Jonah has completed a most successful preaching mission. He can travel home, full of joy and thanksgiving for God’s mighty power to change even the most violently wicked hearts. At least that is what we might expect.
All through the Book of Jonah, the prophet has registered rather low on any scale of comparison with all of the pagans he has encountered. In the first chapter, the mariners and their captain perceive the power of God in the sea storm and worship Him. The wicked Ninevites in chapter 3 respond in true repentance to God. Even the pagan monarch in Nineveh humbly submits to God’s sovereign authority, recognizing that the Lord was not obligated to spare the city (3:9). Jonah obeys God only after the most dramatic divine measures. And in chapter 4, he is still hostile. Yes, God has had far more trouble with His prophet than with the most profligate of the Gentile world.
“In the charge given him, Jonah had been entrusted with a heavy responsibility; yet He who had bidden him go was able to sustain His servant and grant him success. Had the prophet obeyed unquestioningly, he would have been spared many bitter experiences, and would have been blessed abundantly.”1
The narrative style of chapter 4 contrasts sharply with the other three chapters. It consists almost entirely of conversation. The first chapter in the Book of Jonah is straightforward historical narrative with only two brief dialogues. The second chapter presents Jonah’s poetic prayer from inside the “great fish” (NASB).2 The third chapter resumes the historical progression. Now, in chapter 4, the narrative suddenly slows down. We pause from following events through time and listen instead to two remarkable conversations between Jonah and God.
Those who have thoroughly analyzed the stylistic features of biblical narratives have noticed that the dialogues included within such narratives are important features. The conversations usually include issues critical to understanding the narrative. This is certainly the case in the Book of Jonah.
The previous chapters have contained snippets of conversation, such as the time the sailors and the captain talked to Jonah during the storm and the time Jonah responded to the sailors (1:8, 9). However, in chapter 4, we find two dialogues between Jonah and God. And, as we might expect, they are laden with profound issues.
The chapter opens with an insight into Jonah’s present disposition. The text uses strong language to describe the prophet’s response to God’s generous grace toward Nineveh: “It greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry” (Jonah 4:1).
The original Hebrew expresses God’s unexpected mercy toward the city as being “a great evil” to Jonah. That which would have caused the Lord great pain—the punishment of Nineveh—would have pleased the prophet. But God’s acceptance of the people’s repentance made Jonah furious. The phrase literally reads: “it was hot to him,” or “it burned to him.”
This particular verb occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament, giving additional insight into the strength of Jonah’s anger. The Book of Genesis, in the story of Cain and Abel bringing their offerings to God, employs the verb describing Jonah’s anger for Cain’s reaction to God’s accepting his brother’s offering and not his: “So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell” (Gen. 4:3–5). Ultimately this anger drives Cain to murder his own brother.
The intertextual comparison of words and phrases in biblical narratives cannot be overemphasized as a valuable tool for gaining insight into the meaning of those terms or phrases, as we have just done here in Jonah’s case.
Jonah’s bitter resentment appears immediately after the announcement that God has granted forgiveness to Nineveh (Jonah 3:10). The prophet has seen his preaching bring a citywide repentance of all classes of people. One would think that he would be overjoyed. But the Lord has not punished Nineveh, and it makes Jonah furious.
The strong expression in the original language indicates that Jonah’s bitter anger has welled up from the depths of his being. It is like a child throwing a temper tantrum. Jonah 4:1 vividly portrays Jonah expressing his burning anger as he falls into a rage. The overturning of Nineveh has greatly upset the petulant prophet. The issue for him is not so much that God changes His mind but whom He forgives. How can God possibly share His mercy with the corrupt Ninevites? Everybody knew the Assyrians’ reputation, as the Old Testament historical records remind us.
In fact, the Assyrians are never friends of Israel in the Old Testament. God even uses them as His instrument to punish His people: “‘Woe to Assyria, The rod of My anger and the staff in whose hands is My indignation, I send it against a godless nation and commission it against the people of My fury to capture booty and to seize plunder, And to trample them down like mud in the streets. Yet it does not so intend, nor does it plan so in its heart, but rather it is its purpose to destroy and to eliminate many nations” (Isa. 10:5–7).
Because of Assyria’s loathsome reputation, Jonah is convinced that God is not strict enough with His grace. He is much too free with His mercy. The Ninevites should suffer the consequences of their wickedness and violence. Divine forgiveness offends Jonah, and he is furious! Curiously, at least, the situation constrains him to pray. But his prayer is also revealing:
“He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’” (Jonah 4:2, NRSV).
It is Jonah’s second recorded prayer. His first prayer (2:1) welled up from a man trapped inside a great fish. Now he is distraught with anger. However, both times, Jonah prays to justify himself: “‘Was not this what I said?’” (4:2).
