When Jonah was commanded to go Nineveh and prophesy to Israel’s arch-enemies the Assyrians, he tried to travel as far in the other direction as was humanly possible (Jonah 1:3). The ruthlessness of Assyria’s armies was legendary, but actually that was not what bothered Jonah. He was afraid of God’s grace. When Jonah finally obeyed and the people of Nineveh repented, God showed compassion to them. “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?” Jonah complained. “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
Grace is often defined as “unmerited favor.” While a helpful definition, it’s important to realize that grace is also an attribute of God (Ex. 22:27). Frequently, this aspect of God’s character is linked with His compassion in Scripture. He is repeatedly characterized as “gracious and compassionate” or “gracious and merciful” (cf. 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 111:4; Joel 2:13). God’s love disposes Him to act in grace toward those who, like the people of Nineveh, do not deserve to experience His compassion.
Jonah was not afraid for himself but for God. He foolishly tried to keep God from acting according to His nature. Fortunately, God’s grace was greater than Jonah’s folly.
Why Theology Matters
Although he did not recognize it at the time, God’s willingness to extend His grace toward the people of Nineveh was vitally important for Jonah. The fact that God’s grace was expansive enough to encompass the people of Nineveh meant that it was also large enough to include Jonah. This is the same grace that He shows to us. We can expect God to show compassion to all those who turn to Christ in faith: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).
FOR FURTHER READING
For a perspective that looks at the story of Jonah as someone who has been called by God, read Eugene Peterson’s book Under the Unpredictable Plant (Eerdmans).