Do you have any jokes in your arsenal where you can remember the punch-line, but not the joke? This seems to be a frequent occurrence at family gatherings. Someone in my family will blurt out a punch-line in the middle of a conversation that makes us all laugh, but then someone will ask, "How does that joke go again?"
Or perhaps you tend to remember the joke, but not the punch-line. This seems to be a more common experience with the Bible. Not that the Bible is filled with jokes, but many stories in Scripture are very memorable. We know the characters, the details, and the outcome. But very often, we forget the punch-line. We lose sight of the reason the story was given to us in the first place. This happens with the Prodigal Son, the Exodus, and the Cross.
But the story of Jonah and the whale might take the prize for the best known story with the least known application. We know Jonah ran away when God told him to go and prophecy to those bad guys in Nineveh. We know a huge storm trapped the ship which Jonah sailed on, and that superstitious sailors threw him overboard. We know about the giant fish that swallowed him whole and kept Jonah in his belly for three days. We may even know that Jonah escaped all this, finally went to Nineveh, and that the city repented and was spared God's judgment.
Fascinating story. But what's the point? I believe it actually has very little to do with the fish. There's some deep irony in this story. You see, Jonah is also mentioned in 2 Kings 14. In this account, Jonah prophecies about some successful land reclamation during the reign of Jeroboam II. We also discover that Jeroboam II was an evil king, yet God did good things on Israel's behalf, choosing to show mercy to His people. In spite of their rebellion, God chose to be merciful and compassionate because this was his nature. And Jonah saw it all.
Jonah was well aware of God's nature to show mercy and compassion. But when God shows mercy and compassion to Nineveh, he is outraged. His complaint against God is to say, "I knew it! I knew you would be merciful and not destroy Nineveh! That's why I ran away!" (ch. 4) So when God shows mercy to Jonah and his people, Jonah is okay with that. But when God acts the same way to others, Jonah's not so sure.
Isn't that our tendency? We want God to be forgiving of our weaknesses and short-comings, but we kind of like the idea that God will judge the weaknesses and short-comings of others, particularly of our enemies. The fact that God feels the same way about them as He does about us can be a hard pill to swallow. But this is the lesson of Jonah- that God will show mercy and compassion to whomever He chooses. Our role is not to judge and determine who should and should not receive this mercy, but to faithfully proclaim this message everywhere.
On your journey, may you be the kind of person that hopes God will treat others just like He treat you. May we long to see His mercy and compassion on display all around the world, even to our enemies.