I think Jonah would have preferred that the book bearing his name only had three chapters.
If the first three chapters of Jonah took place in modern times, Jonah would be heading off to receive his Nobel Peace Prize and posing for the cover of TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue. He would have offers from seminaries across the country to come and teach budding preachers how to effectively communicate God’s Word.
Sure, He tried to run from God. Yes, he had to shower off the remains of being in the stomach of a great fish. But, he also preached the most successful sermon in history. The entire city of Nineveh repented of their violent sins and turned toward God. Their hearts and lifestyles were radically changed. By any evangelical metric, Jonah accomplished an unprecedented ministry marvel.
Unfortunately, for Jonah’s legacy, there's a fourth chapter in the book.
The final chapter reveals Jonah’s response to God’s grace toward the Ninevites. God spared them from total destruction. But Jonah hated the Ninivites. He considered them his enemies. God's mercy on them “displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1).
Jonah was actually upset that his mission was a success. He was angry that the Ninevites were saved from the wrath of God. Jonah tells God in verse 2: “That is why I made hast to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful” (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah didn’t run away from God because he was frightened the Ninevites would not believe his message; he ran away because he was afraid they would.
He wanted them to be destroyed. He was so distraught that he even asked God to take his life. He would rather die than see his enemies saved.
The conversation between God and Jonah in Jonah 4 is instructive for us. It reveals three flaws in Jonah’s heart that might be present in us as well.
God asked Jonah “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), as if to say: “Jonah, we have witnessed the same event, but with two different perspectives. The angels of Heaven have seen this revival and are rejoicing; but you have experienced this revival and are angry.”
Jonah knew that God is gracious and merciful. He just said so in verse 2. In fact, Jonah had experienced the mercy of God himself as he was providentially saved from drowning at sea.
The problem was that his knowledge of God’s mercy and his personal experience of God’s mercy didn’t alter his attitude toward the Ninevites.
Jonah was more than happy to receive the mercy of God for himself, but his nationalism and hatred for the Ninevites prevented him from rejoicing in God’s mercy for those he didn't like.
After the revival in Nineveh, Jonah slipped out of the city to find a good spot to sit and watch. He was waiting for God to bring the fires of judgment down on this wicked city. He believed that the Ninevites would revert back to their sinful ways, and that God would deliver the justice they deserved.
While he waited, God caused a plant to grow and provide shade for Jonah. That made Jonah very glad. That night, God caused a worm to attack the plant, making it wither.
Once again, Jonah asked to die. This time, because of the scorching heat of the desert. He was frustrated that God would allow the plant to wither and die, increasing his own discomfort. God asked Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” (Jonah 4:9).
God's question was a good one. The simplest way to identify our priorities is to ask the question: “What is it that gets me excited or angry?”
Jonah was excited about the creation of the plant, but he was angry about the conversion of the Ninevites. His problem is one of mistaken priorities.
It should lead us to ask ourselves, what do we prioritize? What would anger you more: God taking away one of your valued possessions, or God blessing one of your enemies? What would excite you more: God giving you something good, or God showing mercy on one of your enemies?
Jonah's priorities were mistaken. What do questions like these reveal about your priorities?
God asked Jonah one final question: “Should I not pity Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11).
Jonah needed a lesson in identifying what is permanent, and what is perishable. He needed to learn to align his passion with the passion of God. And frankly, you and I need that same lesson.
God reminded Jonah that in Nineveh, "there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11). Some people take these words to mean that Nineveh had 120,000 young children who haven’t learned the difference between right and left. I don't think that's what it means. I believe that God used an analogy to demonstrate the spiritual condition of the Ninevites. They were utterly confused in their own idolatry, like a child who’s confused which hand is right or left.
Jonah’s great mistake was in viewing the Ninevites as his enemy, and not as the valuable, but lost souls they were. His passion for lost people did not align with God's passion for lost people.
Friend, I wonder how it would affect our own view of the Great Commission if we viewed the unsaved less as our enemies and more as confused, lost souls in need of the guiding direction only God can give them.
The example of Jonah reminds us that we can do the right things, and even say the right words, but lack the right heart. Our ability to be used by God to reach the lost must begin with having the right desire for the lost. Le't stop seeing people as enemies, and start viewing them as a mission field into which God has sent us to represent Him well.
If you want to explore Jonah in more detail, Stephen's book is available here.