In the era of the “anti-hero”, the protagonist who takes on the role of the hero, but lacks the qualities to be seen as one, we should be reading the character of Jonah as being the anti-prophet. He has the role, but nothing about him seems to indicate that he should be doing it.
Many people, when coming to Jonah ask the question, can a man live in a fish for three days and three nights? This should be put in the same category of whether a man can be raised from the dead after three days? Can a pagan nation, faced with God’s judgment repent of their sins and cast themselves on God’s mercy (Jonah 4)?
A more difficult question, I think, to whether Jonah lived in a fish is whether he repented. He has clearly been disobedient to God. Even the pagan sailors can see this (Jonah 1:10). But does he address this disobedience in his prayer to God in chapter 2? This is a difficult question to answer.
What we do know is that he certainly looks to God for salvation (2:6,9). He is the recipient of grace (2:10). In the next chapter, he does what is asked of him instead of repeating his disobedience (3:1-3). There are a lot of good things about what Jonah is praying.
But there is a notable silence as to whether he is sorry for what he does wrong.
Timmer1 assesses Jonah as being someone who is blaming everyone else but himself2. “Jonah, however, although he is unquestionably in dire straits because of his own disobedience does not even recognise his sin and so utters not a word of confession.”3 And “As Jonah’s prayer continues, we will see that this tendency to ignore his sin dominates his interpretation of his deliverance.”4
While this is an argument from silence, it is a silence that is deafening. It stands in contrast to the pagans (1:14, 3:7-10). A lack of confession could also show where Jonah’s heart really lies. He knows what it is to be the recipient of grace. But this act of grace and mercy has not changed him. He still doesn’t want to see the Ninevehites saved and receive the same mercy he has.
If we are to see Jonah as a reflection of the people of God at the time, then we are seeing people who are expecting that God will rescue them based on their covenantal relationship with him rather than on his character of a God who is loving and merciful (Ex 34:6-7).
But what it means for us is to show the importance of confessing our sins as people who are recipients of grace (1 John 1:8-10). Without which we can end up looking down on other sinners who need saving, without recognising our own need.
1 Daniel Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God. NSBT series (Nottingham: IVP, 2011).
2 Timmer, p85.
3 Timmer, p82.
4 Timmer, p84.