Contradictions in the Book of Jonah
Vincent Yeung—Cambridge, UK
Jonah’s story has been told and
retold, and yet familiarity obscures unfamiliarity. When we scan quickly
through the Bible, we often overlook the subtlety of its messages. Like the
well-trodden path of a journey home, the surroundings and landscape appear
familiar; we profess to know all there is to know, but our busy minds have long
filtered out the details. For this reason, Jonah’s personality remains foreign
and remote. The readers should ask themselves the question: is the book simply
the story of a failed prophet, or is it a challenge to examine our own psyche?
Jonah’s life was full of
contradictions. He was God’s spokesman, but he did not want to preach (Jon
1:3). Instead of responding promptly to the divine call, he set out to escape
as far away as possible. Finally, when he did preach, he did not wish to save
(Jon 3:1–3; cf. 4:2). Indeed, his message was so negative (Jon 3:4) that
we marvel at the positive response. Jonah predicted Nineveh’s condemnation, and
that there would be no way of escape.
In the book, we see plenty of
contrasts – the prophet’s noble office and his unwillingness to serve;
the gracious intention of God versus the harsh words and intention of the messenger;
the stark mismatch between man’s understanding and reality; one’s action and
intent. All these clashes must have dug deep into the prophet’s psyche.
and undeserving sinners: the demarcation in our heart
It is clear why Jonah ran away
from God (Jon 4:2). His action was motivated by prejudice: he deemed the people
of Nineveh unworthy of God’s salvation. Such behavior reveals our instinctive
tendency to compare: to envy those who appear better, and to look down on those
whom we consider inferior.
In the parable of the prodigal
son, the older brother toiled day and night, and was angry and upset when his
father held a sumptuous feast to welcome his wayward sibling back (Lk 15:28–29).
He could not comprehend how his life of servitude appeared less worthy than
that of his brother who had chosen an errant lifestyle, and had made a
split-second decision to turn back only when in dire straits.
Sometimes, we may feel that some
people are so sinful that it is not possible for them to receive God’s grace,
and the prejudice may be heightened when we feel that they have benefited from
their sinful behavior (Ps 37:7–8).
It was for this reason that the
prophet Habakkuk questioned God’s favorable disposition towards the Chaldeans,
a nation who were seen as violent, wicked and prosperous (Hab 1:6–17).
Also, we see the contempt of the self-righteous Pharisee for the tax collector
praying in the temple (Lk 18:10–11). Jonah was no different. To him, it
was inconceivable that Israel’s oppressor could receive God’s grace.
Do we hold the same type of
prejudice deep inside of us? Do we, from time to time, possess a self-centered
attitude? And do we see the story counteracting a prejudice that some of God’s
chosen people believe they have a monopoly on human virtue and view the rest of
the world with such suspicion that they refuse to share their experiences and
The dividing lines were clearly
drawn: the prophet Jonah versus the depraved city of Nineveh; the hardworking
older son versus the prodigal son; the righteous Pharisee versus the sinful tax
collector. The contrasts were startling, and yet the outcomes were so
unexpected. Who were more righteous in God’s eyes?
be forgiven, yet unforgiving
Jonah pleaded for God’s mercy deep
in the belly of the fish (Jon 2:9). In truth, he had no choice. His prayer
revealed his thinking on how man should receive mercy from God: “Those who
regard worthless idols forsake their own Mercy” (Jon 2:8).
All sins can be defined as
rebellion against God’s commandments (Jas 2:9–10). In this respect, Jonah
was no different from the people of Nineveh: both were rebellious and fell
short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Yet, when Jonah spoke of his own
rebellion, he only mentioned its consequence, and not the cause: “For You cast
me into the deep…” (Jon 2:3). He appeared to be tolerant of his own failing and
was happy to accept God’s mercy, but he could not accept God’s mercy towards
other sinners (Jon 4:2).
The message of deliverance in the
book of Jonah evinced God’s forgiveness, but Jonah’s own prejudice remained. At
the end, we see how he showed pity for a plant that died after giving him shade
from the sun, but not the people of Nineveh (Jon 4:10).
Today, many Christians make the
same mistake. They desire God’s forgiveness for themselves, but are not willing
to show pity on others (Mt 18:32–33) and are even happy to condemn those
who have wronged them.
God wants us to show love (Mt 5:23–24;
1 Jn 4:19–20) and requires us to love our enemies as ourselves (Mt 5:38–48).
The Bible teaches that if God so loved us, we ought to love one another (1 Jn
4:11). It is unfortunate, then, that our love is often limited, and we choose
to love our own brothers and sisters only. Perhaps we should consider Jesus’
answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29).
