Many are aware of Jonah as the reluctant prophet, who when first called to Nineveh chose instead to flee by ship to Tarshish. Because of Jonah’s disobedience, God raised a storm, until Jonah was thrown overboard, and subsequently swallowed by a fish. Artist Matt Chinworth powerfully captures Jonah’s shame when, in the belly of the fish, he finally has a moment to reflect on his failure.
We are not generally aware, however, why Jonah was reluctant, why he did not want to preach to Ninevah the message of repentance. From our own era of pluralism, we project onto Jonah our own reluctance to call for repentance, our own hesitance to make strong truth claims. But Jonah’s hesitation was not so much in the preaching of repentance; his concern was that the people would actually repent, and that God would have mercy upon them.
Jonah explains himself in the often forgotten fourth chapter of the book:
“Please, Yahweh, wasn’t this what I said when I was still in my own country? Therefore I hurried to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness, and you relent of doing harm.”
If Jonah is at times like the prodigal son, running away from his true calling to Nineveh, he is also like the prodigal’s older brother, proud in his righteousness and offended at the possibility of mercy. But the story of Jonah is the story of God working his mercy at all levels, not only upon Nineveh, but also upon Jonah.
In his art Matt Chinworth is strikingly capable of depicting that mercy. Capturing moments in intimate close-up detail as well as at great scale, Matt’s visuals reveal the practical dynamics of mercy at work in the various details of the book of Jonah. Here, Jonah returns to land after being vomited up by the fish.
The close-up shows not only that Jonah is blinded by the light after three days in the dark; it also captures Jonah’s surprise to be alive at all. Where Jonah expected to die in the sea for his disobedience, God showed his mercy by delivering him back to land by a fish.
Consider also Matt's depiction of the repentance of Ninevah:
There is a wonderful sense of scale, together with various expressions of repentance throughout the city. The image depicts both the authenticity and the universality of Nineveh's repentance, thereby vindicating both God’s patience with the people, together with his decision to send them Jonah.
To read our edition of Jonah together with Matt Chinworth’s visuals is to encounter the material as if for the first time. Jonah is not just another story of God working miraculously in and through his prophets. It is also a story of God revealing his mercy, to great cities, to his prophets, and to his people across time. And this is why, much later, Jesus would cite Jonah as a sign for his generation. Like Jonah, Jesus would reveal the depth of God’s mercy. Unlike Jonah, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when, for three days, he went into the deep.
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