Welcome to Week 9 of our devotional series on those common Christian beliefs that have been overlooked or misunderstood. The Book of Jonah is famous for its whale. Pages and pages have been written on whether or not the prophet, Jonah, was really swallowed by “a big fish,” and what it would mean if he wasn’t. All of that attention to the whale, however, misses the actual point of the book — that God will have mercy on whom he has mercy.

Merciful God — guide us today by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will we might truly discover peace. Amen.


Jonah 3:1-4:4, 11
    The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
    6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
    10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
    1  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry? … 11 Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” — Lyrics by Robert Robinson; performed by Chris Rice (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy, never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of Thy redeeming love

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here there by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He, to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood

Oh, that day when freed from sinning
I shall see Thy lovely face
Clothed then in the blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy wondrous grace
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry
Take my ransomed soul away
Send Thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let that goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above

There’s an old song we sang growing up which goes like this: 
    Who did (who did), who did (who did), who did swallow Jo Jo Jo Jo?
    Who did (who did), who did (who did), who did swallow Jo Jo Jo Jo?
    Who did (who did), who did (who did), who did swallow Jo Jo Jo Jo?
    Who did swallow Jonah? Who did swallow Jonah? Who did swallow Jonah down?

The answer, of course, is THE WHALE! Jonah, God’s prophet to Nineveh, was swallowed by a whale. That was the lesson we learned as kids. Don’t disobey God because you might get swallowed by a great big fish!

Surely it’s not a bad lesson. Obeying when God calls is a good thing to learn, especially as a kid when so much of our lives is wrapped up in learning whom to trust. But, in the Book of Jonah itself, obedience is hardly the moral of the story. You can start reading in chapter three, after the whole whale episode, and be just fine.

So what is the moral of this story, if not making sure we don’t get swallowed by a whale? Over and over again, the Book of Jonah is a story about mercy — God’s wonderful, far-reaching, unimaginable mercy. Just consider Jonah’s call to preach to the Ninevites, a rebellious foreign city. It’s a divine mercy in and of itself. After all, who is worthy to be called by God? And that’s only the beginning. After the sailors help Jonah flee, they have mercy on the poor man and refuse to toss him overboard, even though he’s obviously guilty. Only after he pleads with them do they finally agree to do so.

Then there’s the big, bad Ninevites, of course. God tells Jonah to preach death and destruction to them, and that’s it. No grace, no forgiveness, no mercy in that speech. But even God can’t hold a grudge. After seeing the Ninevites remarkable repentance, he again has mercy. They deserve none of it, but God gives it anyway. He can’t help himself.

Strangely enough, though, out of everybody in the whole book, the person who receives the most mercy is Jonah. We mentioned his call already, but then there’s the whale that God sends to rescue him from the raging sea and spit him out onto dry land. Amazingly, God gives Jonah another chance to be faithful, but his mercy doesn’t even end there. When Jonah complains that God is being too merciful to the Ninevites, God then turns around and has mercy some more on the prophet, too. He asks a nice, lovely bush to spring up so Jonah can enjoy some respite from the heat. So, from beginning to end, Jonah is the major recipient of God’s marvelous mercy.  

If it was me, I’d have given up on Jonah long ago. Give me those sailors or even those repentant Ninevites. I’ll take them over this sad excuse for a prophet, someone who’s more concerned about his own comfort and reputation and maybe even his own job than he is about hundreds of thousands of poor, illiterate folk who don’t even “know their right hand from their left.” But, God shows mercy. He could have called another prophet. He could have just left Jonah in that whale to rot. He could have thrown up his hands and let the man wallow in his pathetic little anger. But, God does something different — he shows him great mercy.

Whenever I read Jonah’s story, I’m reminded of something Martin Luther King, Sr. said at the trial for his wife’s murderer. The elder King had lost his son to an assassin’s bullet a few years back. Now, he had lost his wife, too. When asked at the trial if he hoped for the death penalty, King replied with obvious tears in his eyes, “Please don’t kill him. Please don’t let them do that to that boy. He is sick. God can forgive him and maybe heal him. I forgive him. God’s been too good to me for me to hate anyone else.”

Today, it seems, we live in a world that has lost its capacity for this kind of selfless, unbegrudging mercy. Maybe that’s why we like to sing about Jonah’s miraculous travel through the belly of a whale rather than the story’s real moral. We don’t have the stomach for it. But, then again, neither did Jonah, which gives me hope that maybe God will one day have mercy on us, too.

Closing Prayer
Come thou fount of every blessing, tune our hearts to sing thy grace — every moment, every day, everywhere, among everyone, for always. Amen.

    – Cameron Trimble, “Piloting Faith,” email to the author, February 10, 2021.