The Runaway (Part Four)
Please read Jonah 4 in your Bible.
Jonah is a book of contrasts. In chapter one, Jonah was headed in the wrong direction. To get him back in the way God wanted him to go, the text tells us He provided a GREAT FISH.
Later, Jonah’s attitude had gone to a place God did not want him to go and the text tells us God provided a WORM. Funny isn’t it? One of God’s largest creatures and one of His smallest - the whale and the worm - were both dispatched to redirect this wayward prophet.
We observed last week that God showed GRACE (2:8) to Jonah and gave him a second chance to be obedient and go to Nineveh. Jonah made good on his second chance to miraculous effect - a whole city was saved!
Despite this tremendous response, the story of Jonah does not have a happy ending. The prophet spoke God’s message but then reverted to His worst nature when the city was not destroyed. In this way, the end of Jonah’s account cautions us against the vanity of selfish anger.
Anger is no way to please God.
1. How Jonah got so angry.
He was angry God did not destroy Nineveh (1). The Hebrew, translated literally, says, “it was evil to Jonah with great evil.” He had two possible reasons to want to see Nineveh destroyed.
The first is prejudice. Given the history of the Assyrians and the Israelites, it would be easy to understand if Jonah hated and feared the Assyrians. He may have been hoping for God to nuke the Assyrians to remove this very real threat to the sovereignty of Israel. Jonah’s anger may have been extreme disappointment after finding the Assyrians were safe and his people were not. In Nahum 2-3 and Isaiah 14:4-20; 47 we have examples of savage joy over the downfall of the enemies of God’s people.
The second reason for Jonah’s anger may have been by pride. A standard for truly being a prophet was set forth in Deuteronomy 18:21-22, that their predictions come to pass. Jonah had predicted the city’s destruction. When day 40 passed into day 41 and the city was still intact, this made Jonah look like a false prophet. If this was the case, Jonah did not take into account the number of times repentance resulted in mercy, which made the prophesied wrath unnecessary, even inappropriate. (Jeremiah 18:1-11 formally states this.) We’ve all experienced anger based on embarrassment; it can be powerful.
Whatever the causes of his anger, this time Jonah initiated the conversation with God (2). In prayer, Jonah complained to God, saying, “I told you so.” (An aggravating expression used by angry people everywhere.) As you might expect from a prophet, Jonah claimed he saw this coming back in Israel when he first received God’s command (1:2).
As egotists are eager to do, Jonah cited all he knew about God and his character and “just knew” the mission to Nineveh would be about mercy when Jonah wanted sacrifice. And that, Jonah said, was the reason he attempted to run off to Tarshish. First, this is some pretty poor reasoning. Did he really think finding fault with God was a good excuse for disobedience? Second, it’s a poor reflection on his character that Jonah did NOT want to partner with God in saving this great city. Third, if he knew this and felt that way, he could’ve simply stayed home. This excuse does not account for his attempt to go 2500 miles in the opposite direction.
Jonah was also angry about the loss of the vine. We don’t know what kind of VINE it was, but at one point in church history there was such a disagreement over what kind of plant the LORD GOD provided that a riot arose. The botanical information isn’t really important. What is important is the reason God had for providing the vine. God provided the vine for physical comfort and for an object lesson (6).
Physical comfort is a legitimate concern, illustrated by the fact that Jonah nearly fainted in the sun. In that region and in that season, the mean daily high temperature is 110˚. Any shade is welcome on a day like that. The presence of the shade made Jonah VERY HAPPY.
The object lesson came about when the VINE WITHERED (8). Part of the withering was accomplished by A SCORCHING EAST WIND, called a “sirocco.” The wind alone raises the temperature 16-22˚and severely lowers the humidity. Between the WORM and the SUN and the WIND, the VINE was toast. This made Jonah angry all over again.
An important measure of Jonah’s anger is his preference of death over resolving his anger in a positive way (3+9). Years earlier, Elijah said the same thing in a fit of depression (1 Kings 19:4). It was a difficult thing to serve God as a prophet. How does somebody get so angry they want to die? Or is this an exaggeration, a childish rage? Jonah stomped out to a remote place to try to think up a good comeback for God’s rhetorical question (5).
2. Jonah’s anger confirmed God’s character.
Verse two is essentially a quotation of Exodus 34:6-7. As these verses are also repeated in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8 and Joel 2:13, we can assume these are important affirmations of God’s character.
Let’s look at the specifics.
God is GRACIOUS. In the Hebrew, this word is ironically directed at persons outside Israel. Outside the covenant, those people would otherwise have no claim on God and would not be eligible for salvation: the people of Nineveh.
God is COMPASSIONATE. This Hebrew word pictures a mother’s love for her children.
God is SLOW TO ANGER. By way of illustration, God answered Jonah’s anger with gentle questions having an obvious (vs. 4+9), but this method failed to resolve Jonah’s anger. The questions are better translated, “Is it right to be angry?” This translation makes it a question of morality not privilege. God’s self control is demonstrated in the fact that He was not angered or intimidated by Jonah’s statements that - to our ears - verge on blasphemy. God will not turn away questions or comments that come from a heart sincerely open to God, seeking answers.
God abounds in LOVE. In contrast to the word for GRACIOUS, this word is directed at Israel, the people who are in covenant-relationship with God. There is no single word in English that adequately translates all the meanings of this word. We’d have to add “kindness, mercy, and loyalty” to take it all in. This virtue stands in stark contrast to Jonah’s prejudicial attitude.
When appropriate, God relents in SENDING CALAMITY. The salvation of the people of Nineveh is the best biblical illustration of this divine virtue.
Both the citizens of Nineveh and the VINE were created by God. As He tried to explain to Jonah, God had every right to deal with them as He willed (10-11). Jonah didn’t do a thing to grow the vine; it was God’s grace that brought it into being.
The vine was a trivial thing compared to the thousands of people who lived in Nineveh. Jonah should have seen the logic in God’s statement about His concern for their lives. God did not want Jonah to be so egotistical and petty.
Anger is no way to please God.
The book of Jonah does not have a happy ending. As far as Jonah the prophet is concerned, it has no ending at all: we don’t know what happened to him.
I believe that is intentional. The author was inspired to end the book with the thoughts of God. The last word reinforces the character of God.
In every part of the Bible, God is the hero of the story. It is His story, after all. The goodness of God is easier to view in contrast to the belligerence of Jonah. His anger is the counterpoint to God being SLOW TO ANGER and all the virtues Jonah observed in v. 2.
Let me support that point with a word count:
The fish is mentioned 4 times.
The city is mentioned 9 times.
Jonah is mentioned 18 times.
God is mentioned 38 times.
Clearly, Jonah is not the hero; he doesn’t even qualify as an “antihero.” God is the one whose example we are to follow. Being Jonah is too easy. We’re already prone to egotism and pride. Following God requires living out the virtues He bestows on us by His Holy Spirit. To recap, those virtues include:
Life is so much easier and more fulfilling when we put these virtues into practice.
To conclude: if you don’t want God coming at you with a whale or a worm or something in between, take His side and do His will.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, Jonah, H.L. Ellison