This is the peak moment in the story of Jonah.
God commissioned Jonah, but Jonah fled. God pursued Jonah, and Jonah relented and accepted the commission (after almost drowning). Jonah proclaimed hope/warning to Nineveh, and Nineveh repented. God “repented,” and Jonah…
One might expect Jonah to rejoice, but this is not what Jonah does. Instead, Jonah burns with resentment. Jonah is miffed with God because God showed Nineveh mercy! Jonah, like so many in Israel before him, now wrestles with God in prayer.
Jonah and Yahweh Contrasted
Yahweh responded to Nineveh, and so does Jonah. But their responses are quite opposite.
Jonah 3:10 reads:
- God saw what Nineveh did (‘ashah).
- Nineveh turned from their evil (ra’ah) ways.
- God relented (nacham) from the “evil” (ra’ah) intended for Nineveh.
- God “did not do (‘ashah) it.”
Jonah 4:1-3 contains:
- It was exceedingly evil (ra’ah) to Jonah
- That Yahweh would relent (nacham) from punishing.
When Nineveh turned away from its “evil,” God turned away from the “evil” God intended to do to Nineveh, but to Jonah this was “exceedingly evil” (ESV note). The translation “exceedingly evil” is expressive but still does not capture the emotion of the Hebrew. Literally, the text reads, “it was evil, greatly evil, to Jonah.” The root ‘ra (evil) is used as both a noun and a verb in the Hebrew.
What God saw as mercy to Nineveh, Jonah saw as a great evil. While God rejoiced over Nineveh’s repentance and compassionately poured out mercy, Jonah thinks God’s response is a great injustice (“evil”). Ninevites, in Jonah’s estimation, did not deserve God’s mercy, and God was unjust or unfair in providing it. Centuries of violence, in Jonah’s mind, cann0t be simply swept away with 40 days of repentance. As Youngblood, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 152 perceptively comments: “Ironically, just as YHWH quenched his wrath, Jonah has kindled his. The reader is reminded of how out-of-step Jonah is. The event that calmed God’s wrath is the same event that has provoked Jonah’s wrath.” Jonah and Yahweh are not on the same page.
Jonah has a theological problem, if not a heart problem. He has no mercy for penitent Nineveh, and he thinks God has acted unjustly or inconsistently with the divine name, Yahweh, which is the covenant name of God. How is Israel’s God, who is Yahweh, able to show mercy to Nineveh? It makes no sense to Jonah. In fact, it seemed “evil” to Jonah.
Consequently, Jonah is angry. The root of the verb means to “burn.” In other words, Jonah is steaming hot about God’s mercy to Nineveh.
As the author of Jonah described the relationship between Nineveh and Israel’s God, only “God” was used. “God saw what they did” and “God changed his mind.” But when Jonah turns to pray, he addresses God as “Yahweh.” This name represents Israel’s covenant relationship with the creator of heaven and earth. Jonah addresses the creator as one of the covenant people of God. This is a significant shift because “God” describes the relationship between the Creator and the nations, but the name “Yahweh” assumes the covenant relationship between the creator and Israel. Jonah, therefore, invokes the name of the one with whom he has a covenant relationship. The importance of this point will emerge more clearly in a moment.
The Hebrew verb for prayer occurs twice in Jonah: here (4:2) and in Jonah 2:2. In the latter, Jonah finds himself in the belly of the great fish and offers a thanksgiving prayer. However, here his prayer is a complaint. While in the first prayer Jonah is grateful for God’s steadfast love (hesed, which appears in 2:8), here Jonah complains about God’s mercy (hesed, which appears in 4:3).
Jonah’s lament prayer includes rather typical components. Jonah (1) invokes the name Yahweh, (2) complains (almost like, “I told you so”), (3) confesses the “God Creed” of Israel rooted in Exodus 34:6-7, and finally (4) petitions Yahweh to do something.
Jonah feared Yahweh might be merciful—perhaps Yahweh told Jonah this was the goal of his commission—and fled to the west (Tarshish). “I knew this would happen, and I told you it would happen” is the effect of Jonah’s complaint. It is, in fact, an implicit accusation of divine injustice (“this not what should happen!”), or at least an expression of Jonah’s anger (“I can’t believe you involved me in this injustice!”). Jonah knew what the result would because Jonah Knows who Yahweh is.
He knows Israel’s greatest confession, the “God Creed” (some call it). It is found in Exodus 34:6-7, and Jonah quotes the heart of it.
|Exodus 34:6-7||Jonah 4:2|
|Gracious God||Gracious God|
|Merciful/Compassionate God||Merciful/Compassionate God|
|Slow to Anger (‘af)||Slow to Anger (‘af)|
|Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed)||Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed)|
When Moses asked to see God and thus know who God truly is, Yahweh passed before him, proclaiming,
Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
Yahweh is Israel’s God, and this God is committed to a gracious and merciful disposition toward Israel. As the rest of the “God Creed” states, Yahweh still disciplines the people, even for generations, but though the discipline extends to the third and fourth generation (a short time), Yahweh’s steadfast love extends for a thousand generations (forever). This is who Yahweh is; the creed describes Yahweh’s character. Consequently, this confession is frequently present in the liturgical life of Israel in both expanded and shortened forms (cf. Psalm 86:15; 99:8; 111:4; 112:4; 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; 2 Chronicles 30:9).
