about them. Instead, in the face of vile godlessness and extreme debauchery evident in the ancient Near East, God wants to communicate, engage, and entreat an entire city that has rejected Him.
What do we do when wickedness comes up before us?
When there's something that isn't right in your sphere of life, when there's great offense, or violence, or abuse? It's not a pleasant flashback in my mind, but I remember the first time my eyes ever saw a real fist fight. I was probably only 8 or 9 years old at the time, and as we drove past a convenience store behind a public high school, my carefree heart was frozen with fear at the sight of two high schoolers ganging up on one. I think I was the only one in the car who noticed. I wondered why no one was doing anything to stop the violence. "Surely I couldn't," I thought as we drove on. It was my first introduction to what social psychologists call "the bystander effect" or "bystander apathy." When wickedness comes up before us, we can diffuse responsibility, generate stories to explain things away, or do all sorts of things aside from actually engaging the need. Even when we do respond with heroic intent to heal and help, we often pace ourselves and rationalize that we need to pick our battles.
When Nineveh's wickedness comes up before the God of heaven, He can't just turn a blind eye. So what if they don't belong to Israel? God's love isn't bound by territories and jurisdictions. These are people He created in His own image though they've completely used their lives to live far from Him. God's heart is prompted to action infinitely more so than the most compassionate of us. He knows full well how hardened this epicenter of paganism is, and yet, God has a heart for the hardened. Instead of swooping down with swift destruction, He sends a spoken word and hopes for a willing spokesmen of that word.
When face to face with great evil and great need, God engages with great sensitivity and great salvation. God doesn't shut down; He steps up. He doesn't withdraw; He whispers hope. Oh God, give me your heart for the hardened!