Jonah wanted to die because God did not make sense to him. In five different places in the book of Jonah, we learn of his self-injurious intentions. First, he ran away from God, which was a death-wish for any prophet to do. Second, he did not try to save himself during the terrible storm aboard the ship bound to Tarshish. Third, he commands the sailors to throw him overboard into the raging sea. Fourth, he flat out says, “Lord, take my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3). Fifth, similarly, he says, “It would be better to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8).
Jonah reached this point because God did not make sense to him. Jonah was a prophet, whose duty it was to tell the truth. Jonah was well-respected and had a great reputation as an effective and truthful communicator (2 Kings 14:25). That’s why it was so disturbing when God spoke to Jonah and told him to prophesy something that would not come true. God told Jonah to say, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). However, Jonah knew that this was not true. Jonah knew that God was not going to destroy Nineveh, but save it. Afterwards, he says, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? 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).
God told Jonah to say that Nineveh would be destroyed; but God did not destroy Nineveh. That made Jonah a false prophet, whose punishment could be death (Deut 18:21-22). Jonah, the well-respected prophet, not only had to give a false prophesy, but also was humiliated. On top of this, while his reputation was ruined, the wicked Ninevites were saved. That is why Jonah wanted to die: God did not make sense to him.
In the middle of all of this, Jonah gets swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of the fish, we read how much Jonah gets wrapped up in his trial. The language is such that we don’t know where Jonah ends and where the trial begins. Currents swirl about him and waves sweep over him (2:3); waters engulf him, the deep surrounds him, and seaweed wraps around his head (2:5). The image is that of being so wrapped up in your trial, that it becomes a part of you. You can’t separate yourself from your suffering, it clings to you as seaweed around your neck.
Helmut Thielicke writes, “We must all be plunged into the depths, from which we then shall cry, because it is only there that God can come to us with the fullness of His blessing.”
Hundreds of years later, Jesus identified himself with Jonah, the one whose life was plunged into the depths. Although Jesus could have identified himself with the powerful Lord of the story, the One in control of heaven and earth, the wind and the waves, he did not. In Matthew 12:39-40, Jesus chooses Jonah, the one who was buried for three days and nights in the belly of the disgusting fish.
Jesus is saying to us, “I’m coming in with you!” You see, God is not just “God with us,” he is more than that; he is “God suffering with us.” He enters our trials with us and wraps himself up in that which wraps us. He makes the journey with us, to the land where God does not make sense and where we cannot see a way out.
The story of Jonah is amazing in that God not only saves those who are wicked and do not know him, the Ninevites, but also God saves the one who knows him intimately, yet is fleeing in bitterness.
© 2010 by Samuel Kee