The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”(Jonah 1:1-2, NASB)
Do you remember the story of Jonah? If you’re like me, the mention of the name elicits images of flannelgraph in Sunday school or a coming to the front during “big church” for the children’s sermon. In both scenarios, I remember being told about a rebellious prophet being swallowed by a giant fish (often depicted as a whale) and spending three nights in its belly. Often, we focus on the fish when we tell the story to children. However, the giant fish is a means to an end. The giant fish ingesting Jonah is a part of the story, but it is not the point of the book.
If the fish is not the point, then what is? It’s dangerous to boil a biblical book into one theme, because we risk shoehorning God’s truth into a preconceived box. With this in mind, I think Jonah has many themes, but the point is God’s mercy and grace for all people. We get sidetracked by the supporting characters, but the story reveals God is a God of second chances.
In the opening verse, we witness God calling Jonah the son of Amittai to go preach against the wickedness of the Ninevites. The Bible states, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me’” (Jonah 1:1-2). A quick survey of history reveals that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were known for their brutality. They not only defeated opposing armies, but would even desecrate the bodies of their foes. For example, they would impale people on stakes and leave them for days to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies. If you will, the Assyrians were the terrorists of the ancient world.
God called Jonah to preach against this evil empire. But why? God wanted to show them mercy and grace. This is the very reason Jonah fled in the opposite direction in disobedience. He knew God would forgive them if they repented (see Jonah 4:2). Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved God’s mercy and grace. And I agree they did not, but neither do we! God was giving them another chance.
Even Jonah received a second chance (if not multiple chances) after his disobedience. The Bible states, “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time…” (Jonah 3:1). The book of Jonah is more than a fish story. It’s a story that showcases God’s mercy and grace to all.