The Real Reason Jonah Disobeyed God

I had Jonah all wrong.

Photo Credit: Caroline (Creative Commons)

If you grew up in the church like I did, you've no doubt heard the story of Jonah and the whale (or fish) a thousand times. It's a great story for kids because it involves a giant animal, disobedience, and vomit.

But usually we don't tell kids the whole story when it comes to Jonah. We usually end the story after God spares Jonah, Jonah goes to Ninevah, and God forgives the Ninevites.

But have you ever read the whole book of Jonah? If not, you really should because there is a much larger lesson in the book than just "it's not a good idea to disobey God."

There's a reason God chose Jonah specifically and not someone else.

My Feelings Exactly

I was full of jubilation and nerves as my wife pulled the Expedition into the parking lot.

A few leaves decided to detach themselves from their hosts, gliding to the ground. (In brazen piety they assumed they would be better off.) Though it was indeed autumn, Tennessee's thermometers--having no other means of measurement--would have assumed a July day.

With the sun beginning to set, I mustered the courage to walk up the steps into Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace Plaza for the third Quitter Conference. Why did I need courage? I wasn't giving the keynote. I wasn't even a guest speaker. But for me just attending the conference took courage because it meant admitting I was now trying to do what I had put off trying to do for a long time: write.

I had waited so long because I knew that if I never tried, I could never fail.

So this wasn't just me walking up some stairs on a normal day. This was six years of buried anxieties. And now failure was a possibility.

So with about a hundred business cards shoved in my pocket, I kissed my wife, climbed the concrete steps, and boldly burst through the heavy double-doors. I sharpied my name and newly minted Twitter handle on my name tag and entered the auditorium.

Nothing could stop me now, right?

Between sessions Mr. Acuff invited the congregates to participate in a networking session. This I was prepared for. With sweat dripping down my sides I reached into my pocket for the fiftieth time to make sure the cards were still there. I rushed to the corner of the foyer marked "writer" feeling awkward but determined.

It was like an 8th grade dance with too much cologne and where no one wants to make eye contact. Yet I spotted someone by herself and moved to engage her. She looked lost and exposed like an animal separated from her pack. My feelings exactly. She said one word to me: "Writer?"

"Yes," I said. I began to ask her a pre-rehearsed question when I saw her eyes dart to someone behind me.

"I didn't know you were going to be here!"

She had seen a friend. The two engaged in conversation, neither one acknowledging me. It was abrupt like one hanging up on a cold caller. I sheepishly shirked away, slinking back and searching for someone else to talk to.

I released the business card I was about to extend to my new acquaintance.

It Wasn't About Fear

I used to think that the reason Jonah disobeyed God is because he was afraid to go to Ninevah. I thought he was scared of being rejected or harmed physically. But that's not the case.

He may have had some trepidation, sure, but that wasn't his underlying motive.

The real reason Jonah disobeyed God is that he hated the Ninevites' guts (Jon. 4:1-3). Think democrat and republican, Saul and Christians, The View and men. He didn't like them, didn't want to see them, didn't want to talk to them.

This makes Jonah's reaction to God's command make a little bit more sense. Were he simply afraid, he would have said, "No," à la Moses or tried to test God in the tradition of Gideon.

But what did Jonah do?

Not only did he not go, he got on a boat heading in the opposite direction in which God told him to go. Jonah was passionate in his hate for the Ninevites.

We are all well-versed in what happens next.

Jonah has a come to Jesus moment (so to speak) inside the aquatic animal thing. He's sorry.

After being vomited onto land (told you), Jonah this time obeys and goes to Ninevah. He tells the Assyrians they will be overthrown as a result of their evil.

Guess what? They don't reject Jonah or harm him. They believe him. And what does God do? He forgives them. The Ninevites! He actually relents and spares their lives.

At this point Jonah is livid. He was hoping God would rain fire on these heathens. They did deserve it after all.

But so did Jonah.

Remember how I said God specifically chose Jonah for a reason? This is that reason.

Jonah deserved to be thrown overboard and left to drown, not to be saved by God. So what if he was a Hebrew? Did he think his heritage was going to save him? 

Do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. Matthew 3:9

God used Jonah to show him that He is merciful even to those people that he didn't like.

Sometimes I Feel Like Jonah

For all of my not so good qualities (and there are a lot), I have one good one: I'm good at not holding grudges.


I'm sure this woman didn't mean to offend me. She felt just as uncomfortable as I did in that manufactured setting called "networking". Yet she was seriously rude to me in that moment.

Sometimes I feel like Jonah, complaining to God that He offers forgiveness to people I don't like. People that have offended me.

Then I remember that I have committed much more grievous offenses against both God and His children. And were they to feel the same way as I, they'd be praying that I wouldn't be forgiven.

So then I'm apt to swallow my Jonah-sized pride, and ask God to let me let it go.

If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. Matthew 6:14

God showed Jonah that if the wicked repent, He is ready to forgive. But the real lesson for the prophet and for you and I is that that forgiveness comes irrespective of how we much we hate the recipient:

Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left? Jonah 4:11

If anyone had cause for a grudge, it was the Almighty.

Remember when Jesus said that the only sign God would give the Pharisees was the sign of Jonah (Mat. 12:38-45)? I know He was talking about the tomb--how He would be in the earth three days just as Jonah was in the fish for three days. But, and I'm just spitballing here, maybe there's more to it than that?

What if the sign of Jonah is also about the forgiveness God demonstrated as Christ was tortured on that tree?

Only this time instead of offering atonement just to the Assyrians, he extended it to the entire world:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10


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  1. Want peace, victory...any other assessments that you are in God's Will? Then follow the advice of Andrew here. Forgive...even when you do not feel the urge to do so. God grant us the peace of knowing fulfillment when we forgive someone else of their trespass upon us. May we never try to "one up" each other, but truly seek to relent of our own pride. We praise you for all your amazing works in our lives and seek you peace. In His name. Amen

  2. I went to Bible college, studied Jonah thoroughly, and even taught on it many times. My experience has shown me that most people don't get the point of the book of Jonah. I am pleased to say, however, you "get it." The only point I would respectfully take issue with is your point about Jonah being sorry while in the fish. His prayer in the fish is actually composed of quote after quote from the psalms, and honestly, it isn't all that coherent. If we are asking the question of whether or not Jonah repented, then the text gives us a resoundingly ambiguous answer. Maybe he did. It sounds convincing at first glance, and possibly half-hearted at second glance. Bottom line: I'm not sure. I just have enough doubt about it to say that I wouldn't tell people that it's as simple as saying he's sorry.

    Otherwise, I think you aptly brought to light the really big points of the book that are often missed by modern readers. Thanks for sharing your reflections.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I'll have to revisit the text to address Jonah's contrition (or lack thereof). Maybe he's more stubborn than I thought. :)

      May I ask what college you attended?

    2. Yeah, I don't think Jonah was sorry. For sure, not for his attitude (Seen in chapter4), His prayer was that of humility and thankfulness. Necessary as those things are, it still does bewilder me that he does not have these same feelings when God shows grace to a repentant city.

      Thank you so much for this article. As many times as I've taught Jonah to children, I never really seem the parallel between his own grace (salvation from drowning), and the salvation of Nineveh. thank you

  3. Thanks for the article. For me, the book of Jonah is one of the many examples of God forgiveness without sacrifices or blood. Just repentance. God has no need for blood or sacrifices. Nobody needs to die. God only asks for repentance and He will forgive.