Tough love is the Jonah way. By closely examining the book of Jonah, and looking at its genre and context, we can come to an understanding of its meaning. While it's a weird book, it profoundly shows God's love. Jonah could be described as a "top 5 worst of" list, but in the "worst" of Jonah and his efforts, we find the best of God. God's love can be tough and it's a love we need.
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I’m intimately acquainted with tough love. Anyone who has worked with me has received tough love; anyone I have worked for has been required to offer it. My wife knows that tough love is the only way to really get through to me. There is a sixth love language everyone and it’s called “tough.”
One of the central themes of the book of Jonah is tough love. Jonah doesn't understand the love God offers Jonah’s enemies. And God loves Jonah, despite Jonah not knowing how to love his enemies or his God. Love is written all over the book. Yet, love as a verb—or even as a noun—is absent from this little book among the Minor Prophets.
Love in the book of Jonah is like Santa at Christmas. Everyone knows what he represents—he doesn’t have to say anything at all. He can feel like a cliché fat man in a suit, but he can also warm your heart—especially when Michael Buble sings about him.
The key to seeing the love in Jonah is first to read it closely, second to really understand it’s genre and context, and third to realize what’s not there. What is absent in this book?
Jonah is foremost poetic narrative. It’s narrative full or irony, parallels, and absurdities. As readers of Jonah, we often interpret it like historical narrative without acknowledging the creativity of the narrator. This does not mean that the book of Jonah is fiction, but it’s narrative is certainly creative.
You could think of Jonah as a dark comedy; it’s meant to illustrate points of truth through strange scenes. A part of your brain when reading Jonah should be saying, “Not computing.” And it’s those points you should especially pay attention to. In this regard, the book of Jonah can be read through a “top 5 worst” events lists: #1) The worst prophet gets a message and runs; #2) The worst boat ride ever; #3) The worst prayer ever delivered from the belly of a fish; #4) The worst sermon ever delivered; and #5) The worst response to God.
In this top 5 worst events list, we also see five deeply profound ideas about love.
The book of Jonah opens with a bang, dropping you straight into an ongoing story.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord” (Jonah 1:1–3 NIV).
In the time of Jonah, Nineveh was one of the four major metropolis cities of Assyria. Jonah lived during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (who reigned circa 786–746 BC; this is according to 2 Kings 14:25). If you were any other nation at this time, you would have hated Assyria—they were known for their cruelty in warfare. And the patron deity of Nineveh itself, where God called Jonah to go, was a goddess of love and war.
Rather than go to enemy territory, Jonah heads to Israel’s ally, in Phoenicia—probably aboard a Phoenician ship. Jonah could have stayed where he was, but instead makes a conscious decision to go to the opposite side of the known world. So why does he leave? It’s unclear exactly why, but it could be rooted in him not understanding that Yahweh is a God of the entire world, not just Israel. Yahweh is not limited to geography like the other gods worshipped in the ancient Near East. Jonah is running away from his responsibilities. He is a prophet on the run.
God desired Jonah to preach a message of tough love to Assyria. And the fact that he is sent to preach at all shows God’s love: God is giving them a chance to change their ways.
Love, then, is a powerful answer to hate and violence—in both the ancient Near East and today. God loved Nineveh, despite Nineveh's evil. And we will find out in this narrative that love is also the answer to the hate in Jonah’s heart.
Once at sea, a storm hits Jonah’s boat and everyone panics (Jonah 1:4–5). This is a surprise, since Jonah is likely on a Phoenician ship—and the Phoenicians were known for their seamanship. Jonah’s trip to Spain—which is where he is heading—is not going so well for him or for others. This storm is deeply frightening.
Through a little divination by casting lots, the sailors determine that Jonah is responsible. And after a bit of dialog and the sailors trying to make land once more, they toss him in the sea (Jonah 1:6–16).
Is there a message of love here? Perhaps, God could have destroyed the boat, killing Jonah and all the men aboard. But he doesn’t. There is mercy—the sea calms after Jonah hits the water and a great fish is sent to swallow Jonah (Jonah 1:15–17).
We know this to be the case because the narrator makes it clear: “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). In parallel, Jonah 4:6–8 likewise emphasizes God’s providence—making this a recurring theme throughout the book. God mercifully saves, despite the actions of Jonah. But he also does not hesitate to change the circumstances to accomplish his purposes. This is tough love.
Once in the belly of the great fish, Jonah offers a prayer of thanksgiving (Jonah 2).
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (Jonah 2:2 NIV).
Statements like these are common in Thanksgiving psalms (compare Psalm 18:6). This is odd because Jonah is still in the belly of the fish—he hasn’t been delivered from the realm of the dead yet.
From a genre standpoint, Jonah’s prayer sounds familiar. There are many parallel prayers in other passages. Thanksgiving prayers were common in Israel—many of them are recorded in the book of Psalms and the Dead Sea Scrolls uncovered additional documents based in the Thanksgiving genre.
Jonah’s thanksgiving could be genuine and show his faith. He could be genuinely grateful and believe that God will do all the things that he says in his prayer. He could believe in his full deliverance so much that he is proclaiming it like it already has happened.
