Jonah thought Yahweh’s mercy to Nineveh was unjust and “evil.” Consequently, Jonah prayed–he lamented, complained, and essentially petitioned Yahweh to reverse the decision, to relent from mercy and apply wrath.
Yahweh’s response did not reject or dismiss the prayer. The prayer was heard. In fact, Yahweh responded: “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” God did not slap Jonah in the face for his request, but gently questioned whether Jonah had sufficiently thought it through. God heard the complaint and responded. God did not abandon Jonah but pursued him.
There is nothing wrong in speaking our hearts to God and expressing our honest feelings. God already knows what we think and feel; we might as well give it voice. Indeed, this is a divine invitation for intimacy with God, and through this intimacy we find healing and reorientation. I think this is what Yahweh intended for Jonah.
Jonah Leaves the City
Yahweh’s question, “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” was an invitation to dialogue, but in response Jonah fled again. This time he fled to the “east,” which has significant biblical echoes. Lot went east toward Sodom (Genesis 13:11), and Cain settled “east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16). “East” is probably a theological commentary on Jonah’s flight from dialogue with God rather than simply a geographical reference. Jonah fled to the east, away from God’s presence (dialogue), just as earlier in the book Jonah had fled to the west, away from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:2).
He left the city and went out into the desert to a place where he could see what would happen to the city. Jonah does not go to the desert because he is afraid of going home. On the contrary, he erects a temporary shelter, a booth, which is—we might suppose—not only shelter but also a religious act. During the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), Israel erected booths as temporary dwelling places in order to celebrate the festival (Leviticus 23:42). In the same way, Jonah erects a booth in the wilderness (outside the city). Perhaps he intends to wait seven days, just as Israel lived in booths for seven days. Whatever his intent, it was not a permanent dwelling. Jonah was waiting to see what God would do with Nineveh.
We might wonder why Jonah is waiting to see what will happen. He already knows God intends to spare it, or does he? His prayer was designed to persuade God to relent; Jonah wanted God to “change his mind” (nacham) again. He hoped his prayer might be as effective as Moses’s prayer in Exodus 32. Consequently, he waits for the answer to his prayer.
God’s Object Lesson for Jonah
Even though Jonah had constructed his own shelter to shade him from the sun, it was apparently insufficient. God graciously provided further shade for him through the growth of a plant. [We don’t know what kind of plant this was since this word is only used here in the Hebrew Bible.]
Just like the “great fish” (Jonah 2:1), “Yahweh God” (only time the two words are together in Jonah, Jonah 4:6) appointed a large plant to shade Jonah. Like the “great fish,” this was an act of mercy. The “great fish” rescued Jonah from the chaotic seas and saved him from drowning. Now the plant rescues Jonah from the heat and scorching sun of the chaotic wilderness.
Jonah’s response is joy, great joy. In fact, the narrator uses the same grammatical structure as in Jonah 4:1. In the same way that God’s mercy to Nineveh was “exceedingly evil” (it was evil, a great evil), so God’s mercy to Jonah is “exceedingly joyous” (Jonah was joyous, a great joy). Jonah has two different responses to God’s mercy: what God did for Nineveh was evil but what God did for Jonah was good. Jonah hated the former but was grateful for the latter.
But God “changes his mind.” God relents. God appointed (same verb as previously) a worm (a figure associated with death in the Hebrew Bible) to attack the plant to destroy Jonah’s shade, and God appointed (same verb as previously) a strong east wind to cause Jonah discomfort under the hot sun. Jonah’s discomfort was so great Jonah wanted to die. He would rather die than suffer the intense heat; he would rather die than experience the withdrawal of God’s mercy.
In effect, God did to Jonah what Jonah asked God to do to Nineveh. God showed mercy with a shady plant and then took it back, pouring “judgment” upon Jonah through the worm and the east wind. God gave Jonah a taste of his own medicine. He wanted God to withdraw mercy from Nineveh, and now Jonah knows how that feels.
But did Jonah get the message?
Yahweh renews the dialogue by raising the same question as in Jonah 4:4 but with a twist. “Is it right (good) for you to be angry about the bush?”
Apparently, Jonah’s death-wish is a reflection of his resentment toward God’s withdrawal of the mercy the bush represented. Jonah is so angry he could die, which is probably a metaphor for the intensity of his anger. Jonah is upset with God for providing mercy and then withdrawing it.
Now comes the punch line, and it has many layers. Indeed, it is the presupposition of the whole Jonah narrative. Mercy arises out of God’s character, the divine nature. God has compassion for what God has created, including Nineveh.
Jonah did not create the plant, and it did not even exist very long. Yet, he is angered by its disappearance.
The people of Nineveh, however, are God’s own creation! This includes a great number of people. [120,000 is probably a metaphorical expression for a large count; the number appears often in the Hebrew Bible, cf. Judges 8:10; 1 Kings 8:63, etc.] And God’s concern is also for the “many animals” (which were also part of Nineveh’s repentance in Jonah 3:8).
In fact, God’s compassion is, in some sense, greater for Nineveh because they are wanderers without a compass. They do not “know their right hand from their left,” which identifies their lack of direction. They do not have the Torah, as Israel does, and the Torah is what enable people to know their right and left, good and evil. God recognizes and adjusts in the light of a people’s lack of guidance and knowledge when distributing mercy among the nations.
If Jonah had compassion on a single plant—which he did not create and did not exist more than a day, might not God have compassion on Nineveh, which God did create and where numerous people and animals are present? “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” rings in the ears of readers as the book ends.
God drops the mike and moves off stage!
This is how the narrative ends. God responds to Jonah, enters into dialogue with him, and seeks to reorient him. God intends to teach Jonah. The story, however, ends without any suggestion about how Jonah responded to God’s teaching. The narrative is open-ended—will Jonah embrace God’s direction or will Jonah resist it as he has up to this point in the story?
That is where the story ends. Yahweh has the last word, but we have no response from Jonah. We don’t know what Jonah does next.
It is like the elder brother in the story of the Two Sons (often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15. Just as we don’t know how the elder son responded to his father’s plea to join the party, we don’t know how Jonah responded to Yahweh’s last words in this book.
The ending of the book is invitational. It is open-ended. It is an altar call, we might say. We are each Jonah. Have we learned what Yahweh was trying to teach through this brief narrative?
- Have we embraced the mercy of God for others?
- Have we heard God’s missional call and obeyed?
- Have we submitted to God’s sovereignty?
- Have we left justice in God’s hands?
- Have resented God’s mercy for others “less deserving”?
- Have we presumed upon God’s gracious election?
- Have we loved others, including God’s creation, as God has?
We don’t know what Jonah did, and we will never know. But that is not our real problem. The appropriate question is more about us.
We are all Jonah. Have we learned the lesson God taught Jonah?