Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 2014. Part 5 of 5
At last we come to the great “showdown” of this story—when Jonah finally speaks honestly with God and, in spite of his rage and despair, the Lord teaches him graciously yet again who is sovereign and just.
Jonah (after taking a rather, shall we say, circuitous route) obeyed God, delivering a fiery warning of coming judgment to the people of Nineveh. To his surprise, they listened and repented, and, “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10).
Far from the reaction you might expect after what looks like a “successful” delivery of his prophetic message, Jonah reflected bitterly on Nineveh’s repentance: “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry” (4:1). In his grief and anger, Jonah cried out to the Lord: “He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’” (4:2-3).
Here he reveals his motives for fleeing the Lord in the first place. Because he knew the Lord’s character (the phrase, “compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness,” appears numerous times in the Old Testament), Jonah did not want to obey. He knew that God was sending him to proclaim judgment on Nineveh so the city would have opportunity to repent and be spared His wrath, and he wanted no part in it. He had wished for judgment, for God’s righteousness and power to be displayed and Israel’s unique enjoyment of His favor to be preserved by a blast from heaven. Instead, the Lord had mercy, protecting idolatrous, uncircumcised pagans from receiving the due reward of their sin at that time.
His sinful yet authentic prayer has much to tell us about our own hearts and our own views of God’s ways. That Jonah would rather die than to witness this result is telling—he claims to know the Lord’s nature, but clearly does not understand God on His own terms. How often, if we are frank, do we act as though we have earned His favor by our righteousness, and long for His justice to be done to others who fail to meet our standard? Jonah, in spite of what he has been given just in this small slice of his life recorded here, still failed (as we all so often do) to see that God’s mercy and lovingkindness are His free gifts—that none of us is deserving of anything but His wrath. We love the idea of a just and all-powerful God more than we love God Himself.
In his prayer, we also see that God indeed desires that we cast our cares on Him. To paraphrase Calvin’s commentary on this passage, a bad prayer is still a prayer. Jonah is whining and grumbling against the Lord, but he is at least complaining in the right direction. When we do not understand the Lord’s ways, or when we are wrestling with how His plan differs from ours, it is by far the better part to cry out to Him in our anxiety than to attempt to solve things on our own. Jonah’s second choice (to pour out his anger toward God after obedience) is to be preferred to his first choice (to flee from God altogether). As the rest of the chapter shows, God deals patiently with Jonah, not answering him according to his folly, but orchestrating a chastising illustration to correct him.
First, God challenges Jonah: “The Lord said, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry?’” (4:4). One thing is always certain when the Lord begins questioning you—you are about to be disabused of any notions of self-righteousness and are well on your way to humiliation (see Job 38-41). Jonah, it seems, was still not in a position to recognize this, for, after the Lord so quickly answers his prayer by returning this question, Jonah is silent. He doesn’t engage with the Lord, choosing instead to avoid the question and insisting (by his actions) that the Lord see things his way instead: “Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city” (4:5).
Knowing that Jonah was still not willing to learn, God played on his pouting to build to the lesson: “So the Lord God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant” (4:6). Even in light of Jonah’s decision to wait out the forty days to “see what would happen in the city,” God provides a comfort for him—showing him the unmerited provision he provides so freely to all of sinful humanity, causing “His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send[ing] rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).
The stage now set, the Lord finishes the illustration: “But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, ‘Death is better to me than life’” (4:7-8). The Lord gave Jonah’s comfort and the Lord took it away. In yet another exercise in missing the point, Jonah wallows in sun-baked agony and reiterates his plea for death. “Then God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?’ And he said, ‘I have good reason to be angry, even to death.’” (4:9). Jonah still bitterly clings to entitlement, writhing with fury at the Lord’s action.
Finally, the Lord moves to bring the lesson home to Jonah: “Then the Lord said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” (4:10-11). Just as Nathan confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba against Uriah by telling a story, so God acted out a parable for Jonah. Here, He interprets it, and the message is clear—“you cared more for this plant than for those I’ve created of infinitely greater worth who bear My image.”
Though they were vile sinners, the people of Nineveh, who lived in ignorance of God’s truth and His ways (the 120,000 figure seems, according to archaeological records, to point to the entire population of the city, not a subset of children or mentally incapacitated people), yet He had mercy on them. The Lord even mentions the city’s livestock as objects of mercy, as a way of pointing out Jonah’s folly in weeping over something as lowly as a plant. If the times and seasons of a gourd vine are appointed by the Lord, how much more the nations?
Here ends the story. The book itself offers no interpretation of the events and no further narration about what happened to Jonah next. What was the message, and did he get it? As we’ve endeavored to show in these few columns, the point of God’s work in this story is to showcase His sovereignty and His mercy, and to prefigure His plan to redeem men from every tribe, tongue, and nation through Christ’s coming sacrifice. As God proclaimed to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19). Jonah is an excellent case in point, brought to piercing climax in chapter four—all of us have received His unmerited favor simply in remaining alive and able to repent, as God in His infinite holiness owes us nothing.
As we’ve also alluded to, it seems that Jonah did finally comprehend the lessons of this story—the very existence of the text (which, given the level of detail and understanding of inner motives, Jonah must have recorded himself) is the best argument for this. Of course, as Paul wrote of the Israelites, “these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). So we would do well to study this story and to prayerfully seek the Lord’s wisdom in applying its truths to our lives as well. If we learn nothing else, let it be that we ought always to listen to and obey the Lord, even (perhaps especially) when to do so grates against our deepest desires.
Like Jonah, we too often look on those outside the faith as our enemies, forgetting a) that they have been deceived just as we once were and b) that the Lord’s favor is a gift to both them and us. We ought to grieve with the Lord that blasphemy against His name endures and flourishes in the world, and pray and work fervently to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Instead we rush to appoint ourselves judges over the nations, upholding God’s lawful standards and forgetting the Gospel message of His grace and mercy. The world absolutely needs to repent from its evil ways, but we must remember that with repentance comes forgiveness: “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:10-11).
To close, it would be difficult to sum up this story better than John Calvin did in his commentary some 450 years ago: “Let us learn by the example of Jonah not to measure God’s judgments by our own wisdom, but to wait until he turns darkness into light. And at the same time, let us learn to obey his commands, to follow his call without any disputing: though heaven and earth oppose us, though many things occur which may tend to avert us from the right course, let us yet continue in this resolution—that nothing is better for us than to obey God, and to go on in the way which he points out to us.”