Jonah was one of the worst servant leaders in the Bible.
Growing up, I thought Jonah was a hero of the faith. Yes, he ran away from God, but ultimately he repented and did what he was supposed to do, saving the people of Nineveh.
When you actually read the Biblical story, however, it’s tough to see Jonah as a hero. As a prophet, he heard directly from God, but Jonah rejected God’s commands multiple times and became furious with God because of His mercy.
Despite Jonah’s inadequacy as a hero or as a servant leader, there is still much for us to learn.
The Bible Project guys put it this way, “The story of Jonah holds up a mirror to the one who reads it. In Jonah we see the worst parts of our own character magnified, which should generate humility and gratitude that God would love His enemies, and put up with the Jonah in all of us.”
In this article, we’ll explore the story of Jonah and look for servant leadership principles we can apply today, which are often directly opposed to what Jonah actually did. Let’s get to it!
Who were the People of Nineveh?
Before we get too far into the story, it’s helpful to have a little context.
Jon Stallsmith points out that Jonah lived in the Kingdom of Israel during a time of economic prosperity, but moral depravity. The powerful Israelites thought things were going great, but God’s anger was growing because of their sin.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and most people in Israel considered the Assyrians to be their enemy. The Assyrians were a brutal people who conquered other nations, and Israel was right to fear them. A few decades after the story of Jonah, the Assyrians would be the ones to wipe out the kingdom of Israel.
If you were to put yourself in Jonah’s shoes, imagine being an advisor to the king of Israel. Jonah undoubtedly had a comfortable life, and like most Israelites, he did not like the Assyrians. So when God called him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, Jonah was outraged. Instead of obeying, he makes a run for it. Which brings us to our first principle of servant leadership:
1) Obey God’s Voice Quickly
In Jonah 1:1-3, the story gets started with these words:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and cry out against it, because their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship that was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and boarded it to go with them to Tarshish away from the presence of the Lord.
God gave Jonah a clear command, and Jonah quickly disobeyed. He went all-in as well – Instead of staying put, he fled to Tarshish, which is 2,500 miles away from Joppa and in the total opposite direction from Nineveh!
And yet, Jonah learned that he could not run away from God. The Lord pursued him across the sea through a storm, and brought him back to land inside the belly of a great whale.
Jonah realized that he would have to obey God, and so he turned and started his march towards Nineveh. He could have saved himself, and others, a lot of pain and heartache if he had obeyed God from the start.
2) Obey God’s Voice with a Joyful Heart
Although Jonah finally chooses to obey God, he doesn’t exactly do it with a joyful heart. He still hates Nineveh, and doesn’t want them to be saved.
He begrudgingly wandered into the city, and then in Jonah 3:4 proceeded to give the worst sermon in the entire Bible:
Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be overthrown.
That’s it. That’s the sermon.
No explanation, no offer of hope or grace. Just a warning, that within 40 days the city of Nineveh will be overthrown.
And somehow, the sermon works. The people repent! And Jonah gets furious with God because Jonah wanted their destruction.
When God calls us to do something, we should do it with a joyful heart. God wants us to be part of His Kingdom and His work of restoration, but if we obey with a sour attitude we will miss the joy and contentment that comes from obeying Him with joy.
3) Anyone Can Be Saved
One of the great ironies in the story of Jonah is that the prophet of God’s people never really changes his heart. He stays angry with other people and with God until the end of the story.
Instead, we encounter two different, completely lost pagan people groups, who change their hearts and demonstrate more righteousness than Jonah.
The first is the ship crew that Jonah was sailing with to Tarshish. They did not know the God of Israel, but when Jonah told them about Him, he also explained that the only way to stop the storm and survive was to throw him overboard. The crew came to fear God and did everything they could to prevent ending Jonah’s life. Here’s how it unfolded in Jonah 1:13-16:
However, the men rowed desperately to return to land, but they could not, because the sea was becoming even stormier against them. Then they cried out to the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life, and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, Lord, have done as You pleased.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. Then the men became extremely afraid of the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
They aren’t the only people who demonstrated heart change. The people of Nineveh repented in a powerful way after hearing Jonah’s “sermon.” Jonah 3:10 says this,
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil way, then God relented of the disaster which He had declared He would bring on them. So He did not do it.
