Themes of Jonah, Part 3: Change Your Mind, Jonah!

Why is it so hard to change our minds?

Themes of Jonah, Part 3: Change Your Mind, Jonah!
Photo by Ross Findon / Unsplash

Originally published in Issue #24 on September 10, 2021

Changing your mind is not virtuous in 2021. There are probably a few reasons for that, but one that seems to be everywhere is “tribalism” and peer pressure. Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has allowed us to organize ourselves into tribes of like-minded people in ways unseen before in history. This isn't always bad, but it does have several dangers.

With social media, when other tribes attack our beliefs, or even just profess different beliefs, we feel the need to be quick to speak and slow to listen. We need to defend our tribe against the “outsiders.” There is very little downside to doing so because anyone we insult or offend is behind text on a screen.

And when we question our own tribe’s beliefs, we have to keep it quiet, or else we face being ostracized by our own tribe. But what does scripture have to say about changing our mind and engaging with people who are not like us?

This little book of Jonah has much to tell us about changing our minds.

The Sailors Change Their Minds

While Jonah sleeps soundly in the belly of the ship (Jon. 1:4-5), YHWH tries to get his attention by hurling a storm at them. Jonah can’t hear God, but the sailors can. They call out to their various gods, but to no avail.

When Jonah eventually tells the sailors that the storm is his fault, the sailors try their best to reach land so that they don’t have to throw Jonah overboard to certain doom (Jon. 1:13). This is not the picture of pagans that we would expect from Jonah.

Once they throw Jonah overboard at his own request, the storm subsides. What happens then? The pagan sailors recognize the sovereignty of Yahweh (Jon. 1:16). They sacrifice to Him and make vows. They become followers of Yahweh. They change their minds.

Jonah Changes His Mind, or Does He?

Thrown overboard, God saves Jonah’s life by appointing a great fish to swallow him (see the previous blog in this series, “Themes of Jonah, Part 2: Jonah and the Big Fish”). In the belly of the fish, Jonah composes a poem to God in thankfulness for his unmerited salvation from death in the deep waters.

He ends his poem with this:

“Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”
— Jonah 2:8-9 (NIV)

Jonah changed his mind! Yes, he did. He will go to Nineveh as God asked ("what I have vowed I will pay")…but how deeply did that change go?

Jonah is agreeing to do as God wants, but he is telling God that “those who cling to worthless idols” (in other words, non-Israelites, especially Ninevites) have “abandoned,” or “forsaken,” or "turn away" from God's love for them. What does that mean?

The NET Bible translates it this way:

Those who worship worthless idols
forfeit the mercy that could be theirs.
— Jonah 2:8 (NET 2nd Ed.)

I think this translation is hitting the point (see also the NKJV, NLT, and others). Other translations are less clear (NASB, ESV, CSB, etc.). I can’t prove it, and there are other possible interpretations, but here’s what I think is happening.

Jonah is telling God that the Ninevites have forfeited any mercy that God could have for them because they worship other gods. Jonah is telling God that God is not allowed to show them mercy.

We read this book and laugh at Jonah’s sheer arrogance! We already know that the pagan idol worshipers of chapter 1 have changed their minds, hearts, and ways. They’re sacrificing and making vows to Yahweh! And this prophet of Israel is telling God, "You may not show mercy to these people!"

The Ninevites Change Their Minds

Finally, Jonah arrives at Nineveh. God tells Jonah to say what he commanded, but Jonah’s sermon is odd, to say the least. Here it is in its entirety:

“In forty days Nineveh will be demolished!”
— Jonah 3:4b

This sermon is five words in Hebrew, and amounts to “you’re all about to die!” No hope of mercy or redemption. No mention of why. That’s it. Some scholars have viewed this as an act of "prophetic sabotage" on Jonah's part. He's proclaiming to the Ninevites, sure, but his proclamation removes any potential for mercy.

But in yet another shocking twist, the Ninevites repent! The people of Nineveh “believe God.” This is the same phrase used of Abraham’s belief of God, which was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). What a scandal!

And not only the people, but the king and the animals take part in the repentance of Nineveh, in the hope that God will change his mind about the promised destruction.

God Changes His Mind

And in response to the Ninevite people’s repentance, God does change his mind. He relents.

Jonah’s declaration that God is not allowed to show mercy to pagans holds no water, as we knew it didn’t. God responds to the humility of Nineveh and shows them mercy.

Jonah Won’t Change His Mind

As we’ve seen, every character in this story changes their mind (if you count Jonah’s late willingness to go to Nineveh). The only one who didn’t let it penetrate his heart was Jonah.

Jonah had good reason (in the human sense) to hate Nineveh. 100 years before Jonah, Nineveh was responsible for great destruction in Israel. In Jonah’s day, Assyria had gone through great turmoil, and Nineveh was no longer the capital city. It was diminished from the height of its power, but it was still a great city. The people in it were the descendants of the nation that had pillaged the Israelite people without mercy.

But God’s command to Jonah was to preach against the city (Jonah 1:2). So why is Jonah running? Because he knows that God will relent if Nineveh repents (Jonah 4:2). He doesn’t want to give Nineveh the chance to turn from their evil.

According to Jonah, God should love, have compassion upon, and seek the good of one nation and one nation alone: Israel. In that sense, Jonah is an Israelite nationalist. Jonah has forgotten the promise given to his ancestor Abraham, “and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3b).

Being an Israelite is more important to him than being a prophet of the Most High.

Will We Change Our Minds?

Do we think that God’s favor is on us and our tribe and no others? Do we think our nation has special favor from God, and God doesn’t truly love other peoples?

What about Christians who think differently than us?

What about sinners that we believe are harming our society? Does God love them too? Do we think God’s mercy (or judgment) on them has to be on our terms?

Why was the book of Jonah written? Jonah was written to an Israelite people who had forgotten how to love their pagan neighbors. They forgot their purpose as a nation: to be a blessing to other nations.

I think that the western Christian church has, on the whole, done something similar.

We’ve forgotten that our first call is to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, not to gain political power and force others to see things our way. We’ve forgotten how to have civil dialogue and conversation with brothers and sisters, much less our enemies, who disagree with us.

Let us hold up the mirror of Jonah to ourselves and look deeply.