John D. Barry
The prophet who found himself deep in the belly of a great fish wasn’t there by chance. You could argue that he wasn’t there merely by choice, either. Jonah’s story articulates how our own will interacts with the will of God. While God had a plan for Jonah that could have been fulfilled much sooner than it was, He gave His prophet the freedom to run, hide and argue.
Jonah Is a Weird Kind of Prophet
At the very beginning of the book, we find out Yahweh’s will for Jonah: “Get up! Go to the great city Nineveh and cry out against her, because their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). The plan is clear, but Jonah does not respond as expected. Instead of obeying, he flees to Tarshish—the opposite direction (1:3).
Yahweh doesn’t stop Jonah, but He doesn’t put up with his nonsense either. He sets the prophet back on course by raising a storm to buffet the ship he boarded (1:4). Jonah admits to his shipmates that the storm is a result of his decision to disobey God, and he tells them to cast him overboard (1:15). But Yahweh doesn’t allow this to be Jonah’s demise, and we know the rest—a great fish comes along, swallows Jonah, and then vomits him onto the shore three nights later (1:5–2:10).
When Yahweh issues His orders a second time, Jonah, who surely smells worse than any fisherman, marches into Nineveh and delivers the lamest prophetic message in the Old Testament: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be demolished” (3:4)—that’s all he says. But Yahweh uses those words; the people of Nineveh repent (3:5–9). God then “changed his mind about the evil that he had said he would bring upon [the Ninevites], and he did not do it” (3:10).
God Seems Weird to Jonah
Although we might wrestle with what it means for God to change “his mind,” Jonah knew God would relent: “O Yahweh, was this not what I said while I was in my homeland? Therefore I originally fled to Tarshish, because I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God … who relents concerning calamity” (4:2). Jonah wanted Nineveh, a city in enemy Assyria, to be destroyed. He knew that God would “relent” once the people repented—and his enemies would live another day.
We can learn about predestination and free will from Jonah’s response. He understood that God can declare a possible outcome, yet He is still free to change it. God knows what we do not, and He can orchestrate events to align with His goodness, justice and mercy.
God may determine where things are going or who He intends to use for His purpose, but His grace allows us to make decisions and to respond freely. God wants Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh so badly that He is willing to chase him—perhaps because the message of repentance was as much for Jonah as it was for the Ninevites.
God is not a dictator—not even a benevolent one. He leaves decisions up to us and responds to the choices we make. We are free, yet predestined for a purpose.
The Weirdness of Being Predestined but Free
God directs us to spread the good news of Jesus to others so they will repent and believe—just as He directed Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah’s decision to delay altered immediate events, but it did not change God’s major objective: giving the people of Nineveh one last chance to repent. But Nineveh’s choice did result in God’s forgiveness.
Looking at the pain in our world—past and present—we know there must be countless situations where people did not and are not following God’s plan. However, God continues to pursue them, just as He did when Jonah disobeyed. We have the freedom to choose a back road, a wrong turn or a ship to Tarshish to delay His purposes, but God will often—in His great mercy—steer us back in the right direction. And even when we fail Him, His ultimate purpose to bring many to Himself through the good news of Jesus’ saving work is still underway.
For more on interpreting the book of Jonah, pick up Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Hosea to Micah. Go to Logos.com/Limburg
Scripture quotations are from the Lexham English Bible (LEB).