The book of Jonah has a message that is loud and clear about God, namely, his mercy is not confined to Israel but extends to any people who will trust him and repent of their sin. What saves is not nationality but faith. That’s a great gospel message coming out of the Old Testament. But I don’t think it is the main point of this book. The book is really about Jonah—about you and me and the way we ought to be if we have a God with mercy like this. The main point of the book of Jonah is not, “God is merciful.” The main point is, “You be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” The ultimate lesson about prayer in the book of Jonah is that God answers us in mercy to make us merciful.
This is confirmed if we just watch God finish his work on Jonah in chapter 4. Verses 1 and 2 show that Jonah had failed to learn the lesson of the fish: he is angry that God forgave the Ninevites. He is still a rebellious instrument of mercy. So he goes out of town to wait. And notice what God does in verse 6. Just as (in 1:17) God appointed a fish to save his prophet, so in 4:6 he appoints a plant to save Jonah from the discomfort of the sun. God will try to teach him one more time. Only this time the lesson plan is reversed. Jonah will not move from distress to deliverance (as he did in the water), but from deliverance to distress. Verse 6 says that Jonah was exceedingly glad with the plant, just like he was glad to be saved from the water.
But the next day God appointed a worm that made the plant wither, and then he appointed a sultry east wind and a hot sun and made Jonah miserable. And Jonah got angry. Then God comes and with his word lays bare the heart of Jonah. In essence, what he says at the end of chapter 4 is this: “You pity the plant and get angry when I destroy it, but when I pity 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, you get angry with me!”
And if the book had recorded the rest of God’s dealings with Jonah, I think it would have ended like this (and it’s just as relevant for us): “Jonah, don’t you see what I was trying to teach you when I answered your cry of distress and sent the fish to save you? I had mercy on you in spite of your guilt. I had mercy on you in spite of my own sentence of judgment. I saved you from impossible circumstances. I delivered you in the nick of time. I commanded a fish to save your life. You were filled with a song of thanksgiving for my mercy and vowed your loyalty to me. Jonah, Jonah, be merciful, even as I have been merciful to you!”