Have you ever been angry?
Everyone can say “yes” to that. What about being deeply, exceedingly angry? So angry it burns you up?
That’s how angry Jonah was after God chose to spare the people of Nineveh. We know this story–God told Jonah to go preach against Nineveh because of its wickedness. Jonah didn’t like that and fled on a ship. God sent a great storm, so great the ship could have sank, but Jonah confessed what he’d done and told the sailors to throw him overboard. They did, the storm stopped, and “The Lord sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jon. 1:17, NET).
After three days and three nights in the whale, Jonah was ready to do what God told him to and the fish spit him out on land. Jonah went to Nineveh and warned the whole city that it would be overthrown in 40 days. Remarkably, the people listened. They repented with fasting, cries for mercy, and a change in their behavior. God saw this, and responded by not destroying the city.
That’s when Jonah got angry. He went through a huge storm, the whole belly of the fish thing, and shouting a message of destruction only for God not to follow-through? If nothing was going to happen, why bother sending Jonah at all? He certainly hadn’t wanted to come!
In today’s study, we’ll dig into the questions Jonah and God ask each other. I also want us to think about how we might have responded in this situation, and how we respond to other things in our own lives that don’t go as we expect. Do we get angry? And if so, are we right to be so very angry?
So Very Angry
As Jonah looked at Nineveh after the people in the city repent, he noticed God didn’t destroy everyone. “This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry” (Jon. 4:1, NET). In Hebrew, it’s literally saying God’s choice to show mercy “was evil to Jonah, a great evil” (NET footnote). He’s actually so angry that he tells God, “take, I beg you, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jon. 4:3, WEB). God asks a question in return, and there are two possible ways to translate it:
Yahweh said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”Jonah 4:4, WEB
The Lord said, “Are you really so very angry?”Jonah 4:4, NET
“Angry” comes from the Hebrew kharah (H2734 “to burn”). The word before it is yatav (H3190), which either refers to ethical right and wrong or “it may mean ‘well, utterly, thoroughly,’ as an adverb” (NET footnote). Depending how you translate it, God is either asking if Jonah is correct to be so exceedingly angry or He’s questioning Jonah about the depth of his anger. Either way, I think God seems a bit surprised here. Jonah isn’t being reasonable, and God tries to show him that with an illustration.
The Little Plant
While Jonah was pouting on a hill and watching Nineveh, God made a little plant grow up and provide shade. “Now Jonah was very delighted about the little plant”–a phrase which “ironically mirrors the identical syntax of v. 1: ‘he was angry with great anger'” (NET footnote on Jon. 4:6). When God strikes down the plant the next day, Jonah cries out in renewed rage. Again, we’ll look at this in two translations:
the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he fainted, and requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the vine?”
He said, “I am right to be angry, even to death.”Jonah 4:8-9, WEB
So the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. So he despaired of life and said, “I would rather die than live!”
God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “I am as angry as I could possibly be!”Jonah 4:8-9, NET
That’s a lot of anger. It makes me think of a child throwing a temper tantrum while a bemused parent tries to ask them why they’re so upset. Jonah is just as angry about God not striking down a whole city as he is about losing a little plant that shaded him from the hot sun. He doesn’t even see how comically absurd this is, particularly in light of Jonah’s earlier claim that he knows Yahweh is “a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness”, and you relent of doing harm.” (Jon. 4:3, WEB).
I wonder how often I’m just as blind as Jonah was? Probably more often than I realize. I’m so thankful for God’s patience. Not only did He spare Nineveh when they repented, but He’s also patient with Jonah. Instead of striking him down for questioning God (again) and throwing a tantrum, God just asks him questions and gives him a concrete illustration to try and guide him toward understanding.
God’s Final Question
The book of Jonah ends with a question. The verses we’re about to look at are the last ones in the book. God asks a question, and there’s no record of Jonah’s answer. Leaving off his response makes it feel less like a question to Jonah and more like a question to us, the readers.
Yahweh said, “You have been concerned for the vine, for which you have not labored, neither made it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night. Shouldn’t I be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons who can’t discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much livestock?”Jonah 4:10-11, WEB
How many times have you heard someone complain about how “it’s not fair” that God would let people get away with doing terrible things ? Or how many times have we said that ourselves? How often have we gotten irritable and even exceedingly angry about something that should have woken us up to a more accurate perspective on life?
There’s a lot we can sympathize with in Jonah’s story. We live in a world that is not Godly, and it often seems like our preaching to it doesn’t do any good. Jonah felt that way even when the people he delivered God’s message to repented! There’s also a lot we can learn from. We shouldn’t respond to the darkness of our world with Jonah’s first response (running away) or his second (anger and condemnation). We should be like God, who takes a firm stance against sin but also hopes for repentance and is eager to show mercy.
God’s True Character
In the ending dialog for the book of Jonah, Jonah seems so concerned about how God inconvenienced him that He doesn’t even notice God is doing something wonderful. God was showing His true character, much as He did to Moses when He proclaimed His own name (remember: names in Hebrew thought are linked with someone’s reputation and character).
Yahweh descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed Yahweh’s name. Yahweh passed by before him, and proclaimed, “Yahweh! Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation.”Exodus 34:5-7, WEB
Jonah actually references this verse at the beginning of his conversation with God (Jon. 4:3), but doesn’t connect the dots as far as we can see. God does eventually take down Nineveh around 612 BC, that’s at least a century after Jonah’s message (Amazing Bible Timeline: “Nineveh Destroyed” and “Jonah and the Whale”). With that longer perspective on history, we can better see how God showed His character in His dealings with Nineveh. He is slow to anger and quick to forgive, but He also won’t leave the guilty unpunished (you can read Nahum to learn more about why Nineveh was eventually destroyed).
Jonah didn’t have that longer-term perspective, but his reaction still wasn’t what it should have been. He knew God’s character; he should have trusted that He was working things out the right way. Perhaps he did learn that in the end. And hopefully, we can read his story and also learn to trust God more fully.
Featured image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “Alive” by Big Daddy Weave