The story of Jonah is one of the most intriguing subjects to deal with. Jonah fled from God against His will, which is, God’s plan to give a chance to the Ninevites to repent who didn’t know the truth and became so wicked in the sight of the Lord (“there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals.” Jonah 4:11b). Jonah seemed to be not happy throughout the story even to the point of anger shown to God over the salvation of the Ninevites.
It is very unusual that God used people against their will (free will). Jonah had his plan to pursue his own way to the best of his knowledge away from God. The wicked Ninevites, so what? He went to Joppa and set sail to the opposite direction of Nineveh, as far as Tarshish (Jonah 1:1-2).
God never gave up Jonah to pursue His plan. Jonah as His chosen vessel was so indifferent by challenging against God’s will. His disobedience created a new trouble to those who are with him. God sent the unusual scale of a storm over the sea where Jonah was. After the people in the same boat discovered Jonah was the one who caused them to encounter the life-threatening storm and then they decided to throw the troubled Jonah into the sea. Obviously, the sea became calm down (Jonah 1:3-13).
That is not the end of the story. God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. This is the first mercy shown to Jonah. He was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Even Christ portrayed Jonah in Matthew 12:38-41 NIV (also Luke 11:29-32):
“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’
He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.'”
Jonah’s three-days-and-three-nights is pointing to Jesus’ death and resurrection according to the Scripture which is harmony with the rest of the Gospel.
From inside the belly of the big fish, Jonah prayed earnestly to the Lord. By his repented heart, God commanded the big fish to bring up Jonah to the dry land (Jonah 2).
This time Jonah was obedient to what God said to him. He went to Nineveh and preached the Gospel. The result was a precedent: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth [repented]” (Jonah 3:5 NIV).
The story still continues. Jonah was not a happy man. He was resentful at God who was gracious and compassionate to the Ninevites. Jonah prayed to God, “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3 NIV). By Jonah’s bargaining with God, the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4 NIV). Then Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city to observe the city. God made a large leafy plant grow overnight to shade Jonah’s head from the sun. This is the second mercy shown to Jonah after the big fish. The next day, God sent worms to eat the plant to be withered overnight. God created the scorching hot conditions to him. Jonah wanted to die and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8b). Jonah didn’t create this plant and then why Jonah had to be angry about the plant when it was taken away? By this illustration, God saw the repented Ninevites were more precious than Jonah’s immediate complaint about the plant (once lived and now perished–the perished soul vs. the repented soul). – T