Jonah: a final lesson

10 When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:10) Great! The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah’s prophetic mission is complete. As mentioned, that would have been an “they all lived happily ever after” ending. But there is another chapter in the story whose first verse gives us an idea that the story’s ending is anything but happy.

But this was greatly displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Jonah’s reaction reveals something about the nature of repentance. In Nineveh, the King and all the subjects repented in their heart and in their actions. And Jonah? While externally he is obedient, he has long since lost the inspiration that fueled his psalm of thanksgiving in the belly of the great fish. When God relents of the destruction of Nineveh, the “fuse” runs out on Jonah’s own internal bomb. The prophetic saboteur falls prey to his own true feelings. When it becomes clear that Nineveh will be saved by the gracious mercy of God, Jonah is infuriated – “greatly (gā·ḏôl) displeasing.”

The author of Jonah has a clever word play in the verse around the root rā·ʿǎʿ. The sense of the verse is that Jonah is really angry because the way the world is supposed to work is this: the bad behavior should lead to a bad end, and Jonah takes it very badly that it does not. It is as though, in Jonah’s mind, the loss of the potential of God’s anger towards the well-deserving Ninevites, is what initiates or releases the anger from within Jonah. It does not dawn on Jonah to follow God’s lead. The one who praised the gracious mercy (2:2-10) clearly wants to place limits upon its distribution here in Jonah 4. What is whispered here becomes a “shout” so to speak as in Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 14:23-35) when the servant for whom much is forgiven denies that same mercy to those in debt to him. In the hearing of the narrative, it is increasingly hard to stand with Jonah.

2 “I beseech you, LORD,” he prayed, “is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish.3 And now, LORD, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Again, Jonah is praying. One hopes to find some parallel of tone or intent with his prayer in Chapter 2, the psalm of thanksgiving. Pause and consider what Jonah prayed for while in the belly of the great fish – he prayed for life, he pleaded for God’s mercy. Now he prays for death (v.3). Before he cried out as the bars of the netherworld were closing, now he again descends to the final depth and asks that God shut the bars behind him.

Jonah finally says out loud what he has always been thinking: the LORD will fail to punish the ones who are so deserving of that divine punishment. He makes it clear that he has been harboring this fear since the beginning when he was first called to go to Nineveh: I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish. (Ex 34:5 or Joel 2:13 – It is noteworthy that Joel 2:14 is a significant parallel to Jonah 3:9 “perhaps the LORD may relent”).

Jonah had been quick to give credal responses to the captain and crew, but they were words with little heart behind them. Now Jonah takes a credal response and uses it as a form of “I told you so…” or “I knew it!!” like a punctuation on a divine mistake. A more literal translation of v.2 would be “is this not my word (dabar)” as though his dabar/word was a brash corrective to the Word of God. The tone of the complaint is reminiscent of the older brother’s response to the father’s gift of mercy to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:29) with its singular reference to one’s self and the complaint. Jonah is simply blind to the universality of God’s concern for all life.

As many scholars point out, if Jonah is attempting a noble prophetic stance like the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4 he “went a day’s journey into the desert, until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life…”, Jonah forgot the ending: “for I am no better than my fathers.” Elijah had done God’s bidding and was on the run from Queen Jezebel and certain death. Elijah’s prayer had a far different tone and posture before God. “The pose is a parody. Elijah, wearied with his endless struggle with Baalism, was convinced that he would not succeed where his fathers had failed, and so felt that it was time to join them in death. Jonah is peevishly disappointed with the very success of his mission. He is unworthy of the mantle of Elijah.” (Allen, 229)

The chapter races to its conclusion:

4 But the LORD asked, “Have you reason to be angry?”5 Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it, where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.6 And when the LORD God provided a gourd plant, that grew up over Jonah’s head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was very happy over the plant.7 But the next morning at dawn God sent a worm which attacked the plant, so that it withered.8 And when the sun arose, God sent a burning east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint. Then he asked for death, saying, “I would be better off dead than alive.”9 But God said to Jonah, “Have you reason to be angry over the plant?” “I have reason to be angry,” Jonah answered, “angry enough to die.”10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished.11 And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?”