Again, these people were not your typical people of peace. No one would expect them to repent and seek after God, but it demonstrates God’s power to work in the hearts of others.
We can and should do our best to preach the Gospel, but ultimately we need God to change hearts. He can work miracles in anyone, and so we should never treat someone like they’re too far gone or irredeemable.
4) Be Slow to Anger
When God chooses to spare the city of Nineveh, Jonah gets really angry. Here is how Jonah 4:1-4 describes the scene,
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He 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.”
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Remember, Jonah thought of the Ninevites as his enemy. He wanted them judged, he wanted them wiped off the face of the planet.
When God chose to show mercy, Jonah actually gets angry with God for being compassionate and “abounding in love.” He is so angry, in fact, that he asks God to take His own life.
God asks Jonah a valid question, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah doesn’t respond, at least at first. Instead, he sits outside the city and watches. Jonah becomes uncomfortable because of the heat, but God provides him with a leafy plant that provides shade. This provides some solace to Jonah, until the next day when God sends a worm and a scorching East Wind to destroy the plant.
Once again, Jonah gets angry. It’s a kind of irrational anger we have all felt, when things haven’t been going our way but we’re holding it together until something trivial goes wrong and we lose our minds. Jonah 4:8-9 says this,
He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
Jonah can’t hold his tongue anymore. He is angry about everything, even things he cannot control. God reminds Jonah that he did not create the plant, and yet he cared deeply for it.
God challenges him by saying, “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?”
In other words, if Jonah is allowed to care for a plant that he had nothing to do with, shouldn’t God be able to care for the city of Nineveh, which contains hundreds of thousands of people (and even animals) that He created? Who is Jonah to challenge God for His mercy on His own creation?
The principle for us is this: God is slow to anger and abounding in love. If we want to be more like Him, if we want to be leaders who serve, then we must be slow to anger as well.
Jonah’s anger led him to bitterness and depression, he held on to it tightly and would not let it go. There is a time for righteous anger, but we should be slow to arrive there. We must remember that God has already shown us tremendous grace and mercy, and therefore, we too should be compassionate and quick to show grace.
5) Remove the Log from Your Own Eye
One of the reasons for Jonah’s anger is that he could only see the sin of Nineveh. He could not acknowledge his own sin or the sin of his people, because the people of Nineveh seemed so much worse.
To be clear, Nineveh really was a bad place. Jonah wasn’t wrong about this.
But it is important to remember that Jonah lived in Israel during a time of economic prosperity and moral depravity. Israel did not have an excuse for their actions in Nineveh. Israel was called to live according to God’s standards, not the standards of other nations around them.
Jonah was a prophet in Israel, he could have spent his time and efforts calling Israel to repent and to change. Instead of working to change the culture of Israel for the better, he chose to focus on how awful their enemies were. He was blind to his own sin and the sin of his people, and this sense of self-righteousness left him angry at the mercy of God.
As mentioned early, the irony is that the deplorable city of Nineveh actually repents when God calls them out. Israel, however, refuses to change. They did not see their own sin, they didn’t think they needed to repent. They had the wrong standard.
Today, we face the same temptation. As individuals, we are tempted to build up our own sense of righteousness by comparing our behavior with others instead of trusting in God to justify and sanctify us. Organizations and groups do the same thing. How often have you seen a political party quickly accuse another political party of wrongdoing, but ignore the issues in their own party?
It’s so much easier to blame others and accuse them of faults and failures than to deal with our own issues, but this is what Jesus calls us to do. Matthew 7:3-5 puts it this way,
Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
By starting with our own sin, we can better understand and appreciate the mercy of God, we can love others more effectively, and we can actually be a part of positive change.
Conclusion – The Story of Jonah
The book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece, filled with drama and irony. Jonah is not the hero we need, but God still used Him and revealed His mercy.
The good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to depend on imperfect prophets to save us – Jesus came and lived a perfect life on our behalf. Because of this, we can humble ourselves and obey God quickly and joyfully, we can love our enemies, we can be slow to anger, and we can actually embrace mercy and see change occur in ourselves.