David Bowie said it best in his role as Jareth the Goblin King in The Labyrinth. Jennifer Connelly complains, "It's not fair" when Jareth sets up obstacles for her to rescue her baby brother. Jareth replies to her protest, "You say that so often! I wonder what your basis for comparison is." When I first saw the movie, I cared more about seeing what muppet-like creatures would next appear. But when I actually heard Bowie's line for the first time, I realized how often I had said the words, "It's not fair" without having any context for fairness.
Connelly's character can annoy you with her complaining. As I read Jonah last week, I felt the same way with this runaway prophet. The opening verse sounds like any other interaction between God and His prophets. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai: 'Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and proclaim to it that their wickedness has come to my attention." Not too weird for God, right? How many other prophets were told to go and call cities out on their evil practices? Nearly all of them. But Jonah does something so strange we mainly hear his book in the form of a children's story. It's silly, cartoonish. Jonah tries to literally run away from God.
He buys his way onto a ship headed out to Tarshish, then considered the furthest point of the known world. A violent storm threatens to break the ship into pieces at sea and the sailors try everything to hold it together. Eventually, they think to themselves, somebody must have angered a god. The captain finds Jonah asleep in the bottom of the boat and wakes him. "What do you mean by sleeping?" he asks. "Get up! Call on your god! Maybe the god will remember us, and we won't die." When Jonah confesses his sin, he says to the sailors, "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made both the sea and the dry land." I wonder if, as he said it, Jonah realized there's no escaping a God who made everything. If you can run there, He created it.
Jonah tells the men to throw him into the sea so that God will spare their ship. They oblige. Then the best part of the Sunday School story happens. God sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole. The prophet remains alive in the belly of the fish for three days. While in there, amazingly, the prophet sings out a beautiful song of praise to God. He tells of God saving him from Hell and certain death and proclaims, "Salvation comes from the Lord!" Then God tells the fish, "Puke him up on that beach over there."
When we read how Jonah goes to Nineveh, we might assume that he has learned his lesson. The truth is he still doesn't want to prophesy and only does so begrudgingly. How can we know this? Because of what happens when the people of Nineveh actually repent of their sin to God. Pagan people who know nothing of the God of the Bible are moved to humble themselves from the commoner to the King. Instead of finding joy and praising God for this, Jonah gets pissed. In an angry prayer, we learn the true reason for his flight to Tarshish. Jonah knew of God's mercy. He didn't want God to spare the people of Nineveh. He wanted them punished for their sins. Jonah is so pissed off, in fact, he prays, "please, just take my life away from me; it's better for me to be dead than alive!" Let's pause for a moment and reflect on the prophet's tantrum.
God's response is so wonderfully patient. "Is it right for you to be so angry?"
It appears Jonah isn't listening. He goes outside of the city and builds a shelter so he can watch the city destroyed, should God change His mind. As he sits, God causes a castor-bean plant (whatever that is) to grow up around the shelter, giving Jonah shade and comfort despite his angry vigil. Then, the next morning, God sends a worm to eat away at the plant and it withers. Now the sun and wind scorch Jonah, and the prophet again cries out, "I would be better off dead than alive!" It's not fair! It's not fair!
God discusses the significance of the plant with Jonah in a patient and loving tone, unlike the authoritative way He put down Job's complaints. "God asked Jonah, 'Is it right for you to be so angry about the castor-bean plant?' He answered, 'Yes, it's right for me to be so angry that I could die!' The Lord said, 'You're concerned over the castor-bean plant, which cost you no effort; you didn't make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn't I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from their left - not to mention all the animals?'"
And that's how the book ends. With God's rhetorical question. It's pretty safe to say Jonah finally heard God and saw the sinfulness of his attitude. Some Bible teachers believe Jonah wrote this book as an act of repentance. Like Jonah, we praise God for showing us mercy in saving our lives from certain death but stomp around fuming when He doesn't punish the people who actually deserve it. The fact is we all deserve it. Jonah knew it on the ship. The people of Nineveh knew it when they heard Jonah's prophecy. None of us deserve God's grace. But God still gives it to whomever He chooses. It costs us no effort. How could we not rejoice in His mercy?
Jesus name-dropped Jonah once or twice, referring to "the sign of Jonah". The Pharisees believed they deserved God's favor because of their behavior and lineage. They asked Jesus for a sign to prove He was Messiah, as if all the work of Jesus's ministry wasn't proof enough. Jesus tells them, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign? No! None will be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea-monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the depths of the earth" (Matthew 12:39-40).
Salvation comes from the Lord. Only Him. Jesus fulfilled the sign of Jonah when He rose to life three days after His death. In His death and resurrection, Jesus offers salvation for us all, be we kings, commoners, sailors, or prophets. Because of this, it's silly for us to whine about God's fairness. Obviously, God isn't fair. He loves us in spite of our sin.