These verses form a chiastic “stair step” which captures the “back and forth” of Jonah’s anger and God’s mercy.

A. Jonah’s anger (4:1).
B. Jonah always suspicious of God’s mercy (4:2).
C. Double refrain: Let me die (4:3). Do you have a right to be angry (4:4)?
D. God’s mercy and judgment on Jonah (4:5–8)
C°. Double refrain: Let me die (4:8b). Do you have a right to be angry (4:9)?
B°. God knows Jonah’s anger and lack of mercy (4:10).
A°. God’s mercy (4:11).

The Word of the LORD to this point has been uttered in the briefest of commands. But the resistance of the reluctant prophet has reached a crescendo and so the LORD’s response is more expansive. It starts as a question that Jonah is in no mood to answer. The LORD then subjects Jonah to a series of experiences, meant to condition the prophet to a point where he can more clearly assess the on-going dynamic of God’s larger mission and intent. If Jonah wants to be self-centered, then the LORD intends to use that to give Jonah a glimpse into the heart of God.

“…the LORD asked, “Have you reason to be angry?” The question ignores Jonah’s petition and goes to a more basic question. The question is meant to be answered “No” but Jonah abruptly leaves the city to find a perch from which to see what happens. Apparently, he is still hoping for a replay of Sodom and Gomorrah. But note from the following verses until the end, the city is not gone from the conversation. It is not hard to imagine Jonah as the pouting child in a family morality play.

Jonah constructs “a hut” to provide shade from the burning sun. Since Jonah is not engaging in dialogue with the LORD it seems time for action instead. Apparently, the hut was poorly built as it does not seem to have provided adequate shade (v.6).  Overnight the LORD GOD commanded a gourd-like plant high enough and with broad leaves to provide shade.

Scholars point out the expression “LORD GOD” is significant. “LORD” in the Hebrew scriptures translates the name “YAHWEH” and is akin to the inside-the-tribe name, whereas “GOD” is the name given when interacting with the gentile people. There is perhaps something there. Note that it is “God” who commands the growth, sends the worm, and sends the burning east winds. So, if Jonah wants an experience of the divine wrath upon Nineveh, Jonah gets the divine response.

Where previously the LORD had asked, not it is GOD who asks, “Have you reason to be angry over the plant?” (v.9). It is not hard to imagine this scene directed on a movie set with GOD acting with divine indignation. Where Jonah was silent on the same question in v.4, he now responds: “I have reason to be angry,” Jonah answered, “angry enough to die.” Jonah answers that he could see no sense in living. It is as if he is responding: “How can I live in a world where God shows no mercy to me or this plant and wastes it on Nineveh, the enemy?

10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished.11 And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?

The divine answer challenges whether Jonah has any interests other than self-interest. You were not a gardener who invested himself into the plant. There was no concern other than it’s providing shade for you. If your response is as it is, what do you imagine a gardener’s response would be – the one who tended and cared for it only to see it die wastefully when it could have been saved?

The none-too-subtle question needs no answer other than the one God provides.

The book ends with this question that challenges the hearers of then and now. God asks: “Should I not, may I not, be merciful even to Nineveh?” Is God free? Or must God act, as Jonah thinks, according to the narrow limitations of human justice?

I think Thomas John Carlisle closes this commentary quite well.

And Jonah stalked
to his shaded seat
and waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.

And God is still waiting
for a host of Jonahs
in their comfortable houses
to come around
to His way of loving.


Leslie C Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah. in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1976).    pp. 227 -235.

Irene Nowell, O.S.B., “Jonah” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Based on the New American Bible with Revised New Testament. eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 828-831

Thomas John Carlisle, “You, Jonah” (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; First Edition, 1968)

4 thoughts on “Jonah: a final lesson

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