Jonah is not one of my favorite characters in the Bible, and I think it’s because he reminds me too much of myself.
The story of Jonah is a familiar one—it’s a story that many of us have known since childhood when we learned it in Sunday School.
God calls Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites, but Jonah doesn’t want to, so instead he goes down to Joppa and hops on a boat bound for Tarshish in the other direction. Of course, the boat has trouble at sea, the sailors become afraid and go and wake up Jonah, who was taking a nap, and implore him to cry out to his God. Then they decide to cast lots to see whose fault it is that this storm has come upon them, and the lot falls to Jonah. Jonah confesses that he is running from Jehovah, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. At this point, the men become terrified and they ask Jonah what they should do in order to make the sea quiet down. He tells them that they should throw him overboard into the sea, and after the men unsuccessfully attempt to row back to the land, they reluctantly throw Jonah overboard.
Then comes the most famous part of the story, where God appoints a great fish to come and swallow Jonah, and Jonah is stuck inside the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. There, Jonah prays to the Lord, and then God has the fish spit Jonah up on dry land.
And from there, Jonah goes to Nineveh, and preaches to the city, and the people believe him! They begin to fast and put on sackcloth and the king of Nineveh covers himself in sackcloth, sits in ashes, and commands that no man or beast be allowed to eat or drink. And when God sees the repentance of the Ninevites, He decides not to destroy them after all.
And you know, in Sunday School, that’s where we tend to stop…with a happy ending.
But that’s not the ending, and Jonah isn’t happy at all. Rather than being happy that his preaching has led to the repentance of the Ninevites and has saved them from destruction, he is angry—“exceedingly angry” the Scripture says.
So he prays to the LORD and says, “This is why I ran away in the first place, because I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in love…I knew you would forgive them!” Then Jonah goes on to say that he is so upset that he would rather die than live.
And God asks Jonah an interesting question: “Do you do well to be angry?” And obviously, it’s the sort of question that isn’t meant to be answered, but is supposed to make Jonah think.
You know, people have wondered why this seems to make Jonah so angry. We know from 2 Kings 14 that Jonah was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and Assyria (of which Nineveh was the capital city) was a long-standing enemy of Israel. In fact, it would ultimately be Assyria who conquered Israel in 722 BC. So it makes some sense that Jonah would be hesitant for the Ninevites—his enemies—to be saved. He didn’t think they deserved it.
At this point, Jonah goes outside the city and makes a little booth for himself there so he can watch and see what happens. Perhaps he wanted to see if the Ninevites would remain faithful in their repentance or if they would turn back to evil and maybe God would still punish them. And while he is there watching, God appoints a plant to grow up over Jonah, so that it provided him with shade and made him comfortable. Scripture says that Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.
But then the next day, God has a worm come to attack the plant so that it withered, and then a scorching east wind comes and beats upon the head of Jonah and Jonah is miserable again. Once again he tells God that it would be better for him to die than live, and once again God asks him a question: “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”
And all of this language brings into clear comparison Jonah’s reactions to the salvation of Nineveh and the destruction of the plant:
- Jonah was “exceedingly angry” about the salvation of Nineveh, but “exceedingly glad” about the appearance of the plant.
- Both when the city was spared and when the plant withered, Jonah was so upset that he said it would be better for him to die than to live.
- And after both episodes, God tried to get him to reflect on his attitude by asking him if he did well to be angry.
And this second time, Jonah answers the question, belligerently stating that he does do well to be angry, angry enough to die! The plant shaded him from the sun; its value is clear to him. But the Ninevites, on the other hand, why would God want to save them? They’re worthless!
What a disappointing attitude for a prophet of God to have!
Jonah is mixed up.