We think we know the story. We have all read it in picture books and heard it in Sunday school: Jonah disobeys, Jonah says sorry, Jonah obeys. We need to be like Jonah. The end.
But Jonah did not say sorry, and he did not obey. At least not in the Bible.
Here are four things that are different in the true story:
1. Jonah's request to be thrown into the sea was an act of rebellion, not self-sacrifice.
Admitting he was wrong is very different from being sorry, and repenting. Jonah may have admitted the storm was his fault, but he wasn't sorry. Why didn't he ask God for forgiveness right away? If his intention was simply to save the sailors from the storm, why did he not jump off the ship himself? Why ask the sailors to throw him overboard?
This was not self-sacrifice; this was not obedience. He continued to run, this time pulling the sailors into his scheme. The sailors were not fooled. They were well aware that he was asking them to commit murder (Jonah 1:13-14).
2. Jonah's prayer in the belly of the fish was self-righteous and self-centered. And he did not say sorry.
Most storybooks summarize the entire chapter two with one sentence: "Jonah prayed and said sorry for running away" or "Jonah prayed and asked God to forgive him."
But he didn't.
Chapter two contains no hint of repentance and no request for forgiveness. Instead, his prayer was about how good his was, comparing himself to the faithful and persecuted servant in Psalm 5 and 12. Quoting scripture in your prayer doesn't make it true.
3. Jonah did not obey God after the fish vomited.
First, God gave the same command to Jonah a second time (this never happens to another prophet in the Bible). If God has to give the command again, it is not likely that he went straight to Nineveh as most storybooks would have us believe.
Second, Jonah did not proclaim God's message to the people in Nineveh. He might have told part of God's message: "In forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed." But he didn't even mention God's name! There is a distinct pattern in God's messages to those he loves and wants to rescue: Repent and believe. Jonah said none of those things. He didn't want to.
Yet, because God is God — the people repented and believed anyway!
4. Most stories end in Nineveh. But that is not the end!
Chapter four ties all it all together. It must not be skipped. Jonah throws a tantrum. A full-out, four-year-old kind of tantrum (except worse because he wasn't a four-year-old). If Jonah had repented and obeyed like most storybooks claim, why the outburst now?
Here, Jonah hung out his dirty laundry for all to see. We now know exactly why he disobeyed. Jonah ran away not because he was mad at the Assyrians or the Ninevites (Israel's enemies, as many storybooks try to explain). He was mad at God. Jonah was mad at God for being God—for being kind and patient, merciful and compassionate. The very reasons why he was still alive!
God is hero of the story. And we must tell the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.
Update (April 8, 2015): Jonah continued to stay with me for years, patiently teaching me how to pray. He taught me how to say sorry. I wrote a more recent reflection on Jonah on the Gospel Coalition Blog.