Or Jonah could be simply following the religious customs of his time without any personal change of heart. This view is rooted in what’s missing here: an admission of guilt or sin and repentance. Jonah is praising God for his rescue through thanksgiving, but he is not admitting why he ended up in the belly of the fish to begin with. Furthermore, Jonah is saying he will return to the temple, not go to Nineveh (Jonah 2:4, 7). He even makes a vow in his prayer, but what vow is he referencing (Jonah 2:9)? He has made God no guarantees that he will obey and go to Nineveh.
Yet, God again shows Jonah love. Despite Jonah’s contriteness, God shows him love by preserving his life and taking him back to dry land (Jonah 2:10).
Upon dry land, God sends word to Jonah again: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 3:2 NIV).
Jonah then delivers what could be described as the worst prophetic sermon ever: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4 NIV). What? That’s it. Imagine saying to a congregation, “Forty days and you’re going to be overthrown” and then just walking off stage. There is nothing here about Yahweh at all.
Jonah’s message here is ambiguous. The word often translated as “overthrown” or “destroyed” can also be translated as “changed” or “turned.” If the people repent, they will be changed. If the people don’t repent, their city will be destroyed.
Amazingly, the people repent and begin to fast—and the king gets on board and commands this be done (Jonah 3:5–9).
Jonah’s message of repentance to Nineveh was simple and it worked—despite Jonah's faults. Love is seen in how God uses it to turn the hearts of the people.
Love is also seen in God’s great mercy against the violent people of Assyria: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10 NIV).
Jonah can’t tolerate this response from God. Despite all the mercy he has personally received, he cannot imagine a world where God loves the people of Nineveh.
“[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2–3 NIV).
Now that he is alive, out of the belly of the fish, Jonah demands to die. He is probably being sarcastic, but it’s still clear that he does not understand the God he serves (Jonah 4:1–3).
When those who once hated Jonah are filled with love for his God, he does not respond with love himself. Instead, he wishes they were dead.
I love God’s response: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4 NIV). He questions Jonah’s very ethics. Jonah feels righteous, but God essentially asks him, “Really—are you sure about your position?”
In this region, it could have easily been 120 degrees, so Jonah builds a shelter and God helps by sending Jonah a plant to shade his head (Jonah 4:5–6). But a worm comes along and eats the plant, at the command of God—there is a metaphor here (Jonah 4:7–8). The point of the metaphor: Why be disappointed about things you have no control over—especially for that which you did not earn?
Jonah required more convincing than Nineveh. Thus, God loves him the tough way.
But Jonah is tough too—he still demands to die. God responds gently, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” (Jonah 4:9).
But this doesn’t change Jonah’s mind. So God has to explain it:
“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10–11 NIV).
Jonah is exclusive about his love. It belongs to his people, from his God, for those whom he loves.
Jesus directly commented on this problem, saying:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32–36 NIV).
And that is the end of the article. Is there anything more to say than that?
Watching the day-old old calf frolic across the field—full of life and hope—I am filled with joy. I then see its mother, nudging it forward. I am reminded of the way God cares for us. He knows the difficult life ahead, just like this mother cow, but he wants us to enjoy our time in the green pasture nonetheless (Psalm 23). He nudges us along.
“Every age has its turn. Every branch of the tree has to learn. Learn to grow, finds its way, Make the best of this short-lived stay.” —José Gonzaleź, “Every Age”
We all have to learn to find our way. We all have to grow. And we cannot do so when we are stagnant. We must move along. We must stand up and walk, even run, like that day-old calf. We must embrace the uncertain ground, knowing that in this field and in the next, and in the one after that, we will grow and learn. If God says it is in his will to move along—if he nudges our heart—we should do so (Luke 9:62). Yet the uncertainty of life often overwhelms us.
If you look back at the lives of the prophets—from Moses to Elijah to Jonah—it is clear that their lives were often lived in the uncertainty. God nudged them to unknown places—from wildernesses, to mountain tops, to foreign cities—but he was there each step along the way. God gave the prophets the words to say and the provision they needed (e.g., 1 Kings 17; Jonah 4:6–7; Exodus 16).
The prophets had to learn and grow. And in the uncertainty, God made that happen.
Knowing the future sounds wonderful, but it would ruin the present. The future is only God’s to behold (compare Ecclesiastes 8:7).
Growth often means pain. And growth without pain is an oxymoron. Suffering is often how God shows us himself. Suffering is part of the call to serve Jesus:
“If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 LEB).
It may be hard to hear these words, and I know from experience, that they are even harder to live. But when lived, these words will transform us.
Think of your growing pains as a child—that summer when your legs hurt so bad that you couldn’t seem to drink enough milk. Your body was transforming. Without that pain, you wouldn’t be who you are today. This is how faith is; it is often like growing pains.
“Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2–4 LEB).
We know why suffering should be counted as joy, because it will change us for the better. It will draw us closer to God.
If the mother cow didn’t nudge her calf along, it would never see the green pasture outside the barn. It would live a life that was boring, sad, and stagnant. If God didn’t nudge us along into the unknown, we would never experience the joy of others coming to Christ, of our relationships with him growing. We wouldn’t see the pierced hands of Christ for what they really are—redemption, relationship, and the freedom to know God.