But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, “I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).
Many parts of Jonah’s story are well-known: he ran from the presence of God, trying to sail far away; he was caught in a large, fierce storm; he was swallowed by a big fish of some sort, saving his life; he eventually goes to Nineveh as commanded, and the people there repent of their sins (Jonah 1:1-3:10). It sometimes seems as if the biggest controversy in the story of Jonah involves what type of sea creature swallowed him and the credibility of such a story.
To focus on the large fish, however, is to miss the point of the story. Why is Jonah fleeing from the LORD in the first place? What is the problem with the command to go to Nineveh and to cry against it (Jonah 1:2)?
It would be easy to imagine that Jonah was fearful for his safety; perhaps, if we felt charitable toward him, we might imagine that he did not want to see so many people suffer the consequences of their sin. Yet Jonah does not seem to be afraid of the Ninevites, nor is he distressed at the possibility of so many being destroyed. Sadly, alas, the real reason is far more disturbing: Jonah flees because he does not want to see God relent of the disaster He intends for Nineveh.
Few statements in Scripture are as ironic as Jonah’s complaint before YHWH: “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2). Most people, when considering these attributes of God, are quite thankful; where would any of us be if God were not gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness? Is Jonah ungrateful?
It is not as if Jonah does not appreciate God’s graciousness, mercy, slowness to anger, and lovingkindness when it is directed toward himself and his fellow Israelites. He does not, however, want to see those same qualities exhibited toward the Ninevites.
Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, and their capital during many periods of their history. All evidence points to its mammoth size and thus level of importance: a city requiring a three days’ journey to go through is quite a city indeed (Jonah 3:3). Such a place was only possible on account of the empire the Assyrians were building, and they were quite brutal about it. Few nations have proven more bloodthirsty or barbarous than the Assyrians. No one really liked them. Everyone feared them. Eventually, when their empire did come to an end, no one was very sorry to see it go.
The Israelites had all sorts of justifiable reasons for hating the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a perennial enemy, threatening Israel’s stability for most of its existence. The Assyrians would eventually overrun the Kingdom of Israel, absorbing it into their empire, exiling most of its residence, and re-populating the land with foreigners (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-41). The Assyrians would spread their campaign of terror to Judah as well; Jerusalem barely escapes thanks to God’s deliverance (2 Kings 18:13-19:36, Isaiah 1:1-9). One could make a strong argument that Assyria was the most devastating enemy Israel ever faced.
As a prophet in the final moment of sunshine in the history of the Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), it is highly likely that Jonah knew the impending doom for his people; even if God had not specifically revealed to him who would be the agent of Israel’s demise, it would not be difficult to deduce who it would be. Thus, YHWH is asking Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to Israel’s greatest enemy, the strongest threat to the homeland, and the ultimate agent of God’s wrath against Israel.
Jonah’s anger, while still worthy of censure, is nevertheless now understandable. It is of the greatest strategic benefit for Israel and its welfare if God destroys Nineveh and its people; as the greatest existential threat to Israel, God’s covenant people, it should almost be expected for God to destroy them. But Jonah has an inkling of what will happen; he cannot endure the paradoxes. A prophet of Israel who was likely mostly ignored at home is heard and heeded by uncircumcised pagans; God relents of the decision to bring disaster upon Nineveh, but will ultimately not relent of the decision to bring disaster upon Israel; God saves the very people who will bring great destruction upon His people within three generations. As a good Israelite, fully aware of YHWH’s deliverance of Israel His people, confident in YHWH’s sovereignty, likely proud of his status as a member of God’s covenant people, this seems too much to stomach.
Jonah is made to look rather narrow-minded and prejudiced in Jonah 4:1-11, and that is precisely the point of the whole story of Jonah. Throughout the story, God is faithful, even though Jonah most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Jonah would have been destroyed; he repented, and God rescued him, but he could not stand the idea of God doing the same to the Ninevites. Yet God is consistent throughout, for He is Sovereign, Lord of all nations, not just Israel.
We should not beat up too much on Jonah, for Jonah in many ways represents his entire nation. Everything said of Jonah is true of Israel: God consistently proved faithful to Israel even though Israel most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Israel would have never left Egypt, and would have been given over to destruction long before. When Israel repented, God rescued His nation, but Israel could not stand the idea of God providing such favor to the heathen pagans.
Jonah’s story is told to warn all of us of the narrow-mindedness and prejudice that often accompanies fervent nationalism. It is very easy for us to look at everything through the lens of the welfare of the particular nation-state under which we live; it is easy to want what is best for our country and our ideology, and the idea that other nation-states, countries, and/or people with other ideas could be blessed by God can seem intolerable. “We” appreciate the blessings and favor of God; but when “they” would receive those same blessings and favor, we might be tempted to be as Jonah, and be angry about it.
Nevertheless, God is not merely the God of one nation; He is the Sovereign Lord of all peoples, countries, nationalities, and cultures. He wants to show lovingkindness, grace, patience, and mercy to everyone, not just a select few (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Let us be thankful that God has displayed love, mercy, and kindness toward us, and let us not begrudge others when He displays the same to them as well!
Ethan R. Longhenry