Home   e-Library       中文 
e-Library Home |  Browse By Category |  Study the Bible    
 (Manna 65: Missionary Work)
Contradictions in the Book of Jonah
TOC | Previous | Next

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.

Deserving 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 knowledge?

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?

Seeking to 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 Jonah’s recalcitrance.

Mismatch between 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).

Ignorance 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 Lord!

A story without ending

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.

PDF Download