Displeasure: The Prophet Runs Against God (Jonah 4)

Jonah’s flawed character is on full display in the concluding chapter. He is “displeased” with Yahweh’s decision to relent from destroying Nineveh. That is, “What pleased God displeased Jonah.”[1] There is a wordplay in Hebrew which Phillip Cary attempts to capture in his translation: “It was grievous to Jonah, a great evil.”[2] So as the Ninevites repent of their evil, Yahweh relents of His evil declared for Nineveh, and all this is regarded as evil by Jonah. In addition, Jonah becomes angry with God. The twist is stunning: previously Yahweh had “fierce anger” (3.9) toward Nineveh which has now been diverted only for Jonah to become angry over Yahweh’s grace. Taken together the reader is to understand that Jonah hated Yahweh’s decision to spare Nineveh.

Compounding Jonah’s hatred over Yahweh’s grace is his heated prayer to God (4.2). The contrast between the prayer of 4.2-3 and the prayer of 2.2-9 is striking. First, Jonah is defiant. He begins, “Please Yahweh” (NASB). Read as a tragic comedy this could be translated as, “Please! Tell me you’re not serious!”[3] Second, Jonah is self-centered. In the ESV, the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” appear eight times.[4] Though addressed to Yahweh, this prayer is about Jonah. Third, Jonah interprets his actions at the beginning. While yet in his country and during his flight to Tarshish he knew the God of Israel. He fled from his prophetic office in chapter one because he knew Yahweh’s gracious nature. Fourth, Jonah’s prayer has deep ties throughout the Hebrew Bible (cf. Ex 34.6-7; Num 14.18; Psa 145.8; Joel 2.13). Jonah’s knowledge of the identity of Yahweh comes from Yahweh’s self-revelation in Torah. Yahweh is a God of grace and mercy. Yahweh is patient, longsuffering, and full of covenantal steadfast love (Heb. hesed). Yahweh relents of impending disaster. Hannah explains Jonah “feared that all these attributes of God would be extended toward the despicable, cruel Ninevites—and it happened!”[5] The reader is left to wonder: What happened to Jonah’s declaration “Salvation belongs to Yahweh” (2.10)? Did he only mean his salvation and/or Israel’s salvation, but not the salvation of pagan nations? Finally, Jonah longed for death (3). Death is better than life for Jonah. The one who had been saved from certain death (2.2, 7) has become the one who wishes to die. Whatever ground gained by his conversion in chapter two seems to have been lost by his anger over God’s grace.

One is left to wonder why Jonah is so outraged and disgusted with Yahweh. Some have suggested that his anger stems from his misguided nationalism which could even be interpreted as racism and bigotry. Others have suggested that Jonah is grossly embarrassed over being essentially made a fool for proclaiming destruction only to have the prophecy fail. It is also suggested that Jonah knows that Assyria will be the nation which brings about violent destruction upon the Northern tribes of Israel.[6] Each of these are good options. Whatever the cause, the net result is a joyless Jonah at the salvation of God for Nineveh.

Despite his impassioned speech/prayer, he is unable to move Yahweh to repent of His repentance and destroy Nineveh. On the contrary, Yahweh asks Jonah a pointed question: “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (4.4, NASB) The intent is to confront the darkness in Jonah’s heart. Jonah’s theology is on-point, but it has not impacted his heart.

As the book nears the conclusion, there is what some call a parable[7] or illustration[8] involving a plant, a worm, and the sun. Jonah seems to have been left speechless by Yahweh’s question so he goes out “east” of the city. Perhaps the motif from the early chapters in Genesis is in view here where the east signifies rebellion against God.[9] Jonah is then pictured in rebellion to God. Or it could be an exile motif since the kingdoms of Israel and then Judah would be taken east to Assyria then Babylon, respectively. Hence, this is a self-imposed exile where he attempts once again to get away from God. Whether rebellion or exile (perhaps both), Jonah finds a place to view the city and builds a shelter to watch what God will do with Nineveh.

The same steadfast love that would not let the penitent Ninevites see destruction is the same steadfast love that will not allow Jonah to continue in his self-destructive cycle without being confronted. God’s patience (“slow to anger”) is on display as He deals with Jonah. First, Yahweh God (Heb. yahweh elohim) miraculously provides a plant to grow up rather quickly to shade Jonah from his “discomfort” (4.6; lit. evil, see ESV marginal reading). As God has sovereignly done before by providing a big fish to swallow Jonah, now God sovereignly provides a large plant to shade him. For the only time in the whole book Jonah is “exceedingly glad.” It was not the miraculous salvation from the sea nor the mass repentance of the Ninevites which brought delirious joy to Jonah. His frustration and fury is abated by a plant. The next day, God sends a worm that destroys Jonah’s plant (4.7). Interestingly, of all the things that have been threatened with destruction throughout the book (ship, sailors, Jonah, the Ninevites, et al) it is only Jonah’s plant that is destroyed and that by a worm “appointed” by God. Third, accompanying the worm is a divinely appointed “scorching east wind” (4.8). There is wordplay in the original concerning the actions of the worm and wind. As the worm had “attacked” the plant so the sun “beat down” upon Jonah’s head (both from Heb. nākâ, “to strike”). These compounding circumstances lead to Jonah once again longing for death. He begs for death saying that death is better than life.

The book concludes how it began: with a word from God. God repeats verbatim his question from the previous day to Jonah, although God poses the question about the plant: does Jonah have a good reason to be angry about the plant? (4.9, cf.v.4) Jonah answers that he does have a right to be angry. So Yahweh provides Jonah and the reader with the divine perspective (10-11). The argument is essentially a lesser-to-greater argument. The lesser thing is the plant. Jonah was compassionate toward a plant he did not work for and that withered in less than a day. The greater thing is the people of Nineveh. There were over 120,000 people living in Nineveh along with “many animals” (NASB). In addition, the citizens of Nineveh do not know their right hand from their left, “thus picturing their spiritual and moral condition without God.”[10] Jonah is concerned about a tiny part of creation whereas God was concerned about many of His creatures. Therefore, if Jonah can have concern for a plant, why should not God have mercy on people? The book ends with this question from Yahweh and leaves Jonah and the reader to decide what to do with the divine perspective.

[1] Ibid., 271.

[2] Cary, 25.

[3] Ibid., 17, 129. Cary approaches the book of Jonah in this fashion, saying, “Jonah is a comic figure.” His commentary on 4.2 explains this interpretation.

[4] Smith and Page note that it is nine times in the original (273).

[5] Hannah, 1470.

[6] See Smith and Page, 271-271, where they rehearse the various options.

[7] Cary, 138.

[8] Hannah, 1471.

[9] Adam and Eve are driven “east of the Garden of Eden” (3.24); after slaughtering his brother, Abel, Cain settles “east of Eden” (4.16); construction on the Tower of Babel happens because of the migration of “people from the east” (11.2).

[10] Hannah, 1472. There are some who say that the 120,000 who do not know their right hand from their left are children. Such an understanding would balloon the population figure up over 600,000. However, archaeology cannot confirm such an inflated number.

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