So . . . . Jonah’s learned his lesson, right? Sort of, as we see in Chapter three. The Lord tells him a second time, and probably with the stench of fish guts all about him as a reminder of what a rebellious little soul he is, to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” So Jonah goes, and for three days preaches the message of the Lord that judgment is coming to that great city. And his worst nightmare happens:
5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
Even the king himself repented, and commands the people to repent in hope that God may relent and not bring destruction on the city. Then Jonah’s second worst nightmare happened:
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Why would such a great people in mass repent at the word of a Hebrew prophet? There has to be both supernatural (God caused it, moved the hearts and minds of the people), and natural explanations. There had to be some knowledge among the people who the Hebrews were, and who their God, this Yahweh was. What’s fascinating is that while these pagan peoples ended up repenting, at least for the moment, Israel never did. Could that be what animated Jonah? Look at who the king was when Jonah was alive.
23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboamson of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.
The prophets’ job was to speak God’s word of warning to God’s people, and those who listened were few and far between. Jonah knew that. Was he afraid these pagans would do what God’s people were not willing to do? Chapter 4 doesn’t give us the answer, but this speculation is good as any other. And what was Jonah’s response to the Lord’s mercy? Joyous celebration that so many people’s lives were spared? Hardly:
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
It’s it amazing that the Lord didn’t turn Jonah into smoldering ashes right then and there? But what does the Lord do? He asks him a question! Could Jonah have any justification for his anger? Most certainly not! But clearly he saw the Assyrian empire as a threat to Israel, and maybe that’s why he was angry. Why would God spare Israel’s enemy, must have been roiling in Jonah’s mind. But all people are God’s creation, and ultimately his covenant promises will extend to the whole human race. And all of them, all of us, every last one, are his enemy. We find the heart of the gospel in the Lord’s mercy shown to Nineveh.
But Jonah’s still not convinced that judgment isn’t coming because he goes outside the city, makes a shelter and sits there waiting “to see what would happen to the city.” Then the Lord makes a vine grow up over the shelter to cool Jonah off, and Jonah’s real happy about that. Then the Lord sends a worm to destroy the vine, and a “scorching east wind” to make Jonah real uncomfortable, and Jonah wants to die: “It would be better for me to die than to live.” Jonah is so funny! What a bad attitude you have, Jonah! Then the Lord asks him another question:
“Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
One thing you have to love about Jonah is that there is no BS in him. He’s completely honest with the Lord because, well, what else can you be before the all-knowing Creator of the universe? Unfortunately most sinners (all?) think they can BS the Lord. Then the Lord lectures Jonah, that he had nothing to do with the vine growing or dying, so what right does he have to be angry. And the book ends with a rhetorical question: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” The Lord is the sovereign Creator and judge of the universe, and as Moses said long ago, he cannot do wrong, “upright and just is he.” So, unlike Jonah, we trust God’s character. We proclaim with Abraham that in all things: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” So the takeaway from the little book of Jonah?
We can trust the character of God (his goodness, love, justice, etc.) even when we don’t understand what’s going on, and most especially when we don’t like it!