Jonah was in an awkward and unpleasant position: he’d tried to escape from God by killing himself, and God had blocked him. He’d tried to run from God, and now he couldn’t get away; he could try to ignore God, but he certainly couldn’t hide, and he didn’t have anyone else to talk to. And to crown everything, however unpleasant his situation, and however much it was not what he had wanted, he had to be grateful for it; whatever else he might say, being alive instead of dead was still a good thing.
And so he began to pray. This is a formal psalm, crafted to be useful to a wide audience, so while it could be taken to mean that Jonah repented and prayed for deliverance before God sent the fish, that’s not necessarily true; in fact, it probably isn’t. Still, despite his ambivalence toward God at this point, Jonah does at least praise God for saving his life. When he went overboard, Jonah believed he was cut off from God, and going down to the land of the dead where that separation would be permanent—and he had chosen that fate. God had mercy on him despite himself. It’s significant that Jonah praises God for that mercy which he had not wanted, and for which he had not asked.
Even more significant, Jonah rejects idolatry and recommits himself to keep his vows to the Lord. He confesses that only God can deliver anyone, that salvation belongs to him and him alone—which means that God is free to save whomever he chooses. He is free to save Jonah; he is also free to save the Assyrians, and Jonah has no right to complain one way or the other about either. It isn’t his place to decide who will be shown grace and mercy, and who won’t; his own undeserved salvation obliges him to offer the same to Nineveh, and he acknowledges that. What had he vowed to the Lord? As his prophet, to go where God sent him and speak what God told him to speak. Jonah bows his head and accepts the Lord’s will, and the fish spits him up on the shore.
Now, I have to ask you, how far would you trust Jonah at this point? Sure, he’s repented, to some extent, under extreme duress; but based on his record so far, how deep do you think that repentance is? You could hardly blame God if he wanted a few guarantees out of his recalcitrant prophet before putting him back on his feet. But then, if the Lord had been a prudent God—if he’d been the kind of God people tend to imagine when they hear the word “God”—he wouldn’t have bothered to save Jonah at all, he would have just let him drown, and call another prophet who’d do what he was told. After all, Jonah certainly had it coming, and it would have been an object lesson to everybody in what happens if you disobey. That would have saved time, saved effort, and provided a nice neat moral lesson to boot: do what God says or you’re fish food.
But that’s not how he works. Rather, he is a God of utterly imprudent mercy. He doesn’t ration out his mercy drop by drop, careful not to use too much, as if in fear of running out; he doesn’t hold back his grace from anyone who would take advantage of it, nor does he keep it for the most deserving or those of whom he might make the greatest use. Instead, he lavishes it on us, grace upon grace. We see that with Jonah; most fully, we see it in Jesus Christ, in whom his mercy would go to the uttermost limit, climbing up on a cross to die in order to bring all of us back from the shipwreck we had allowed sin to make of our lives. That was utterly imprudent, it is utterly God, and it is utterly glorious.
Of course, Jonah wasn’t looking for mercy; in fact, he was trying to reject salvation—but God saved him anyway, despite himself. In truth, in some sense he always does, because salvation is always God’s work, and his initiative; we never turn to look for him except he draws us. Still, most of the time it would seem that those whom God saves are at least cooperating with his work; but sometimes, as with Jonah, God saves us even though we don’t want to be saved. Why he lets some go and hauls others back, I don’t know; that’s something for him to know and me not to find out, I suspect. But he’s God, if he wants to he can save people even when they’re bound and determined not to let him—as Jonah was; and sometimes he does.
This story highlights a strange reality, that sometimes God’s mercy is harder than his justice. That might sound hard to believe, when his mercy means sparing us punishment, but it’s true. Punishment doesn’t really demand much of us, after all. When we’re punished, either we know we’ve earned it or we can tell ourselves we haven’t, but either way we’re still in control; we can choose to change in response, but we don’t have to if we don’t want to. All we have to do is endure it. Mercy, though—mercy unsettles us, because it reverses the field on us. It takes us out of control, because we can’t predict it, we can’t earn it, we can’t determine it in any way—God’s mercy is entirely his own doing, completely outside us, completely beyond us. And mercy has a power to compel which punishment lacks, because it challenges us to respond in kind; it challenges us to live up to it. In the very fact that it makes no demands of us, it requires us to change.
No author has ever captured this truth better than Victor Hugo in his great novel Les Misérables, in the relationship between the hero, ex-convict Jean Valjean, and the Bishop, whom Hugo refers to as “Monseigneur Bienvenu”—Bishop Welcome. Dirty, shivering and bedraggled, abused by free society, Valjean knocked at the bishop’s door, begging; the bishop invited him in, fed him, warmed him, and gave him a room and a bed for the night. And what did Valjean do? Having woken up in the middle of the night because the bed was too comfortable, he slipped out, stole the six silver place settings and the ladle, and fled.
Of course, the gendarmes catch him and drag him back to the bishop’s house. Expecting to be returned to prison, instead Valjean hears the bishop say this: “Ah! here you are! I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get 200 francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?” The bishop sends the gendarmes on their way, then turns to Valjean and says this: “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man. . . . Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
That is the imprudent, transforming, difficult mercy of God; Valjean, overwhelmed, accepted it and was transformed, becoming the good man the bishop saw he could be. This is the marvelous, infinite, matchless grace that overwhelms our pride and all our defenses. It isn’t easy, because we can’t control it and we can’t take it on our own terms; it isn’t always what we want, but it’s ever what we need.