Angry for All the Wrong Reasons

Jonah 3:1010 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 4:1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” 10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

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It’s been a dramatic three chapters of Jonah, but we’ll end where we started—with one man before the Lord. So, we have some questions to ask. What happened to the guy who God used to spark the greatest revival in history of Nineveh? What happened to the guy who was saved from drowning by a giant fish who later spit him back onto the land?  What happened to the guy who knew firsthand that God saw and punished his disobedience, and yet God wouldn’t be thwarted and would still offer Jonah a second chance?

Surely, Jonah understood God’s mercy. Surely, he would delight in obeying God from here on out. Surely Jonah would have great trust in God’s knowledge of him and care for him. Right? But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this, I fled to Tarshish for I know that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”

The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah angry. As many commentators have noted, Jonah appreciated God when God saved him from his sin, but he hates it when God does the same for his enemies. Much like the Pharisees of the New Testament or the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jonah has an attitude of “What?! You’re going to save them!. You’re going to extend mercy to them!! God’s followers seem to have that attitude a lot. God doesn’t wish destruction on the wicked, we do! God forgave Nineveh who had sinned against God. Jonah could not forgive God for saving the Ninevites.

What’s interesting is that, in some ways, Jonah has a point. The Assyrian Ninevites formed an idol-worshipping nation and a people that brutally kills its enemies, and God’s going to just let them off? God, however, will not bring judgment on a repentant people. God looks at the heart, knows their humility and they turned towards God. Do we think that the Nineveh’s repentance will last? As Paul Harvey would say: Stay tuned for the rest of the story!

Jonah’s prayer is a bitter one, equally honest to his prayer in Jonah 2, but much more bitter. Contrast Jonah’s request to die with Job’s in Job 6:8-10. Job wants to die because of his pain but knows that he has done what he could to follow God. Jonah wants to die because he is unhappy following God. Jonah even goes back and tries to justify his former disobedience with an “I knew this would happen!” Then Jonah claims that since God did not destroy Nineveh, God’s character is faulty. Rather than rejoice in God’s mercy, Jonah claims to be wiser and more just than God and presumes to tell God what He should do.

Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. So, the Lord God appointed a plant, and it grew up over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. Jonah leaves the city and his prophetic message and goes to watch what will happen. This is yet another display that though Jonah obeyed in preaching in Nineveh, his heart was still turned away from the people. After all, Jonah does not stay and instruct the people in how to follow the Lord (a ground fertile for spiritual growth if there ever was one), but goes out to watch, perhaps hoping the Lord would still choose to judge.

For the 3rd time in the book, God “appoints” something for Jonah, however. Remember, first it was the storm and second it was the big fish. Finally, it is a plant and the shade from the plant makes Jonah extremely happy. The contrast is evident. Jonah was “greatly displeased” with the mercy that God offered sinners but “extremely happy” with the shady plant that God provided him. He cared much more for momentary happiness and relaxation than for the work of God or the souls of men. His thoughts were much more on the petty and on himself than the eternal and with others. Sound like anyone you know? Does it sound like us, when we focus on ourselves more so than others??

Tim Keller in his book, Rediscovering Jonah, points out that Jesus, too, went to the Garden of Gethsemane outside of Jerusalem. But instead of denouncing God’s forgiveness, Jesus was announcing it. But for Jonah, God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered. When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.”

Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”

Again, God asks Jonah a question, “Do you have the right to be angry?” It is a common scene, perhaps. Rather than simply speak truth about our hearts and our sin, God asks questions and puts us in situations and our response displays the truth about us that He already knows. Jonah responds by angrily asserting his rights. It’s as if he has forgotten that mere weeks or months earlier, he was drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, saved by a fish, and then the fish vomited him onto dry land. God then gave him a second chance at meaningful service. And he’s going to complain so bitterly about a sick day? But what about us? Think how great of a salvation we have been given—destined for an eternity apart from God (as Ephesians 2:11-13 says, “Without God and without hope in the world”), God saved us from our sin and ourselves for all eternity.

But how often do we complain about life in this world that doesn’t go our way? We will go and complain about things like teachers and bosses that don’t respect us or friends or families that don’t care well enough for us or not enough money or a phone that is too slow. It’s as if we say, “Jesus, thank you for saving me for eternity. But what I would really like is for the line at the Covid test line would move a little quicker.” If the Lord has saved us with such a great salvation, then what right have we to complain of anything else?

Christians should be people who are overwhelmed with gratitude to their good God and King. Finally, God points out to Jonah clearly what is by this point obvious to the reader. Jonah’s priorities are completely backwards, and he has missed the majesty of God’s mercy. He has compassion on a plant (but only the one that benefited him; he doesn’t care about the other plants) but cares nothing for the souls of the Ninevites. Worse, he’s even disappointed that God has saved them. God, on the other hand, amazes us with His compassion. He proves true to His character, which Jonah recognized. God responds immediately to repentance. God simultaneously cares for the masses, as well as the individual.

Jonah is a book about us. We are not chosen to be separated. The Jews were chosen not for a special privilege, but for a special responsibility – to share with the world the message of repentance and forgiveness. We all want to run from God. God lets us go until we are mired down in the messes we created. We return to God when we come to our senses. Sound familiar? Just like the prodigal son who returned to his senses as he slopped pigs. Jonah is a story like us who struggle to have a right relationship with God and find that it is a constant path of slipping and sliding away, but always welcomed back. Through it all, the book of Jonah hints at another man who, like Jonah, would offer himself up to the storm, but not for his own sins but for others. It hints at another prophet who, like Jonah, would come back from the dead to offer forgiveness and life. It hints at Jesus.

Here is the rest of the story about Nineveh. It comes from the Book of Nahum (one of the minor prophets). Some 100 to 150 years passed. Children and grandchildren were born. New kings ascended the Assyrian Empire’s throne. You can guess what happened. That repentance? They turned around on their turnaround. The time of sorrow over evil became a hiccup in their legacy of oppression and brutality. Their cruelty increased. They once again sought to capture, torture, and enslave other nations. So, Assyria attacked and destroyed Israel. They invaded Judah and overran all the outlying towns. They lay siege to Jerusalem. In those days of trouble God sent Nahum with a divine message of judgment for Nineveh. His words provide us with great understanding of God’s judgment. Nahum’s prophecy was directed toward Nineveh. They had returned to their wicked and evil ways and were treating nations as objects of commerce to be bought and sold, then discarded when they lost their value.

According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, Babylon laid siege to Nineveh. In the third year of the siege there were extraordinarily heavy rains. The river overflowed, flooded the city, and collapsed a large section of the wall. The king of Nineveh figured that all was lost, so he collected all his wealth, his concubines, and his eunuch. He set fire to the palace, killing everyone. The enemy entered at the breach the waters had made and took the city. In other words, they came in through the river gates to discover the palace in flames. So that’s the end of the story!  With help from

Thanks be to God!