Anger, Perspective, and Character: The Questions Between Jonah and God

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?

Background image of parchment paper with a tree, overlaid with text from James 1:19-20, NET version: "Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness."

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.

Background image of parchment paper with mountain image, overlaid with text from Jonah 4:3-4, TLV version: “So please, Adonai, take my soul from me—because better is my death than my life.” Yet Adonai said, “Is it good for you to be so angry?”

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.

Background image of parchment paper with leaves, overlaid with text from Jonah 4:10-11, TLV version: Adonai said, “You have pity on the plant for which you did no labor or make it grow, that appeared overnight and perished overnight. So shouldn’t I have pity on Nineveh—the great city that has in it more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left—as well as many animals?”

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

Will You Respond With Mercy? (Lessons from Jonah)

It seems fitting to find myself studying Jonah and writing this article in the week following the Supreme Court decision regarding homosexual marriage. It seems like this court decision was the last piece of evidence many Christians required to convince them that we’re no longer living in a Christian nation (if we ever were). I’ve read several good responses (click this link for one of my favorites) that come from a place of love instead of anger, while also pushing for a counter-cultural church that follows God faithfully.

Lessons in Mercy |

Christians have always lived in a world that has little respect for God’s laws. In some cultures for certain stretches of time, we’ve had part God’s laws reflected in our country’s laws but that is changing rapidly in today’s world. It’s been changing here in the United States for quite some time, and the same was true of the Jews living under Roman law at Jesus’s time.

The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.

Matthew 12:41

Jesus never condoned legalized sin, but He was more concerned with the state of God’s people than the state of the world around them. He didn’t call for mass reforms in Roman society — He called for the people who professed to follow God to turn back to true worship of Him and shine as lights in their very dark world. Jesus used Nineveh and Jonah as an example in His day, and I’ll bet we can learn from it now as well.

Affronts to God

Unlike the other minor prophets, the book of Jonah is written as a story, and it seems like a rather simple tale on the surface. No one reads a children’s version of Zechariah to the kids before tucking them into bed, but I remember having a cute little kids book about Jonah and the whale in our home library.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”

Jonah 1:1-2

We all know what happens next. Jonah flees from God’s commission, is stopped by a storm at sea, swallowed by a great fish, and then repents in the fish’s belly. God has the fish vomit him out, repeats His command, and is promptly obeyed.

And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Jonah 3:4

We’re not told exactly what Nineveh’s sin involved, but in studying the language used in the book of Jonah, Matthew Henry concludes in his commentary that, “Their wickedness has come up, that is, it has come to a high degree, to the highest pitch; the measure of it is full to the brim … it is a bold and open affront to God” (Henry’s comments on Jonah 1:1-3).

Sounds similar to today’s world, doesn’t it? And don’t think I’m just talking about this latest court decision. God teaches the only holy expressions of sexuality are celibacy or faithful marriage between a man and woman, and people in the world transgress that command right and left. The world at large also legalizes murder through abortion, encourages divorce for ungodly reasons, is full of anti-Israel sentiments, is led by corrupt leaders, rejects God’s role in creation, and does many other things that God’s word describes as offensive to Him. We can get numb to how much sin there is in our society sometimes, but the hard truth is that the world is in darkness. God called us to shine as lights in a place that’s just going to keep getting darker until Jesus returns.

Repentance and Mercy

Worldwide, we live in a wicked culture–one that we know God will judge for its crimes against Him. But as we learn from the story of Jonah, God is also eager to show mercy.

Lessons in Mercy |

So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”

Jonah 3:5-9

The key here is that the people believed God, and repented. It wasn’t just a few people, either. This was the entire society, led by their king. It’s the sort of massive, sincere repentance that we’d love to see in our world today.

Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

Jonan 3:10

This is wonderful, incredible mercy. It’s the type of mercy we should all be thankful for, since all of us who are following God today have had this exact same thing happen in our lives. We’ve all sinned (Rom. 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Like the Ninevites, we were under a sentence of death, but God spared us in His mercy by sending His Son.

As we talked about in the post on preparing for baptism, to accept Christ’s sacrifice and walk with God, we have to repent and acknowledge our sin, believe in God, and commit to following Him. The Ninevites here in Jonah had those first two things, and it was enough for God to choose mercy.

What Will You Do?

Jesus’s parables reveal that God and His angles rejoice over repentant sinners (Luke 15:1-10). However, the rest of Jonah’s story doesn’t focus on that joy. It focuses on Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s repentance.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”

Jonah 4:1-3

It’s a bit difficult to imagine a modern parallel, but let’s try. Suppose God calls you to deliver a prophecy of destruction to … let’s say an abortion clinic. You try to get out of it, but finally God convinces you to go and warn them. Message delivered, you stalk across the street to wait for the fire and brimstone. You didn’t want to be here, but at least you’ll have front-row seats when they get what’s coming to them.

Only, it doesn’t happen. Instead, every single person working there repents publicly, starts to fast and pray, and the head of the clinic calls for other doctors to do the same. God shows them mercy because of their response. Do you?

Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city.

Jonah 4:4-5

God gives him shade in the form of a vining plant, which made Jonah happy, but then God took it away the next day and Jonah was angry again.

But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”

Jonah 4:10-11
Lessons in Mercy |

The book ends here, leaving us with the same question God asked Jonah. We must never encourage people to sin or say that it’s okay, but we should also ask ourselves if we’re so rigid in our convictions that we don’t allow for love and mercy? Are we hoping for sinners’ destruction, or praying they will come to repentance?

So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:12-13

In these times of cultural upheaval, God is looking to see how His people respond. Will we run away from engaging with these issues and say that the sin around us doesn’t matter, as Jonah did at first? Will we be angry and unforgiving, as Jonah was later? Or will we be like God– firm against sin yet hoping for repentance and ever ready to extend mercy?