Angry Prophet, Merciful God
Jonah stopped trying to resist God’s call. He would preach repentance to Nineveh. God’s response was exactly what he expected, and it angered him.
YHWH had previously called Jonah ben Amittai to go and preach repentance to Nineveh; Jonah instead sought to flee to Tarshish, in modern day Spain, to get as far away from YHWH and His call as possible (Jonah 1:1-3). But YHWH caused a great storm to come upon the Mediterranean Sea, leading Jonah to be cast out of the ship, after which he was swallowed by a large fish (Jonah 1:4-17). Jonah prayed to God and thanked Him for His deliverance while in the fish, who returned him to the land of Israel (Jonah 2:1-9).
So YHWH again called Jonah ben Amittai to go and preach repentance to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-2); this time Jonah went and did as YHWH told him (Jonah 3:3). The author testified to the great size of Nineveh: it would take three days to travel across the whole metropolitan area (Jonah 3:3). Jonah traveled a day’s journey into the city and began to preach how the city would be overthrown in forty days (Jonah 3:4).
And then an extraordinary thing happened: the Ninevites believed what Jonah said and performed rituals of mourning and repentance, putting on sackcloth and proclaiming a fast. The poor people did this as well as the rich; even the king himself wore sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:5-9)! If the rest of the works of the prophets are any indication, the prophets of Israel were not used to being so readily heard and heeded, especially when they pronounced oracles of judgment. And yet these pagans, sworn enemies of Israel, humbled themselves before God and had repented. God saw how they turned away from their evil, and God relented from the judgment against Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).
One might think Jonah would thus be on top of the world: he had preached, people had listened, and disaster had been averted. But now it is time for the reader’s expectations to be overthrown.
Jonah was furious with YHWH (Jonah 4:1)! We are now told why Jonah sought to flee from the presence of YHWH to Tarshish: Jonah knew that God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in covenant loyalty and steadfast love, and would relent of His anger toward Nineveh; Jonah testified about YHWH according to what was written of Him in His Torah (Jonah 4:2; cf. Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18). Jonah asked God to take his life; he felt it better to die than to live (Jonah 4:3). YHWH asked him if he did well to be angry (Jonah 4:4).
Jonah then made for himself a tent and sat to the east of Nineveh to see what might happen to the city (Jonah 4:5). YHWH then caused a plant to grow up near Jonah to give him shade in the middle of the day, and Jonah was very thankful for that plant (Jonah 4:6). The next day YHWH caused a worm to eat the plant and a scorching east wind to arise; Jonah felt great distress, despaired of life, and wanted to die (Jonah 4:7-8). God asked Jonah if he was right to be angry about the plant; Jonah responded that he was right to be angry to the point of death (Jonah 4:9). The book of Jonah then ended with YHWH’s response and the lesson of the plant: Jonah had great regard for this plant for which he did not labor and lived for a day, so why should YHWH not have regard for Nineveh and its one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants who were ignorant of right and wrong, and all of their cattle (Jonah 4:10-11)?
The modern reader often finds the ending of Jonah disorienting. Should Jonah not be pleased that people listened to what he had to say? Why is Jonah so easily angered, and what kind of man of God would be angry when God shows grace and mercy?
We must remember that the story of Jonah was not written for us but for ancient Israel. And for them the story would sound very different based upon what would take place between the preaching of Jonah and their own time. The audience would know that these very same Ninevites would rise up and conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and cause great distress to the southern Kingdom of Judah within living memory of Jonah’s preaching. God was thus preserving the very people who would bring destruction upon His people.
The Israelites and Judahites expected YHWH to show them grace, mercy, steadfast love, and covenant loyalty; Jonah knew such is what God was all about. But neither Jonah nor the Israelites particularly wanted to see YHWH display similar grace, mercy, and steadfast love toward their mortal enemies.
Furthermore, consider the oracles regarding the nations throughout the prophets: do they not all universally condemn the nations for their transgressions against Israel? Would God not come out in judgment against all of them? Yes, even against Nineveh itself, according to Nahum?
Jonah believed in God; Jonah is prejudiced against Nineveh and toward his fellow Israelites, and most Israelites would naturally agree. We should not imagine that Jonah or the Israelites would have wanted God to wantonly destroy all the pagans for the sake of destroying all the pagans; but the Assyrians were no ordinary pagans. They were the people with the most fearsome reputation in the ancient Near East, and if there were any group of people whom Israel and their neighbors would rather YHWH condemn in judgment, it would be Assyria. And so Jonah found it galling that YHWH would show grace and mercy to the very people who would soon ravage and destroy His land and His people. Jonah wanted nothing to do with it, and Jonah was very angry.
We do well to remember that judgment against Nineveh would come: within a century and a half of Jonah’s visit to Nineveh, the city would be destroyed by the Medes and the Chaldeans, and Assyria would cease being a going concern, all according to the word of YHWH through the prophet Nahum. The fall of Assyria would prove more swift and decisive than any could have imagined. As the Ninevites would do to the people of God, thus it was done to the Ninevites.
But when Jonah preached repentance to Nineveh, the Ninevites had not yet destroyed Israel. When Jonah warned Nineveh of God’s judgment, the Ninevites were no more or less worthy of condemnation than anyone else. Israel did well to remember that YHWH’s judgment against them was a result of their faithlessness and idolatry: they put their trust in gods who could not save and foreign policy machinations, and they were destroyed in their foreign policy machinations, for their gods could not deliver them. Assyria was the rod of YHWH’s anger indeed (Isaiah 10:4), but Assyria was a chosen instrument. If not by them, judgment would have come at the hand of another.
The message of the book of Jonah to Israel ought to resound to this day: YHWH is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and covenant loyalty. We rely upon God displaying such grace and mercy to us; what, then, if God does the same to our mortal enemies? God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11); why would we not expect God to show mercy toward those who repent, even if those who repent would resist us and cause us great pain and distress in the future? Why would God not have any regard or concern for other people whom He has made, even though they prove ignorant of Him and His ways?
Christians confess Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings, reigning over every people and nation; all can come to Him and find salvation (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3:12, Revelation 19:16). Christians should recognize that God will show love, grace, and mercy to whom He will, and His love is not hemmed in by national or ethnic boundaries. And yet Christians have often taken the posture of Jonah and have proven despondent when God has shown mercy to their enemies. Far too many Christians have fallen prey to the temptation of demonizing and dehumanizing their opponents, especially those who actively resist them and their faith. They have a hard time imagining God would show mercy to their enemies; after all, do they not despise all God represents?
Yet God has regard for all whom He has made. God has regard for those who resist His purposes. God would show them grace and mercy if they repent. Will we learn the lesson of the book of Jonah and turn, recognizing that if God abounds in grace and mercy, He might well show grace and mercy toward those we would rather Him condemn?
Ethan R. Longhenry