The city of Nineveh was saved (Jon
3:10), for God showed pity on the people (Jon 4:10–11). He had expected
Jonah to empathize and to show his love. It is disappointing, then, to see
faith and knowledge
There was an evident mismatch
between what Jonah claimed to know and what he actually believed and practiced.
He claimed to fear the God of heaven (Jon 1:9), and yet he dared to challenge
Him by running away from His presence to Tarshish. How could anyone run away
from the LORD, the God of heaven? He described God as gracious, merciful and
kind (Jon 4:2; cf. 3:9), but he himself expected swift judgment and retribution
on Nineveh. Knowledge does not help unless it is augmented by faith (Heb 4:2).
The Bible states that even the demons believe in God (Jas 2:19–20), but
their knowledge does not benefit them. For believers, it translates into a
discrepancy between belief and behavior, meaning we fail to do what we know or
preach, or we try to rationalize God’s word to disguise our unbelief.
When Jesus challenged Martha’s
faith by stating that her brother would rise again, Martha interpreted His
meaning to be that he would rise on the last day (Jn 11:24). And when
challenged again, she sidelined the question by affirming Jesus as the Son of
God (Jn 11:26–27). But all the while, her grief remained (Jn 11:31).
The contradiction between
knowledge and practice in Jonah’s story reminds us to reconsider our own
belief. Do we possess an unspoken prejudice and disbelief that clouds our
judgment? As True Jesus Church members, we pride ourselves on a true knowledge
of God—a knowledge that is manifested in sermons, Bible studies,
theological seminars and spiritual convocations.
However, knowledge remains
theoretical and non-beneficial, unless we actualize it in our daily living.
Jonah might well have been able to find a plethora of examples and teachings in
the Scriptures to justify his stance, but he failed to see the pathos of God.
Job’s friends had exhausted their arsenal of arguments to defend God’s
righteousness, yet they were off the mark in God’s eyes (Job 42:7; cf. Jon 4:10–11).
It would be a pity if we possessed
the knowledge of God, but denied it through our actions—much like the
Pharisees who knew the Scriptures, but failed to come to Jesus (Jn 5:40). To
come to Jesus is more than knowing and subscribing to the ten basic beliefs and
our common faith; we also need to have the compassion of Jesus (Phil 1:8) and
to actualize God’s kindness, longsuffering and forbearance (Jon 4:2; cf. Joel
2:13; Rom 2:4). In this way, we fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1–2)—the
commandment to love one another that Jesus gave to His disciples before His
departure (Jn 13:34).
and religiosity versus knowledge and blindness
Jonah, God’s chosen vessel,
preached God’s message, thereby saving many lives. Nevertheless, he did not see
eye to eye with God. In contrast, the Gentiles exhibited far more positive
behavior: the sailors sought God with a simple heart in the midst of difficulty
(Jon 1:6, 10); they wanted to save Jonah’s life by putting their own on the
line (Jon 1:13, 14); they showed gratitude to the Lord by making sacrifices and
vows after He stilled the storm (Jon 1:16).
Similarly, the people of Nineveh
were receptive to God’s word (Jon 3:5) and believed that He would change His
mind (Jon 3:9). Their belief was translated into action, and God saw their
works and responded accordingly (Jon 3:10).
The people who were supposedly ignorant
and unenlightened appeared to know God better than Jonah. The Gentiles searched
for God, but the prophet was slumbering; the Gentiles wanted to save, but the
prophet wanted to condemn. The Gentiles perceived God’s kindness and
forbearance, yet Jonah wanted judgment.
It is often said that the longer
politicians are in office, the further removed they are from the people. They
become so accustomed to being in power that they stop listening. Here lies a
warning for God’s people: we may have knowledge of the truth, but we should not
lose sight of the needs of the people of the land.
The Pharisees despised the people,
saying “But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (Jn 7:49). They
claimed to see, but were really blind (Jn 9:39). In contrast, the unlearned blind
man was able to see (Jn 9:25). Jonah could not see his own faults, God’s will,
or what was important.
The moral for believers today is
that we should take time out from our busy church schedules in order to
re-examine our faith. We should also take our focus off others and look at
ourselves, to ask, “Are we really doing God’s will?” (Mt 7:21; 1 Cor 9:27). In
reality, we may be sleeping in the hold of the ship, or cosseted in the belly
of the big fish. The problem is, we may be so accustomed to our situation that
we do not feel any discomfort. If so, it is time to wake up and pray to the
The book of Jonah ends abruptly
with a rhetorical question, and we can only speculate at what happened to the
prophet. Nevertheless, his adventure and folly remain for our benefit and
warning—teaching us never to ignore or rebel against God’s will. As in
the case of Jonah, our own chapters remain open. May we take the opportunity to
search deep within ourselves.