At the same time, Jonah adds to the “God creed,” as does Joel 2:13. This addition highlights Jonah’s problem with what God did. Jonah confesses God is “ready to relent (nacham) from punishing,” that is, God is willing to “change his mind” and forgive sin. This is, of course, exactly what God did in Jonah 3:10. God “changed his mind” and forgave Nineveh of its “evil.” Jonah regards this mercy as an “evil.”
Youngblood believes this addition is derived from Exodus 32:12 where Moses is wrestling (arguing) with God. Moses pleads, “Turn from your fierce wrath (‘af); change your mind (nacham) and do not bring disaster (ra’) on your people.” The language of Exodus 32:12 is prominent in Jonah 3:9-4:3.
What Jonah feared has happened. He feared God would “change his mind,” turn away his wrath against Nineveh, and fail to bring disaster upon the city. While this was the great “mercy” for which Moses pleaded at Mt. Sinai on behalf of Israel, Jonah regards it as a great “evil” when applied to Nineveh. Jonah might give thanks for God’s mercy to Israel, but he has no room for mercy to Nineveh.
Jonah’s prayer is not complete at this point. As with all complaint prayers, it includes a petition. Jonah asks God to end his life
This is a rather strange request. We might compare it to Job’s requests for God to leave him alone and let him die (Job 7:16). Perhaps Jonah cannot live with this reality; he would rather die than witness the renewal of Nineveh’s life. Perhaps he fears for his own life when he returns to Israel since many would object to his mission and its results.
But I think the clues within the prayer indicate something more. Jonah is arguing with God and is making a theological point. Jonah uses the plea for death as a way of saying, “Which is it going to be God? Me or Nineveh?” Youngblood (p. 156) puts it succinctly, “Jonah’s real goal is not death, but a reversal of YHWH’s decision to spare Nineveh.” Jonah is exercising some covenantal leverage here and assumes (perhaps) his life—as one of the covenant people—is more important to Yahweh than that of the Ninevites. I think is becomes clearer once we recognize what the real theological problem is, and we will get to that momentarily.
Yahweh’s initial response to Jonah is a brief question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Using the same word for anger in 4:1, Yahweh questions Jonah’s resentment. Why should Jonah be resentful? Why is Jonah angry? When Jonah questions Yahweh’s justice—calling God’s mercy “evil”—Yahweh questions where Jonah’s anger is itself good (yatab) or fair/right/just?
Yahweh, we should notice, does not execute Jonah or split him apart with lightning for his complaint prayer. On the contrary, Yahweh gently nudges Jonah to contemplative introspection. Yahweh asks Jonah a simple question (three words in Hebrew).
Yahweh has still not given up on Jonah. Rather than granting his request, Yahweh pursues Jonah by engaging in dialogue and, as we will see in Jonah 4:4-11, continues to teach Jonah rather than punish him.
What’s the Problem?
Jonah is angry. He believes God has done “evil.” He asks God to kill him.
This is a desperate situation. What has Jonah so out of sorts?
Perhaps Jonah is bitter about the “evil” Nineveh has committed against Israel; he finds it unforgiveable. Perhaps Jonah holds some kind of personal grudge (e.g., did some Assyrian kill Jonah’s father?). Perhaps Jonah has a racial prejudice against non-Jews. I suppose any of these might be true but we would have no way of knowing. Instead, we must look for the clues within the text itself.
Jonah, I think, has a theological problem with God’s mercy towards Nineveh. Youngblood’s analysis is illuminating (pp. 156-158). Jonah’s problem is the same one that emerges in renewed Israel within the pages of the New Testament. It is the question Paul addresses in Romans 9-11. How can the covenant God of Israel show mercy to non-covenant people? What does this say about God’s faithfulness to Israel if Israel has no advantage over the nations?
The “God Creed” is about Yahweh, and Yahweh is Israel’s God with whom Israel lives in covenant. God’s faithfulness entails God’s commitment to Israel. This is the people to whom God shows mercy. Apparently, Jonah thought this was an exclusive covenant. Once God entered into covenant with Israel, then all others were outside that covenant and therefore beyond the mercy of God since God’s mercy and steadfast love are fundamentally covenantal in character. Exodus 34, for example, is God’s commitment to Israel within a covenantal framework.
But Jonah—as were the Judaizers who infected the Galatian churches—was mistaken. God’s mercy flows not from the covenant alone but out of God’s character. God is gracious, compassionate, and merciful; or, as John put it, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). This is God’s character, God’s very nature. Covenants are God’s free expression of mercy and love, but God’s mercy is not limited to such covenants.
While Yahweh lives in covenant with Israel, this does not preclude God’s mercy for the nations. Indeed, God elected Israel for the sake of the nations. God will treat the nations just like he treats Israel, which has no special claim on God’s mercy. They are elect to serve the nations rather than elect because they are the sole objects of God’s mercy.
God, who is the maker of the sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9), is not only Israel’s covenant God but also the God of the whole earth whose mercy flows not only to Israel but also to the nations.
There is, then, such a thing as the “uncovenanted” mercies of God. Yahweh may show mercy to whom Yahweh desires to show mercy, whether in the covenant or outside the covenant.
Covenant people are always at risk of thinking they are the only ones to whom God shows mercy. Their “election” becomes a presumption, and consequently they think God unjust when God shows mercy to those outside the covenant….whether they are outside the covenant because they are uncircumcised or unimmersed.
May God have mercy!