Now for the first time Jonah actually acknowledges the reason he originally tried to evade his divine summons to Nineveh. He admits why he initially tried to flee from his responsibility. Jonah even confesses that he tried to escape to Tarshish, employing the very verb used earlier in Jonah 1:3: “Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” And once more the author reminds the reader of Jonah’s panic as he determined to avoid the divine call.
So now it is confirmed. By his own words, the great preacher admits that he has had absolutely no regard for the Ninevites. He is even sure he is right to react the way he does. By implication he even rebukes God for how He has dealt with the situation. Never mind that the people of Nineveh acknowledged their guilt and repented. In Jonah’s eyes they still deserve divine punishment.
Jonah simply cannot come to terms with God’s including the Gentiles in His mercy. He simply cannot grasp why the Lord should allow them to partake of the special gracious benefits Israel enjoys as His covenant people. The prophet has already given plenty of evidence that he knows his Bible. He fills his prayer in chapter 2 with phrases and concepts from the Psalter. Thus he is surely aware of God’s promise to remove human transgressions “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12) But he is convinced that such mercy should be funneled exclusively to Israel, God’s chosen people.
Perhaps, when Jonah evaluated the situation in Nineveh, he remembered the destruction of two other wicked cites that God earlier punished because of their wickedness. The description of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah uses some of the same vocabulary as the Book of Jonah does for Nineveh: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. . . . Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived” (Gen. 19:24–29).
Or perhaps the prophet recalled the Flood, in which God specified the reason for the destruction of the world at that time: “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. Then God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth’” (Gen. 6:11–13).
His rejoinder to God in Jonah 4 even included the sacred reference to God’s character from Exodus 34:5 to 7: “‘I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity’” (Jonah 4:2). The adjectives that the prophet uses to describe God—gracious and compassionate—Scripture applies exclusively to God. The concepts form part of God’s own declaration of His being to Moses when He replaced the broken tablets of the Decalogue following Israel’s golden-calf apostasy: “The Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:5–7).
All through the Old Testament, including the Book of Jonah, we find that God delights in proclaiming His mercy! He simply cannot confine His love to only select human beings. Many biblical writers echo this glorious sentiment. The prophet Jeremiah represents but one of many:
‘At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it’” (Jer. 18:7, 8).
The other attributes of God mentioned in Jonah’s prayer—“‘slow to anger’” and “‘abounding in steadfast love’” (NRSV)—also belong exclusively to the character of the Lord all through the Old Testament. We find, however, that it upset Jonah that God would share His wondrous attributes with an evil city such as Nineveh. He was highly critical of any universal application of the divine qualities of grace and lovingkindness. He thought God should reserve them for the righteous. Judgment properly should be the destiny of the wicked. In Jonah’s mind, God was far too prone to forgive sinners.
Jonah sees God’s deferral of judgment on Nineveh as a huge mistake. The prophet strongly disapproves of sharing the Lord’s compassion with wicked and violent non-Israelites. And he presumes to govern God’s world better than the Lord does, accusing and condemning Him for being like He is. The prophet dares to castigate divine mercy and scorn God’s compassion. Ultimately Jonah’s real reason for running away from his divine commission has less to do with Nineveh’s vile sinners than with God’s merciful character.
The prophet apparently had never figured out that the wicked Ninevites were really no different than he himself. Both the Ninevites and Jonah were all rebellious sinners deserving punishment. Yet God had graciously decided to show mercy to all of them. Jonah was willing to accept such wondrous mercy for himself, but not for Nineveh. And so he begged: “‘O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (4:3, NRSV).
It is not the first time that an Old Testament prophet has prayed for God to take his life. Recall that when the people of Israel continued to make bitter complaints against God in the wilderness, Moses “said to the Lord, ‘Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? . . . I am not able to carry all this people by myself, because it is too burdensome for me. So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my misery’” (Num. 11:11–15).
However, Moses had better motivations than Jonah now displays. Jonah just couldn’t comprehend why God had extended Nineveh’s probation. He simply couldn’t appreciate the fact that “Nineveh repented, and called upon God, and God accepted their acknowledgment of Him. Forty years of probation was granted them in which to reveal the genuineness of their repentance and to turn from sin.”3 Nor did Jonah care that when Nineveh’s doom had been averted, God’s glory had been praised far beyond Israel’s borders!
Notice how God’s attention now shifted from Nineveh to Jonah as He patiently tried to instruct His errant servant. And Jonah’s gracious and merciful God gently asks him a searching question: “‘Is it right for you to be angry?’” (4:4, NRSV). God urged him to reconsider his rancor.
The Lord’s response is surprisingly mild. He desires Jonah to come to his senses and see the childishness of his behavior—and He could not be more patient about it. Helping His stubborn prophet become a more mature believer seems to be one of His paramount goals, just as important to Him as was the salvation of Nineveh itself.